Life changes in an instant for Ukrainian business owner, but hope and solidarity remain

I basically woke up to the war. I woke up to hell. The memory of that morning, of hearing about all of the missile strikes and explosions all over Ukraine, is burned into my brain. I have never been so scared.

  • 2 years ago
  • March 17, 2022
8 min read
Svitlana Lytvak and her partner Alex, co-owners of About Coffee in Cherkasy, Ukraine, hold a Molotov cocktail and a bag of coffee beans Svitlana Lytvak and her partner Alex, co-owners of About Coffee in Cherkasy, Ukraine, hold a Molotov cocktail and a bag of coffee beans | Photo courtesy of Svitlana Lytvak
Svitlana Lytvak
Interview Subject
Svitlana Lytvak is the co-owner of About Coffee and a Ukrainian citizen currently located in Cherkasy, 189 km (117 miles) from the capital Kyiv.
Background Information
Russia launched a full-scale invasion on Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.

About 3 million people have fled the country so far, but men ages 18-60—which includes Svitlana’s partner, brother, and father—are not allowed to leave. Many women, including Svitlana, her mother and her sister-in-law, have also chosen to stay.

According to Svitlana, many of the citizens who have remained are involved in civil defense such as building roadblocks, preparing Molotov cocktails, transporting humanitarian aid, helping refugees or guarding the borders and cities.

To read more of Orato’s unique, first-person accounts and coverage of the conflict, click “Ukraine-Russia” in the trending topics bar at the top of Orato.world homepage. 

CHERKASY, Ukraine- Today, my spirits are low. Alex, my partner, is driving to the border of Ukraine and Poland to pick up humanitarian aid. He has to drive 700 kilometers (435 miles)—it’s far, and worry rises up like bile in my throat.

I don’t want him to go, but he says, “Svitlana, we need to push this one. We need to win this one.” He has to help, and I am going to help as much as I can, too. I am not going anywhere, at least not at this point.

It has been 19 days of this hell. I still cannot believe it is actually happening to me, my family, my people, and my Ukraine. It is so cruel, so insane.

Many of my friends—especially those with kids—have already left Ukraine. They have to protect their children; that is the priority. One of my closest friends was in Bucha, a city that got hit by deadly attacks. She left the second day of the war with her 5-year-old daughter and spent about 36 hours getting to Poland. She had a heart attack on the way because of her tiredness.

My family is still in the Ukraine, and I cannot imagine leaving them behind. I feel like I can help. Maybe I’ll get to be one of the first ones to celebrate our victory. Maybe I will get to see my friends come back and hug them.

First day of invasion usher in shocking new reality

The first day of the invasion was the worst. A coworker called my partner that morning and told him that Putin had attacked Ukraine; of course, we turned on the news and the radio right away.

I basically woke up to the war. I woke up to hell. The memory of that morning, of hearing about all of the missile strikes and explosions all over Ukraine, is burned into my brain. I have never been so scared. Putin actually did it. We never thought it would happen—though we kept hearing warnings, no one actually believed he would break out war.

Molotov cocktail supplies | Photo courtesy of Svitlana Lytvak

Alex and I rushed into work for an emergency meeting to discuss how we could protect ourselves and each other. We tried to organize our own shelter, figure out what needed to be done and discussed who would leave and who would stay. I never thought I would have those conversations.

Very few people agreed to come to work, as most left Cherkasy to be with their families. We who stayed organized a little shelter in the company’s headquarters and stocked it with food, water, and medicine.

My co-worker and I started monitoring telegram channels that were asking for support for our civilian defense, military defense, Red Cross, and hospital. A group of us started making Molotov cocktails for the civilian defense in Kyiv and figuring out ways to donate, determined to help as much as we could. We also started grounding and donating coffee for the civilian defense.

What I really wanted to do is hide somewhere and cry. Life as we knew it is gone. It feels impossible to handle, impossible to understand what is happening or prepare for what will happen tomorrow. However, I have to stay strong just like everyone else. We are trying to do our best right now.

Initial air raid sirens invoke panic

The second day of the invasions brought more bombs, but they did no significant damage.

I remember the air raid sirens that day; they meant I had 15 minutes to hide. I was so stressed we would not make it on time—my partner and I were not dressed, our backpacks were unprepared, and we had our cat to worry about. So, we hid behind two walls in our apartment so we would have a better chance of surviving an explosion.

Now, we sleep in our washroom in our sleeping bags and with our hiking gear, in case we have to run away as soon as possible.

Nowhere is safe in Ukraine, not even hospitals or kindergartens. The bombs find them all.

Life carries on, despite the uncertainty and fear

It feels surreal, trying to establish a routine when everything around us has transformed.

Government messages encourage us all to continue living our lives and to keep businesses open so we can support each other. To be honest it does not feel right, but I guess it makes sense—we realized we have to keep trying to support our economy as well as our military. Many businesses are at least trying to open up, and people attempt to continue paying taxes and salaries because we have no idea when this will end.

At first, we thought we would have to close and stay in shelters all day or volunteer. However, now we are trying to not only protect our city but also make some money so we can donate it to the army, hospitals, or local defense. Alex and I started to supply coffee beans to our wholesale customers, and Alex has roasted coffee beans at least three times.

Keeping busy helps me feel happy and like I have a purpose. Time just flies, and I feel I am supporting my people. However, I still get very emotional when I think of the violence and death happening all over my country. Others are struggling so much, and here I am just trying to keep life together.

Our wholesale partner decided to open up to provide coffee and I thought it was crazy at first. But those who have stayed need to gather, to talk, to feel like life is a bit normal. This is a way we can help, as well; we need to lift up their spirits, so they can all fight and stay strong.

‘One day closer to victory’

I have not seen my parents since Jan. 1. Life just got busy; we said we would get together soon, but now, with travel so dangerous, we have no idea when we will see each other again.

Despite everything, I just feel like we will win this one. My country has never felt this united before. I am 31 and have never seen my country behave with so much patriotism. Most of us are ready to die for freedom, for a future, for our Ukraine.

In Cherkasy, attacks come at night, so most sleep in shelters. From 3-7 a.m., air raid sirens constantly ring out. Those terrifying hours seem to last forever, because you are so afraid of waking up to terrible news or explosions, but during the day life just kind of carries on.

When I think of cities like Kyiv, Mariupol, Chernihiv—all on fire, lacking humanitarian help, food, water, or gas—or imagine the people not able to flee the violence, I realize that my story is a happy one. It is hard for me to understand that all this horror is happening in 21st century Europe.

Fear is my constant companion, but I am trying to stay optimistic. In Ukraine, we say “it is one day closer to victory.” We are not keeping track of days anymore—just looking forward to that victory. We have no choice. It has to end at some point, even if they come back eventually.

Warring feelings of guilt, fear and determination

Every time I make breakfast, have some coffee or get to take a proper shower, I feel guilty. I am constantly thinking of all of those who are struggling so much more in my country just a few kilometers away.

It is hard when I think that I chose Ukraine. I lived for several years in Canada and the United Arab Emirates, traveled all through Central America, and could have lived anywhere else, but I chose to come back. In just one morning, Putin destroyed all my dreams. I hate that I can’t even plan my tomorrow, much less the rest of my life, because everything can change overnight.  

The worry that it could be me or my family next, running from the explosions, losing everything in an instant, hangs over me. But when my spirits are low and I’m thinking of myself and what I could lose, a thought comes like a slap in the face.

I remind myself: Svitlana, there are lots of horrible things happening to people, experiences way worse than yours. I repeat to myself: calm down, you are okay. Do whatever you can to support those who need it, and fight.

I try to be realistic, because it might be just a matter of time before all of those awful things happen to me as well. But until then, I am not leaving Ukraine. I am not crossing any borders. My country needs me, and there’s so much I can do. I will not forgive myself if I leave. 

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