Sixteen-year-old Ukrainian Anna Liutyk will never forget that early morning when she woke up to her mother screaming the most terrifying words she had ever heard.
“The war has started,” Liutyk's mother cried out.“ (Russian dictator Vladimir) Putin started a war.”
Multiple Ukrainian cities were shelled that same day on Feb. 24, as Russia declared a major war on Ukraine, attacking the country with missiles, helicopters, tanks, and ships.
Russian troops have already killed hundreds of civilian Ukrainians, destroying multiple objects of critical societal infrastructure.
But in the face of great adversity, Ukrainians showed unprecedented unity.
Civilians all across the country do whatever it takes to help each other: They deliver medicine and food for those hiding in bomb shelters. Both regular citizens and restaurant chefs prepare meals for the military, refugees, and civilians. People adopt abandoned animals and offer shelters and rides to fellow Ukrainians.
Liutyk is no exception: The girl, together with her mother and best friend, has been offering warm food and drinks for free to fleeing Ukrainians who are spending exhausting hours in lines on the border with Poland in Lviv Oblast, where she lives.
“Such difficult times either break the nation or, just like in our case, unite it entirely,” Liutyk says.
Teenagers supporting refugees
On the first day of war, Liutyk didn't go to school, and neither did other children all over Ukraine.
She and her mother spent the entire day monitoring the news and getting in touch with their loved ones.
As they left the house later that day, the family saw hundreds of people heading to the border checkpoint nearby. Liutyk noticed a lot of foreigners among them.
According to the United Nations, one million people already fled Ukraine in an attempt to escape the brutal war. Ukrainians flee to neighboring countries such as Poland, Moldova, Hungary, Romania, and others. Over 50,000 foreigners have also left Ukraine since Feb. 24.
Most of them spent hours if not days in enormously long lines to cross the border.
“I was just standing on the street, crying, as I realized that this was an actual war and people were leaving,” Liutyk says.
The number of people increased as night fell. As Liutyk looked out of the window at around 10 p.m., she noticed the line stretching right to her house, located about 15 kilometers from the state border.
“We were slightly scared to see so many strangers at first,” Liutyk says. “So we were sitting quietly in our house, with the lights off.”
Liutyk soon learned her mother’s friend started helping the refugees, offering them overnight shelter and some food. They decided to help as well.
As the line kept growing on the next day, Liutyk noticed an exhausted old woman with two grandchildren, looking for a restroom. She invited them in. The woman sat near the front door, holding her grandson and shuddering every time she heard some loud noise.
“That was shocking,” Liutyk says.
She called her friend Yaryna to help. The girls started walking along the line and offering hot tea and coffee to people trying to get through the clogged borders. The next day, they put a table outside Liutyk’s house and began offering people hot dishes like traditional Ukrainian borshch, salo (salted pork fat) with bread and pickles, as well as sweets, and hot drinks.
Liutyk says she has never hugged so many people and has never heard so many kind words from strangers.
“It inspires and gives hope that we will win,” she says.
Although there are almost no lines now, Liutyk continues supporting those in need: She helps to take care of adults and kids staying at the refugee shelter set up in a local school. Her mother and her friends are also on board.
In those kind words, comforting hugs, and gratuitous mutual support, Liutyk sees the unity of the Ukrainian people. And that, she says, is something that defines Ukraine.
“We, Ukrainians, are so strong,” Liutyk says. “We try to help each other however we can because it is who we are,” she adds. “It is in our veins.”
Free psychological aid
Feb. 24 was one of the scariest days for Kyiv-based psychologist Julia Naista.
Her three-year-old baby boy wasn’t sleeping well at night “as if feeling something was coming,” Naista says. When she saw the light from explosions out of her window, Naista immediately checked the news.
Her worst nightmare proved to be true. Putin had launched a war on Ukraine.
“I was very scared,” she says.
Naista and her husband decided to leave the capital as soon as possible. “I realized that we either leave Kyiv now or never,” Naista says.
Early morning on Feb. 25, the family headed to Mukachevo, Naista’s home town in western Ukraine. She did not have a go-bag prepared for the emergency, only some documents packed the day before. The rest, she says, they were packing in complete chaos, just throwing some clothes into the suitcase. She eventually forgot to put many necessities like socks or underwear for her baby.
When locals found out she was in need of clothes for her son they brought her even more of it than she needed.
"People were so kind, I had to ask them to stop bringing clothes as we already had too much," she says, adding that she was impressed and grateful for the support.
She, too, decided to step in and help others.
Psychologist Naista reached out to all of her former and current patients, asking them if they needed support in such a difficult time.
She’s currently offering free psychological aid for anyone who needs it.
She joined the group of volunteers in Mukachevo to provide refugees and their children with psychological assistance. She also holds online consultations helping people overcome anxiety and stress caused by the war.
Besides psychological help, she also occasionally helps fleeing people find petrol and accommodation to relocate to in western Ukraine.
She says this social support is essential in handling tough situations.
“Before (the war) we could get this support from family members. But now we get it from all the people of Ukraine,” she says.
“We are united, we are together and it gives hope that everything will be fine.”
On Feb. 23, Kyiv citizen Valeria Kuzmenko was a successful entrepreneur, co-owning a beauty salon and a law firm. But just like millions of other Ukrainians, Kuzmenko’s life changed drastically overnight when Russia began a major war on Ukraine.
“My whole life collapsed,” Kuzmenko says.
Kuzmenko, 24, says she wasn’t afraid for her life, only for the lives of her loved ones. So she brought her mother and their beloved dog to a place safer than their home on the outskirts of Kyiv. She decided not to stay with them, but to come back to her home town and support those who were left alone there.
Kuzmenko reached out to her friend in the military, asking how she could help them. She ended up purchasing all hygiene products from a local store and donated them to the army.
It took her several days to turn from a successful entrepreneur into a fearless volunteer.
Not only does she volunteer for the military, raising money to purchase various goods like slippers, yellow fabric for armbands for territorial defense units, cigarettes, and more, but she also delivers food and medicine to those civilians who are unable to leave their apartments or bomb shelters.
“I get a lot of requests from citizens who are (hiding) in basements and are hungry or need some special medicines,” Kuzmenko says.
She uses her Instagram account as a platform to look for those who need help, as well as find those who can help.
Thousands of regular Ukrainians along with influencers began using their accounts on social media as platforms to help each other since the outbreak of war. They spread the word online to find lost relatives, rare medicine for the elderly or kids, or a simple ride or a place to sleep.
Kuzmenko says she gets requests not only from Kyiv and Kyiv Oblast but from other regions as well.
She tries to help those in Kyiv immediately and looks for volunteers in other regions.
But it's not only people she assists: Kuzmenko says she also rescues pets abandoned by their owners due to war. Her military base is now home not only to soldiers and volunteers but to rescued cats and dogs as well.
Surrounded by many strangers every day, Kuzmenko says she hasn’t seen a quarrel or an argument among them ever since the war started.
“Everyone just rushes to help each other,” Kuzmenko says.
Every day she learns about the death of an acquintance. And every day she cries after returning home. Yet these tragedies motivate Kuzmenko to keep helping others and fight “for the future of her family, nation, and country.”
“For my beloved and great Ukraine.”