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"The whole day was like a nightmare for me"

Porträtaufname der ukrainischen Studentin Diana Tarasova

Diana Tarasova is studying German as a foreign language at the University of Jena. She came to Jena in September 2021. We talked to her about the situation in her home country, Ukraine.

How did you learn about the war in your home country?

That was on 24 February. I was still asleep in the morning when I had a call from a friend. He’s from Kharkiv, a city that was under heavy attack. He said: “The war has started, get your parents!”

I couldn’t believe it at first. The situation between the Donbas region and Russia has been escalating for a very long time, so it seemed unlikely to me that something should have happened now. I thought: No, it can’t be, he must have misunderstood something.

When I looked at my mobile phone afterwards, I had a lot of messages, many more than normal. It was one of those moments when you know something’s wrong. My parents, siblings and acquaintances reported that they’d heard bombs exploding in the morning, when the nearby airport of the city of Dnipro was attacked. They were all scared. They didn’t know what had happened. There was no news about it yet. No one knew then what would happen next.

The whole day was like a nightmare for me. I read the news and yet I couldn’t understand that this was really happening. It didn’t seem real. I hoped I would wake up and everything would be fine. But it got worse and worse.

How is your family and how do you assess the situation in your home country?

In my home town of Dnipro, the situation is still relatively good. The city isn’t on the border, but in the centre of Ukraine, south of the capital Kyiv. After the bombing, Russian troops soon entered the neighbouring area of Zaporizhzhia, so people are already thinking about what will happen if the troops from the neighbouring area move on and where they might go.  

Everyone is shocked and frightened. I talked to my parents about whether they would flee. But men (Editor’s notebetween 18 and 60 years old) are not allowed to leave the country and my mother doesn’t want to leave my father. She says she’ll stay. We also have a dog and a cat. They also realise something’s wrong. The dog wouldn’t eat for days. The animals are another reason why my mother doesn’t want to flee. I just hope that at least in my town everything will be okay. I go crazy when I imagine that it will turn out differently.

There’s a huge amount of news. How and through which channels do you get information?

I try above all to use verified sources. I also use social media. For example, I use my city’s profile on Instagram, similar to the city of Jena. And the country also has a profile. And I get information in groups on Instagram and Telegram. The pictures that can be seen there also show me that it’s not fake news. There were mainly photos of our airport, which I recognised. Of course, I also use other sources, for example from Deutsche Welle or other verified broadcasters. It’s important for me to see different sides, to understand them and to question why this happened the way it did.

How do you keep in touch with friends and family in Ukraine?

I’ve been lucky so far, because there’s still a connection to my home town. In cities like Kharkiv or Kyiv, telecommunications and mobile phone signals have been disrupted by the attacks, so communication is difficult there. In our city, for example, there’s a problem with the siren. For this reason, there’s a Telegram channel that tells people when the siren starts and when it ends. When I see this message, I call my mother 10 minutes later and ask whether the alarm was just a warning or if something really happened. In most cases, the siren reacted to objects in the sky, but nothing happened.

But I call my parents every day even without an alarm, as long as I have the strength. When I cry a lot, I prefer not to call, because I want to be in a positive mood when I talk to my parents, and tell them that everything will be fine.

I often write messages to my friends. I have most contact with people from Kharkiv. Some of my friends are already no longer in Ukraine or at the border. I ask them how they are and whether I can help them. That’s how I try to stay in touch.

Do you know any young men who are now defending Ukraine and have to fight?

When a city is attacked, men between the ages of 18 and 60 have to protect the city and take up arms. I don’t have any personal contact with the boys and men who have been mobilised so far. But everyone I know from Dnipro says that if worst comes to worst, of course they’ll fight. They see it as their duty to protect the city and the country. Even those who have no military experience. But they all have a lot of courage. They don’t want to hide. Above all, they want to protect the civilian population – women and children – even if they have to take up arms to do so.

What is your attitude towards Russia and friends there?

The conflict with Russia is difficult. Our two peoples were like brothers. My native language is actually Russian, because in our region Russian is more dominant than Ukrainian. Now everyone hates Russia, and the sanctions also show that. What Putin and his government did will be remembered forever; no one will forgive them for it.

For me, contact with Russia is difficult. My best friend moved to Moscow five years ago. She says: “We can’t do anything. We can’t demonstrate because if we do, we’ll be expelled from the university and we’ll be punished.” They can even be punished for a post on social media. The pressure is very great in Russia. It’s really sad because there are some people in Russia who want to help, but they can’t and they’re not allowed to.

Do you feel the influence of Russian propaganda?

You can tell that people believe the Russian propaganda. They really think that it’s a peaceful Russian operation. But everything that’s broadcast in the Russian media isn’t true. However, if you only see that side of things, of course you believe it. Nevertheless, there are brave people who find other sources and demonstrate, who want to show the truth, even if the protests are suppressed and people are punished. That’s when you realise that the Russian government is afraid. And that’s why it’s so terrible. If everyone understood what was actually happening, maybe the war would have already stopped; maybe the Russian government would have already been dissolved.

Does this also lead to conflicts with your friends in Russia?

Yes, of course. I have acquaintances in Russia. They see what’s happening, but they blame Ukraine. But what should we have done, how should we be to blame? I don’t understand that, especially since it’s our country that’s affected. In Russia, you don’t have to prove anything or provide arguments – they wouldn’t understand. That’s why I’ve broken off contact with them.

How have your life and your daily routine in Jena changed? How do you deal with your fears and worries?

If I compare myself now with how I was a fortnight ago, then I’m very well now. I’ve overcome the terrible feeling I had at the beginning. I was totally broken. I didn’t want to do anything, eat anything, I just cried for two days. I just stayed in my room. When everyone asks how you are, you immediately understand that something is wrong. Then your thoughts always return to the situation. That’s why it was very difficult for me to talk to people at all. I read a lot of messages, but that’s also very exhausting. Now I’ve calmed down. I’ve understood that I have to carry on and be strong to help my family.

I try to be active in many ways. For example, I support many organisations financially, I try to talk to people, I offer my help. That gives me new strength. I’ve understood that life goes on – but only if I don’t hide myself away and cry all day. In the last two weeks, I’ve neglected a lot of things I had to do for the university. Now I’d like to carry on with that. But of course, the family still comes first.

What are you doing to help?

There’s a lot of humanitarian aid. In Jena, for example, donations are always being collected. With the money, I’ve bought non-perishable food, such as biscuits. I also try to support organisations that help refugees. For example, my mobile phone provider collects money that it passes on to the countries that take in refugees. At the moment, these are mainly Poland or Moldova.

In addition, there’s now a need for many volunteers who speak Ukrainian or Russian and can translate. This fits in well with my subject, because in the future, I want to teach German to others. Now, I want to use my skills for translating. I haven’t done much yet, because I haven’t had the strength. But from now on I want to get involved.

What do you think will happen next?

It’s a very uncertain time. I don’t know how the situation will develop. We weren’t a rich country, we struggled with corruption, we had introduced some reforms and we wanted to join the EU. Now, cities and half the country are broken and destroyed. Two million people have already fled Ukraine. I really have concerns about whether people can stay in Ukraine and continue to live there. The life that people – including my family – have built for themselves no longer exists as it used to be.

I obtained a scholarship for my Master’s degree in Germany. But what about students in Ukraine? I don’t know whether they can finish their studies. I also don’t know how those who attend school are doing. Many lives and dreams have been destroyed.

I hope, of course, that the war will finally end, that we’ll be able to rebuild the cities and that everything will be fine again. But right now, it’s impossible to say.

What is the best way to help Ukraine and the refugees?

The most important thing is support. What Germany and Europe are doing is incredibly important for Ukraine. The support of the whole world for Ukraine shows that the country is doing the right thing, that we are not the enemy, but that Russia is the foe.

It’s very important to help. Currently, there’s less need for money for Ukraine itself. It’s the refugees who need our help much more. You can give money, food, clothes or other donations in kind to organisations that take care of the refugees. When people flee, they hardly take anything with them. They have nothing.

Is there anything you would like to say in conclusion?

I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to report on the situation in my home country in the interview. I think it’s very important that people can get information from different sources and about various views if they want to. It also helps me or other Ukrainians to talk to other people and share our story, our experiences and our view.

Das Gespräch wurde am 9. März 2022 geführt.

Photo: Jens Meyer / University of Jena