Roman Zozulia was in the library working on homework and tapping through Instagram stories when he saw that it happened. The Russian “special operation” in Ukraine was blasted through social media, alerting the world in a moment that war had come to his home. Shortly after seeing the initial posts, he received a call from a close friend in the capital, Kyiv. It was a brief call ending with one phrase: “I hope we see each other again.”
Zozulia could not believe it. His world had flipped upside down in a matter of seconds. His voice had a tinge of sadness to it, a tired one. He had an optimistic view at the start of the invasion, even planning on flying back home not long before.
For many, seeing the beginning of the war was a tragic event full of unneeded violence half a world away, while tucked into a neat place of being unaffected. For Zozulia, Ukraine is his home, his world, full of people and places he loves. He is a senior international student who has been part of California Baptist University’s track team for the past two years, studying communication studies.
He waits for messages from his large family nightly, most of whom are still in Kyiv. His mother, grandma and grandpa send texts to reassure him of their current safety, but Zozulia knows that it can change in an instant. There is a certain kind of helplessness, he said, in being an ocean away and wanting to help, but being unable to directly.
“You feel like you need to be there, but at the same time, you feel like you need to stay here,” Zozulia said. “You’re waiting for those messages. And it’s like too much pressure, you know, it’s too much pressure and everything. What I want to say is it’s horrible. It’s horrible.”
According to a press release by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as of March 23 there have been approximately 2,571 civilian casualties in the country. The number is an estimate and uncertain due to delayed reports.
Rita Smirnova, junior photography and public relations major, has been sharing content on her Instagram story in an attempt to combat misinformation from the Russian media. Also from Kyiv, she knows many people stranded in Ukraine and directly impacted by the violence. One of her old swimming coaches was caught under shelling rubble while volunteering in Kharkiv. Her coach told her that she screamed and prayed for hours, eventually freed by a man who saw her. This coach in particular coached the Ukrainian national swim team, giving her some status. Smirnova and Zozulia emphasized that status no longer has any impact in this war; celebrities and wealthy people are just as at risk of being caught in the crossfire.
“[They are] just people; they’re stuck,” Smirnova said. “Sometimes they’re starving. Sometimes they’re dying. I’ve just seen a lot of horrible photos and videos every day. And it breaks my heart because I know these places, I know these people and some of them are getting injured, really injured.”
While the majority of her family is in Poland, she still has several family members and friends stranded in Kyiv. The train stations are packed to the brim with Ukrainians hoping to escape, which means having to face leaving the country one has lived in and loved for so long. Zozulia said that his grandparents stayed because they did not want to abandon the place that they call home.
“You need to understand, it’s hard to leave the place where you’ve lived for like 10 to 20 years,” Zozulia said. “And now somebody’s saying, ‘You know what? You’ve got to go somewhere else because it’s unsafe.’ I mean, I can understand them.”
One of Smirnova’s friends in Ukraine, who is working as a volunteer to fetch medicine for those who are unable to move from hiding, free those stuck in the rubble and take direct action wherever possible. She said many refugee families were being shot on the journey to the border.
Those who are still in Ukraine are forced to take safety in basements or mass evacuation centers, such as schools and hospitals. Smirnova said a friend’s grandpa died from cancer in a basement due to a lack of medical access. Volunteers are unfortunately not able to save everyone due to the scale of the devastation. Funerals are also being delayed due to a lack of safety, hindering loved ones from saying their proper farewells.
Zozulia said he is grateful for his friends and professors who have been checking up on him but still feels a constant looming sense of being overwhelmed. He has been using Instagram to share information about the conflict, sorting through the multifaceted sides of the media. He is grateful for the outpouring of support in his messages and through people but notices that many have a lack of understanding of the complete scope of the crisis.
Since America is not directly affected by the conflict’s violence, Smirnova mentioned hearing both whispers and loud jokes about the situation. People are also offering their unsolicited opinions to her on the situation, she said, most of them callous and uninformed. A tap through Smirnova’s Instagram stories reveals bloody photos taken in Ukraine, displaying the heartbreaking reality of the war.
“Look at a photo, one photo of a kid shot in the forehead,” Smirnova said. “Look at it for 10 minutes, for 20 minutes, until you understand. Put yourself into that situation and then say something.”
“I can’t say that everything is fine,” Zozulia said. “As long as I see all those videos, all those people that are dying in my country, I just can’t say that I’m fine, that everything is OK. It’s painful. It’s painful.”