Ukrainians at Williams: Seeing our land burning while away from home

Last Thursday, I was finishing my work shift at Schow when I got a text from my friend in Ukraine: “Diana. Diana. Diana. The war has started.” I could not comprehend what was happening; for months I had refused to believe the possibility of invasion. After reading the text, I rushed out of the library and immediately called my parents. My mother, father, grandmothers, and sister had woken up at 5 a.m. to the sound of what they thought were fireworks. However, they soon realized that it was the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

My family lives in Kharkiv, one of the biggest cities in eastern Ukraine. Kharkiv is only an hour away from the Russian border, so it is one of Putin’s major targets. Last week, the shellings coming from across the Russian border disrupted the usually peaceful sky over Kharkiv. My mother spent the last few nights in a bunker along with other residents of our apartment complex. Those who did not have a bomb shelter nearby moved to the subway stations, which have become sanctuaries. While some people are able to evacuate to Poland, for others, evacuation is even more dangerous than staying amidst the active war due to high traffic levels and potential exposure to shelling. 

The scale of the Russian attacks took many Ukrainians by surprise, including my family. Another Williams student, Alina Luchyshyn ’23, was born and spent most of her life in Ternopil, a city in western Ukraine. Her mother and little brother had to evacuate to the countryside when they woke up in the middle of the night to the sounds of explosions. Alina’s family had hoped that because they live in western Ukraine, they would be safe for a while, but the full-scale war launched by Russia has not allowed anyone in the country to feel safe. Her family is unable to flee to the Western countries because her mother is worried about leaving her grandmother, who refuses to evacuate without her cow. Alina’s grandmother spent her whole life in the same village, working on the same fields with the same people for years. Alina believes that the cow serves as an excuse for her grandmother to reject the seemingly surreal beginning of the war so she can continue living her life as usual — except that it will never be the same. 

This week’s invasion of Ukraine is not the first time Vladimir Putin has tried to breach Ukraine’s sovereignty and peace. In 2014, he invaded Ukraine for the first time in a bid to destabilize our country and prevent Ukraine from aligning with Western politics and identity. His stated rationale for the current invasion is to “denazify” Ukraine and its government, a claim that has caused outrage in the Jewish community in Ukraine since the president of our country is Jewish himself. 

Alina and I have noticed improvements in Ukrainian infrastructure, judiciary, anti-corruption efforts, and international relations since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. Our country started to recover, and young people like us were working hard with the hope that, one day, we could contribute to the development of Ukraine. The start of the war in 2014 shaped the future of the country’s trajectory towards the West — most people hoped to see Ukraine join NATO and the EU. However, with another invasion on Thursday, the hopes and efforts of millions of people were shattered. Nonetheless, Ukrainian people are not losing their faith in peace and an end to the long history of Russian aggression. Many of them, including our relatives and friends, are donating money to charities, enlisting in the army, donating blood to the victims, and even joining Ukraine’s cyber army to defend the country from cyber attacks administered by Russia. In less than a week of fighting, Ukraine has shown spirited defiance, with civilians joining forces to unite against the aggressors. For example, the residents of Bakhmach, a town near Kyiv, tried to stop the Russian army with their bare hands by throwing their bicycles and, later, themselves under the tanks

The war in Ukraine is NOT only a threat to our country. It is a threat to peace, humanity, and justice around the whole world. First, the Russian government invaded the borders and sovereignty of another country. This is a major violation of international law and security, and failing to address Russia’s violence is equivalent to yielding to the imperial goals of the Russian president. Second, Russia has committed multiple crimes against humanity. Russian missiles have hit civilian buildings, a children’s hospital, an orphanage, a school, and civilian vehicles. These war crimes should not be tolerated, and the responsible parties must be tried according to international law. Third, Russia targeted several oil pipelines which, should they explode, would have an immense effect on the environment and health of the Ukrainians. Finally, the Russian army captured the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which is already experiencing a spike in nuclear activity. The war in Ukraine may have a lasting effect not only on our country but on the European continent at large, and even the entire world. Urgent and firm action is essential to stop the violence and re-establish peace in the region. 

Many people have been asking us what they can do to support Ukraine. Together with our Ukrainian friends, we have developed a plan of action: 

  1. Express solidarity. If possible, attend protests in Boston and NYC and share information about protests with your friends and family. You can reach out to Alina and I or find a list of protests on the #StandWithUkraine website. If you have friends or relatives in Russia, make sure that they know about the misinformation spread by the Russian government about the war.
  2. Outreach. Call your local representatives and demand action against Russian aggression. 
  3. Support. Donate to Ukrainian NGOs. The list of organizations is on the #StandWithUkraine website. 
  4. Call out hurtful behavior. I have been hearing many jokes that are insensitive to Ukrainians, whose lives are under risk. Call out such behavior online and in-person. 

Finally, Alina and I want to thank everyone who reached out to us and expressed their support. It feels unfair that we get to enjoy the peaceful beauty of living in the Berkshires while the sky above our loved ones is crying from sirens and shelling. However, it is the reality that we all have to live in, and the main tragedy is that the question of “Why this all must happen?” will never be answered. 

We urge you to reflect on your life and realize that basic human rights like peace and safety are not always guaranteed — but are always worth defending. We believe in the peaceful future of Ukraine and that the free spirit of our country can defeat any attack on our identity and freedom.

For as President V. Zelenskyy has said: “Ukraine is defending itself and will not give up its freedom, no matter what Moscow thinks. For Ukrainians, independence and the right to live on their land according to their will is the highest value.”  

Diana Sobolieva ’25 is from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Alina Luchyshyn ’23 is a biology and German major from Ternopil, Ukraine.