Watching the war from Townsite

qathet Living, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

After work on the evening of Wednesday, February 23, Rostik Artiushenkov and Anna Honcharova relaxed at their Townsite home, deciding what to watch on Netflix.

Soon, both were stuck to their phones, watching Instagrammed images of rockets flying over Kyiv – where Anna went to university. After weeks of posturing, Russia had invaded Ukraine.

By 5 am Kyiv time, Rostik’s uncle, a former soldier in the regular Ukrainian army, had re-enlisted. Now, he is using the training he has on the FGM-148 Javelin – an American anti-tank missile system – to defend his region against the Russian invasion of Zaporizhzhia.

When Anna saw the pictures on Instagram, she texted friends in Kyiv. One friend confirmed that Kyiv, Odessa, and other Ukrainian cities were under attack. Soon after that, Rostik phoned his friend who lives in Kyiv.

“It is war, my friend,” he said.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Rostik, in an interview with qathet Living at Townsite Market mid-March, outside his and Anna’s store, Sunny Deli. “I thought Russia might bomb military bases. But civilians were dying. It was a full-scale invasion.”

Like many other locals, the war in Ukraine is personal for Anna and Rostik; both were born and grew up there, and most of their family and school friends remain. Some have escaped to Poland and Czech Republic. Both of their elderly grandmothers are trapped and unable to make the rough train voyage out: one is staying in the isolated village in Mykolaiv region, and one on the top floor of a highrise near the bombed nuclear energy station in Zaporizhzhia.

In the natural light at the market, Rostik and Anna’s under-eyes are dark and deep. No wonder. However, one fact is worth celebrating: Anna’s mother, Polina, escaped from Pervomaisk and arrived here in qathet on March 11. She is living in Townsite – likely this region’s first Ukrainian arrival since the war began.

For more than 100 years, Ukrainians have come to qathet to escape wars, famine, and religious oppression – and seeking opportunities and safety.

Now, more than 1,000 locals claim Ukrainian heritage, representing about five per cent of the population. Over the next several months, it’s likely that this region will host more people fleeing Ukraine, given the strong connections between so many and the European country. Like Rostik and Anna, many are trying to get relatives out of Ukraine and into Canada – through a maze of swiftly-changing visa rules.

Getting out has become more challenging as the war progresses. Anna’s mother, for example, had to fight her way on to a very crowded train to the Polish border. There, some passengers had to leave suitcases and pet dogs behind when they transferred trains. One young mom lost her baby in the crush.

“I tried to convince my grandma to come with my mom,” said Anna. “Canada requires that if she comes on a visitor visa, she needs to pass biometrics [checking her COVID status and identity] in Warsaw. They just opened their offices to do that. But she feels it’s impossible for her to make the journey to do that. On March 3, the Canadian government promised to make it simpler for relatives to come, but I think that will take some time.”

Anna’s aunt and niece left Kharkiv for Czech Republic while the city was under fire. They spent 12 hours at the train station, in the snow, during bombing, to get on a train.

Rostik’s family remains, too. “Both of my nieces are still in my hometown of Zaporizhzhia, near Mariupol.” With about the population of Vancouver, Zaporizhzhia is home to the largest nuclear power station in Europe. The city has been under attack since three days after the initial invasion. “They don’t want to leave the city because they’re supporting their husbands, who can’t leave the country. Men can’t leave. They have to stay.”

At Sunny Deli, next to the European meats and cheeses, is a donation box. All proceeds will go directly to people Rostik and Anna know on the ground in Ukraine. Food, diapers and medication are some of the other expenses the couple hope to help their Ukrainian contacts buy.

Canada is doing a good job to support Ukraine, Rostik and Anna agree.

Ukraine wants to be free, to develop, to be a democratic country, explained Rostik. Though Moscow has ruled Ukraine, or parts of Ukraine, on and off throughout the 20th century (Ukraine became independent in 1991), the two countries’ ambitions couldn’t be more different, he said.

“There’s corruption, no freedom of speech there. For me to do this interview in Russia, I’d be put in jail for 15 years. You can’t express what you believe. All media is owned by Putin’s group of friends, the oligarchs. Facebook and Instagram are locked in Russia now.”

“The Russian people are really good people,” continued Rostik. His grandparents are from Russia – he speaks Russian – but his family is fervently Ukrainian. Anna’s grandmother is also from Russia, originally. “I have nothing against the Russian people, just their political leaders.”

Although the invasion shocked Rostik and Anna, anyone who has been paying attention to Russia could have predicted it, they said.

“Georgia, Crimea, Chechnya, Syria, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan – they’re all connected,” said Rostik. “Russia is always at war.”

Anna added, “I really feel for the refugees coming out of Syria and Afghanistan. It’s so much harder to go to other countries and get support.”

Rostik pointed out that in 1994, three years after becoming independent from the USSR, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons. At the time, it held the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, with about 1,700 warheads, including intercontinental weapons.

As stated in the Budapest Memorandum signed by Ukraine at the time, “The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon State party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.”

In other words, the US and UK made a promise in 1994, which they don’t seem to be keeping – not to mention Russia.

“Would Russia be attacking now if Ukraine still had nuclear weapons?” Rostik asked. “No. Russia would not attack.”

Rostik has a few theories about how the war might end.

First, he said, this could be an opportunity for some of the wealthier
regions in Russia to break away and gain independence from Russia. That would spread thin Putin’s military, and it could help Ukraine defeat the Russian invasion.

Second – and most likely, Rostik thinks – this will be settled by a treaty where both Ukraine and Russia will make compromises.

Third, someone will execute Putin. “He has pissed off lots of people,”
said Rostik. “He could be in a bunker somewhere. Eventually, he will need to come out and his life will be in danger as never before. Every time he travels, his life will be in danger.”

In the meantime, the couple is collecting donations, working to get their families out, and watching from their phones as the missiles fall.

Top photo credit: cropped from the cover of the April 2022 qathet Living.

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