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the testimony of a Ukrainian citizen (People of the Year)

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By proclaiming Ukrainian citizens as Persons of the Year, Knack pays tribute to their resilience, inventiveness and courage. Yulia Yesipenko, whose family had lived in occupied Lugansk since 2014, testified.

When Yulia Jesipenko fled her hometown of Lugansk in June 2014, she could not have imagined that she would never return. ‘It was very confusing. Suddenly, there were explosions all over the city. No one understood what was happening. I fled with a small bag of summer clothes. I assumed everything would calm down soon.

She heard the same sounds of war eight years later, when she woke up in her flat in kyiv at around half past four. “No one around me believed there would be a war. At work, my co-workers laughed at me for having collected all my documents the previous week. A suitcase was ready for the start of the war. I didn’t want to lack preparation to race again.

“The first three nights I slept in an air-raid shelter with my five-year-old daughter. It was cold and dirty. We were well packed. People had brought their pets: cats, dogs, rabbits, parrots. There was no radio, no internet, no way to get information.

Of course men understand that they serve as cannon fodder, but what can they do?

On the third day of the war, she manages to reach the station. “It was total chaos. Everyone ran together. Children who had lost their parents in the crowd were yelling at their mothers. With great difficulty, Yulia managed to get on a train with her daughter to Uzhgorod, on the Slovakian border. During a short stopover in Budapest, she came into contact with a family from Bornem via Facebook, who offered her and her daughter a place to sleep. “Initially, I had planned to go to Warsaw. But when I was in Budapest, I heard from friends that there was hardly any room in Warsaw. And so Belgium, a country I knew absolutely nothing about, didn’t seem like a bad idea at all.

In Bornem, Jolija discovered that it is not easy to live with a completely foreign family for an indefinite period. “My host family really helped me in the beginning. They bought plane tickets for me and my daughter, and they helped me with my paperwork. But over time, I was kind of a babysitter for their sons. He ultimately failed. When the man discovered the amount of benefits received by a refugee, he suddenly asked for 600 euros in rent for the room. I really didn’t want to pay that. Jolija quickly found a new foster family. ‘I am very grateful to them. I am really amazed at how many Belgians are friendly and helpful. If only I had met so many helpful people in Ukraine. In the meantime, she shares a house in Ghent with another Ukrainian family.

Yulia’s mother and brother still live in Lugansk, under Russian occupation. “It’s very difficult to keep in touch.” While the population of the so-called People’s Republics is viewed with pity by many Ukrainians, Yulia mostly shows understanding. “The people of Luhansk have been living in constant uncertainty for eight years. They are already happy if they have a roof over their head and there is no shooting. They worked all their life to have a house. It makes sense that you don’t give up like that.

Luhansk’s men face other dangers than rockets. “A former classmate of mine told me she saw men being taken down the street and taken to a military office. It happens all the time. Of course men understand that they serve as cannon fodder, but what can they do? Would you refuse to go there with a gun pointed at you? She says her brother was also forcibly mobilized, but was able to escape for medical reasons. He has a disease that prevents him from seeing well. He would have refused to fight anyway. I think those who don’t want to fight always find a way not to have to.

She doesn’t know what the future holds for her. “My daughter prefers to live in Belgium than in kyiv. She really likes going to school here, even though she is about the only Ukrainian child there. She already speaks Dutch well. Everything I do depends on her. I don’t want her to know what it’s like to live in war.

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