Issa, Gérard and Rachel have built lives in Ukraine, despite coming from Guinea, France and the US. On February 24, 2022, they were shocked to see their adopted home engulfed in war with Russia – but they chose not to leave Ukraine. One year later, they are still living through the war, side by side with Ukrainians.
It was a Thursday. At 5am on February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of a military operation aiming to “protect Russian speakers” in Ukraine, and to “de-Nazify” and “demilitarize” the former Soviet state. As the first bombs fell, Russian tanks rolled across the border from Belarus, heading for Kyiv.
“My father was the first person to call me, from the US,” says Rachel, a 30 year old originally from Pennsylvania. “He said, ‘Rachel, missiles are falling, the war has begun’. I told him that it was fake news. An exaggeration.” But as she was lying in bed, the news began to sink in; the biggest military operation in Europe since World War II had begun. “Nothing felt real. Helicopters were landing Russian paratroopers in Kyiv. It felt like anything could happen.”
Issa Diallo, president of the African Council in Ukraine, felt the same sense of shock. “I couldn’t believe that this war was going to happen, until I heard the first cannon fire shaking the windows. For me, Russians and Ukrainians are brothers. I understand that they wanted to show their muscles and taunt each other, but shooting and killing… I couldn’t believe it.”
Gérard de La Salle still remembers the sirens that woke him up at 7am that morning. “I looked out of the window and saw people were loading up their cars. The roads were starting to get blocked with traffic, but I decided to take a look around the town and see what was happening,” says the French business owner, who has lived in Ukraine since 2007.
“I got back to my apartment in the afternoon and I was in the lift when I heard two huge explosions.” Two missiles had exploded 300 meters from his home. “At that moment, I said there was no way I could stay in Kyiv.”
To stay or to go?
In the closing days of February 2022, millions decamped to the west of Ukraine and into neighboring countries Poland and Moldova to avoid the Russian advance.
Rachel was already in Lviv, a large Ukrainian city a few dozen kilometers from the Polish border. She moved there two weeks before the invasion began to calm her parents, who were worried about her safety. She thought it would be a short stay and she would soon be able to return to Kyiv, where she has lived since 2016.
Her Ukrainian partner had stayed in the capital, and after the invasion began, she didn’t want to cross the border without him. Instead, he joined her in Lviv two days later, and they started a new life “in transition”, as she describes it. “We took over an apartment from some expats who left and we were looking after their cats. We’ve lived there with friends, friends of friends, colleagues and strangers.”
Gérard’s business for importing and distributing agricultural materials has premises in Vinnytsia, 280km south-west of Kyiv. His decision was easy: “I loaded my car like everyone else and I hurried there with some friends.”
For the 45 year old, moving to the town 110km from the Moldovan border felt like the safest option. “I think that I would have had time to see the Russians coming if they had taken over the whole country. I felt like I was safe there, I never thought I should leave the country. On the first day, it took some time to get my head around things because you can’t understand what’s happening. You hear missiles, you see them, and you don’t know how things are going to go.”
In the days following the invasion, as the shock was beginning to settle, 59-year-old Issa decided to hunker down on the seventh floor of the apartment block where he lives with his Ukrainian wife and two daughters. They taped the windows and moved their mattresses into the corridors so that they wouldn’t be hit by flying glass if there were explosions. They worked together with neighbors to convert the basement of their building into a shelter to hide in when air sirens sounded.
Like Rachel and Gérard, Issa wanted to stay in Ukraine. “Friends asked us to go to west Ukraine or even Switzerland, but my wife and children didn’t want to leave. My children said, ‘we were born here, we can’t leave because of this war. We have to stay here.’ My mother-in-law is elderly and she didn’t want to leave either. So I said, let’s not add any extra stress; we’ll stay here together.”
Dual nationality is not permitted in Ukraine, so despite having spent more than 30 years in the country, Issa doesn’t have a Ukrainian passport. As much as his family wanted to stay, he also didn’t want to face the hostility and red tape that African passport holders can be subject to in EU countries.
“Honestly, if I really wanted to leave Ukraine it would have been to return to Guinea. I’ve spent enough time in Ukraine to have my papers in order and to live in peace. I don’t want to start again somewhere else. [Here] when we have a piece of bread, we share it and that helps you get through the hard times. I don’t regret staying.”
Remembering the fraught days of February 2022, when they faced such high-stakes decisions, stirs emotions for all three foreign residents. They remember the weeks after the invasion as a moment outside time, marked by a surge of solidarity and fraternity that has been a driving force to fight the Russian invasion. Drawn into a conflict that is not their own, they have become witnesses of history in the making.
“When there were moments of calm, I would sneak outside to go and help people,” remembers Issa. “A lot of people were calling me and I couldn’t sit and do nothing. I would go out with my car to pick people up and take them to the station. It was often fellow Africans but also Ukrainian families. At the station, there were huge scrums of people, and we had to help people who were struggling with their bags. It wasn’t easy, but I’m glad I didn’t just stay at home.”
In Lviv, Rachel’s partner decided on April 16 to join the Ukrainian army and leave for the front line. “He was near Bakhmut for the last two months, which was so stressful. But, thank God, he's been moved away from that area. Now I’m just crossing off the days on the calendar to when he can come home.”
While she waits, Rachel decided to return to Kyiv. “I feel at home here,” she says. She quit the advertising agency she was working for, which was owned by a Russian, and started working with Ukrainian government media agency United24 Media.
“I wanted to contribute to the war effort. A lot of my friends have tuned to social media to share stories of the war. I’m working on a campaign about Azovstal [the Mariupol steelworks where Ukraine’s Azov Battalion staged weeks of resistance against Russian troops]. It makes me feel good to do it because I’m helping the country.”
Gérard spent the first weeks of the war carrying out “raids” in Kyiv, to bring colleagues, vehicles and materials to Vinnytsia. “At the time I thought I had lost my business, but I kept in touch with my employees. It was clear that we had to keep their families safe – some of them had started making anti-tank obstacles to stop the Russians. I kept paying their salaries, and I didn’t let anyone go.” He has been back in the capital since Russian forces departed in April.
A return to not quite normal
After the success of battle for Kyiv in April, Ukrainian forces followed up with a series of military victories, regaining territory in Kharkiv Oblast in the east and the town of Kherson in the south. Nighttime curfew aside, life in the capital seemed to have returned to somewhat normal – until Russia started targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in October. Ever since, residents in Kyiv and throughout Ukraine have lived on a rhythm set by power cuts and generators.
On a sunny afternoon in February 2023, Rachel is browsing the peaceful aisles of Zhytniy Market in Podil, a trendy neighborhood in Kyiv. Sporadic bombardments in the city mean that sometimes inhabitants have to shelter in the metro, and keeping an ear open for sirens and suspicious sounds has become routine.
“Putin is increasing the pressure but people adapt,” she says. “Apart from sick and elderly people who really need electricity, we regular people are used to living [with limited supply]. We just get stronger. We get more confident. One year ago, this was so scary, this was complete panic and now we already know how to handle it. So good luck Putin.”
Issa has returned to work little by little, in a completely new landscape. Before the war he chartered containers full of sunflower oil and mayonnaise to ports in Africa. The maritime blockade imposed by Russia has complicated things. “The situation is not as normal as I would like. I have to keep fighting to live,” he says.
“Before we sent things from the port in Odesa. Now that’s not possible. We have to board the merchandise on trains or coaches to Constanta port in Romania, or to Gdansk in Poland. But the cost of doing that is the same as what we were paying before the war to transport them all the way to Africa. Prices have doubled and that’s the way it is. We are working, not at the normal rhythm, but we manage to make deliveries once or twice a month.”
Gérard’s business has also started to recover, even though it also relies on shipping. In August, Ukraine’s agricultural sector resumed exports after an agreement was reached by Russia and Ukraine, overseen by the UN and Turkey, for transporting cereals across the Black Sea.
“Farmers with enormous stores of stock from the previous year could start selling and the sector picked up. I’ve just closed the accounts for 2022 and I’m in the positive even, though business profits have dropped by 25%. And 2023 is looking good,” he says.
A long way from home
The new normality that has settled in Kyiv does little to reassure family members overseas, monitoring the war from afar. Media around the world is providing daily updates on the conflict, increasing their worry and giving a sometimes distorted image of what life on the ground is really like.
“My mum was really afraid, but she is used to it,” says Gérard. “I have a brother who was in the French special forces and a twin sister who joined the Iraqi army for the battle of Mosul. They reassured her. Statistically there’s a very low chance of being hit by a missile. That’s not the case in zones where they are being bombarded with artillery, but in Kyiv there are air raid sirens every day. Not that we really pay attention to them anymore.”
A relaxed attitude towards the sirens seems normal in Ukraine, but is harder for those living far away to understand.
“For parents who have never lived through a war in their country, it’s hard to imagine their daughter in this situation and to live with the worry. But it’s brought us closer, we make more effort to understand each other,” Rachel says. Her family and friends feel solidarity towards Ukrainians but “there is a huge difference between my experience and theirs".
After more than 30 years in Ukraine, Issa still has strong ties in Guinea, where he owns a house. For his loved ones, the war feels far away. “I know Ukraine better than Guinea now. When I go back to Guinea they say, ‘the Ukrainian has returned!’ Before the war they used to say ‘the man from Moscow is back’ – they didn’t know the difference.” Issa himself still struggles to accept the two countries are now at war. “I see the destruction and it’s absurd. It’s inhumane and senseless.”
After the war
For Issa – and many others in Ukraine – the end of the war feels uncertain and far off. Ties with Russia seem to have been cut definitively, yet his Ukrainian wife has Russian roots. “Her brothers live in Russia in Tula [a city 200km south of Moscow], where they make tanks and Kalashnikovs. They don’t speak to each other anymore.”
The rupture in their family is mirrored in a linguistic conflict. Issa took part in a university exchange in 1986 where he travelled to the USSR and learned Russian, which he has been speaking in Ukraine ever since. Now he is learning Ukrainian.
Gérard is fully behind Ukraine in the fight against Russia, and is keen for the “day of victory”. “I often talk about ‘our’ army – it’s my second country. I come from a long lineage of French people, I love France, but my life is in Ukraine. People have said to me, ‘leave, you don’t need to be there’. And I say to them, ‘yes, I do need to be here’. You don’t have to be at the front to be active in the war against Russia."
He defines victory as restoration of the territory Ukraine occupied in February 2022, not including Crimea and the parts of the Donbas previously annexed by Russia. “It’s become a desert there full of elderly people and alcoholics. Leave that area to Russia and take the rest. In the south, in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, the people speak Russian but they are pro-Ukraine. They are living under occupation, like the French in 1943.”
Rachel doesn’t have strong opinions on how the Ukrainian government should define the terms of war and peace. For her, the conflict is personal. “I got married to my partner in the fall and we plan to start a family. Russia is committing genocide – cultural warfare. I want to be able to raise our kids in Ukraine speaking Ukrainian and knowing about really cool Ukrainian historical figures.”
For all three foreigners, war has deepened ties with their adopted home. “I took a step back from American culture and the war has strengthened that,” Rachel says. “Now I feel totally connected to Ukrainians.”
This article was adapted from the original in French.