The belief that the current war in Ukraine is somehow ‘new’ is a widespread misconception. For decades, some may argue centuries, Moscow has left its mark – on the millions of victims starved during the Holodomor genocide, on buildings and landmarks, and on the face of Nela Leonidova, a Kharkiv resident who was severely injured by Russian shelling in 2014.
“It was harder for us in 2014 because Ukraine didn’t have the full support of governments around the world,” Nela tells the Kyiv Post. “We felt sort of abandoned.”
When Russian bombs got closer and closer, Nela called government officials and asked to be evacuated with her children. It proved impossible because the territory was no longer under local government control. They advised her that if she couldn’t find safe transport she should walk, which would have meant fleeing Donetsk through minefields.
“I was left alone with two small children,” Nela recalls. “At one point it was only possible to obtain food by visiting the kindergarten, so I would take the kids there to eat.”
It was when picking pick up her four-year-old son from a local school one day that an incident occurred that would change Nela’s life forever.
“Suddenly, the sound of Russian planes roared overhead, and then there was a huge explosion. I managed to reach my boy and covered him and my neighbor’s little girl with my body.”
All that Nela remembers next is regaining consciousness, being dragged out of the devastated building and rushed to hospital.
The next few months were equally traumatic. Nela’s son had sustained a wound to his arm and a contusion – superficial injuries that, if she hadn’t used her body to protect him, would have undoubtedly been far worse. Nela, on the other hand, had sustained horrific injuries to her leg, face, and side of her body.
“Surgery was frequent and traumatizing,” she recalls. “I was on a lot of painkillers, and my recovery was filled with pain and heartache – but I persevered.”
Brave and determined, and with the help of reconstructive surgery, Nela is now once again back to her warm and confident self. But surgery couldn’t fully remove her understandable concerns – particularly when she found herself surprised by Putin’s invasion in February 2022.
“I thought Russia’s war with us was over, that it finished in 2014 and that the bad times were behind us,” she says. “Yet this year, when I woke up at 5 o’clock in the morning to the sound of explosions, I looked at my phone, then looked outside the window where I live in Kharkiv. Once again, war was here, and I couldn’t understand why such madness had returned.”
Nela was forced to take shelter in the basement for a week. Her son didn’t speak for a long time, consumed by shock and fear, and it took a while for her to get a smile out of him again.
She asserts: “This war must end and Putin cannot be allowed to win. He and the Russian army are destroying the lives of so many people. After my injury, I became a disabled person and I just don’t have the strength anymore. I’m afraid. I’m scared for my children. What kind of world will remain for them if we don’t end this madness?”
Suddenly, Nela’s infectious smile returns and she delivers an invaluable positive message to her fellow Ukrainians: “As long as there are blue skies without missiles, we can be happy. We should appreciate the small things in life and realize that there are always people out there who are suffering more than us.”
She adds: “I don’t need much to make me happy – just calm, a home for me and my children, and peace to enjoy the beauty that can be seen all around us in Ukraine.”
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