‘No one is surprised here’: Former UMass researcher details experience in western Ukraine

  • Khrystyna Kunets, seventh from the left, volunteers with others in Lviv, Ukraine, to make camouflage netting for tanks. The effort is one of many Ukrainian civilians are making to aid their military after Russia invaded on Feb. 24, 2022. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Ukrainian volunteers in Lviv, Ukraine make camouflage netting for tanks. The effort is one of many Ukrainian civilians are making to aid their military after Russia invaded on Feb. 24, 2022. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • People gathered at the border between the Hungarian village of Tiszabecs and Ukraine, where refugees from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are fleeing. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • A Hungarian school that has been turned into a refugee shelter for Ukrainians and others fleeing the Russian invasion of that country. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • A donation center in Nyiregyhaza, Hungary, set up to help refugees from from Russia's invasion of Ukraine. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/3/2022 8:03:21 PM
Modified: 3/3/2022 8:02:56 PM

Normally, Ukrainian linguist Khrystyna Kunets spends her workday like many academics do, teaching and researching topics to which she’s devoted her professional career, such as semantics, syntax and translation studies.

Nowadays, however, the Ukrainian university where Kunets teaches has been closed indefinitely and war refugees are pouring into her city, Lviv, in the country’s west where the Russian military invasion has not yet arrived.

She finds herself volunteering every day — weaving camouflage netting for tanks, for example, or handing out humanitarian aid to refugees arriving at the train station.

“Everyone I know is doing the same thing,” Kunets said.

Her grandmother died last year, and she has been letting refugees fleeing central and eastern Ukraine sleep at the empty apartment where her grandma had lived. “People sleep there almost every night.”

It was only two years ago that Kunets was a Fulbright-funded researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She was forced to return to her native Ukraine earlier than expected because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and at the time that seemed like a big blow to handle, she said. Today, it pales in comparison to the difficulties she and others are facing.

Kunets is one of those with connections to the Connecticut River Valley who are now dealing with Russia’s war on Ukraine. Kunets said that although Amherst was her home for only a year, many from the region have reached out to help. Ukrainians in the diaspora in western Massachusetts and others with connections to the region have been donating money and connecting with loved ones to make sure they’re safe.

“I’m really, really grateful to the Amherst community,” Kunets said, calling for people to donate to Ukraine’s military as it fights for the country’s independence and sovereignty. “The aid we need first is military aid … Our army is our only protection.”

There also have been local demonstrations against the war. On Friday at 1 p.m., a group of Russian citizens studying in Amherst is organizing a downtown rally in support of Ukraine.

“We are against Russian military aggression in Ukraine,” the group said in a statement Thursday, adding that their hearts are with the Ukrainians suffering from the war. “We do support Russian citizens, who are taking the risks to go to jail and being beaten by police, and who have courage to protest against this war.”

Memories of war

Maria Laplante of South Hadley is originally from the eastern Hungarian city of Nyiregyhaza, which is around 50 miles from Ukraine’s western border. Though Laplante moved to the United States 18 years ago, she still has many family members in Nyiregyhaza, who are organizing help for the Ukrainian refugees arriving in Hungary every day in large numbers.

“They’re getting together to help those fleeing — mostly women and children, some with newborn babies,” Laplante said of her friends and family in the country. The Ukrainian government has prohibited, under martial law, men between 18 and 60 from leaving the country.

Speaking with people in Hungary, Laplante said that “it’s a war kind of feeling” there. Hungarians remember the Soviet Union’s 1956 invasion of Hungary from the east and the brutal repression of a revolution against the country’s Stalinist government.

“People have PTSD (post-traumatic stress) from the Russian invasion from 1956, and of course the helicopters and the airplanes, they are hearing them constantly day and night,” Laplante said.

Many Hungarians fled abroad as refugees during that time, and Laplante said that today they are stepping up to provide refuge to Ukrainians facing the same.

The United Nations says more than 1 million people have now fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, accounting for around 2% of the country’s population of 44 million. Those numbers are expected to grow.

“It’s just the game of these … corrupt politicians, and at the end of the day these civilians are suffering,” Laplante said. “And the economic devastation that will follow this, I can’t imagine.”

Laplante has been raising money to send to organizations and people she knows in Hungary who are helping refugees.

“That’s why I started this GoFundMe page, so I can start distributing some money to these organizations and people who are helping,” Laplante said.

‘The world is ending’

For Americans, it might be hard to understand why Laplante and others like her feel like “the world is ending,” she said, adding that she has not been sleeping and one day her husband found her sobbing. She said she wanted to share stories from her family in Hungary so people locally understand.

“Most people haven’t traveled outside of the U.S. ever and they feel that they’re bulletproof,” she said. “And I don’t feel like that, and that’s why I’m panicking right now.”

Kunets, too, said that Americans might not understand what it feels like for Ukrainians. Russia’s crimes against Ukrainians have happened for hundreds of years, she said, including the suppression of their culture and language, killing of intellectuals and dissidents and the devastating Holodomor famine of 1932 and 1933 that killed millions of Ukrainians.

“So no one is surprised here,” Kunets said of Russia’s latest invasion. “We are always ready … We were born and raised with this idea that we could be attacked by Russia.”

Kunets called for the United States and its military allies to intervene in the conflict, going so far as to call for the West to shoot down Russian planes over Ukrainian airspace. The possibility of nuclear war between Russia and the United States has led many to call for de-escalation, though Kunets said it is unfair for the West to sacrifice Ukraine in order for the rest of the world to live in peace.

Meanwhile, those in western Ukraine where she lives have yet to see Russian troops or shelling in their part of the country, where Ukrainian nationalism is a strong political movement. She said many feel “survivors’ guilt” watching their compatriots be killed elsewhere in the country. She said she knows people who are spending most of their day in the capital of Kyiv living in metro stations, sheltering from the bombing above and only leaving briefly to get food and other necessities.

“We’re happy and grateful to be alive,” Kunets said of herself and others in western Ukraine.

But she doesn’t expect that feeling of safety to last, especially given the possibility of Russia pushing farther west. Already, a student from her university has been killed in the conflict, and large queues of men are growing to enlist in the military, she said.

“This is only the beginning and there can be more.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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