“Missiles were flying right over my head” – a young woman’s story of living in the war in Ukraine

Olena Prokopchuk / © Andrii Gorb

Olena Prokopchuk was in Kyiv when the Russian invasion of Ukraine started. She is now based in Lviv and works for a Ukrainian human rights organisation called “Right to Protection”. Her dad, sister and brother are still in Kyiv. With her once peaceful life now being torn apart by war, Olena writes about her hopes for peace and the reality of living a life she didn’t choose – like all people affected by the war in Ukraine.

I never intended to be a hero. At 32, I was thinking about other things. Being unhappy with office work. My next career move. Whether I’d ever be able to buy my own place. Wanting to get married and start a family. I never wanted to fear for my life, or count the number of explosions, or ask my friends if they were safe and sound, or read the news about the women raped just a few miles from my apartment. Least of all, did I want to be a hero.

Today in Ukraine, each of us is a hero. We get up in the morning and read the news. We message dozens of people during the day, just to make sure they’re alive. We work and volunteer. Each of us is a link among many others, ensuring that Ukraine stands strong against Russia.

I did not believe it would last this long. First, that we would be able to defend ourselves so strongly. And second, that it would take so much time. We want to go back to peace as soon as possible.

All I wanted to do in the first hours of Russian aggression was run and hide – and make sure I was no longer threatened. Back in January, my friends and I had decided that if the war started, we would leave the city together. Our plan was to go to Vorzel, a small town just next to Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel – the places where the Russian military have shown an inhuman level of cruelty and violence.

All I wanted to do in the first hours of Russian aggression was run and hide. I was lucky to spend the first days of the war with someone who said it would be safer in a big city. She saved me from making any hasty mistakes.

Instead, I stayed in Kyiv. I was lucky to spend the first days of the war with someone who knew where to find information about the safest place during the shelling. She balanced me emotionally and helped me get through the first shock of the war. She said it would be safer in a big city – and that saved me from making any hasty mistakes.

I spent the first twenty days of this new phase of the war in Kyiv. After that, I couldn’t take it any longer. It became clear from the damage that the missiles were flying right over my head — and it was only a matter of time or chance before they would hit my house. So we fled to Lviv. We spent four days travelling – me, my colleague and our three cats.

It became clear from the damage that the missiles were flying right over my head — and it was only a matter of time or chance before they would hit my house.

Woman walks by destroyed Russian armor vehicle in Bucha / manhhai/Flickr CC BY 2.0
A woman walks by destroyed Russian armoured vehicle in Bucha / manhhai/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Today, in relatively safe and calm Lviv (though no place in Ukraine is truly safe now), I was drinking a coffee in a café. I was thinking how difficult it is to compare my life during peace (when I could just plan things, when I knew what to be ready for, when I could just go out into the street) with this new wartime experience (when I walk in the street and hear jet fighters overhead). It is very difficult to accept that this is the new reality of our lives. It is very difficult to make sense of it in your head. Everything is divided into before the war and after the war.

This war reality is taking more and more space within us. Only sometimes it breaks through: spring has begun, the apricot trees are blooming, the street I’m walking down has beautiful buildings, this food is very tasty, we are not talking about the war…

It is very difficult to accept that this is the new reality of our lives. It is very difficult to make sense of it in your head. Everything is divided into before the war and after the war.

Sometimes, when I work, I feel like crying. My colleagues are members of the local human rights organisation in Mariupol. They have not been in touch for about a month now. I ask myself if they are alive.

My father is staying in Kyiv, just like my sister and brother. Thank God, they have not been injured. I decided to go to Lviv knowing that they were staying in Kyiv. I suggested that we go all together – they refused, and I left. This is one of the decisions that each of us has to make during the war. I never intended to make decisions with consequences of this magnitude. I don’t want to think that I may just never see them again. If I could choose, of course I would rather not have this experience, not make these decisions or go through this ordeal.

When it’s all over and we win, I will breathe a sigh of relief and I will say — yes, we’ve made it. Everyone fighting for freedom in Ukraine, and everyone who is supporting us from the outside.

When it’s all over and we win, I will breathe a sigh of relief and I will say — yes, we’ve made it. Everyone fighting for freedom in Ukraine, and everyone who is supporting us from the outside. Everyone who publishes the truth about this war. We will all win, because we stand for the light and the truth. And I promise, we will all feel like heroes – because we already are.


For resources and ways on how you can help people in Ukraine, visit our page here.

Olena Prokopchuk / © Andrii Gorb

About the author:

Olena Prokopchuk is 32 years old. She fled from Kyiv to Lviv at the start of the war. She still lives in Ukraine.

Photo credit © Andrii Gorb.