From The Straits Times    |

In early March 2022, I was out on an errand in the city of Kyiv when the air raid sirens sounded. I had to head towards the nearest available bunker, which was inside an underground Metro station, and joined the flow of other Ukrainians around the area as we sought shelter from the incoming bombardment. There was no way of predicting how long the air raid might last – it could be anywhere between 20 minutes and 20 hours.

It was then that I noticed an elderly gentleman carrying a small suitcase. My first thought was, how many days was he planning to stay down here?

As we huddled together in anticipation of another bombing, fear and anxiety took over, and most of us were busy doom scrolling the endless coverage of the war on our smartphones. The elderly gentleman, however, unpacked his suitcase and unfolded it into an accordion. And he began to play.

His music filled the cold and dank shelter. The traditional Ukrainian melody captured our attention, and we looked away from our phones. A feeling of calm and comfort transcended the chaos around us. It was the warmth that we desperately needed.

Living in a war zone

It wasn’t the first time that I was caught in an air raid. My wife Natalia, our four cats, and I had frequently sought shelter in the basement carpark of our apartment building when the air raid warnings had been sounded. And whenever my wife and I were out running errands, we had to dash into the nearest available bunker should another air raid commence.

When the Russians entered Kyiv in February 2022, we had been living in the city for about four months following our relocation from China in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict had already been ongoing for eight years in the Donbas region of East Ukraine, but we did not expect the fighting to come to Kyiv.

Three weeks into the invasion, when the siege of Kyiv intensified as the Russian invaders brought the frontline to almost 10-15km from the city centre, we decided that we had to evacuate while we had the chance. We headed towards Western Ukraine by car, as land warfare had not reached the area yet.

However, the region was still under constant air strikes. During times like these, most of us would naturally be concerned about our own survival, but whenever my wife and I encountered fellow Ukrainians along the way, help was generously offered. The Ukrainians understood that selfishness would only weaken their nation, and so they rallied together in selfless solidarity.

Neighbours would come and check on us when we were still hiding in our Kyiv apartment, strangers would help us arrange for our evacuation, and food and tea were willingly shared among the survivors in the bunkers.

When our car ran out of fuel in the middle of nowhere in the pitch darkness of night, on our way to West Ukraine before our stop in Vinnytsia, we encountered a group of Ukrainian fighters who brought petrol to our vehicle when they could have saved it for themselves, as fuel distributions have been curbed nationwide. From Vinnytsia, we managed to make our way to Lviv, where we caught a coach to Warsaw, Poland.

Making every moment count

Today, I still struggle with articulating why one should not take each day or moment for granted to anyone who has not experienced a life or death situation. When the destruction was unleashed on Ukraine, survival was the only goal we had – nothing else mattered.

Time, in fact, took on a different meaning altogether when I was in Ukraine. It was no longer measured in minutes, hours or days. All we could care about was getting through the next assault unscathed, and what we could perhaps accomplish before we were attacked again.

Now, more than ever, I am determined to do what I can to assist with the humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. I started an organisation that helps to pair Ukraine hospitals in need of financial assistance with corporate
donors or private sponsors. It also facilitates the delivery of medical supplies or equipment to the hospitals.

The war has been ongoing for over nine years. It is my hope that people who are not affected by armed conflict will not be indifferent to those who are fighting for their survival, and that they would be receptive towards the lessons being offered to them.

Ix Shen has published a memoir recounting his experience. Impressions of an Invasion – A Correspondent In Ukraine is available at all major bookstores.

GROOMING Benedict Choo, using M.A.C