Zakhida Adylova is a 35-year-old language teacher and producer for a political talk show who lives in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
She is a Crimean Tatar, a Muslim ethnic minority that was forcibly deported from their homeland, the Crimean Peninsula, to Uzbekistan in 1944 under orders from Joseph Stalin. In 1993, Zakhida returned from exile with her family to Crimea, Ukraine. Then in 2014, she and her daughter were forced to leave their home in Crimea for Kyiv after Russia annexed the peninsula. Zakhida’s mother joined them a year later. Today, the three are again facing a Russian invasion. Here is Zakhida’s personal account of the first five days of the war.
Day 1: Thursday, February 24, 2022 – ‘Take your family and run’
6:20 am: I wake to the sound of my daughter screaming. The war has begun, she shouts.
With trembling legs and my heart in my throat, I jump out of bed and rush to the window. But outside everything is silent. There is no one on the street.
I frown at her. “What are you talking about, Samira? Who told you that the war had started?”
Unable to get through to me, a family friend had called my daughter.
I check my phone and see many missed calls and messages.
“Take your family and run to the bomb shelter,” Alex, a military officer and trusted friend, had texted.
My heart sank.
When, three days earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin had recognised the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states, I had felt that war was coming, but I’d hoped I was wrong.
6:36 am: In a panic, 11-year-old Samira begins packing her clothes and toys. My 75-year-old mother Abibe, who lives with us, looks pale. I feel confused, unsure of what to do. But then I remember hearing from other Crimean Tatars about an air raid shelter at the mosque. It is a 15-minute walk away, so I decide to take my daughter and mother there.
Within 20 minutes, the three of us are dressed and have packed one backpack each. In mine, I put important documents, underwear, a t-shirt, my laptop, a small medical kit and some cash.
6:56 am: Outside, people are rushing in all directions carrying luggage and backpacks. Some get in cars, others wait at the bus stop. I try to get a Bolt or an Uber but there are none available. So we take a tram to the mosque and on the way, I read the news on my phone. Russian troops have attacked military establishments from the north, east and south simultaneously. All I can think is that I have to protect my family.
But when we arrive at the mosque, there is only a guard there. It is closed and there is no bomb shelter, he tells me. Frustrated, we walk away. The next day I find out that he was wrong – the mosque is sheltering people. But by then, it is too late. With broken hopes, we have already returned home.
On the way back, I devise a new plan: In the case of a serious attack, we will go to the metro station.
Meanwhile, my thoughts drift back to 2014, when Russian troops invaded my homeland. I break out in a cold sweat at the memory of the tanks entering Simferopol, of the thousands of men – both pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian – chanting their battle cries near the Verkhovna Rada (the now-dissolved parliament) of Crimea.
With the annexation of Crimea, I had fallen asleep in Ukraine and woken the next day in Russia. It was my worst nightmare. I fled to Kyiv but felt as though my heart had been torn from my body. Today feels like groundhog day. I wish I could wake up and forget this nightmare. But this nightmare is reality.
10:00 am: Back in our flat on the ground floor of an old five-storey building in a busy residential area near the US embassy, I shut all the windows and quickly find an emergency guide online. My mother and daughter help me turn our corridor into a bomb shelter by putting pillows and blankets on the floor.
11:00 am: I start work. I work at a political talk show on YouTube and we are due to have a live show tonight. I am responsible for the guest speakers, including Lech Wałęsa, the former president of Poland, and John Bolton, the former US national security adviser.
1:00 pm: I record a short video to put on Facebook. With a trembling voice, I sing the national anthem. It is a way to lift spirits and unite people.
I continue working while Samira watches videos on YouTube and Abibe reads official Ukrainian websites for updates. My phone rings with calls from friends in Crimea, Romania, Lithuania, the US, Israel, Turkey, and other places. They are all worried about us and I find myself reassuring them – explaining that our armed forces are the best and our defenders are prepared to give their lives to protect us.
6:00 pm: A Russian DDoS cyberattack has damaged the signal to broadcast our show so we must cancel it. Still, I finish my interview with John Bolton and transcribe it. He says that if we can take away Russian air superiority, the Ukrainian armed forces on the ground will have a much better chance against the forces crossing the border.
11:30 pm: I make my daughter and mom sleep in the corridor. They are outraged but, knowing how stubborn I am, they accept it. I watch over them as they sleep and listen for noises outside. When I eventually fall asleep at 3am, I am soon woken by the sound of bombing in Vyshgorod, to the north of Kyiv. It is the first time I have ever heard bombing.
Day 2: Friday, February 25 – ‘It is impossible to leave’
6:59 am: I wake to a phone call from a friend in Crimea who is worried about me. Crimean Tatars know what it means to be persecuted and have sympathy for Ukrainians. Many want to know how to help so I provide my friend with information about petitions and ways to donate to the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU).
A feeling of frustration and fear washes over me. I remember my last session with my psychologist who I visit because of the trauma of having to leave my homeland. Don’t panic, I tell myself. And for the first time, I let myself cry.
10:00 am: An air raid warning sounds. Samira goes to the corridor and covers herself with blankets. My mom does the same. But I freeze and begin nervously looking online for updates. A former student calls me from Slovakia. He is worried and offers us his home in case we decide to evacuate. He is also worried about his family in the southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol, where civilians are hiding in basements and bomb shelters due to the fierce fighting.
11:00 am: I go out to buy some bread, but the shops are either closed or empty. I try close to 10 stores and eventually join a long queue at a small supermarket that is still open. But suddenly the air raid warning goes off. Some leave the queue, others stay in line as though nothing has happened. I find a place to shelter by the store but after five minutes, I run home.
4:00 pm: I go out to look for groceries again. I wait for an hour to enter one store. There are about 25 people ahead of me and about 50 behind me. But there is barely anything left and I am only able to buy some bananas, a couple of bars of chocolate and a packet of crackers.
6:00 pm: I return home from the store, exhausted and disappointed.
The only good news comes via videos on Telegram chats showing soldiers defending Ukraine.
11:00 pm: I sing the national anthem with my daughter and mom. It makes us feel better. I post short videos on Instagram and Facebook with updates for friends abroad. Many offer to host me and my family, but it is impossible to leave. The roads have been bombed and the petrol stations are empty.
It is time to guard my girls again as they sleep in the corridor.
Day 3: Saturday, February 26 – ‘Home sweet home’
7:00 am: I am so exhausted that I don’t hear my alarm. The first phone call of the day is from my 51-year-old brother Erfan who lives on the other side of the Dnieper River in Kyiv about 12km away from us. When the war started, he closed his small café serving Crimean Tatar cuisine and immediately joined a Territorial Defence unit.
Overnight, the Russians have bombed an area near our home.
We are now so used to the air raid warnings that our responses have become automatic. We no longer panic; we just lay on the floor and pray.
Samira has learned to distinguish between the sound of bombs and guns. She names what she hears and it distracts her from her fear.
8:00 am: I continue texting my friends abroad and relatives in Crimea. Friends abroad continue to offer me a place to stay.
“If you have the possibility to get to Romania, my family can host you!” says one.
But I’m not escaping.
I am furious. Ukrainians are furious. I despise Russia for invading our homeland, for carrying out an invasion based on lies. I will not flee. I am fed up with having to hide in my own country.
I need to be here to fight.
I can’t shoot a gun, but I am able to tell the truth. My weapon is my words. I do my best to post daily updates on social media. But when there is bombing, the internet connection becomes weak and I can’t upload anything.
During calm periods, my mom manages to slip into the kitchen and quickly prepare some food.
She cooks homemade pita bread in a pan, some spaghetti with cheese and sausages, but I haven’t got an appetite. I lie and tell her that I’ve already had breakfast. She leaves a plate of food on the floor, our improvised table, in the corridor where we spend most of our time.
10:00 am: The air raid warning sounds. A new attack.
My daughter and I hide in the bathroom but my mom decides to stay in the corridor. I put blankets and pillows inside the bath and tell Samira to get inside.
Some of my friends who are sheltering in the metro ask us to join them there as it is supposed to be safer. But I am so fed up with hiding that I have decided to stay home no matter what. Home sweet home.
9:00 pm: I sit on the bathroom floor and read Al-Fatihah. My mother and Samira read the Quran with me.
Day 4: Sunday, February 28 – ‘Resisting has made us stronger’
7:44 am: The air raid warning wakes me. Nothing much has changed during the past few days, but I feel different today. One more day of resisting the Russian invasion has made us stronger, more positive and more united.
A social media post from a friend in Odesa makes me smile. Among the soldiers defending Ukraine are people of different sexes and sexual orientations, nationalities, and religious beliefs, different skin colours and languages, she writes. But we all are together, standing shoulder to shoulder. We are Ukrainians even if we are different.
2:00 pm: My daughter and I decide to play the game Dobble. She beats me 10 times in a row. So, I am going to be more attentive. I feel happy to see her beautiful smile. She is my angel.
6:00 pm: I sit in the corridor and read about the rallies for peace that are being held around the world and about the sanctions against Russia. My friends continue to send us hugs and words of encouragement. I do not know whether I will still be alive in a couple of hours, but I am crying now, not because of the invasion but because of all the support we are receiving.
Day 5: Monday, February 28
Last night, there was so much bombing that the windows and doors were shaking. But I am smiling today because I’m alive and my family is safe and sound.
We didn’t start this war, but we have no choice but to win it.