The Collegian
Tuesday, May 28, 2024

A Homeland at War : A Ukrainian student shares lessons of hope amidst violence

<p>UR first-year Kristina Atamanyuk. Photo courtesy of Kristina Atamanyuk.&nbsp;</p>

UR first-year Kristina Atamanyuk. Photo courtesy of Kristina Atamanyuk. 

When asked to recall her fondest memories of home, Kristina Atamanyuk smiled softly and stared into her folded hands. 

“It is mountains, the beautiful mountains of Kolomyia where I am from,” she said. “It is also Crimea, where I spent my childhood. Every single year, me and my parents would go to the black sea, to Odesa.”

Nestled in the foothills of the eastern Carpathian Mountains, the people of Kolomyia have felt the reverberations of a war that has consumed the entire nation of Ukraine. Atamanyuk has felt them too, on the other side of the world.

On February 24th 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a sudden military invasion that marked a new dawn in a decades-long conflict. The morning the first shells struck the outskirts of Kyiv, Atamanyuk was waking up for school in Armenia, where she had moved at the age of 16 for a two-year International Baccalaureate program.

“I remember I had a math test that day,” she recalled, “I opened my phone to all of my news accounts. Bombing, explosions…no one could believe it.”

While tensions between the two nations rose long before Putin pursued a “special military operation,” the invasion was a shock to the citizens of both nations. In 1991, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine declared its independence and worked towards joining alliances with NATO and the European Union

In the last decade, violent revolutions in Ukraine signified a united refusal to submit to the will of historical dictatorship, and they proved successful. In 2014, Ukrainian President Yanukovich was unseated after months of bloody protests following suspended negotiations with the EU and his revitalization of economic ties with Moscow. 

This past winter, after over a year of being separated from her family, Atamanyuk finally returned home. The University of Richmond helped to finance the journey, which included flying to Warsaw, Poland, and then embarking on a 12-hour bus ride. When she arrived in Kolomyia, she embraced her father at the bus stop.

“Immediately I asked him, ‘where are the boys?’ and he said, ‘Oh, in the bomb shelter, they are studying there now,’ Kristina. Every single moment I spend with my family and people I love, I appreciate it in a different way.”

Atamanyuk’s parents are musicians, and she remembers growing up to the hum of Ukrainian folk songs floating through their house. “My mom’s lullabies, the instruments of the Bandura and Drymba, remind me of home,” Atamanyuk hopes that one day her own children will know the same folk songs, singing and speaking in the language of their homeland.

Today, even as the blare of air raid sirens becomes a customary backdrop to daily life, the people of Ukraine endure. In Kolomyia, they buy generators and open cafés at night where community members can gather in the warmth and listen to musicians perform, welcoming donations to help fund the troops on the front lines.

On the most frigid of winter nights, that same optimism has kept her family warm. 

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“I just love my parents and that positivity,” Atamanyuk shared. “Randomly in the evening we will get electricity and they will go, ‘Oh, it’s a holiday! Okay, we need to vacuum.’” 

The light of hope has persisted since the first Russian troops entered Luhansk Oblast when Ukrainian soldiers had not yet been mobilized

“When there was no military backup, people would go out and push tanks away with their bare hands,” Atamanyuk said.

Before the invasion, Russian forces controlled Crimea in the south and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, but by the crest of the second week of the war, the Russian front was just a few miles from Kyiv in the north-central region of the country. Only a month later, however, Ukraine carried out its first counteroffensive, successfully regaining the territory from the hands of the Russian Army.

Estimates that totaled the military personnel on each front found Russian forces with over two servicemen for every Ukrainian soldier. Despite being outnumbered, it was steadfast Ukrainian resistance that prevented Russian forces from overtaking the capital city of Kyiv in the first weeks of combat.

“The fighting is not happening in my town, and I pray that it is not going to,” Atamanyuk said. “But Ukraine is a door to Europe. It cannot be conquered… because then the West to some extent loses.” 

The 30 member countries in the NATO alliance, as well as the EU, have contributed over $80 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine since the war began. Dozens of armored fighting vehicles and long-range missile systems have added to growing efforts preventing Russian forces from moving west.

As charged political discourse bombards mainstream media, competing perspectives on the conflict come to the surface. 

“There is a lot of pressure, as an international student especially, to be a representative of my country,” Atamanyuk said. “I constantly have to be open-minded. There is Russian language, Russian students all around me.” 

Now, as the war passes the mark of one year, violence continues and the end remains undetermined. In the face of so much uncertainty, Atamanyuk has still found hope – a break in otherwise overcast skies. 

“What motivates me is the future,” she said. “I can imagine refugees coming back to Ukraine, people starting to go back to university… young people like me coming back with new values, new knowledge and implementing it.” 

Even while witnessing the events of the war from thousands of miles away, Atamanyuk shares the same hope found in every citizen of her homeland: that their nation can prove to be a key force for international democracy, emerging from conflict as an example that the power of a nation is derived from its people. 

“When the nation has the same values, it will stay strong,” Atamanyuk affirmed. “And no one expected us to be strong in this war.”

Contact features writer Sophia Demerath at sophia.demerath@richmond.edu. 

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