“We feel more European than ever”: Interview with Oleksandra Petrakova, student from Kharkiv

, by Jules Bigot

“We feel more European than ever”: Interview with Oleksandra Petrakova, student from Kharkiv
Oleksandra Petrakova in the Verkhovna Rada [Ukrainian Parliament] the 28th of June 2021

As the war in Ukraine rages on, and Kharkiv is under a rain of Russian missile fire, I managed to talk to Oleksandra Petrakova, a 21-year-old Ukrainian International law student, Young European Ambassador (YEAs), and civil rights activist who calls Kharkiv home. She agreed to answer my questions about the situation in her city and in her country.

This interview was conducted on the 6th of March 2022. As events are unfolding very quickly, some of the information stated here might have evolved by the time this article is read.

Thank you very much, Oleksandra, for giving us some of your time to answer our questions. Could you start by telling us the situation right now in Kharkiv?

Kharkiv now is almost ruined. At first, the bombings were mainly in the suburbs, but then they started to get closer and closer to the downtown area of the city. First, they started by bombing military infrastructure (bases and equipment), but then they widened the scope of the bombing to everything connected with Ukraine and its government: the Regional Administration building, the Kharkiv City Hall building, the Security Service of Ukraine building and police departments. They miss their targets a lot, so other buildings such as the Karazin University campus or kindergartens and schools have been victims of these bombings as well. What is frightening is that there are bomb shelters under the schools, so there might be people stuck in there after the buildings collapsed. A lot of civil infrastructure and high-storeyed buildings have been targeted as well. Yesterday I received a message saying that a military base at the field in front of my parents’ house had been destroyed, so their house might be damaged as well.

Thanks to the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Kharkiv is still under Ukrainian control. Though even the people who said they would stay in Kharkiv until the very end are leaving because they understand that it is simply too dangerous to stay and that there is not much left to hold on to.

How did you organize yourself in this situation of bombing? And when did you take the decision to evacuate?

The day the war started, I was sleeping alone in my house and when I woke up, I saw 14 missed calls from different people. That’s when I understood something was going on. I rushed into packing my stuff and went to our cellar, where other people from my building went. On the 24th of February, we spend most of the day there. Later, when my boyfriend joined me, we stayed in the living part of my apartment, between the two main walls, because it was more convenient and comfortable: there is no light, water or food in the cellar. We also taped our windows, to prevent them from shattering into pieces. A lot of people went to metro stations to seek shelter, but with the COVID situation still going on, I preferred the private solution. Another important thing about the bombings is that the sirens in Kharkiv were not maintained a lot and were therefore hard to hear. To know when there was going to be a bombing or a shelling, we could only rely on what we heard or on the SMS messages that we started to receive. (Now, we also have an official application that, once installed, sounds the alarm straight from a cell phone).

On the 1st of March, the rest of my family joined me in my apartment, which was really nice, but also scarier, because, on top of being stressed about your life, you are also afraid for your family. When they came, heavy bombing started pretty close to our place. My boyfriend and my father went out of the house and saw that shootings between territorial defence and Russian troops were going on right in front of our house. In the night we were also woken up by rocket bombing. First, we heard the wave of an explosion, we heard our doors shake, and then it was a different sound, scarier from an ordinary bomb which we somehow had gotten used to. That night I cried a lot, and at the same time, my boyfriend had a nervous breakdown and said that we should leave as soon as possible.

Can you tell us more about the way the evacuation went?

We booked train tickets on the official website of our national company Ukrzaliznytsia, which were supposed to give us priority access to the evacuation trains. On March 2nd we ate breakfast, packed our bags and left for the railway station. The taxi ride to the station cost us 10 times more than in normal times. The train station was full, and the crowd was growing bigger as the bombing continued. We struggled to find information about our train because the information system was broken and most workers from the train station had evacuated. Most people just went to the central platform and sat on a train which destination they didn’t know: anything in the West would be good. Our train was a double-storeyed one, easy to notice. In the train, the men from the territorial defence forces were refusing access to men, not hesitating to separate families from their brothers, husbands or fathers. One of them threatened to break my arm when I tried to tell him about the priority access our tickets gave us. Eventually, we managed to get in. We were sleeping on the floor, there were a lot of people and mothers with children crying constantly. To better picture the situation there was this elderly woman who couldn’t stay standing for too long and had to sit in front of the toilets. The ride was very long, it took us 18 hours. When we reached our final destination we saw the territorial defence forces with guns on the platform. We were scared that my boyfriend would be taken to a mobilisation centre. But we managed to get out of the railway station and are now at our friends’ friend’s place in the city of Ternopil.

How about the rest of your family? What is their situation right now?

My parents were staying in a cellar in another part of the city at first. Then they joined us the day before we left with my boyfriend. With my grandad in hospital, they had promised themselves to stay until the end of the war in Kharkiv. But the situation worsened too much over the last couple of days, so they took the decision to evacuate. They moved all of our belongings in the apartment that we own so that when we come back to Kharkiv, if we do, we will have it waiting for us. Then they packed their stuff, went to pick-up my grandad in hospital and on Saturday [the 5th of March] they left Kharkiv for Ternopil. The road is extremely long to get here with the traffic jams created by all the people evacuating, with trying to avoid crossing cities like Kyiv which are dangerous, and the curfew that doesn’t allow you to drive at night, so they cut the road in three days. They are also bringing our cats with them, which is a general problem in the evacuation with a lot of people leaving their pets on the streets to flee more easily.

As one can imagine, your life has drastically changed since the start of the war, but I suppose life in Kharkiv and now in Ternopil is also extremely different, can you tell us more about it?

In some aspects, our lives in Kharkiv in wartime looked pretty much like our lives during the first COVID lockdown. We were stuck at home and scared of going out, except in this situation we were scared all the time, even at home. I was really lucky to have enough food not to have to go out because that was something that scared me a lot. We tried to sleep as much as possible, because then we did not think about the war. But we would get woken up by the bombing and have to rush in the cellar. Apart from that, we tried to do normal things such as cooking, and did a lot of information spreading online, and tried to inform our foreign friends about the situation. We drank a lot of tea, I don’t know why. We were constantly checking up on the news because our lives depended on it.

Since we arrived in Ternopil I stopped reading the news because it was too overwhelming. I spent a lot of time organising my parents’ evacuation, and with the people I’m staying with we try to do normal things like puzzles, board games, watching movies or cooking, again to stop thinking about the war. But we sometimes have a feeling of guilt towards the people in war-stricken places. Here in Ternopil we can safely go out to buy food, there are lots of stores with a lot of products. But the prices are almost 15% higher than they were in peace times. According to the inhabitants, there has not been any bombings or fighting here. We can hear the sirens 2 times a day, but they are triggered every time a plane flies close by, not necessarily when there is immediate danger.

How and when have you been informed of the behaviours to adopt in times of war, which you have just mentioned?

I didn’t know what to do, I had never been informed. I think most people did not know. We were not prepared. I don’t watch TV a lot, but I suppose that communication work has been done by TV channels. I received this information on social media, from official sources such as the Verkhovna Rada [Ukrainian parliament], the President’s Office, the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, and others. Some organizations such as the Red Cross or the Ukrainian Student for Freedom held events and meetings about these things as well (packing your evacuation backpack, wartime behaviour, how to evacuate, etc.). The experience of past generations who had encountered these situations was also passed on in some families.

You’ve also talked about your boyfriend, what is his situation, being a male aged over 18? He’s obviously not allowed to leave Ukraine but is he obliged to fight?

This is a pretty sensitive question. He isn’t fighting. It is really uncomfortable to say that you’re not willing to fight for your country. But it’s not that you are scared or because you do not love your country enough. It is mainly that you were never trained to do this. My boyfriend’s military ID says that he is a military orchestra musician so he obviously never grabbed anything like a gun. I think it is insane that normal people, civilians, have to go out killing other people in the 21st century. I suppose the same situation now arises in the Russian Federation with some young men afraid or refusing to fight consciously, but it is harder with their government claiming there is no war and covering their real losses.

We have been able to conduct this interview together thanks to social media, which is important outside of Ukraine in order to keep in touch with you. How important are they for you in Ukraine in the organization of this war effort?

We do everything through social media. We live on social media, constantly waiting for this piece of news that will say “The war is over!“, “Crimea is ours!“, “We are in the EU!“. We use Telegram a lot nowadays, which is really strange as it is initially Russian. But we never thought we would be afraid of Russians, or be at war with Russia. We use Telegram to find different volunteering organizations, to send messages to our relatives and friends, to keep each other informed in group chats or private messages and just to cheer everyone up. We have a lot of group chats, every NGO or university has its own, where people who did not necessarily talk to each other before chat together. It feels like we are just one huge family of Ukrainians. We also perform some volunteering activities like blocking Telegram channels spreading propaganda and of course, we follow regional news (to know where the bombings are or if shops are open), national news (to follow the negotiations) and international news.

Then we use Instagram and Facebook a lot. We inform our foreign friends and our friends from Ukraine, we ask them to sign different petitions or to help in any other way. Again, we try to block propagandist channels, groups or pages. We try to persuade pro-Putin influencers of their mistake. Facebook is a more official network with a broader range. Instagram is all about instant reaction, instant chatting, which is also useful. A lot of people use Twitter as well. Fewer people use LinkedIn, and when they do, they address higher authorities to demand more actions for the safety of Ukraine. We also use WhatsApp and Messenger because a lot of our foreign friends use it. I also use Slack. Elderly people are mostly using Viber, which young people hate.

Europeans have been massively demonstrating in Prague, Paris, Berlin, Tbilisi, this weekend. We were just talking about social media, so I guess you’ve seen these images. Just how important are these mobilizations for you back in Ukraine?

It’s extremely important, yes. I see a lot of pictures and videos of them, from friends or on social media, and it actually has a lot of power. It has much more power than all our social media posts, reposts or discussions. You’re not simply supporting us; you’re willing to take action to support us. I think that these demonstrations were crucial in a lot of political decisions, such as cutting off SWIFT, for example, we’ve seen it in Hungary. As a Ukrainian Student for Freedom member, I know the power of demonstrations. I think that we Ukrainians know the power of demonstration more than anyone thanks to our Revolution of dignity. All this support expressed by our foreign friends and all those demonstrations makes us feel united, European. We have the feeling that these demands of accession of Ukraine to the EU are not only fair, they are also logical. This is how it should be. We feel European more than ever.

It is great to hear that the mobilization is giving you strength in these terrible times, but in itself, it isn’t enough. And, young people standing for Ukraine, sometimes feel powerless, unable to help Ukrainians as we would wish to. Are there any concrete things we can do to help you?

Most of us in Ukraine as individuals here feel powerless as well. We feel like everything we post, every message we send to our friends abroad is not enough, that it’s not changing anything, and that we’re not controlling anything. Living through this whole war situation, we start to feel like an object and not a subject, which also participates in making us feel powerless.

To answer your question, every single word said in support of Ukraine, every single post, repost, every single Instagram story is helpful. It seems dumb, but the more people you can convince to support Ukraine, the more people we have to support us and that means a lot. Fact check the information, use the Ukrainian sources - it’s really helpful as well to establish the truth about what is going on. There are a lot of organizations that collect funds and raise money, not only for the armed forces but also for living conditions, for food, for evacuation, for shelters, a lot of things. Helping to evacuate, to give shelter to migrants is also an important thing. Demonstrations are really a great source of power as well, I think it is the most helpful instrument right now, alongside signing petitions, we’ve seen it with SWIFT. Demonstrating is something we call for every Russian citizen to do. I know that it is not easy to do there, that it is not safe for them to do this, because of what the authorities do to them, but it is of primary importance today, they have the power to stop the war in Ukraine.

To sum up, what the European youth can do for us, I have this motto I always say to my friends: Share, donate, demonstrate. And also check up on your friends.

As we all know, our States and our leaders are the ones that can do the most to help Ukraine. The reaction has been slow and timid at the start, although some concrete measures are starting to be adopted. What do you think of the reaction of the EU, NATO, the UN, and what are you expecting from them moving forwards?

I remember the first day of the war, we were in the cellar and a man was scrolling through the news and he was swearing on the foreign governments and their support which at the time wasn’t useful or helpful at all.

I remember all those videos, TikToks, Instagram stories and memes about who were our true allies and who backed out with the war breaking out. I remember listening to the different speeches of Macron or Biden, eager to hear about the sanctions they adopted which were either not coming, or not proportionate in comparison to what was happening here.

However, for a couple of days, a lot of military equipment and ammunition has been sent to us, and this is really helpful. The reaction of the EU was scrappy at the start but now they seem to have found some kind of unity. Our first demand was the cut-off SWIFT, but it didn’t really work out as we expected because only a few banks were cut-off. We are grateful to all the huge enterprises, and even states, refusing to cooperate with Russia any longer. At the same time it is important to understand that all those restrictions are established not out of hatred, but in order to lower the level of trust in the Russian government, and eventually to overthrow Putin’s regime. As one says: “The army will win the battle. The Economy will win the war”.

As of the UN, it was really strange to see Russia vetoing the resolution against itself. It felt like the United Nations was the most useless organization ever. I was quite happy to hear that the Russian Federation’s participation in the Council of Europe had been suspended, although again, it’s mostly a diplomatic declaration of support. Concerning NATO we do not have any NATO troops in Ukraine. We are praying for them to help us but they won’t, being too cautious to not accidentally start WWIII. Until the very last day before the war broke out, we were really hopeful that they would help us, but when the war started, they backed out. Now we’re asking them to close our sky. Because, sure the EU closed its sky to Russian airplanes, and it’s great, but we are being shelled and bombed every day and we don’t have the power to protect our skies from Russian and Belarusian rockets, it is too much for Ukraine. The world is providing weapons to Ukraine but it’s not enough, we need much more. Russian soldiers are bombing not only military objectives but also civilians and infrastructure.

To conclude this interview, I would like to give you a tribune to address our readers and the European youth in general. The floor is yours:

First of all, I would like to thank all of those who already provided help to Ukraine, those who support Ukraine. Then, I would like to say that I think it’s almost impossible to be prepared for a war. The war in the 21th century is really kind of surreal. You never think it can really happen and when it does, you’re not prepared. The war also surprised everyone because it was a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I think we have to talk about it. It is not a religious war, or a historical war, it’s just something insane created by some nuts politician. There were no threats ever from Ukraine to the Russian Federation. There were threats from the Russian Federation to Ukraine, though.

As an international law student, I would like to address an issue that is important to me. A lot of people have been saying that international law or humanitarian law doesn’t work anymore in the wake of the events in Ukraine these days. But I would like to stress that we probably would not have noticed all of the crimes that Putin is committing in our country right now, e.g. shelling ambulances, schools, kindergartens, residential buildings, civil infrastructure, or using ambulances to store weapons, should international law have not existed. Sure, international law is being violated, but the fact that it is violated allows the world to acknowledge how Putin operates in Ukraine and all the crimes he is committing. And I hope that the Russian Federation government will answer for all these atrocities against humanity in front of international justice.

At the same time, I feel sorry for ordinary people from Russia held responsible for the actions they have little or no control over. But, I hope that the more isolated they get, the more conscious people become, and the faster they will free themselves from this authoritarian burden with their lives coming back to normal.

And for the European Commission and all the other organisations, I would like to point out that with all the international opportunities you create, you establish some quality intercultural bonds from which one can benefit on a number of occasions, even with the war unexpectedly coming to their homelands. I advise young people all over the world to engage in those as much as possible!

Finally, I would like to say that during wartime, you start treating ordinary things like a gift. Having a stable internet connection, having electricity, being able to charge your phone, listen to music, watch movies, cook something, have water in your tap, etc. You see all of these things as a gift. You also value things that maybe you didn’t value highly enough before: your family, your friends or even your life.

Thank you very much, Oleksandra for this interview and this time you have given us. We want to wish all of the strength and luck possible for you, your family and your loved ones in these terrible times for the nation of Ukraine. You can be assured that we, the European youth, will continue demonstrating for your freedom, for your rights and for your beloved country of Ukraine. Слава Україні!

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