My life these past two weeks felt like a bad déjà vu.
In 2014, after graduating from university in Kyiv, I was preparing to return home to my native city of Donetsk, to a nice apartment (provided by my generous grandparents) and the offer of a good job at a local TV channel. Shortly before I was set to leave, I received a horrifying call from my mom: A missile had hit my apartment. It was the start of the Russian invasion of the Donbas region. For months, I’d wake up to the news of civilians being killed, places I knew destroyed, people I knew whose lives were ruined.
Knowing I couldn’t go back, I built a life in Kyiv, got a nice cozy place in the suburb of Bucha, about 12 miles outside the capital, a bucolic spot surrounded by forests. “Bucha is the best city,” locals like to say.
On February 24, when the second war in my life started, I was on a scouting trip for my debut documentary, Symphony of Donbas. It wasn’t supposed to be a film about war. It was about the beauty of Ukraine and its unique industrial folklore (Donbas, much like the U.S. Rust Belt, was once the center of heavy industry in Ukraine before mines and factories were shut down in the 1990s.) I hoped that remembering this history, this culture, could help the region recover. One day we were descending a coal mine. The next, we’re waking up to the sounds of the bombing. My DOP and I spent several hours in the hotel’s basement, before fleeing to Kyiv.
Elena Rubashevska’s mother (in red hat) in a basement bunker with neighbors wait out the Russian bombing.
But it wasn’t just Donbas, this time the war is in the whole of Ukraine. We arrived in Kyiv to find deserted streets, bombed-out buildings, soldiers everywhere. Sirens wailing so often you quickly got used to them.
I came back to get my passport, money, some personal belongings, and to see if my mum and friends were alright. When I updated the news on my phone, there were reports of massive attacks on Kyiv. The first leaked pictures showed soldiers and tanks. And the first corpses. In the background of one photo, I recognized a spot a mile from my house. I had to get there. But that was the day they blew up the bridges.
Initially, the reports were that the Russians were only hitting strategic targets. We soon learned that wasn’t true. On the first day of the invasion, the infrastructure around the city was completely destroyed. All roads and bridges leading out of the area were blown up. As a result of the shelling, the water supply system was damaged. Kyiv was being cut off from the outside world, the start of a cruel and pointless campaign of destruction.
With no documents and whatever I had with me, I headed on foot for the central railway station. By some miracle, I boarded the train to [the western Ukraine city of] Lviv.
The scenes from my journey could come from a disaster movie — women, children, foreigners, pets —all jammed together in inhuman conditions, trying to go west. From Lviv, I took a packed bus to the border. We got off and walked the last few miles by foot. It was very cold, and I didn’t have winter clothing. A local volunteer gave me a sleeping bag which saved me. We were all together — by now it was just women and children — none of us had slept or eaten properly since the start of the war, waiting in line under a gloomy sky that seemed to match our inner state. But we’d heard Poland was letting everyone in. That gave us hope.
When we crossed the border, volunteers came with water, hot drinks, food, blankets. And information. Free cars were waiting for us to take us wherever we wanted to go.
Elena and other Ukrainians were welcomed as refugees across the border in Poland.
Now it’s two weeks later and I get that call again. My mom, still in Kyiv, is crying. She tells me a missile hit my house. Bucha was a target from the start of the war, because of the Hostomel military air base, less than three miles from my house.
Apocalyptic footage spreads across the internet. Of soldiers attacking houses, schools, hospitals. Reports from one city show a kindergarten was bombed.
The internet comes and goes, briefly restored by the brave employees of the local ISP. When the bombs falls, everyone goes underground. If you check your phone and it’s 2 p.m. and your loved ones haven’t been online, you know the bombing is continuing, and people are under threat.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense has called on civilians from the region to stop sharing any information online to prevent it from being used by Russian soldiers. But locals use private chatrooms on Whatsapp and Telegram to get information out.
Stories show successful solo escapes through the forest, of shot up civilian cars, of a pregnant woman pleading to be let out of the war zone, of volunteers brutally murdered. Without heat, water and light, people are freezing in their own homes. Electricity has been cut off. For two days there’s been no news, no communication. I worry when people can’t use their phones anymore, there will be no way to document what is happening. No evidence to bring those responsible to justice.
I’ve put Symphony of Donbas on pause for now. It is based and set in the region and cannot be made without our physical presence there. My hope is that Donbas will not be sacrificed as Crimea was. It is my home and I want to return there as soon as possible. But our film will not mention the war. There are plenty of other filmmakers who will tell those stories. My mission remains the same: to tell about the beauty and richness of the land, to explore its elements, to dig out hidden myths engraved deeply in the subconsciousness of the people living there.
For today, we’ll just try again to find out what is happening to our family and friends. All people there can do is just wait and pray. That’s all we can do as well.
Elena Rubashevska is a filmmaker, critic and an editor-in-chief at Fipresci, the International Federation of Film Critics. Her family is still in Ukraine.