The Courage to Be Free

Yana SlavinskaJune 5, 2023CourageFeatures

Artwork by Anna Chasnyk, Age 14, Ukraine

What does the word courage mean?

The first thing people think about is the quality that allows a person, without considering the risk to their own life, to rush to help or protect someone or something. I used to think that only people who can give you safety no matter what could show courage. I had only an idea of this word until February 24th, 2022.

At 5am on February 24th, I jumped out of bed in Kherson because of strange sounds which I had never heard and my father’s words: "Wake up, war.” There were explosions. Sounds of metal structures falling on the ground that could take someone’s life in one second, sparing no one: from small children to elderly people. Everyone became defenseless against these weapons. I will remember this day, and all the further days that I spent in occupation forever. Forever!

The same day we went to the grocery shop, as usual, for products. The shelves were almost empty. People took everything, but so far, supplies had not been a problem. Days went by. Russian troops captured our city. Products were not imported, and shops sold what remained. Everyone was afraid to go out because there were murderers who destroyed everything on their way. It took courage to go outside. The evening came. Explosions. I heard a bunch of rifles outside the window. It took courage to go to bed. We sent messages to friends – there were no answers. It took courage to reassure ourselves.

The door to the kitchen was closed in order to at least somehow stop the glass of the explosion nearby, just to be on the safe side. It took courage to open the door and take something to eat.

The blackout. The darkness. My father said that it was necessary, because if you switched on a light, it was possible to lose everything. Courage was required to wait for the next day, which would give us sunlight.

My relatives live in a region far away from Kherson, and unfortunately, close to Crimea. They were occupied first. The Russians brought special devices that blocked telephonic communication, which is why we had no opportunity to hear the voice of my grandmother and to see the smile of my granddad. Courage was required not to lose emotional strength and to stay morally strong; to save the special power inside us and believe that someday we will hug each other again.

One day, the connection reappeared, but then all telephone lines were attacked by Russians. They were listening to dialogues. Courage was needed to call and talk. Talk. Just imagine that! To turn a blind eye, as if everything was okay, and communicate as usual, so as not to say a “wrong word,” for which you could be taken to prison. The word became courage. Only then I understood the importance of it. Letters, formed in one whole – a word. Everything that we considered to be a normal daily routine – to speak, to sleep, to eat, to walk, became for me, my relatives, and for thousands of Ukrainians, the embodiment of the word “courage.” To live required courage.

Russians destroyed the department store “Fabrika,” there was a petting zoo there, and fortunately, some of the animals survived. People gave them a helping hand. News about llamas, donkeys, and mini-pigs appeared on social media. Our citizens picked them up and took them to their houses. This was courage. To save the lives of animals, to give shelter and to feed them, to share your own meal because there was no place where you could buy appropriate food. To buy a few more loaves of bread in order to help others. To share, finding diapers somewhere, which for a long time were a rarity in pharmacies. There were no diapers in the twenty-first century. The maternity hospital was moved into a basement. Courage. Our doctors, nurses, and orderlies – the identity of courage. To help is to have courage. No matter what was going on outside they gave birth to new life, our future.

Every house was filled with courage. Everyone could stay or leave the city. Even to think about leaving took courage. Everyday people tried to save their family from occupation. My family made this decision too. Two bags with winter clothes. Our cat in the carrier. Our dog in my arms. Our car. Nervous looks at each other. Eyes full of fear. We knew that a lot of people who went out, as well as many who remained on the roads, were killed. We went. After a few days all the roads were closed so we were in the queue with the same families who wanted to survive. Hours went by, days passed. Courage – to not give up. To fight to the end.

Our car became our savior. Queues. Kilometer-long lines of the same rescue cars and each combining courage and the word with capital letters "CHILDREN.” Russians came and said to leave all cars and to stand in one row. Everyone came out. A kilometer queue of people and everyone was full of fear and courage. They went. People who took lives, our lives. I saw the childhood and happiness of the children who stood there next to me, and didn’t understand why a man with a weapon was there. The men continued on their way with weapons pointed at us, human beings. We had courage and no fear. We stood bravely, one next to the other, with hope in our eyes. It was a startlingly powerful hope. We promised that everything would be fine. I heard it as if it was directed to me. Courage – to stand nearby and keep quiet, holding a hand.

One morning we tried to leave again. But there were no queues. We were alone. We decided to go another way. We saw several cars. We went with them. We passed two posts successfully. But the third was a shock! We saw a white car destroyed with a lot of shots. There was only one thing in my mind: "There were people!" Courage – to close your eyes and believe that everything will be good with your family.

It was raining. We were still on our way. One more post appeared again. They ordered us to show the trunk. Mum said to father, "If they want to take anything – give it.” Courage – to consciously stay with nothing when there is an unknown future.

They didn’t let anyone go. Their words were that the war was going on, and there was a battlefield. We ran out of petrol and the other cars too. That was the time to make a decision once again. Soldiers said that they weren’t responsible for our life. The decision was made – to go on. Once again, there were destroyed cars of peaceful people, ruined houses and exploded automobiles with letters "V" and "Z.” We were lost. There was an unknown village. People went outside from their houses and, fortunately, brought the map and began to show the road. Courage is to give a helping hand while you are in need.

We went ahead. I fell asleep. Some minutes passed, and I woke up and saw a soldier in front of me. He was inspecting our car. Fear. And again, defenselessness. Trembling. But I understood that you need to keep yourself together and not be scared, even if it seems impossible.

We were on our way, when in one moment we saw our flag. A flag of freedom. Soldiers. At first glance I realized – they were our men. There were smiling men, real men! Their smiles will always be in my heart. Courage is to smile, despite anything, and not to lose spirit.

We were safe and free. We managed to do that. And at that moment we felt like a bird released from the cage. A turned page. Another one is waiting for us. However, these memories are always with me, and they will never be forgotten. They are full of the courage of each member of my family. They are filled with the courage of people who surrounded me.

The journey was divided into two parts. The first part was frightening and full of fear. It was before we saw our flag. The next part started precisely there. It seemed unreal to me. The road looked like it was shining with bright lights. We turned on our music, which we hadn’t listened to in months. We embraced each other and continued moving ahead. Long columns of cars were honking as they passed by our courageous soldiers. Courage: now I understand that it looks like the road on the way to freedom.

Yana Slavinska is a 17-year-old from Ukraine. She loves writing, and has been writing short fairytales and poetry since she was little.