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'We have to defend ourselves' — young Ukrainians and the war

April 7, 2022

Russia's invasion has dramatically changed the lives of young people in Ukraine. Many have joined the army, others the Territorial Defense Force, others are active as volunteers.

A young Ukrainian soldier in an armored vehicle
A young Ukrainian soldier in an armored vehicle near KyivImage: DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has dramatically changed the lives of young people, destroying the dreams of many. DW spoke with four young Ukrainians for whom almost everything has changed since the start of the year. Here are their stories.

A young woman (Marharyta Rivchachenko) with a rifle smiles into the camera
Marharyta joined the Territorial Defense Force in KyivImage: Privat

'We won't surrender, we won't capitulate'

Marharyta is 25 years old and originally from Kharkiv. She joined the Territorial Defense Force in Kyiv.

"In civilian life, I worked as a PR manager and author. I was also an activist working to preserve historic sites in Kyiv. My life consisted of sports, learning Spanish, meeting friends and my love of traveling. Then suddenly it was all gone. When Russia invaded Ukraine again on February 24, that was it for me. My family was in Kharkiv and I was alone in Kyiv. Fleeing was not an option. That's why I joined the Territorial Defense Force.

Now my new reality consists of falling asleep and waking to the wail of sirens, and learning new skills. I had completed a first-aid course before and that's how I was able to join the Territorial Defense Force and offer medical assistance. My job is to track down medicine and help with patients. Right now I am training to be able to treat the wounded.

More than a month has passed and there is little hope the war will end soon. We are preparing ourselves for a long, tedious war of attrition. Recently, I drove through Kyiv and it seemed as if life was beginning again. I saw a family with a child on a walk and they were laughing like before. If we can keep the Russians surrounding Kyiv at bay, then life in the capital will soon be able to get back to normal."

A young woman (Sofia Kachan) stands in a room full of cardboard boxes in Lviv near the Polish border
Sofia volunteered to help Ukrainians fleeing their homesImage: Igor Burdyga/DW

'I think it will all end in a kind of victory'

Sophia is 17 years old and is originally from Kyiv. She is currently studying psychology at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. 

"I always knew more about the war than my friends because my brother has been fighting in eastern Ukraine. On February 24, my friends and I wanted to go buy house plants. But the day started with the bombardment of Kyiv, where my parents and younger sister live. I called them immediately and instead of my mother, my father answered the phone. He said everything was fine. Still, they left Kyiv later and drove to Kaniv. They say things are quieter there. I haven't had any contact with my brother for quite a while. He doesn't answer his phone and I have no idea how he is.

It was quickly clear to me what I could do to help the war effort. Back in November, I had coordinated a group in our dormitory to weave camouflage netting for our army. But I thought we should be weaving 24/7 now, not just for a few hours twice a week. But over time I realized how difficult it had become for me to stay put in one location for nine hours at a time.

That's why I decided to go to the Polish-Ukrainian border to help make sandwiches and tea for those fleeing. There we inform people about the fundamentals and let them know where they need to go. The flow of refugees has lessened somewhat in the meantime. I was working at night, so there were less people arriving then anyhow. Still, it's all very difficult emotionally because people are scared, worried, tired and desperate. On the other hand, their appreciation gives one a lot of strength.

I am absolutely convinced that this will all end in some kind of victory that will have a positive effect, especially when it comes to Ukrainians' civic conduct."

People walk among burnt out Russian tanks strewn along a road in Bucha
Burnt out Russian tanks strewn along a road in BuchaImage: Serhii Nuzhnenko/AP/picture alliance

'Soul and body shall we lay down for our freedom'

Ruslan is 25 years old. He is a member of the Ukrainian army and was involved in fighting around Kyiv.

"The war started in 2014 for me but it became all-encompassing on February 24, 2022. I got called up and immediately reported for duty. I was sent directly to a fighting brigade. For the first few days we engaged in enemy reconnaissance.

After the enemy had assembled heavy artillery it simply began destroying peaceful settlements, crushing everything that got in his way. No one is being spared — neither children nor the elderly. Innocent civilians are being killed. Absolutely everything is being shot at and bombarded with rocket launchers, artillery and fighter bombers. It's just hell.

But we are in our own country. We will survive even if there are many innocent victims. The enemy thought it could divide Ukraine with this war but the opposite has happened, it has forged us together. Even civilians are attacking the enemy, burning military equipment. The civilian population is showing the enemy it's not welcome.

The whole world can see that Ukraine is not a country that simply gives up. Our national anthem says it beautifully: 'Soul and body shall we lay down for our freedom.' Those are powerful words that every Ukrainian understands. And those words are really true."

A wounded man with a bandaged leg lies in a hospital bed in Kyiv
Denys was wounded when the rescue bus he was driving was hit by a grenadeImage: Kostiantyn Honcharov/DW

'I had to do something to defend the country'

Denys is 27 years old and also a volunteer. He was wounded in fighting near Hostomel.

"When the bombing began on February 24, it was clear to me that I had to do something and somehow help defend the country. I got in touch with my friends in the Territorial Defense Force in order to join them. That's exactly what happened. I was assigned to a volunteer battalion.

We drove off toward Hostomel northwest of Kyiv for our deployment. Our unit arrived on March 1, but we had to leave again on March 4. Hostomel Airport had been bombed the day before and the enemy was conducting massive bombardments with everything it had — artillery, tanks and planes.

I was deployed as a bus driver, evacuating people from the area. I brought one group to safety and returned to pick up another. A grenade came flying in our direction while I was waiting and I was wounded. Now I am being treated and recovering. The doctors tell me I'll be able to walk again at some point.

War is horrific. It always brings misery, death, tears and fear. I think wars are senseless. Every war eventually ends with negotiations and a peace agreement. But right now people are dying, even children, and that can never be redressed."

This article was originally written in Russian.  

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