Editor’s note: In Hollie McKay’s newest special report for Deadline, the seasoned foreign affairs correspondent and Only Cry for the Lives: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield author is still in Ukraine, where Vladimir Putin’s invasion is turning increasingly brutal & resistance is intensifying.
I’m crammed into a tiny, Soviet-style bunker within the city’s nucleus. The world above is ringing with the sound of Church Bells and air raid sirens. Across from me in the cold confinement are two unfamiliar faces, who I quickly learned were budding filmmakers with a handheld camera were documenting everyday moments of Russia’s searing invasion of its much smaller neighbor, Ukraine.
“I guess this will be our graduation film,” Kyral Kurinsky, 38, tells me calmly. “If we ever graduate.”
Kyral and his Finnish classmate Lukas were just weeks away from completing their director’s course at the prestigious Ukrainian Film School when war ripped through their dreams in late February.
And while social media feeds have been flushed with wincing images of trauma-stricken faces fleeing Ukraine’s borders, many physically cannot leave – no matter what the war brings in the coming days. Kyral must stay, as marital law forbids Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country. Nevertheless, his wife Jen – paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair – has no choice but to endure whatever blitz and bombing campaign the Russians may ignite in the days, weeks, or months to come.
But it’s a fate the 32-year-old IT and video software specialist, who works on special projects for prominent video/audio technology company Avid.com, takes all in her stride.
The young couple was driving through western Ukraine’s mountainous terrain to go to her grandmother’s funeral in the summer of 2016 when a car overtook them at high speed, prompting Kyral to lightly brake. The small car spun wildly due to summer rainfall and ended up in a trench by the side of a road.
“I knew straight away I had broken my neck. My chair was reclined, and it was because of that position my two vertebrae snapped,”Jen explains, eagerly to illuminate the silver thread. “But a rock landed right where my head would have been in if the chair had been upright, so that might have been a very different ending.”
Even the things you should consider second nature, were transformed into the subject of horror movies after weeks of difficult recovery.
“I had to learn to stop using a ventilator and to breathe by myself,”Jen recalls the serious lung injuries she suffered in the accident. “It was hard, and I couldn’t sleep. When you start to fall asleep, your breath gets slower, and I could feel it, and I was terrified. So I would count my breath consciously, in and out, trying to control it all day and night.”
Softly speaking media and computing professional, she claims that she experiences phantom pains often and insists on her husband uncrossing her arms from her chest. “I think this is the last position my arms were in when we were in the car,”She notes. “It is the last thing my brain remembers before everything changed.”
However, the most challenging yet most exciting moral victory was – just four months after the horrific ordeal – Jen was maneuvered from their quiet home on a hill for a night at the movie theater, something she says she will never take for granted again.
The couple agrees that in times like war, those moments of entertainment and shortness matter.
“I am still developing software for live concerts, mixing sounds, and despite all this, I would really love to make a historical film, something that takes place in Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains,”Kyrel is optimistic. “A real visual escape.”
The Kurinskys claim that they have enough food, medicine, and other necessities to live for at least a few days in heavy wartime prisoner lockdown. Jen can’t move quickly to the basement even when the air raid warning sirens sound. She survived the dark days once and is confident she can do it again.
As the conflict escalates, nearly two million Ukrainians fled their country. Jen, however, is not one of the many millions who can run away. And while she may not be able to take up arms in the streets, Jen is taking the fight to the frontline in other ways – an embodiment of almost every Ukrainian, willing to use whatever skillset possible to propel the Russian advance into their beloved land. Jen is unable to use her arms so Jen uses a straw-like stick that she holds in place with the help of her teeth to control an iPad-type device.
“I can monitor cyberattacks, pass this information on and also track Russian propaganda. They use a lot of different channels, from Telegram to Facebook to Instagram and YouTube, to spread their messages, so I collect these and also pass them along to be blocked,”With a proud smile, she said it. “There are a lot of things civilians can do.”
Roman Matsyuta is a well-known Ukrainian actor-musician. He guards a sandbagged security checkpoint close to the Presidential buildings. I see him with a cigarette between his lips, and a rifle strapped across his shoulder.
Roman’s eyes are wide and open, his face full of emotion, and his eyes are wide and wet. Roman is a poignant witness to the many roles he played in war-themed productions. His most recent movieThe Narrow BridgeRoman was a painter who is forced to switch colors for a Kalashnikov in the face of a foreign invasion.
“When I was acting, I would use those blank cartridges to shoot, and I would be thinking every time, ‘God save us from having something like that in real life.’ And now it happened,”Roman says that his voice is caught in grief. “And it happened in the most terrible variant of scenarios that Russia could have taken to hurt Ukraine.”
The actor, 45 years old, makes a passionate plea for Hollywood and wider culture to speak out against the invasion and inform Russians what their dictatorial leaders are doing.
“It is easier for us to win with the support of the whole cultural western world,”Roman asserts.
Everywhere I go, arts and culture and music still hold a prominent place in people’s – a kind of wellspring in the crux of the chaos – as the rockets crack the air. Frontline medics of the Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital put on their armor and accelerate towards the latest attack. They assemble a thickly-accented Ukrainian Operatic stuff, mixed with patriotic battlefield tunes.
This conflict has revealed a darker side to the conflict. It’s jarring to recognize that relations between these two nations may have suffered irreparable damage, with young Ukrainians who have been deeply traumatized by this unprovoked war heralded by Moscow experiencing anger, confusion, and hatred.
“There is a song young children have started singing about Putin hanging himself,”Olek, a volunteer driver and painter, told me this story with wide eyes in the middle of the afternoon. “I don’t know where it came from, where they learned it, but the children are all learning this.”
Just minutes before curfew, I’m making my way back to my Kyiv hotel via empty roads, now marked by concrete chunks and checkpoints sandbagged with concrete. A baby-faced fighter inspects my Passport, and smiles far away.
“You know, I am a cello player, and I used to dream of going to America, to Hollywood to compose,”He looks at me with awe. “But I am glad I never went. It is much better to be here, fighting for my country.”