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Anna Mayakovska
Piercing and tattoo artist

Vuhlehirsk — Kharkiv — Chemnitz (Germany) — Kharkiv

I am from the Donetsk region, a town called Vuhlehirsk, which is between Debaltseve and Yenakiieve. This was the second time I moved because of the war. I first left in May 2014. At that time there were already confrontations.

I had to have my passport issued in Kharkiv. I was 16. But I stayed for eight years. I couldn't go back to Vuhlehirsk. That was when the railroad service was destroyed. At that time my hometown was not as dangerous as it had become in February 2015, when it got encircled. Anyway, I couldn't stay and study there any longer. I started choosing educational institutions in Kharkiv.

Back then I was a teenager. And teenagers in general have zero self-preservation instinct. So for me, the move was not traumatic. Everything just felt like an accident. As if the change of city was not forced. I had dreamed of living in Kharkiv. My mother and grandmother remained at home.

I did not believe in a full-scale war. There were fewer clients before February 24. But I connected it to the fact that people were just anxious. On the 24th, when it all started, I was sound asleep. A call from a friend I hadn't spoken to in years woke me up.

And I thought she had probably lost her mind. She yelled: "Anya, the war has started, they're bombing!" She was in Rohan, and I could hear the explosions on the phone. I lived on Odesskaya Street myself. My mother and grandmother were staying with me. I heard these explosions in the receiver. And I started to panic. I was walking back and forth, I couldn't calm down. I went to wake up my mother and grandmother. And my mom was so calm. Usually, she's the more nervous one.

It seemed at the time that it would all be over quickly. That it wasn't serious. But there were flashbacks from Donetsk. To tell the truth, my memory wiped away what happened eight years ago. It wasn't as scary then as it was now when I experienced it as an adult. Never before in my life had I been as scared as I was on February 24, 2022, in Kharkiv.

I left Kharkiv only a month after the full-scale war had begun. On March 27. I was offered a job and I realized that I could do more good if I worked and got money to donate. Besides, it got really loud in the city. You could hear explosions all the time.

My boss and I decided to take the evacuation train to Lviv. On the day of my departure, the situation in Kharkiv became even tenser. Yet, I was still one step away from changing my mind about leaving. I was just about to stay. I remember sitting in the kitchen, eating chops and crying. I couldn't eat them. Grandma said, "Anya, eat!" And I replied through my tears, "I'm not going anywhere."

My mother and I went outside with my suitcase. And it started to get very intense. The ground was shaking. We went into the house three times. My boss freaked out and drove past my house. Barely found me. Although she had been to my place more than once. It was a panic.

I said goodbye to my mother. We were driving across the bridge, everything was shaking. Then I thought, "What if the bridge just collapses and I don't get anywhere?" That 15-minute ride across the bridge seemed like an eternity.

When we got on the train, we started crying. Everyone on the train seemed to be crying. You just realize that you're leaving your home. And that's it. You don't know what happens next. You don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. Or in a minute.

As we approached each city we were followed by an air raid alert. I remember hearing explosions in Kyiv, as we went out on the platform for a smoke. As we were leaving the Kyiv region, I took a look out the window. I turned my head to the left and saw bodies lying at the checkpoint. It was unclear if they were civilians or not. I looked to the right and saw an oil refinery on fire through the window. That was the scariest and most difficult trip I have ever had.

The first thing I experienced in Germany was the realization of how far away I was. God knows exactly where from home. I had never gone anywhere so far away before. It was like being left alone as a child at the checkout line in a store. When your mom had left and it was your turn.

In Germany, everything is very complicated. At least compared to Ukraine. Here there are long lines because of the paperwork.  You can't even just deposit money through a terminal. You have to go to the bank, then in three days you will get this money.

There is a sense of guilt about being in safety. It haunts me. As if I were a traitor fleeing the city. To a place where there is no shooting. But I wish all those who have escaped the shelling didn't blame themselves.

I work here as a tattoo artist. I don't do many piercings. I work as an in-home tattoo artist. I didn't register as an IDP. I already have one certificate, the one I got after I had moved from the Donetsk region, it's enough. I don't plan to stay here.

No one here treats me badly. Nobody points out that I'm a refugee. Well, there was one dude at the cafe. But I think he's just out of his mind: the kind of guy who's generally unhappy with everything.

This move is radically different as compared to the one eight years ago. Yes, I miss the Donetsk region because I lived there for 16 years. But then I was a teenager and things were perceived differently.

For eight years I never went to the Donetsk region. For me, it was home as long as Ukraine was there. I will go back there when it is under Ukrainian control again. Until then I don't want to.

When my mother went to Vuhlehirsk, I asked her to take pictures of the places where I grew up, and where I had spent my childhood. I have nostalgia and warm memories. But already for some time now my home is in Kharkiv. In this city, I have my freedom and my people.

Now I feel pain for Kharkiv. It's a very special city for me. It is a party city and a quiet one at the same time, a city of balance. I miss my people. If I could take them from Khar'kov and move them here, seems it would be a little easier. But it still wouldn't be the same.

Some of my folks have already returned to Kharkiv. My mother and grandmother call and text me every day. They're not very happy that I'm planning to go back. Because it's still not safe there. But I'm going back anyway. That's my number one goal right now.

Recorded by Valeriia Merenkova
Translated by Katsiaryna Khinevich