Transcript

768: The Other Front Lines

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life.

Katia

OK, so going down the stairs to walk the dog, reluctant to use the elevator today because there are explosions in my area, mostly pretty rare ones, but over the last hour, maybe more frequent.

Ira Glass

This is recorded in Kyiv by a woman named Katia. And it takes you into the everydayness of this war in this very intimate, three-dimensional way. I'm going to play you a bit more of this before I say more about it.

Katia

And I already have noticed that the best way to know if they are really close is to observe the birds. If the birds start panicking and flying away, that means that explosion is probably relatively close.

[EXPLOSION]

[ALARM]

Oh, here. There was another one. I really need to have my dog pee. There is a beep of the door.

[DOOR CREAKING]

[ALARM]

And so day, I think, second of the war-- I think it was February 25-- there was shooting that I could hear from three directions. And then when I came home, almost immediately I heard this loud, metallic noise. And I looked out the window, and there was a tank driving along my building. So there is a dig in the ground where Russian tank was driving, and my dog is considering peeing on it right now, which is frankly hilarious. But if you go along them, you can clearly see--

OK, the birds are flying. I think I will try to head back in general direction of my house, and sorry. My dog is stubborn. He doesn't want to. I think he wants to go poop. Risking my life for you, asshole. No, he's not an asshole. He's a very sweet and kind dog. He is very, very calm about the-- OK, I'm going home because this one was really loud.

Ira Glass

Katia actually recorded these for the VICE News Reports podcast, starting at the beginning of the war. She asked that they and we not say her last name, or what part of the city she's in, or what kind of job she does, other than it's in education.

War is personal. We don't usually talk about it that way, but Ukraine had over 40 million people at the start of the war. And there are just all kinds of ways that they're going through it, on all sorts of front lines. For Katia, the front line has been a bunch of different things, but one of them is her decision to stay in Kyiv with her parents. Her dad's 87. Her mom's 73. Both have medical issues.

Katia

My dad has cancer. He's not treatable, basically not treatable anymore. He's also almost completely blind. And so he's basically lying in bed the entire day, apart from walking along the corridor a little bit and eating, and he's listening to radio. My mom has diabetes. She also has trouble walking. They are choosing to stay here because they can't just go to the bomb shelter back and forth all the time. And we're just hoping for the best.

Ira Glass

She shops for them, stays up nights to help her dad with whatever he needs. At this stage of his illness, she says, he wouldn't be as comfortable anywhere as he is in this apartment. She does a bunch of different stuff in these audio diaries, like she does a tour of their apartment, which includes a stop at this big bag in the hallway with stuff that she's packed if they need to flee.

Katia

Inside my backpack, I have documents. I have some of my clothes, headlight. I think I have some of my underpants. OK, going further through my corridor, there is a spot where I sleep because it has wall on one hand and it has a big wardrobe on the other. I think it's, maybe apart from the bathroom, the best option to survive in case of blast.

Ira Glass

There's an audio diary that she does, where her dad is listening to a radio report, where people on the radio are explaining what taxes they do and do not need to pay right now that the country is in a state of war. There's one where Katia notes that before the war, the hallway in her apartment building always smelled like weed because that's where teenagers went to get high, but that hasn't been true since the war. And then she records this one, I guess, for her American listeners.

Katia

OK, there is an address by the president that was published exactly three minutes ago. So I'm going to watch it.

Volodymyr Zelensky

[SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]

Katia

I know that Zelensky is a bit of a sex symbol in the West right now, so I hope this is a bit of an ASMR sesh for you, [LAUGHS] as well.

[LAUGHS]

I'm sorry if this was way too harsh of a joke.

[LAUGHS]

[SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]

Ira Glass

Katia's dog, Yoki, is in a bunch of these audio diary entries. In one of them, she talks about how they bought some canned dog food for him, which luckily he likes. He's apparently kind of a finicky eater. But now the cans are running out, and they're not sure what they're going to find to replace them with.

Katia

Today we gave him one can in the morning, and in the evening my mom said that maybe we should don't give him his second meal to spread out the food supplies for him that we have. And my dad, he just wanted to eat kefir, which I don't know if you're familiar with. It's a kind of sour milk drink. He drank maybe half of it, maybe a little bit more than half of it, and he just said, give the rest to the dog. And this was heartbreaking. My 87-year-old dad, him in his condition, he'd given half of his dinner to the dog. It's just fucked. Russian warship, go fuck yourself.

Ira Glass

In a war, the front line is everywhere, every place the war touches. And right now, people are navigating their own small struggles in the shadow of this huge one. In putting together today's show, I thought about Studs Terkel's book, The Good War. I don't know if you know this one. He tries to document World War II, but not talking about it as history with a capital H, but just, he does interviews, just these great interviews with all sorts of people who lived through the war. Today's show is kind of like that. Anyway, stay with us.

Act One: Yevgenia and Her Neighbors

Ira Glass

Act One, Yevgenia and Her Neighbors. So one of the things that made us want to do a show of personal stories in this war was reading these diaries that Yevgenia Belorusets has been publishing. She's a writer and a photographer in Kyiv. And after the Russians invaded, when she'd go out and take pictures, she would be told over and over to put away her camera. People wanted to know, are you a spy? They didn't want to be photographed. So instead she started writing about the interactions that she was having with people and putting them into Der Spiegel Magazine.

Kyiv was nowhere as violent or as dangerous as certain other cities in Ukraine, but everybody was still living in this city that was transformed by the war and figuring out how to deal with that. In the diaries, Yevgenia says over and over in different ways, is this really happening? Even just a week or two into the war, she writes about how it feels like it's been going on forever. She gave us permission to excerpt the diaries here. They're read first by actress Ivanna Sakhno. They begin on February 24, the day of the invasion, day one, and then proceed day by day, day two, day three, which is where we'll pick them up.

Ivanna Sakhno

Day three, my first night in a bomb shelter. It is 1 and 1/2 floors deep underground, to be precise, a network of corridors and corridors. At the dark entrance to our basement, I see the silhouettes of residents scurrying past each other. You can overhear the occasional petty arguments. Two older shadows pass by two younger ones. Good evening. But the evening is not good, the younger ones protest. We wish you a good evening anyway, the older ones say in triumphant tone, because we mean well and we'll continue to wish it. The shadows disappear into the depths of the cellar.

As I write, it occurs to me that during the day, I saw many smiling people, for example, a woman who was sitting in the park, on a bench, next to two shopping bags. She spoke to me in an absurdly happy voice, saying that she was waiting for her nephew to help her carry the bags home. I'm so happy to have you standing next to me now, talking to me. When there are two of us, I'm less afraid of the artillery.

Day five. Almost all pharmacies are closed. Electricity, water, and heating are under constant threat of failure. The public spaces, squares, streets in the city are empty. I accompanied a German friend who could not stay in Kyiv to the railway depot, a journey of 25 minutes, which for me was a walk into another vast reality. Since the beginning of the war, I have not visited Shevchenko Boulevard, a wide street leading down to the depot. We walked along the street, and every house, every intersection, carried something new, a new language, a new narrative about our shared reality. The city looked peaceful. We quickly said goodbye and I strolled back alone.

At about the same time, peaceful residents of the city of Berdiansk in the south of the country were gathered in front of their local government building, which was occupied by Putin's army and guarded by armed soldiers. The women shouted at the soldiers in Russian. How can you look your mothers in the face? You brought war and slaughter into our land. Shame on you. Old people were also in the crowd. They were not afraid.

The soldiers looked demoralized. They replied, we came to protect you. The women resisted. They continued to protest. We were never in danger here. There was no threat to us before you came. Now, with you, because of you, we are in the greatest danger. Then came cursed insults, which have a very great richness in the Ukrainian and Russian languages.

Day six. It is the sixth day of the war, which I feel has already lasted 50 years. I went for a walk to breathe some fresh air in this first day of spring and maybe do some shopping. Knowing that many supermarket shelves were already empty, I decided to visit a larger grocery store that had recently opened not far from us. How pleasant it was to be there. The shopping mall is deep underground. Everyone felt safe and walked past the shelves with a slowness that has not been seen in Kyiv for six days.

On the way back, I took a picture of an old man sitting alone on a bench in the park. He wanted to talk to me. His wife was ill, he told me, and he was taking care of her. He wanted to take care of her until tomorrow. Then he will join the Kyiv territorial defense. He and his wife are 66 years old. In his youth, he served in the military. I started thanking him. I couldn't stop, as if that would prevent this elderly man, caring for his sick wife, from risking his life.

Day nine. I woke up quite early in a bright mood and with the feeling that this sunny day had something to offer me. Little was left of the melancholy I felt yesterday. Then I discovered the reason for this change. I no longer believe in the war. It simply can't be, I thought. It isn't true. What neighboring country bombs a city to rubble in the 21st century? You can't occupy this country. It's unrealistic. The war is a dream, a dictator's fantasy.

I wanted to see if the little store next to our house still had bread. I have not been able to get bread since the third day of the war. It is usually sold out. The store was full. With some amazement, I discovered a group, who I took to be representatives of the International Military. They spoke English and needed help translating. Then I realized that they were not soldiers, but unarmed, if well-protected, escorts of a war photographer, who was also shopping in the store. I tried to help her choose a detergent.

The small group exuded enthusiasm, humor, and inspiration. My mood suddenly darkened. One of the three escorts proudly said to me, do you know who you're standing with? This is one of the best photographers in the world. And the photographer laughed and shrugged it off. Please, she said. I'm embarrassed. Then she told me her name. I can't remember the name. I've been having a hard time concentrating lately. Then she said, you can follow me on Instagram.

The group bought a lot of detergent, almost everything in the store. I told them, good to have you with us, and said, goodbye. But quickly, an uneasiness came over me. I realized that it is not a good sign when a well-known war photographer sets up shop here.

Day 12. I receive a utility bill for my Kyiv apartment. It is accompanied by a telegram message that sounds like an apology. We are writing to you with a request. If your financial means allow, under the circumstances, please pay the utilities. Many Kyiv utility workers joined the Ukrainian army and are now fighting for our freedom. However, it is still important to pay the bills.

Day 17. It was a sleepless night. The air raid alarm, sounding its sirens over the city, kept me up all night. I was too tired to go to the shelter. I heard explosions and hoped that no one was injured. My plan for the day was to pick up my bulletproof vest, which had finally been delivered. Then I would visit a lady who, as a sort of concierge, watches over a house in the neighborhood and keeps an eye on the comings and goings.

There are many such concierges in the city, but since the beginning of the war, this lady had taken on an additional task. She must make sure that nothing is stolen from the abandoned apartments. Her name had a comforting ring to it that reminded me of childhood-- Dussia.

One of the residents from her building, who had escaped, had asked me to check in on her, which made her happy. Because she is alone, no one can relieve her of her watch. She also lives in the building where she works.

I visited her in her small concierge room on the first floor. There was only space for a table and a sofa. The TV was on. She said, so many people are escaping Kyiv, but I have nowhere to go. In her face I saw helplessness, but she had made her decision to stay put. I tried to lighten the mood with some not entirely clever jokes. I was happy that she smiled at me, and I decided to visit her again soon.

Day 24. Today an old couple made their way through the wreckage on Sich Riflemen's Street. They walked shakily past shards of broken glass and heaps of rubble. This elderly pair, who have lived their lives amid undying declarations of love between Russians and Ukrainians, two brotherly peoples, did not want to believe that fratricide was in full swing.

The man, speaking to his wife, reproached an invisible enemy. Look how many windows, how much glass has been smashed. Jesus. They haven't thought about the fact that they'll have to clean this up. All this chaos, just to say, the Russians did it to us. The man spoke desperately and with an honest sadness. The woman nodded and sighed. They walked straight past me.

On the ground, pigeons pecked at bread crumbs among the shards of glass. Despite the damage, a woman had come to the marketplace, as she does every day, to feed the birds. It was sunny and awfully quiet. The streets felt free. And there was a deceptive illusion that a long walk was safe.

Day 26. I went to the train station with my mother to see if we could get train tickets for ourselves and our relatives. We walked through the old city that my mother had once shown me, like a story one reads to a child. The train station was not as crowded as we expected. All the shops had closed, and the only tickets available were for the evacuation trains. Several of these tickets were standing room only. And because some of my relatives have health concerns that keep them from standing, we decided to look for tickets again later.

My mother and I walked back down the street and tried to cheer each other up with a few jokes. Then we saw little yellow buses with red crosses, heading toward us in the direction of the train station. On each bus was written, Irpin, a place north of Kyiv where so many artists and writers once lived, and where now people die every day. Russia is annihilating the small town, block by block. In the dusty bus windows we saw the gray, tired faces of old people and children, all staring somewhere far away into the distance. We stopped and looked. I could not take a photo.

In the evening, I saw that the train tickets were being sold again. Without much time to consider it, I bought six tickets for Friday. My parents still don't want to leave Kyiv. I really don't know what we should do, but there should be enough time before Friday to decide.

Day 29. A little girl looked at me with a friendly expression. She was coloring the backrest of a wooden bench with a piece of chalk. She tried to tell me something, but she was interrupted by her grandfather, who seemed annoyed. Listen here, he said to me in a somewhat brazen voice. I told my daughter, let's buy the apartment in Kyiv. But she replied, nobody wants to live in Kyiv, with its stuffy, big-city air. We should get a nice apartment under the green trees in Bucha, outside of Kyiv. And being the foolish person I am, I agreed. He looked at me reproachfully, as if I were the one who had persuaded him to buy an apartment in a pleasant suburb now smothered in fire, rockets, and mortar shells.

I didn't even want to talk to him at first, but he called out to me and asked to walk a few steps in his direction. It was already evening. Soon the curfew would begin. The air raid alarm had just sounded, and I thought I only had a few minutes for a little conversation. But then the man mentioned Bucha, and all of a sudden, I decided to spend as much time with them as they wanted.

The girl, who was about six years old, told me in a serious voice, for two weeks we lived in the basement. We were 21 adults and seven children. The grandfather still seemed angry with me. I come from a city where most people speak Russian. I come from Dnipro, but part of our family lives here in Bucha and in Kyiv.

Two weeks in the basement, with only water, some food, almost no heating, and barely any electricity, constant shelling, especially when we tried to sneak a little fresh air. And then they found us. The Russians came to us in the cellar and explained-- no, they barked-- that they had come to denazify us. If I were not 70 years old, I answered them, I would rather throw you out than talk to you. Don't speak to me, not even for a second.

At the end, he got so furious that he said to me, you should go there, to Bucha. If you were there, you wouldn't look at me like that. You would understand everything. And here in Kyiv, nothing has been made clear.

Today my childhood friend lost his family home. Early in life, I used to visit his house all the time. I tried to remember the rooms. I recall the traditional living room of a small house with a low ceiling, a resplendent cabinet with old photos behind a glass shelf, and the meals my friend's grandmother used to prepare for us. This memory is not accompanied by any feeling.

Day 30. My relatives want to leave Kyiv. We had already planned our exit, but as the day of departure ruthlessly approached, they had more and more complaints and objections. Here in Kyiv, where every day you come across friends, acquaintances, and strangers you end up helping, you manage somehow to bear the unbearable news and events. We decided to postpone our departure for a few days and perhaps prepare a little better.

On the way back from the train station, my mother and I met two people from the military who were sitting in front of a grocery store, drinking coffee. They showed us a picture of a boy who was only 14 years old, posing in a uniform next to some soldiers.

We're going to our military positions today to fetch him, one of the soldiers explained. He followed his father and wants to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with him, but he's too young. They have clearly lost everything, their house, their family, and now all he wants is to fight. We understand, of course, but cannot allow it. They were obviously proud, both of this mission and this boy's determination. They smiled with a little bit of tenderness, and their good mood even infected us.

Ira Glass

Ivanna Sakhno, reading the diaries of Yevgenia Belorusets. She got out of Ukraine on day 41, April 4. We first saw her diaries on the website, Isolarii. Yevgenia's diary is being published as part of a new book called In The Face of War. You can find links to all of that, as well as to some of Yevgenia's photography, at our website, ThisAmericanLife.org.

Coming up, so your friend's a Russian soldier being sent into Ukraine. What do you say to him, exactly? It's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: Munachi and The Escape 

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, The Other Front Lines, stories of the many ways that people are going through the war in Ukraine. We have arrived at Act Two of our program, Act Two, Munachi and the Escape.

So for years before this war, Ukraine had been a destination for foreign students, kids from Nigeria, Morocco, China, Azerbaijan, Turkey, India. The tuition is affordable. It's relatively easy to get a visa. You can study in English. So when the war started, 77,000 foreign students, just a ton of people, had to figure out what to do.

Alexis Okeowo is a reporter who was based in Lagos for a few years, and over the last few weeks, they've been hearing about Nigerian students trapped in Ukraine, Black students blocked at the border, unable to escape to the rest of Europe. Alexis also knew what an education in Ukraine had meant to those students. For lots of them, it was their one chance to get a degree. Back home in Nigeria, there aren't nearly enough seats in schools for everybody who wants them. If you do get in, your studies can be interrupted by long teacher strikes. Alexis wanted to talk to the students about what they were going through.

Alexis Okeowo

Over the last month, as I read about the racism international students-- especially African ones-- were facing as they tried to leave Ukraine, I felt angry, and sad, and curious. Who were these kids caught in a war, and what had their lives been like in Ukraine? What would they be now?

Munachi Nnadi

When I went to Ukraine, it was a very beautiful place. It was like everything is organized.

Alexis Okeowo

This is Munachi Nnadi. He arrived in Ukraine last summer. Munachi is someone at ease with himself, gentle, the really big smile. And he's a person who likes to plan things to be in order. For instance, one thing he mentioned that he first noticed in Ukraine was how the cars were parked in straight lines. Out of all the Nigerian students I spoke with, Munachi had the most clarity about what he wanted to do with his life and why he was in Ukraine. He wanted to be a doctor and then work in the United States, the UK, or Switzerland.

When Munachi landed in Ukraine, a Nigerian representative from his new university picked him up. They played Bob Marley as they drove through the city.

Munachi Nnadi

And it was so beautiful, like the different people, the color and everything, the waterfalls. Ah, it was so beautiful, like new things to me.

Alexis Okeowo

A lot of things were new. Munachi managed to get an apartment with other Nigerians in the southern city of Odessa, but he didn't know where to exchange money. A friend invited him to join a group chat on Telegram called Nigerian Students Ukraine. It's a big group. Over 1,000 Nigerians are in it.

Reading through the messages, I was reminded they're college students, trying to learn how to be adults. They're just kids, even though Munachi doesn't like me to call him that. Members helped each other find jobs and Nigerian restaurants. Do you have dollars and you need grivna? DM me. Who's in for a shared apartment in Kharkiv? Abeg oo. If you're looking for an unserious relationship, please just DM me. Single ladies only. Me. Job needed in Kharkiv. Anyone available or knows anyone to help, please? Are you interested in a modeling shoot in Kyiv? Please send your picture for number and age if you're interested.

Munachi settled in, started learning Ukrainian. I asked him what he did for fun.

[SIGHING]

Munachi Nnadi

Well, actually, to be honest, the parts I enjoy most is being in school. Yeah, being in school and doing what I love. I love anatomy. That's my favorite. It's very interesting. Every day is getting interesting. You get to know human body, organs, and all the rest, and I love it. I go to libraries. I feel free. Yeah. I feel very free to do whatever I want.

Alexis Okeowo

What he wanted to do was study the thing he'd always wanted to do, be a medical student.

Alexis Okeowo

Were you going to parties? Were you dating?

Munachi Nnadi

No.

[CHUCKLES]

Alexis Okeowo

Why not?

Munachi Nnadi

Oh, because there's a saying medical students say, study now and love later.

[LAUGHTER]

Alexis Okeowo

Love later. OK.

[LAUGHTER]

Munachi Nnadi

Yeah.

Alexis Okeowo

How old are you again, Munachi?

Munachi Nnadi

I'm 23 now.

Alexis Okeowo

Oh, you're 23. OK, OK.

Six months after Munachi arrived in Ukraine in January, people in the Nigerian student chat began asking, what's up with the Russians? Munachi's phone buzzed constantly with notifications. He'd sometimes wake up to hundreds of missed messages in the group. Hi, please. Any more info about the war?

They're trying to resolve it diplomatically. I don't know if it's true, oh. Not true. True. I don't believe this because if Putin is waiting for marshlands to get frozen, that means he will wait till another winter, and this one is basically over. People just be putting fear in others. Stay safe, though. Damn. I like your analysis, girl. Very apt.

All I came here to do was study. I feel your pain, bro-- laughing emoji, laughing emoji. Anybody got malaria drugs? Russians only moved their army closer. Shit didn't happen. Find way, move to Western part of Ukraine, and stay there. The West is already bordered by Russian soldiers through Belarus. That's the north northeast. Oh, well, bro. Everybody done turn geographer.

Munachi Nnadi

I was telling all the students, whoa. You guys don't need to panic. I don't believe there will be war. We don't need to spread panic. That's just because the school told us not to spread panic. I was telling them to chill. Let's get every information from the school.

Alexis Okeowo

But Munachi says there was almost no information from the school or from the Nigerian embassy. Very quickly, the chat turned from looking for flatmates to trying to escape war. Is it just me that heard those sounds? Yes, just now here in Kyiv. Me, too. I'm hearing the same sounds, oh. Boom, boom. If you see the last one shake my window, my heart first stop. Stay safe, my brothers.

Guys, real missile, oh. I'm hearing something from my hostel. Even the ambassador of Nigeria has gone back home. Borders no safe again, oh. Guys, please, which way now? I'm scared. I'm fucking scared. Find your way to Poland and leave. Please, would they allow us to enter Poland? They accept Ukrainians, no? How can we get from Lviv to Kyiv? Everything is down. Fastest way is metro, but to my knowledge, that is also down.

Munachi was reading these messages, but he kept coming up with reasons why he couldn't leave yet. He needed to buy chicken, eggs, tomatoes, apples, juice, milk, and ice cream to fill his fridge. Then he couldn't leave because he had a fridge full of food. He still thought maybe the war would pass. But overall, Munachi says he didn't leave because it would mean abandoning his plan. He wanted to follow the rules, look to an authority for direction.

Then there was an explosion at Odessa Sea Port, so Munachi took a train to Lviv. Then he went to the platform for the train to Poland, where he found other Africans waiting in the crowd. But the conductor and a police officer were not letting Black people onto the train. He watched as some of them started arguing with the officer blocking the door.

Munachi Nnadi

Why? What's going on? Why you not letting us in? This is not good. This is bad. You want us to die? No? The police was like, wait, wait, wait. We are still waiting, like--

Alexis Okeowo

Some Africans forced themselves onto the train. But Munachi was told to wait, so he waited until the conductor closed the doors and the train, with empty seats, left without him.

Munachi Nnadi

Yeah, [SIGHING] and there was a lot of people, so I gave up.

Alexis Okeowo

He got a taxi with other Africans to drive to the Polish border. But at a certain point, the traffic just stopped moving. So he walked for more than an hour to the crossing and stood in line.

Munachi Nnadi

So when I get to my town, the border guard told me to go back.

Alexis Okeowo

And how long could you have been waiting?

Munachi Nnadi

I've been waiting for maybe two hours. Yeah, and he told me to go back.

Alexis Okeowo

What did you say? How did you react?

Munachi Nnadi

I just go back.

Alexis Okeowo

You didn't say, why?

[LAUGHS]

Munachi Nnadi

I didn't know what to say, just go back. I was like, I don't want to feel so embarrassed, so I just go back. It was so embarrassing.

Alexis Okeowo

So when you say that word, embarrassing, what do you mean by it?

Munachi Nnadi

For example, in the midst of crowd, others are going in, and you are restricted from going in. People will look at you. I felt like I want to cry. At that point, I feel like I wanted to cry. I feel like, wow, this is it. Wow. I felt so bad, so I said, OK, let me go back. Let me go back.

Alexis Okeowo

At the back of the line, Munachi met some Africans and an Indian man, who said the border guards were going to let them die in Ukraine. The man advised Munachi to try to get someone with a car to take him across. Munachi saw there were long lines of cars passing through. He began hailing them down and asking for a ride, politely, pleadingly. He even offered to pay.

Munachi Nnadi

Yep. I was like, maybe you have a free car-- now, it's your car, I know, but you need to understand. It just happens, you're almost there. Just drive us in or something like that. And we just came in peace.

Alexis Okeowo

And all of them said, no?

Munachi Nnadi

Yeah. All of them said, no. No, no. It felt so bad, and the way they say it, it's like to hurt you. No, no, no-- everyone, the same.

Alexis Okeowo

No one wanted to help.

Munachi Nnadi

Yeah.

Alexis Okeowo

Was this surprising to you that so many Ukrainians were saying, no, no, no, no?

Munachi Nnadi

To me, first, I was thinking it was a very easy something for people to do in this kind of situation. My teachers are Ukrainians and they are so friendly and nice to us. Yeah. I actually thought maybe I'll find my teacher, like, oh, my god, she'll help me or something, or he will help me, something like that. I was--

Alexis Okeowo

It didn't happen?

Munachi Nnadi

I was only wishing to see someone that I know, that would just help me. I have to go back, maybe find a place to stay. Then tomorrow I might try again. So I had to walk back again.

Alexis Okeowo

An hour?

Munachi Nnadi

Yeah, an hour, again. It was so far. But I was so sad, so it was very easy for me because I was sad.

[LAUGHS]

Yeah. I was so sad. I wasn't even looking at anybody's face. I hated everyone at that moment. What do I have to do? I don't know what to do. It was already 12:00 in the night. And it was so cold, so cold, like, oh, my god.

Alexis Okeowo

Munachi says that on his walk back, he remembers that he stopped feeling like himself. His entire world, everything he thought he knew about Ukraine, was thrown into chaos. Nothing was organized. The Ukrainians he lived among were now treating him like an alien, even an enemy, because he wasn't the right color. Munachi saw himself one way, hardworking, quiet, friendly, and soon realized during the worst moments of his life that others were seeing him in a very different way. The people who wouldn't give him a ride, who wouldn't let him cross the border, to them, his life seemed to be worth less than theirs.

He finally reaches a hotel, but the clerk says there are no rooms. But this time, Munachi did not just accept what he was told. Munachi calls his cousin in the United States. His cousin gets a friend who speaks Ukrainian to talk to the hotel clerk, and the friend is able to book a room over the phone.

Alexis Okeowo

So how come there was suddenly a room?

[LAUGHS]

Munachi Nnadi

That is a big question. Well, I gave the lady a very big smile, [LAUGHTER] and like, god, finally, oh, you see.

[LAUGHTER]

Alexis Okeowo

The next day, Munachi tried again. He made his way back to the border and could finally cross to Poland. Less than a week later, he moved on to Berlin.

I was in Berlin last month as thousands of refugees from Ukraine came through Central Station and went on to various hostels. The Ukrainians I talked to told me they had no plans. They just wanted their home to be safe again, so they could return as soon as possible.

But the foreign students, like Munachi, are in a different situation. Ukrainian citizens can get temporary residence in the European Union. Foreign students cannot, even though they're living alongside Ukrainian refugees. They just fled the same war. The students either have to go back to their home countries, or hope that the countries they fled to will allow them to stay and finish the educations they came for.

Munachi is currently in his third hostel in Germany. He's been sharing a room with another refugee, learning another new language, and waiting to hear if the German government will let him stay in the country. He and other international students there have until August to get accepted to a German school and prove they have at least 10,000 euros to pay for a year of living costs. Otherwise, they will be required to leave. That's money a lot of students don't have. Munachi is trying to finish up this year's classes online, but it hasn't been easy. He left his school books in Poland. It's still surreal that he's even in this situation.

The 1,000 people in the Nigerian students' group chat are now scattered, but people are still posting, checking in on one another, and helping each other figure out their next steps. Please, who is in Poland here? I have my dog stocked in Lviv. It can be sent to you, so you can help me give it to someone coming to Nigeria. Please. I don't want them to die. Hello? Has anyone gotten into Ireland between yesterday and today? Most countries are closing their border now. Anybody know anyone or news from France? Are they deporting people in France? Anybody in Belgium? What's the update, people? Hope you all are safe.

It's an uneasy limbo these students are in. In order to finish their degrees in Europe, they're signing up for an immediate future of moving from place to place, of starting all over again and again. Here's what Munachi is thinking about.

Munachi Nnadi

I asked myself, oh, what does it feel like to be a war student? What if I'm a doctor? What will I be doing in a situation like this if my help is needed, something like that? I don't know if you understand.

Alexis Okeowo

I do understand. Munachi is spinning through all the identities he's both imagined for himself and experienced, medical student, doctor, and now, student during wartime. But I noticed there was one word he wasn't using.

Alexis Okeowo

Do you feel like a refugee?

[LAUGHS]

Munachi Nnadi

These are the feelings I don't want to have.

[LAUGHS]

Even when you say me as a refugee, I was trying to dodge it, to be honest, yes. My friend told me, well, bro, we are now refugees, like when we came here. I said, no, bro, maybe you, not me.

[LAUGHTER]

Alexis Okeowo

But why do you not feel like a refugee?

Munachi Nnadi

I don't want to feel like [LAUGHS] a refugee.

[LAUGHTER]

Alexis Okeowo

Right. You don't want to.

Munachi Nnadi

Yeah.

Alexis Okeowo

Right.

Munachi Nnadi

But what if I don't want to be a refugee and I want to stay in the country? Ah. Yeah. That's what we cannot control.

Alexis Okeowo

These students are different than Ukrainian refugees. They still have homes in Nigeria to which they can return, but going back would be going backwards for them. It would be giving up on how far they've come, so they're fighting to protect their identity as students and as people worthy of respect and dignity. But as Black people displaced by war, even a European one, they have lost all of that.

Ira Glass

Alexis Okeowo is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where they first wrote about foreign students in Ukraine.

Act Three: Alyona and Oleg

Ira Glass

Act Three, Alyona and Oleg. OK, so in Russia, lots of people's relationships have become their own personal front lines. Ashley Cleek has been seeing this, talking with a bunch of young Russians who are against the war. Ashley's been reporting on the war for the VICE News Reports podcast. She used to live in Russia.

One of the Russians that she'd been talking to about this is Alyona, a 25-year-old protester who lives in Moscow, who's been trying to make sense out of one of her oldest friendships. Because it's so sensitive to speak about the war in Russia right now, we have changed some of the names in this story. Here's Ashley.

Ashley Cleek

The friendship Alyona's been struggling with, it's with her friend, Oleg. When I ask her why she's friends with him, she doesn't understand the question. It's just one of the fundamental facts of her life. She and Oleg are friends because they've always been friends. They met when they were seven or eight, in the tiny village hours east of Moscow. It's where Alyona would spend summers with her grandmother. They were outside friends, roaming around in a little pack together.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

So we would steal apples from the neighbors, went out to beat the grass with sticks, rode our bikes a lot, I don't know, tease the goat, stuff like that.

Ashley Cleek

So could you explain beating the grass with sticks? I don't totally understand.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

Well, when the grass grows really tall in the field, we would just go out into the field and hit the grass with our sticks.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

[LAUGHS]

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

I'm sure that somewhere out in the farms where you are, children do the exact same thing.

Ashley Cleek

As they grew up and spread out across the country, Alyona to college, Oleg to the military academy, they stayed really close. Alyona always liked how simple and positive Oleg's outlook was. Nothing seemed to bother him. Whenever Alyona was stressed or angry about something, talking to Oleg would always make it feel like less of a big deal.

When they were teenagers, Russia annexed Crimea. This was 2014. Alyona says she and Oleg and everyone they knew are watching a lot of TV, and she remembers this feeling of euphoria that Russia was doing the right thing, defending ethnic Russians in Crimea. And it had an effect on both of them. Alyona thought about becoming a doctor in the military, and she thinks this is one reason Oleg joined the army.

But then in 2019, Alyona went on a trip to Crimea, and it totally changed her mind about what had happened. She was hitchhiking with a friend, talking to a lot of Crimeans, and the story they told was completely different from what she knew. The annexation had been awful.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

There was this one woman that we hitched a ride with, who took us all the way to Feodosia.

Ashley Cleek

Alyona's friend asked her about some graffiti he'd seen in Russia back in 2014 that said, Crimea is ours.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

And she started literally yelling [LAUGHS] at us, being like, what do you mean, Crimea is yours, when it's ours? It belongs to the people who actually live there. And that made a really big impression on me.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

I came away with the sense that I had made a huge mistake and that I had been thinking really wrongly for a really long time.

Ashley Cleek

This was the first big crack in what Alyona had believed. When she came back from Crimea, she started going to protests against the government. And hearing about how Putin came to power, about the crimes his government had committed, her entire worldview changed, and she wanted to tell everyone.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

I was living with the conviction that I had just been living with my eyes closed before that. And now that I had my eyes open, I wanted everyone else in the world to open their eyes, too.

Ashley Cleek

Including Oleg, and he listened. He didn't agree with her, but he was nice about it.

Bela Shayevich

Well, Oleg just said, that's fine. That's your choice.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Ashley Cleek

Oleg's choice was different. He believed the propaganda, what he saw on TV. So he stuck with what the government said. By the way, I reached out to Oleg for this story and didn't hear back. But he knows through Alyona that we're telling it, and he told her he's OK with it. Alyona would talk about her changing politics, and Oleg would disagree, but it never felt like a big deal until this year. In January, Oleg was on leave from the military, and he came through Moscow.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

And he had a few hours before his flight. And we went down to the airline office to get his ticket, and then we hung out at my house, drinking tea and talking. And that was when he told me that there was going to be a war in Ukraine.

And I was like, Oleg, please. There's not going to be a war. And I started telling him the stuff from the Steven Pinker book, that global violence is going down, that globally there is less and less crime, there's less murder, less war. That's what all the political scientists say. And he's just like, well, I hope you're right. And that night we said goodbye to each other, and after that, it all began.

Ashley Cleek

February 24, Russia invades Ukraine. Alyona calls Oleg, and Oleg says, yes, soldiers are being sent, but he's not on the list. Alyona immediately joins the protest in Moscow.

[SHOUTING]

Alyona is categorically against this war. She decides to get the now-famous phrase, Russian warship, go fuck yourself, tattooed across her ribs. It's her first tattoo. And then in the middle of March, Oleg messages their group chat. Alyona pulls it up to read it to me.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

And he said, well, looks like I'm actually leaving. And I'm only going to have a dumb phone with me when I get there, so I'm not going to be able to send you anything over telegram. I love you all. Goodbye.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

And our friend was like, where exactly are they sending you? And he said, they're sending me to the hot zone.

Ashley Cleek

Alyona writes back, we all love you, then calls him. She wants to know exactly where he's going and what he'll be doing.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

And then he told me that he was probably going to go to Rostov or maybe even somewhere closer, just to pick up the bodies of the dead, the casualties.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

I was like, promise me that you're not going to go fight in this war. For me, him going to get the bodies was OK, as long as he didn't go fight. And he said, I can't promise you that.

Ashley Cleek

How did you feel? How was that for you?

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

Well, I just completely freaked out. I was just yelling at him. I don't even remember what I was yelling, and I was just screaming into my phone, and he was completely silent.

Ashley Cleek

Alyona tries to convince him not to go, that since it's not an officially declared war, he can defect without getting in trouble. She's looking for a way out for him, but he doesn't want one. She remembers yelling that she was going to come to his army base and break all his fingers.

By the end of the call, she's calmed down, accepted that this is what's happening. She can't change it. But that evening, as the reality of what's happening settles in, that there's no way Oleg can go to war and not harm someone, Alyona swings back into a state of impotence and rage.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

I got so wasted that night at a bar that I was probably screaming loud enough for everybody in the bar to hear me that my friend was going to go fight in this war, and it would be better if he just died in it.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

Because if he doesn't die, he'll come back, and I'll know that he's a murderer.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

That he's a criminal.

Ashley Cleek

Alyona's not sure if she ever wants to talk to him again.

So many people I've talked to in Russia are going through something like this right now, having their fundamental relationships get ripped up by this war. Several of my friends no longer talk to their parents. One of my friends, whose response to this war was to threaten to burn his passport, his father called him a Nazi. And he doesn't know how he'll get over that.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

I was coming home from work, and I was going up the escalator in the subway.

Ashley Cleek

I talked to Alyona a few weeks later.

Bela Shayevich

And I got a phone call, and I didn't even suspect who it was. And I was already kind of pissed off because I actually hate it when people call me.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

And then when I took out my phone and I saw that it was Oleg, I mean, I don't even have the words to describe what I felt.

Ashley Cleek

This was two weeks after he'd left, and Alyona's relieved just to hear his voice again. All that anger that she'd felt so intensely towards him, in that moment, disappeared.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

I got up to the top of the escalator and I was just pacing around in the subway station, asking him totally banal questions, like, what are you eating, what are you drinking, how is the weather, just completely silly things.

Ashley Cleek

How did he answer? What did he tell you?

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

When I asked him how he was sleeping, he told me he wasn't sleeping well. And I started telling him stuff like, oh, man, sleep is so important for your mental health, and you have to try to sleep well. And he just laughed at me and he was like, can you imagine how hard it is to sleep in Ukraine right now?

Ashley Cleek

After that call, they keep texting. Eventually, his unit is moved from somewhere around Kyiv to Belarus. And there, he's more free to talk. They video-chat every few days. During one call, Oleg shares these details about the war and a crime he's heard a Russian soldier has committed. Suddenly, their calls cut off. After that, they decide they shouldn't talk about the war because they're probably being monitored. So they stick to basic stuff, food, weather.

Talking to Alyona these past weeks has been like watching a pendulum swing back and forth. She started off with such intense feelings of fury and helplessness. She once cried on a call. But now she's swinging less. All the feelings are still there. They're just smaller. On her way to work, she does these small protests. She ties green ribbons in tree branches. She writes, No War, in black Sharpie at her benches. And she still chats with her friend, a Russian soldier.

And then the news from Bucha comes out. Hundreds of civilians have been killed. The photos, as many of you know, are awful. There are dead bodies in the streets, in gardens, fallen from bicycles. For Alyona, there was one picture in particular that made her whole body turn cold. It was of a woman's hand, lifeless. Alyona remembered the perfect manicure, one nail painted with a tiny heart.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

What was going through their heads, that they could have done that?

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

It's unbearable to even think about how you're the same species as people who are capable of doing something like that.

Ashley Cleek

And when you saw it, when you heard about it, did you think about Oleg?

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

It's just really hard to put into words.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Ashley Cleek

After Bucha, Alyona says, it was harder to talk to Oleg. She asked him if he was part of anything like that. He said, no. But then, he denied it was even happening. He tried to convince her that it was all a lie.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

When I asked Oleg about Bucha, he immediately was telling me that this was a false flag, that the Ukrainian army had done it themselves, just kept saying and is still saying that Bucha was faked and that nothing like that happened where he was, either.

Ashley Cleek

And this, it infuriated Alyona. He had recently told her how he had heard of a soldier committing crimes against civilians, and now here he was, parroting the government's propaganda. That thing she used to love about him, his refusal to be bothered by anything, it now made her sick.

As Alyona tells me about this conversation, though, I could hear her softening, giving him the benefit of the doubt, the benefit of friendship. Part of her would really like to imagine that maybe Oleg doesn't even believe what he's saying to her, but that he has to say it.

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

It's very possible that he's just telling me what they tell him to tell people.

Ashley Cleek

Their friendship used to be so easy. Now it has the weight of a war attached to it. I don't know if it survives this. It seems like, despite all of Alyona's efforts, there's been an irreversible change. But Alyona is pushing back against it. She's holding onto this imaginary future where Oleg will come back a different person, that he'll grow to see things more her way, less like that of a dutiful, party-line soldier, maybe go to therapy.

Bela Shayevich

And that's what I'm invested in, and that's why I'm continuing my relationship with him.

Ashley Cleek

And what if he doesn't become that kind of person?

Alyona

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Bela Shayevich

Well, I am not going to give up, or let me put it like this. If I start thinking about how the war is not going to end, how Russia's not going to retreat from Ukraine, how people are never going to face up to what they've done and acknowledge their mistakes, I'm not going to be able to function. And so I can't think that way.

Ashley Cleek

Alyona just got news that Oleg's been sent back into Ukraine. When he returns from the war, though, she's determined to stay his friend. And then she hopes someday, maybe in 20 or 30 years, they'll finally be able to talk about what really happened in the war.

Ira Glass

Ashley Cleek. She's a producer for VICE News Reports, which is a weekly podcast by VICE Audio, with lots of reporting on the war in Ukraine that dives deeply into people's personal stories.

[MUSIC - "WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE" BY SOLANGE]

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by our executive editor, Emanuele Berry, and by Diane Wu. People who put together today's show include Chris Benderev, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Michael Comite, Andrea López Cruzado, Aviva DeKornfeld, Chana Joffe-Walt, Rudy Lee, Seth Lind, Tobin Low, Michelle Navarro, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Marisa Robertson-Textor, Alix Spiegel, Robyn Semien, Laura Starcheski, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, and Matt Tierney.

Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Russian interpretation by Bela Shayevich. Editing help from Bethel Habte. Special thanks today to Sam Greenspan, Sam Eagan, and Kate Osbourne at the VICE News Reports podcast, where you can hear more of Katia's audio diaries from Kyiv that we heard at the beginning of the show. Katia's dad, Volodymyr, as she talked about in the excerpts we played, died last Monday.

Thanks also today to Ibe Elvis Chigaemezu, Egwim Chioma Benjamin, Luisa Emmi Beck, Kevin Caners, Katharina Eggmann, Dana Ballout, Helen Davidson, Anthony Kuhn, and Angela Mosher-Salazar. Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 750 episodes for absolutely free. Also, there's videos. There's lists of favorite programs. There's tons of other stuff there. Again, ThisAmericanLife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. Most nights, he just sits in his easy chair, sipping a White Claw, watching his favorite, Ali Wong. Now and then, he talks to the television.

Alexis Okeowo

Damn. I like your analysis, girl. Very apt.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE" BY SOLANGE]