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Ukrainian teen reflects on a year of war

Support for Ukraine in Prague. (Renata Pernegrová/YJI)

Editor’s note: As the one-year anniversary of Russia’s war against Ukraine approached, 18-year-old Ukrainian Sophia Pavlovna Vovnenko agreed to an interview with Youth Journalism International about the war’s impact on her life. Since Czech is not her first language, she felt more comfortable writing her answers in Ukrainian. Those responses were converted to Czech using an online translator program and then YJI’s Renata Pernegrová translated them into English.

Hořovice, CZECH REPUBLIC – Sophia Pavlovna Vovnenko, is an 18-year-old Ukrainian high school student who left her country soon after the Feb. 24, 2022 Russian invasion.

Along with her mother and younger sister, she fled to the Czech Republic to escape the war.

She likes to sail, do target shooting and sing. Today she lives in the small Czech town of Hořovice, where she attends the local high school.

Vovnenko is also a writer – she published her first book January 15, 2022 and successfully defended it in the Ukrainian Literary Creativity Department and on a regional level. Her most favorite place is the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv – she adores its atmosphere and people. 

On February 24, it will be exactly one year since Russia invaded Ukraine. How much has the war changed your life?

The war turned my world upside down and changed me. I still remember February 23, when I congratulated my ex on his birthday, how my classmates took my phone away from me to congratulate him and tell him what a fool he was. How on February 19 and 20 I defended my work at a competition, my book that I wrote when I was 12.

I knew then about the war in eastern Ukraine. I knew that a big war was coming. It’s really hard to defend your work, so I wanted to take a break on Thursday, rest, finish the debts that had accumulated due to the preparation, maybe start writing a new book. That day, I also wanted to celebrate the defense with my teacher. 

When I woke up, I saw that there were a lot of messages in the class chat. I saw the phrase: “War has broken out.”  My first thought was that it had been going on since 2014, and then I saw videos from all over Ukraine showing how my country was being bombed.

My heart dropped to the ground. The Russians are trying to destroy us again. Why? Why? Why again? Why won’t you leave us alone? I had such thoughts. I went to my mom’s room and said the most terrible thing I’ve ever said: “A full-scale war has begun.” She was shocked, we were shocked. She went to work. My dad had been at work since morning.

I was afraid for them. I packed an anxious suitcase, followed the news, and started talking to my sister calmly, trying to tell her what was happening, not to show my true emotions.

Since the beginning of the war, I have almost lost my real smile. I rarely laugh.

Sophia Pavlovna Vovnenko

I didn’t do anything that I used to do every free minute. I didn’t read books. I only followed the news, listened to what my classmates – who had been following the events since the beginning, in 2014 – were saying, talked to those who had studied the history of Ukraine well, and discussed what might happen as a class.

The first days, I did not leave the news. Every day, my friend, who has been here in the Czech Republic for five years, wrote to me to come to her. And finally, on March 9, I left.

Since the beginning of the war, I have almost lost my real smile. I rarely laugh, and my smile disappears quickly.

The most painful and scary thing is when you hear from your friends when you ask: “How are you?”  you hear the answer: “I’m fine. Something exploded near the house, glass fell from the windows, but everything is fine. We slept in the hallway. Everything is over.” Or, from those who are away at war, “I’m alive, everything is fine.”

Or, “As soon as I left the house to leave, the occupation tanks drove into our neighborhood again and destroyed the building opposite,” or similar.

And also, when people ask you to pray that they will be okay. I did and still do. When I hear Czechs say that it’s good that all this is somewhere far away, I remember the same thoughts I had about the war in the East and think about how I wish the same thing would not happen to them.

The year 2022, I was supposed to finish school, go to university in my favorite city, Kharkiv, study, enjoy life with my friends, and teach new sailors. (I went to the club of young sailors and river workers in my city).

But all these plans came crashing down. They were destroyed by the war.

Do you feel hatred towards Russians?

I feel hatred not for Russians, but for those who support all this, those who destroy us, those who help terrorists and those who push others to do so. Even if they are Ukrainians, let alone relatives. I know Russians from my city, so I can’t hate good people who are against it in every way.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “Ukraine”?

The homeland for whose independence millions of Ukrainians have died defending their rights and the rights of Ukraine. Home, the best memories, what makes me smile and what I would not mind dying for.

Do you receive any news directly from Ukraine about how the situation is developing there and how are people living there?

Yes, I do. I have many friends from different parts of Ukraine.  Most of them are in my city (Kamianske, formerly Dniprodzerzhynsk), Kharkiv, Berdyansk, Odessa, Mykolaiv, Energodar, Kryvyi Rih, Zaporizhzhia, and Dnipro.

Unfortunately, not everyone gets in touch. Some want it to end as soon as possible, but most say they are ready to do anything to win. It doesn’t matter that almost every day they have something flying around, being bombed, the main thing is that they are free of Russians.

How do you like the Czech Republic?

You know, it’s a wonderful country, there are wonderful people here, but home is Ukraine. It’s where I grew up and where I would like to live and die. It’s my home.

Do you think Czechs are friendly towards Ukrainians? Do you feel welcomed here?

As in every country, there are different people. There are those who mock you, those who do not want you here, but most of those I have met are happy to see us, help us in every way, those who support us and those who look at us with admiration, realizing that many of us are defending not only our homes, our families and children, but also those who are defending Europe from this horror called the Russian world. Thank God, there are many of us.

I know that we will be called children of war, but I don’t feel like one, because I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I didn’t hear those explosions. It passed me by.

Was it difficult for you to learn Czech, how long did you study, and how are you doing at your local school?

The Czech language is a bit like Ukrainian and Russian, so it’s not that difficult. For all the 11 months I’ve been here, I’ve been speaking quite well –at least that’s what Czechs and Ukrainians who have been here for a long time told me. I can even pronounce the “ř” sound, which Czechs praise me for. It’s not that it’s difficult at school, it’s just unusual. Not the same language, not the same names, even a little bit of non-classical chemistry, although my teacher is fond of classical names, so she always asks me what it is called in classical chemistry. I like it.

My classmates help me, school, teachers, and at work. I was even allowed not to study German or French, so during these hours I read in Czech to understand the language better and learn the words. In English class, which I hardly know, I have my own tasks. Everyone asks how I am. And when the massive attack began on October 10 across Ukraine, when I couldn’t think of anything but what was really happening, everyone supported me and said that everything would be fine. 

My classmates openly talk about Russia’s wrong actions and actively express their opinions, which makes me feel warm. I am glad that I met such people.

In the Czech Republic, everyone tries to understand me, although they say that not everything is always clear, but they still listen to me and express their opinions. We all laugh at something, we are surprised at something … I am really glad to be in such a place with such people.

How would you like the conflict to end?

First, the demilitarization and de-Nazification of Russia, as they allegedly wanted to do with us. Secondly, the complete withdrawal of troops from the territory of Ukraine, the liberation and de-occupation of all regions, not only Ukrainian ones.

Thirdly, the trial of all the main criminals in The Hague. I’m talking about all Putin’s doubles. Fourthly, referendums throughout Russia on secession, and fifth (but not likely): most countries that have experience with certain lands (but not the former U.S.S.R.) should help the Russians do what other countries once did with the Germans after World War II.

Do you plan to return to Ukraine or do you want to settle in the Czech Republic?

I want to study here, but I want to live only in Ukraine. This is my country, to which I swore an oath about five years ago that I would do everything to preserve it. I would go to war, but I don’t want to upset my family. I have thought about it a lot, but I know that if I go, my mom will never allow it.

So I earn money and send it to the Armed Forces.

As a young Ukrainian woman, is there anything you would like to say to the world, some of your inner feelings, some challenge or gratitude?

Yes. I wanted you all to take action instead of just worrying and thinking about helping Ukraine. The longer you think about it, the more Ukrainians die, the more people are abused, tortured and the more your citizens who are fighting as volunteers there in Ukraine will die. The more you turn a blind eye to all of this, the more you delay our time of victory.

It will happen, because even if you do not give us weapons, we will die, but we will stand for our home, for our future, for our freedom and liberty, for our Ukraine to the last.

Even if we have to go to the enemy with our bare hands, most of us will go, because we are Ukrainians, descendants of the most glorious Cossacks, each of us has witches blood in our blood, each of us will not be afraid to die defending our honor, dignity and freedom.

What our ancestors did, we will do. Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the armed forces!

Renata Pernegrová is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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