Notes from a bomb shelter: Waking up to the War in Ukraine (Part 3)

I walk towards the subway and phone my Mom. She picks up in a heartbeat, and I debate whether or not to tell her about the invasion. To hell with it, she’s gonna find out anyway.

“How are you?” she asks tenderly. 

“Ma, don’t panic, okay?” I begin, voice cracking as fighter jets swoop overhead, their thunderous thrusters thwarting threats from the invaders. 

I take a deep breath. “We’re under attack. We’re being bombed.” 

“I knew it,” she says in true motherly fashion. “I told you to leave right away. I warned you to never come back to Ukraine!”

“We just never thought it would happen, Ma, but this morning, Russia started attacking our cities. We woke up to the bombs.”

Once again, I recount the fresh memories of dawn and relive Pandora’s Box opening and releasing its horrors upon Ukraine. 

A beat. There are a thousand words to say, yet she’s speechless. I break the silence. “Mom, I’m scared. I don’t know what to do.” 

“Who are you with?”

“Gayana and Aida,”

“Where are you now?” 

“We went to the subway to take shelter, but Aida was called to work. I’m heading home to my apartment since all my things are there. Then, we’ll figure out what to do or where to go next.” I answer. “Don’t worry. I’m in touch with the Philippine Embassy in Poland and with the Honorary Consulate in Kyiv. They’ve prepared for this. They can help.” 

“That’s good. You need to contact them. You need to get out of there,” she says. “I already told you not to come back. Your Tita Lita and Tito Olaf have been telling you to get out of Ukraine. I thought you had left Ukraine? Why did you come back? Look at what you got into now!” 

But how can my mother understand?

Leaving a place you’ve planted your feet in is far from easy. 

The minute you need to run, the roots pull at you from underground, and though you tug at it, they cling to the earth that has nursed and nourished them. So you remain still—still even in the midst of missiles that have taken the place of showers of comfort, care and compassion that rained down on you and led you to grow, to bloom with all your leaves lush and curled up at the sky and with all your petals shining towards the smiling sun. You remain still and hope that the bombs don’t fall upon you and on those you hold love. You remain still and hope that you get to live and get to bloom another day.

Tell me, how do you leave family behind?

“Ma, I’m scared, but I know the best thing to do is to keep calm and think straight, so I want you to try to keep calm. Don’t panic.” 

It’s impossible to ask her not to panic under such circumstances—her only daughter caught up in a war-torn country—but her anxiety, though coming from a good place, will only make things worse. 

“I want you to trust me, Ma. I know what I’m doing. We’ll be safe, I promise.” 

“Okay,” she says. 

“And don’t tell everyone at home. I don’t want them to freak out or worry.” 

I stop midway and mid-conversation to ask a young couple whether or not the busses were working and whether or not they were free of charge like the trains. I didn’t have a city card with me, since I usually took the underground, so that would come in handy. 

They ask me where I’m heading to, and I show them my street on the map. I tell them it’s a long walk from the nearest subway station, so I’m trying to get home by bus. They advise me to just go by the subway. The waiting times are shorter and it’s costless. 

I thank them and return to my conversation with Ma. 

“What was that?” she asks.

“Oh, just asking how to get home to our apartment. I didn’t know if the busses were working or were free, so I asked around. Looks like I have to take the subway.”

“Okay, okay,” she says. “Can you call me when you get home?” 

“Sure. I live quite far from the city center, so it might take an hour or so. Don’t worry if I don’t ring you right away.” 

“Okay,” Ma sighs. “I love you. Be safe.”

I smile. I hope I get to see her again. “I love you too, Ma.”

A photo of my mother and I taken during my 18th birthday

It takes me two hours to get to my district. Taking the subway was quick and easy, but waiting for the bus to take me a few blocks from my house took forever.

Ukrainian armored vehicles passing by the streets of Kyiv, taken before I boarded the bus back home

I quickly look up the nearest ATM to take all the money I have on my local card. It’s next to the supermarket, which means I can grab water and a couple of goods after my cash withdrawal. I walk towards it and pass a group of Ukrainian men in combat gear, talking in low hushed tones. One of them smokes a cigarette as he leans on a beat up Lada as another loads camo print rucksacks that seem to be bursting at the seams. 

I reach the ATM and fall in line. I’m lucky the queue is not as long as the ones I’ve seen in the city center. My phone buzzes with notifications from the Filipino expats group chat on Facebook.

The line to the ATM near my apartment

Apparently, the Philippine Embassy in Warsaw was quick to respond to the catastrophe, and our ever helpful honorary consulate, Ma’am Angelika, has managed to arrange a bus for Filipinos fleeing the capital.

The ever reliant Ma’am Angelica, the Philippines’ honorary consulate in Ukraine, sending a text to all Filipinos in Kyiv who wishes to escape the war

Mavi, a fellow Filipina friend, sends me a screenshot of the details of the scheduled bus, and I simultaneously get a message from Ma’am Angelika about the evacuation to Lviv. 

The vehicle can only seat 50 evacuees and will wait for us from 14:00 to 15:20 PM at Shuliavska station. 

I call Gayana to tell her about the embassy’s evacuation plans. I think of taking it, especially after Denys announced his plan of fleeing to Vinnytsia. I don’t have the means to rent our place alone, and times in Kyiv will get tougher with the Russian assault. 

“If they will allow it, you and Aida can come with me.” I say, trying to convince them. “It’s better if we head West. Lviv is close to the Polish border and if the Russians really want to occupy Ukraine, they’ll have to conquer Kyiv and take it. It’s the heart of Ukraine.” 

“Businka, we don’t want to leave Kyiv. We are not going anywhere.” 

“But what if the fighting gets worse?” 

“That’s why you should go.”

“But I don’t want to go without you!” I protest. 

“We don’t want to leave Kyiv. We don’t want to leave Ukraine,” Gayana says softly. “Kyiv is my home.” 

Home—the word shoots an arrow to the heart and breaks it into a million little pieces to reveal the truth. 

I will always have a home back in the Philippines, but Gayana and Aida might lose theirs, and when you lose your home, you lose all that you have: the hospital you were born in, the nursery where you took your first steps, the home you grew up in, the parks and playgrounds where you ran, played and got your face dirty or knee skinned, the school where you read verses laid down at your motherland’s feet and learned that every hydrogen atom in your body was created during the birth of the universe. 

You lose the pizzeria where you spent teenage weekends with your closest friends, the supermarket where you get your groceries, the beaches you spent summers in, the mountains you’ve hiked, the rivers you’ve bathed in. 

You lose the university that set you on your career path, the coffee shops you confided your secrets in, the cinema where you first held hands with a boy you like, the sidewalk where he kissed you before coming home. 

You lose the job you’ve always dreamed of or the one you’ve learned to endure, the apartment or the car you’ve saved up to buy for years, the familiar sounds, sights and smells akin to the back of your hand, the memories of the past and present and the dreams of the future. 

You uproot the seeds you sow—the small saplings that sprout towards the sun or the full-grown flowers that reach out to the heavens—and plant them elsewhere hoping they’ll grow but find out that they only flourish in the ground they were first scattered.

This. This is what millions of Ukrainians are losing each second the war rages in their home.

“Go. You have the chance to leave,” she says with a sadness that swells and stings. “Take it.” 

I fight the tears. “I’ll think about it, okay? I’ll think about it and let you know.”

“Okay,” Gayana says. “I can’t stay long.”

“Right. I’ll call you later. I’ll let you know.” 

I hang up. It doesn’t take long before it’s finally my turn to use the ATM. I take the meager savings I have on my account and think about how long it’ll last. Whether I decide to stay or flee, the prices of everything will escalate along with the war, so I need to think of ways to make money in the coming days. 

I grab a few more things from the grocery store and finally walk home, looking at the time in case I choose to leave Kyiv. A car door shuts, and I shudder. I look up at the sky to see if it’s another plane shot down the air raid, but the heavens only reveal baleful tufts that shroud the sun. 

I try to assess the amount of time it will take for me to pack my bags and travel from our apartment to the meeting point. It’s already 13:00, and if it took me two hours to head back home, it might take me more or less the same to head to Shuliavska station. Plus, there are only 50 seats allotted for us. If I make it quite late, there might not be any place left for me at all. 

I receive a call from a concerned Filipina friend who’s also living in Ukraine. 

“You should take the bus,” she says. “You should grab your things and get going. There’s not so many seats that can accommodate everyone in Kyiv.” 

“The problem is, I live quite far from the meeting place. It took me two hours to just get home from the city center!” I tell her, tone rising. “And we’re renting a flat here. We can’t just leave without handing over the keys to our landlord!” 

She tells me to take a cab to Shuliavska. I open local ride hailing apps and find that the price surged significantly higher. Everyone was trying to leave. 

The Filipino group chat buzzes again. Someone sends a poll asking whether or not Filipinos in Kyiv are ready to evacuate to Lviv. Those who aren’t ready to leave the city need to inform the embassy about their whereabouts and why they aren’t ready to flee just yet.

Of course there are a lot of us who aren’t ready, ready to leave their favorite cafés, ready to leave their workplace, ready to leave their beloved parks and malls, ready to leave the children they’ve taken care of ready to leave the friends they’ve made, ready to leave their husbands, ready to leave their loved ones, ready to leave their homes, ready to leave their lives.

My incredible Kaizen co-teachers who have also become family to me

The roots tug at us, and they keep pulling as we try to evade the bombs. They burrow deeper underground, making their way around the tiniest nooks and crannies of Ukraine’s ever fertile soil, making it near impossible to pull them out of the earth. 

Mavi puts a woman named Tanya on the phone, and she ensures me that everything will be alright. She, too, encourages me to take the evacuation bus. I tell her I live quite far from the meeting point and that I might be too late to get to the station. 

Then, I ask the million dollar question. “Is the bus for Filipinos only?” 

She pauses in contemplation before saying she doesn’t know and that most likely, it will be. 

I just can’t leave. Had I been traveling alone hopping from one place to another, it would have been a no-brainer to pack my bags and run straight to the border. 

But now… now I’m not alone. 

I think about the possible consequences of missing that bus. I think about the city closing down and being smothered to smithereens, about border closures, about dwindling supplies, about the possibility of dying here far from home but with the ones I’ve learned to love. 

Nobody knows what could happen next. This bus could be the final ticket out of Kyiv. This bus could be my last chance to leave. 

Do I take it? 

The minute you need to run, the roots pull at you from underground, and they pull, pull, pull. I can feel them tugging at my feet, begging me to be still as they burrow deeper into the earth and bang on the flowing doorways of the Underworld, pleading mighty Veles to take no more from the land of the living. 

My feet sink, and I take a deep breath before saying, “Ma’am Tanya, I appreciate the concern, but I can’t leave everyone behind.” I proceed to tell her about the people I care about—Aida, Gayana, Denys and all our other friends—and tell her that I refuse to leave anyone behind. 

She pauses. “I understand.” 

I add the fact that the keys to our apartment have yet to be handed to the landlord. She gives me a list of contacts to get in touch with, particularly their church leaders. With all the religion talk, I wonder if it’s time to start praying rigorously again. 

I thank her and Mavi for reaching out and hang up the phone with a promise to text them if I change my mind about staying. 

A memory comes to mind. It’s a sunny afternoon in the Philippines, and my aunt lets me watch cartoons. It’s Lilo and Stitch, a Disney film about a little Hawaiian girl adopting a dangerous but adorable alien fugitive who crash-landed on earth. To evade his captors, Stitch pretends to be Lilo’s pet while Lilo and her older sister, Nani, face the threat of separation by social services. 

Both characters find family in each other and create the film’s most popular catchphrase. 

“Ohana means family. Family means no one gets left behind.” 

No one is going to get left behind.

– – – – – – – – – – 

It’s been more than a month since Russian President Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine. Situation on ground becomes increasingly dire by the minute. Many Ukrainians cower in subway stations, basements and bomb shelters across the country as Russian aggressors continue to attack peaceful cities. The Russian aggressors do not spare civilians, and the death toll only continues to rise. As of this post, 10 million Ukrainians have already fled the country, while those who have stayed behind struggle with joblessness and supply shortage along as they endure constant attacks by Russian forces. 

Here are some ways you can help Ukraine, including my very own fundraising efforts to provide aid to Ukrainian refugees and locals who have chosen to stay behind or who cannot leave their war-torn country.

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