Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, starting some of the worst fighting in Europe since World War II and wreaking death and destruction on the neighboring country. More than 2 million Ukrainians have fled their homeland, and many others have been displaced.
According to the United Nations, at least 406 civilians have been killed, although officials say the true figure is likely "considerably higher." Ukraine's emergency service estimated civilian deaths at more than 2,000 several days ago, adding in a March 2 statement: "It is unknown how many people are actually still under fire and debris. There is no exact figure." Ukrainian officials have said about 40 of those killed were children.
RFE/RL's reporters have gathered the voices of some of the women whose lives have been upended by the war, letting them tell their stories in their own words.
Yulia Sukhovyeyeva is a resident of Kharkiv, an eastern city that is the second-largest in Ukraine and has been hit hard by Russian attacks in recent days. RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service spoke with her on March 7 in Lviv, in western Ukraine, as she and her son, Nikita, were fleeing to Poland.
When the war started, it took me a while to realize what was happening. My mom called and said, "Yulia, it's a war." I didn't believe her. Now I'm in Lviv. My son and I are headed for the Polish border. I had to leave my home, my work, and my parents in order to save my child. It's a shock, it's a tragedy, and a catastrophe on a global scale. I will never forget the sound of a rocket flying by. It's impossible to forget, even if it's a split second. You grab your child, throw him down on the stone floor, and cover him with your body. My legs are all bruised, to be honest. It lasted for three days....
I have an aunt and a sister in Estonia, and I want to leave my child with them and get back home. My parents are still in Kharkiv. I'm worried about them all the time. They live in a high-rise building, so I'm praying every second that they are OK.
Hanna, who asked to be identified only by her first name, is a 36-year-old Belarusian who fled political repression in her country in 2020 and settled in the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, north of Kyiv and not far from Belarus. When Russia invaded Ukraine, some of the Russian troops crossed in from Belarus, whose authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, is Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest ally in the conflict. Hanna decided to stay and help fight. RFE/RL's Belarus Service spoke with her on March 6.
Ukraine gave me refuge a year and a half ago, accepted me into their family. Now I am repaying a debt. If I am capable and if I am not stone-hearted, how could I leave? When the artillery barrages started, I went down into the shelters. I thought I would help out there for four hours or so. But I ended up staying for four days. There were so many children; some of the women were carrying newborn babies. Someone had to wash those children, help make them some porridge. Bring things, distribute them, talk to people, help to calm them….
I was on the Internet [on the night the invasion was launched before dawn], looking to see what people were writing. It was terrifying. And at 6:30 a.m. I sensed the attack was under way. They came to us through the Chernobyl exclusion zone. At first, they just shelled the city. Then there was intense fighting. Then the Grad rocket launchers appeared. It was terrifying. On March 3, they began bombing from the air…. We evacuated residential areas, theaters, hospitals, maternity wards. It was horrific. Imagine bombing a maternity hospital -- a place where people should be born, not die. I was furious.
There is broken glass everywhere. Ruined houses, bombed-out buildings. In recent years, everyone commented that Chernihiv had become much prettier. New sidewalks, fountains, flowers everywhere in the spring and summer. And now, look. It is horrible to see. But those are only buildings that can be replaced. Pity the children, pity those who have lost loved ones. I have a friend who lost her whole family -- her husband and two children. There is nothing left of their house but a chimney. She ran and was shouting for her children. How can the heart bear it?
Lyudmila Bukhantsova is a Russian mother who lives in the settlement of Dragunskoye, about 50 kilometers from Russia's border with Ukraine. Her son, Roman, was part of the Russian invasion force, and he was taken prisoner near the eastern city of Sumy on February 26. She spoke with Current Time on February 28.
Every one of us has relatives in Ukraine, family in Ukraine. Everyone. There used to be the Soviet Union and we were all the same. Why is it that now brothers should go fight against brothers? What is the point of this war? I don't know. I just want it to end as soon as possible. I want my son to come home. That is all that I want. I want peace on Earth and for innocent people not to suffer.
Svitlana, who asked to be identified only by her first name, is a native of Kyiv who now lives in Roth, Germany. Her 87-year-old mother still lives in the Ukrainian capital. Since the war began, Svitlana has been working at an aid center, gathering medicines and other vital goods to send to Ukraine and to Ukrainian refugees. RFE/RL's Idel.Realities spoke to her on March 6 about Germany's response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis.
People can see that there are women and children here. And it has touched their soft, German hearts. Moreover, there are already a lot of Ukrainians in Europe. And they were the ones who started this wave of giving. The Germans mostly joined in later.
Svitlana described how her German mother-in-law wanted to help:
"I can give my white skirt, and a striped blouse." I asked her: "Do you understand that there is a war there? Who needs a white skirt and a blouse, even a striped one, when there is a war? Let's think for a minute about what people there need and not about what we have lying around." In the end, my mother-in-law donated a warm sweater. She was happy to think that her warm turtleneck would really help someone.
Unidentified Displaced Women From Kharkiv
RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on March 6 spoke with three women from Kharkiv who had made their way to Lviv after heavy fighting in their city.
One woman broke down in tears while appealing to the women of Russia:
I am begging you, please, think of your children. We gave birth to them for ourselves and not for some politicians who can't figure out what they want. Please, please, stand up and defend your children. Only mothers can defend their children. Only the heart of a mother can stand up and defend her children. There is no other way.
Another woman expressed defiance and admiration for Ukrainians defending their country, saying that Putin is attacking cities to break Ukrainian resistance:
But we won't surrender. We said we will not give up our city. We have good men who are going up against tanks with their bare hands. There are women, men. It is impossible to even look at it…. We saw with our own eyes who is shooting at us. We saw those soldiers ourselves. We saw the columns approaching and surrounding us on all sides.
A 79-year-old woman born during World War II likened the current situation to the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany in 1941:
This is a catastrophe. Hitler never did the things that they are doing now. They are led by a psychopath who has zombified his whole country so that they don't believe what is being done to us here. I have a friend who lives in Russia, and I told her about all this, and she just said, "It is your Nazis who are doing it." That is how those bastards have zombified them. It is horrible. They are bombing our Kharkiv. It is a catastrophe there. A catastrophe. They are killing people. Bombing everything.
My life began during a war, and unfortunately it is ending with this horrible war.
Halyna Vyhovskaya is a pensioner who lives in Kyiv with her husband, Petro. Their eldest son is in prison in Russia's Kirov region for purported "espionage." RFE/RL's Idel.Realities spoke to her on March 3:
I haven't shed a single tear. I just keep praying for Ukraine. And I pray for the Russians too, because I don't want young Russian boys to die in Ukraine. They are victims too. Russian mothers simply don't know what is happening here. If they knew, they wouldn't let their children come here. But they believe Russian propaganda as if they don't have their own brains to think with. I have a friend in Moscow, and I spoke with her recently. "Halya, I love you, but Putin is good and Kyiv will be ours." I answered her: "I love you too, but Kyiv will never be yours. We may die, but we will never surrender."
WATCH: Thousands of women in Ukraine have been fleeing war and Russian shelling with their children. Many vowed they would return to their homes when the war was over, with one woman saying, "Ukrainian women have the strongest spirit."
Valentyna, who asked to be identified only by her first name, is a 27-year-old shop clerk from the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhya. RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke to her on March 7 as she and her two small children were making their way through Poland toward Germany. She spoke about the night of February 26, which they spent in a makeshift shelter in the basement of her apartment block.
People were panicking. My mother-in-law had a panic attack right on the stairs. It was really hard. There were so many people. I counted eight people on one bunk…. I slept on a bunk and my 2-year-old daughter, Yulyana, was on the floor. She was crying and refused to sleep on the bunk. She was terrified. My 7-year-old son, Vova, was sleeping on an upper bunk with two other children. It was suffocating and there was little water. We boiled some, let it cool, and then drank it. Everyone drank from one bottle -- no one worried about hygiene. In the doorway, people were smoking cigarettes. It was hard to breathe. One woman vomited. We sat in our underwear….
At the station in Lviv, we were met immediately by volunteers. They gave us cookies and water. There were tents there where they were handing out sandwiches.
The bus driver said he'd give us 10 or 15 minutes to say goodbye to our husbands. We took our seats on the bus, and the driver wrote down our names. When he was done, he said: "God be with us. We're off." He said there was no time to say goodbye. My husband remained at the station. He was crying. My son started crying. Even now, Vova keeps asking when papa is coming.