War in Ukraine: I have no home, only things in my survival bag

When Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February, many Ukrainians were forced to flee. Many left with just a few essentials. Here photographer Anna Ozerchuk speaks to people about the odd things packed in their bag.

We'd all been packing survival bags in advance hoping we would never use them. Those who left on the morning of the 24th of February took only their passports. Some were holding strong but even they eventually had to go. From all of those who left, we all had something odd in our bags. In this project, each heroine wears things from her suitcase and explains why she took those exact wardrobe pieces. She describes why she decided to leave and what personal treasure she brought.

Natasha Alimaskina, co-founder Outcrowd Web Design Agency

I'm from Kharkiv.

I woke up at 5 am because of the explosions, as did the rest of the country. The first thing I did was call my close people, colleagues, and relatives. I decided to leave in the afternoon after collecting all the documents in the office. I packed my bag in 15 minutes.

My friend brought the things I'm wearing – an embroidered shirt (vyshyvanka) and white pants – to Lviv from Kharkiv because when I was leaving I took almost no clothes except a couple of T-shirts and sweatpants. When I realised my friend could bring me some of my things, I immediately knew I wanted to have that specific vyshyvanka. It's incredible; it was created from 100 years old cloth from the Kosiv region by Bogdan Petrychuk, an antique collector. I will celebrate our victory in this shirt.

Also, this candle from Gunia Project — is the thing that warms me up a lot. I was preparing to attend a housewarming party at my friend's place on the 1st of March and bought this candle for her. I accidentally left it in my car — this is how this candle started travelling with me. After the war, we will celebrate the housewarming party in our beautiful and independent Kharkiv.

Maria Gavryliuk, co-founder Gunia Project

I'm from Kyiv. On the 24th of February, we woke up from explosions and immediately decided to move to the Western part of Ukraine. We couldn't even imagine that we would hear explosions in Kyiv. This sweater by JUL was a New Year gift from my team; since then, it has become my most favourite and warmest thing. Those two pendants are talismans from Gunia. I knew that I wanted to take some of our products with me. In addition, the signs depicted on them are ancient solar signs symbolising life, the first known image of the Ukrainian coat of arms from the coin, and "The ferocious beast" — amulets from the era of Kievan Rus.

Maryna Olevska, brand-director Marsala

I'm from Kyiv. I work in fashion. That's why things I took are reminders of what I will do after we win.

Before the war, my boyfriend and I agreed: if we felt triggered at some point, this was our point of departure. It happened in the morning of the 24th of February: we took our family and decided to leave. I knew what I wanted to take with me in advance. Mostly necessary things, but there were some pieces I cannot imagine myself without. I took my favourite sweatshirt from Marsala & Mystetskyi Arsenal collaboration and a satin skirt from Nuga. In addition, my favourite rings from Rara. They are blue and yellow. I consider them my talisman because I never leave home without them. Those whimsical shoes are a gift from the Carpathians. They saved me when it was freezing.

Everything I wear is made in Ukraine. So cool when you can wear things from home. It's inspiring.

Nata Smirina, singer, songwriter(Pur:Pur, Astronata) and Illya Misiura, musical producer (Pur:Pur, Astronata, Jamala, Dub Beans)

We are Nata and Illya from Kharkiv.

We decided to leave on the 4th day of the war because it was raging in the very city centre and the ground was trembling. We hesitated for a long time — even when we were sitting with the suitcase ready to go, there were doubts about leaving our home. Every 30 minutes, we heard sounds of bombing; since we didn't own a car, I knew that it would be difficult to leave if the situation got worse. It was so scary. My persistent friends called us to join them near Poltava and asked us every hour: "Are you leaving? Leave now!" I hesitated, "Not today, maybe in a day or two it will be over?" but my friends kept pushing, "Leave now!" so I found a driver, and he drove us to the train station. We were ready to spend a night at the train station to leave. After four hours of waiting, we were on the train. In one week, we got to Lviv. We stayed at my follower's apartment. It's good luck to have such caring people ready to host you indefinitely. I'm so grateful for this!

When I was packing, I put on the most convenient and warm clothes from our brand Hochusobitake (promise this is not advertising). I put it on the first day of war and slept in it for the next three days, and I even left wearing those clothes. In my suitcase, I put sneakers and two bottles of water: no cosmetics, no other clothes — nothing. I thought, "probably I should take something else," and replied to myself, "You don't need it — this is the war!" It's hard to pack your survival bag while panicking. Now I understand why smart people said to pack it before the war. I couldn't believe that all the assumptions about the war would come true.

I wanted to take my whole home as something special. It's impossible, so I decided to take polaroid photos and my favourite silver jewellery. I have a big collection of rings at home, and I thought I would come back soon, so I took only those I was wearing recently.

Oksana Kasyanova, blogger, psychologist

The most horrible morning of my life started with the sirens in the Kyiv city centre on the 24th of February. My husband and I were packing in a hurry because we didn't prepare any survival bags in advance. We packed and then started to discuss the decision to leave. We were hesitating and had doubts about whether we should leave the city. Traffic, bombing, rumours about landed airborne units — a decision with the price of your own life. Anyways, staying in an apartment on the 16th floor and panoramic windows was not an option. So we left our home listening to the sound of air-raid sirens in the background.

I remember how despite the panic, I was packing things the way I would pack for a vacation, just for two weeks. But I had this feeling to take my favourite things. These things that, on some level, will give me hope and the feeling that life will go on despite everything.

Thus at the last minute, my brain was trying to tell me: "Why? Those things aren't necessities!" I packed a pair of new Jimmy Choo shoes into my suitcase, hoping for the occasion to wear them in the future. One month has passed, and I'm still sure they will have their moment.

Leona Vasylenko, Marketplace and E-commerce Manager at Skylum Software

I was born in Donetsk and already fled the war in 2014… to Lviv. After some time, I moved to Kyiv. Now, in 2022, I'm escaping the war again… to Lviv.

At 5 o'clock on the 24th of February, a phone call woke me up: "Pack your things; I will withdraw cash and buy some food." We hadn't decided to leave the capital at that moment. But in 6 hours, we were in the car moving towards the exit of Kyiv.

It was like a dream; it happened again — air raid sirens, sounds of aviation, military vehicles, endless newsfeed we were checking every second, one worse than another. "The saviours" came again… In 2014, I didn't take anything. I had a chance, but I never thought I would ever return. I thought, in one month, by the end of the summer, next year… I was hoping for three years.

After that, subconsciously, I became a minimalist, and only now do I realise it was not following conscious living trends; I was afraid to lose everything again. The scariest part of this story is that my fear was justified. This time I left with a small suitcase and backpack, and yes, all my things fit in there.

Only my dinnerware I've been collecting for years from all over the world, and received as gifts from my friends, was left in Kyiv. With them, my old coat and one of the most precious possessions I have — my grandma's houseplant that she loved and I took it two years ago after she passed away — were also left behind. Finally, what's left of the family photo archive in the cookie tin box — I was planning to digitise it but never had a chance.

In my suitcase today: two pairs of pants, several T-shirts, a small purse, some cosmetics, underwear, and the most important — memories of a life I had before: several cardboard folders with postcards from the places I was lucky to visit, postcards from my dear people and letters.

Letters are the most important.

It's words from my close people who are no longer with us and some meaningful letters.

I'm wearing two shirts at the same time: yellow and blue, or, to say it in a fashionable way — freedom blue and energising yellow. I wear them all the time.

These are my two favourite things now, they are about Ukraine and my feelings — to protect myself, hide my soul under as many layers as possible, and not be hurt again. I also have my grandma's wallet. It is always with me. It's good my grandma can't see this horror. In 2014 she lived on the front line of the war and refused to leave — there was a company of our soldiers living in her home; she would cook for them, wash their things, and hug them like it was the last time, they were like her family.

She also had refugees in her home. Now it's March of 2022, and I follow her example.

Anya Ozerchuk, photographer

I was born and raised in Kyiv, and I never could've imagined that there would be explosions and war in my city. Till the last moment, I thought I would stay, but on the 10th day, it became hard to keep myself together. From the first day, Alina Vrublevska and I became information warfare fighters; we wrote many texts and articles, took lots of photos and did interviews. On the 10th day, I understood: a little more in this condition and there will be no use for me for the country.

Things in my suitcase: 50 / 50. There are useful things, and there are things iconic to me.

I'm wearing pants from my favourite Sleeper pyjamas, sweatshirt Zmist (I spent most of the time in the bomb shelter wearing it and two days on my way to Lviv I finally had a chance to wash it here).

Everything from this brand is very special to me. There are "safe distance" words on this one, this combination of words acquired special meaning only in 2020 during the pandemic, but every person has the right to comfort distance. The 8th article of the Convention for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms is also printed on this sweatshirt.

I'm also wearing warm socks from the Ukrainian brand Vish.Knitwear. The girls gave it to me as a gift in January to ease my adaptation after a long time in Sri Lanka. And Jimmy Choo sandals I bought at a market just before the war. It was a really hard day because there was so much news about the probability of Russian aggression. I decided these shoes [Jimmy Choo] would bring good luck to me. I took them to please my heart as well as my eyes.

The most valuable is a family portrait from my childhood (my mom and grandpa passed away). I put this photo in a Women Who Run with the Wolves book. This book is my bible. I think every woman should read it.

Alina Vrublevska, PR specialist

I was born in Kyiv and lived there my whole life. For several years I lived abroad, but only in Kyiv did I feel at home. When everything happened there was no place to go. Many of my friends moved to the West one week before it started; I couldn't even think about it. I did not believe it. It's still hard to believe. We went to Lviv after ten days. I couldn't endure the pressure and be afraid for my family. I managed to move my mom out; however, most of my family remained in the city. It took two days to make it to Lviv. It was the scariest of my travels.

I took sports and spring clothes with me. That's why I was freezing in Lviv during the first few days. I'm wearing a Pleasures t-shirt I bought for my boyfriend as a gift. He lives in another country, so I put it on as a sentimental amulet. I will give it to him when we meet or leave it to myself. I'm also wearing his socks and my favourite sneakers by Misbhv. The watch on my wrist is a gift from my mom. It stopped before the war, and I haven't had a chance to fix it. I believe it will protect me from trouble. Emotions and memories are the things I value the most.

Among "the treasures," I have a selection of printed articles and interviews with my grandparents, photos with my dad, and my favourite vintage (and not really) jewellery.

Text: Alina Vrublevska
Photography: Anna Ozerchuk

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