Within hours of hearing the first explosions in Kharkiv, Sonya saw her happy home life turn upside down. “A friend called my partner and said it was possible to enter the territorial defence force,” she says. “He agreed, and made the decision on his own. I wanted him to consult with me … but then I realised it was his choice; he actually forced me to support him.
“He left, and we didn’t really say goodbye,” she says. “I tried to come to terms with the chance that I wouldn’t see him again.”
Sonya was determined to stay close to him, in the home they shared, but after 10 days, as electricity and water supplies worsened, she took the decision to leave for western Ukraine.
“I realised that most of the time I was living in fear,” she says. Since the invasion started on 24 February, families from all over Ukraine have been flowing west, particularly to the city of Lviv. Until Friday morning, when an aircraft repair plant at the airport was struck by missiles, Lviv had felt relatively safe.
Yet even here, air raid sirens have still pierced the clear spring nights and the sight of mothers carrying sleepy children to shelters has become familiar. Many of them are in the same position as Sonya, alone with their children after their husbands and fathers left for the frontline with the territorial defence force.
“I’m angry, not only because I can’t see my loved one and my friends,” says Sonya, who worked for a human rights organisation before the war began. “I left all of my things at home … it angers me more that I was absolutely not ready for this.
“I’ve been offered the chance to leave Ukraine but I feel that, if everyone leaves, we [as a country] will not stay standing.”
Many women in Lviv have been grappling with the same choice. Alexandra, also from Kharkiv, says that since her husband began to get instructed in sniping six months ago she had been under no illusions about what would happen in the event of war.
The family had stocked up on petrol and bought winter tyres for an emergency evacuation. Three hours after the blasts began, they began the two-day drive to Lviv with their three-year-old daughter.
“He brought us there and immediately went to the military enlistment office,” Alexandra says. “Now he is not far from the front, and is trying to transfer to another battalion to get there as soon as possible.
“We call each other by video call, and every day he tries to talk to his daughter, but if he goes to the front, he will not be able to take his phone with him. The decision to go to war was solely his. He wants to stay and kill for this land. It’s his choice.”
But Alexandra feels that the trials she and her daughter now face are no less important. They left Lviv for Lithuania, where she has friends, but now find themselves bereft of support. “We were asked to find another place to stay as soon as possible, so we need to leave,” she says.
“Now I don’t know where we’ll go, and where we’ll live. My salary may not even be enough to pay rent. But I’ll figure something out.”
Galina’s husband was among the first to enlist for the territorial defence force. At lunchtime on 24 February the couple both donated blood and then parted company – Galina drove to Lviv from their home in Odessa with their children, leaving him at home. Now, she is trying to do what she can to help defend her country.
“I’m trying to help their military unit, receiving the things they need from abroad and transferring them to Odessa,” she says. “I can’t go back to him, because I care about our children. My place is near them now, they need me more. I really want to go back, but it’s not safe enough there yet.”
For all three women, the sense of disorientation is the same. Everything they once took for granted is now gone.
“Before the war I had a completely ordinary life, with goals for the future and dreams,” says Sonya. “I studied English and took courses in web design. I didn’t fully believe war could happen.”
Alexandra worries about her parents, whose area of Kharkiv remains better off than some but has still been ravaged by bombs. She grieves for the family life that has been ripped away.
“Before the war, our life was only getting better,” she says. “I got a good job and had a comfortable home life. On 24 February, suddenly the only thing that mattered was our child’s safety. But I really want to go home.”