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A year of war in Ukraine: “I left everything”

On the day the war started, Daria Khrystenko fled Kyiv with her young son and mother. She later joined the CARE staff in Poland, where she now works. Photo: CARE USA

On the day the war started, Daria Khrystenko fled Kyiv with her young son and mother. She later joined the CARE staff in Poland, where she now works. Photo: CARE USA

The war broke out on February 24th.

That morning. I remember. It’s like a film that you’re watching over and over again. I remember every move that I made. I remember what I did, how I packed, how I woke my son up, how we went out, step-by-step.

I still remember it. I remember it every day, even though it was one year ago. I can still remember where I was standing when I got the phone call, what I was doing exactly that day.

I think I will always remember it. I’ll never forget it.

I got up at 5 a.m., and I only had twenty minutes to pack.

It felt unreal. I couldn’t believe it. But my friend called me. She lived in the same neighborhood as I did, and she heard explosions, too.

Her family’s from Kharkiv, and they called her. They explained what was happening, how it was real.

She told me that the war had started.

Daria Khrystenko, one year after the war began. Photo: CARE USA

I didn’t know what to expect, but I was afraid to stay in Kyiv.

I just wanted to get out of the city as soon as possible, so I just took whatever I found first in my wardrobe and packed everything in the suitcase, not even thinking what. We only had twenty minutes.

I grabbed my son. We grabbed one suitcase.

I just brought whatever and took the most important things — my passport, my son’s passport – and then we went and got my mom.

I remember when I was leaving my home, I just had a cup of coffee that morning, and I left everything.

“We left Kyiv”

There were lines of cars at the gas stations, like hundreds of cars waiting for gas. Everyone was trying to get out, but everyone was on the road at the same time. A few hours later, my friend got stuck in traffic for seven hours. They couldn’t move at all. The whole city was just blocked.

Luckily, we managed to leave earlier.

People who left just twenty minutes later, who were twenty minutes further away from the border, they didn’t survive.

In the past, people moved out of Kyiv, twenty minutes away. It had been a very nice place to live. It was surrounded — it is still surrounded — by forests. There are a lot of parks.

It was someone’s life, and it just stopped there.

Even if people survived, they have nowhere to return to. They have no home. They have no safe place. It’s all burnt. There’s nothing.

It’s like time is standing still.

Their lives ended. Just ended for no reason. Just because of the war.

Just twenty minutes away from where I was.

Daria at what is left of the Bucha Cultural Center. Photo: CARE USA.

We left Kyiv, and we decided to go to the closest border, the Moldova border.

We ended up in this town — a border town — and the line was so long, in went into the center of town. We were waiting for ten hours, in with all the other cars, and we were still waiting, and we were just hoping to cross the border and to be in a safe place.

As soon as we crossed the border, we had to think where we’d go next.

It was so strange. We were on the road, and we were discussing what country to go to, where to stay. We had no idea. We didn’t have relatives, no friends or family members who could host us in another country, so we were just driving and talking.

My mom said, “Maybe we should stay in Slovakia,” or, “Maybe we should go to Poland.”

It was really scary to be completely nowhere, not knowing what was happening next, not having a job, not having enough money to sustain ourselves.

Just driving.

We ended up in Romania. My mother has a heart issue, and, unfortunately, in Romania her health got worse. She had to be in the hospital for several days, and the hospital was in the mountains. There was no Internet, there was no Google Translate, the doctors didn’t speak English. We would just use sign language.

When you are in a foreign country and everything is okay, you can kind of handle the situation, but if something happens to your health, if something unexpectedly happens, and you need to explain it, that’s different.

It was at that moment, when I was talking to the doctors, I realized that we need to go to a country where I could speak the language.

So that was our choice. We would go to Poland.

“This is where we live”

I don’t see Kyiv as my home anymore, at least not at this moment. It is so unsafe. It is so dangerous there that just no matter how much I want to go back home, no matter how much I want to be in my apartment, it’s not the apartment I was in before. It is not the place it was.

So at this moment, Poland is our home. We don’t see it as temporary. This is where we live. This is where life is happening. I think what this past year has taught us not to make plans for the rest of life, because the plans might not happen. Just to live today and to enjoy the moments that are right now.

Of course, the biggest hope, my greatest hope is for the war to end.

This year, every time we celebrated a birthday — my birthday and my son’s birthday and Christmas — every time we would blow candles out, there was only one dream. Only one wish. For the war to end.


In February of 2023, one year after the war began, Daria returned home to Kyiv. CARE News will be posting more from her story in the coming weeks, but below is a short video documenting some of her time there.

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