BATAVIA — Wednesday, Feb. 23, was when Batavian and Ukraine native Pavlo Huda and his family’s life changed.
Pavlo moved to the United States from Ukraine in 2014 and has lived in Batavia for the past several years. Since moving to the states, he’s been separated from his family, which remains in his home country. Never has the distance between him and his loved ones taken a toll as it has the past several weeks.
With the Russo-Ukraine War escalating, Pavlo has sat back and watched as Russian president Vladimir Putin and his massive army have invaded Pavlo’s native land, including the infiltration of his former home city Kyiv, and many other towns and villages across Ukraine over the past couple of weeks.
Along with bombings across the nation, Russian ground forces have begun to occupy the eastern part of Ukraine with no end to the conflict in sight.
That Wednesday at 10 p.m. things all came to a head for Pavlo and his family.
Finishing up some paperwork in his home office, Pavlo had the television on in the background and was listening to a United Nations meeting that was taking place in New York City. As he was listening, a newsflash interrupted the broadcast announcing that Putin was speaking from the Kremlin.
While Putin’s remarks weren’t being shown live on CNN, Pavlo rifled through the internet and landed on a Russian broadcast feed of Putin’s conference.
“Right in the middle of it, I was watching what he was saying, and it came down to the point where goes, ‘We’re going to start military,’ not exercise, he didn’t call it an invasion, but he said, ‘We’re going to move into Ukraine and try to defend.’ That’s what they claim — to defend Ukrainian people,” said Pavlo. “Right after that, five minutes later, I got back to the UN meeting, and the reporter interrupts again, and he says we’re hearing some bombing in Kyiv.”
That was the moment when a sleepless, horrific week and a half began for Pavlo and his family.
“That was a shock,” he said of the reported bombing in his native city.
The Batavia entrepreneur then logged on to Twitter and, upon scrolling through social media, stumbled across footage of the bombing in Kyiv. Horror ensued. That’s where his parents were.
“On Twitter and CNN, they put up a piece of the video where a reporter is making a speech, and there is a bombing — you can hear it,” said Pavlo.
He quickly picked up the phone. Despite the seven-hour time difference between the U.S. and Ukraine, Pavlo dialed his mother and father.
“I called my dad, and he was asleep,” said Pavlo. “(Him and my mom) didn’t hear (the bombing) because Kyiv is a huge city, and thank god it was on the other side of the city. So I woke him up, and I was like, what’s going on? What’s happening? Are they moving in or something?”
Pavlo’s father, Oleg, hung up the phone and began making calls to friends and colleagues throughout the city to acquire more information about what was taking place in what was the early morning hours that Thursday in Ukraine.
About 10 or 15 minutes into Oleg’s search for answers, the Hudas discovered news of bombings across Ukraine. They were heartbroken. And they were frightened.
“They bombed every single city across Ukraine — every airfield, military bases — that was shocking,” said Pavlo. “And then we start to get reports around midnight, one o’clock (in the U.S.) that Russians are actually moving in from every single side, not just from the eastern part of Ukraine, but from northern and a lot of military build up coming in from Crimea (south of Ukraine).”
Just north of the Crimean peninsula sits the city of Kherson, where Pavlo grew up before moving to Kyiv when he was 12 years old. Pavlo’s parents have remained in Kyiv since moving to the U.S. eight years ago. But much of his extended family and many friends remain in Kherson.
“Seeing all the images of hundreds of trucks and tanks are moving (into Kherson), that was horrific,” said Pavlo. “I couldn’t sleep until 4 a.m. — that was crazy. Being on the phone, calling people, trying to make sure everybody’s all right.”
Each family member he spoke with was accounted for, and his friends were well. But the fear within each of them was building. Pavlo could sense it.
“People are scared because no one — we kind of expected it — but no one believed it could actually happen,” he said of the scale of the Russian invasion. “From there on, you see what’s going on. It’s getting worse and worse every day. People keep dying.”
No longer has simple military action been the sole source of the many casualties across the nation. Bombings of hospitals, churches and residential homes by the Russians have steadily fed a growing body count.
“Things continue to develop, and the crisis continues to be ongoing,” said Pavlo. “We’ve seen Russia take some towns and cities across Ukraine. They keep bombing cities, and a lot of civilian casualties build up.”
The death and destruction resulting from the war waged by the Russian president have weighed heavily on the minds of Ukrainians around the world. But the most terrifying aspect of this ordeal? The unknown.
“It’s getting to the point where you just don’t know what to expect tomorrow and if they will be leaving tomorrow,” said Pavlo. “So it’s getting really sad.”
Weeks before Russia’s invasion, news surfaced regarding potential aggression coming from Russia against Ukraine. Putin had sent Russian troops by the thousands to the Ukrainian border and made it appear as if an invasion was inevitable. Despite that fact, Pavlo says he and his native people never truly grasped the gravity of the threat posed by the Russians.
“It was sad, but it’s funny because we never believed it could happen,” said Pavlo of the Russian invasion.
Leading up to the invasion, Pavlo’s family and many across Ukraine prepared for a potential escape from their home if what was most feared indeed came to pass. Important documents were collected, food and water were placed in the car, gas tanks were filled. But still, doubt lingered in the minds of many.
“People kind of started to prepare, but no one believed or gave it a deep thought,” said Pavlo of the looming Russian aggression. “But I was calling my parents, and I was telling them it’s getting bad ... Make sure you have it all ready in case something happens.”
A week before, Pavlo says that many Ukrainians expected, if something were going to happen, it would occur following the 2022 Winter Olympics, which concluded on Feb. 20. But immediately following the Olympics, nothing happened. As a result, Pavlo says Ukrainian people let their guards down.
“People kind of cooled down,” he said regarding the potential invasion. “Hoping that everything was going to be fine.”
Russian troops started to infiltrate Ukrainian territory on Feb. 24. The next morning, Pavlo’s parents, Oleg and Victoria Huda, decided to leave Kyiv and make their way to a safer region within Ukraine. They headed west to the city of Lviv, near the border with Poland.
Men 18 to 60 years old have been prohibited from leaving the country per an order put in place by Ukraine’s government to keep them available for military enrollment. Rather than Victoria depart the country and leave her husband behind, Pavlo’s parents, both under 60 years of age, decided to stick together.
“My mother was never going to leave my father,” said Pavlo. “Thank god they left Kyiv, and now it’s sort of a safety zone.”
Pavlo’s parents left Kyiv at around 8 a.m. on Friday and embarked on what turned out to be a marathon trip to Lviv. The Hudas hit the roads to try and expedite their journey a few hundred miles across the country. Although they made good time in the early going of their trip, Pavlo’s parents soon ran into bumper-to-bumper traffic.
“There is just one main road that goes through the western part of Ukraine, and everybody was there, stuck, and they put checkpoints (everywhere),” said Pavlo. His parents endured a seven-to-eight-hour trek, much of which was spent at a standstill before stopping to spend the night.
Then, the following day, it was the same thing all over again. On their trip, the Huda’s took with them just a single bag.
“My mom was calling me and crying she was like ‘I can’t believe I’m leaving it. I’m leaving everything we have, Like, why?’,” said Pavlo. “I told them, don’t worry. All that stuff you can always buy again, so forget about it all. The most important is your health and your life.”
The trip was taxing, and the thought of being unable to return home weighs heavily on Pavlo and his parents. But Oleg and Victoria are safe, at least for now.
“It was probably a 200-300 miles drive but eight hours on the road because of so much traffic,” said Pavlo. “But it’s fine, and right now, they’re settled down finally, and everything’s good. But it’s scary.”
NOT OVER YET
There is no telling how quickly the danger posed by the Russian invasion will again present itself to the Hudas.
“(My parents) are calling me, and they’re saying (Ukraine) is mobilizing troops,” said Pavlo. “They’re digging in because there is still a huge, huge potential for Russia to move towards the western part of Ukraine as well.”
Just days after the invasion of Kyiv, Russia began bombing Pavlo’s childhood home, Kherson, which caused his initial emotions to come flooding back.
“It’s just ridiculous,” said Pavlo of watching from afar the destruction of the place he grew up. “I have my family and friends there. So it’s just emotional, and it’s really sad. That’s all I can say — it’s just so sad.”
The most challenging element of the destruction for Pavlo was viewing images online of familiar places throughout his hometown, now scorched due to the bombing that has taken place throughout Kherson. Stores, soccer fields, tennis courts, streets where Pavlo used to ride his bicycle are all burned up.
“I see those buildings, and I remember — I’ve been there,” said Pavlo. “I grew up there. I rode a bicycle. I ran with my friends playing soccer and playing tennis. And seeing it all — devastating.”
Along with the images of burned-up memories, the 25-year-old has also come across the true toll that war takes on the world.
“Seeing people just dead on streets — civilians — why would you do it?” he said. “Why would you claim you’re trying to save them and protect them when you don’t?”
Now, Pavlo and his family face the challenge of enduring the unknown of what is to come next from the Putin.
“It’s just a lot of emotions, a lot of sleepless nights and just constantly monitoring the news and all the information,” said Pavlo.
After days of chaos, Pavlo says he and his family have run the gamut of emotions. While numb from the destruction, the threat of losing a loved one continues to weigh heavily on the minds of not just the Hudas but many across the globe.
“It’s constantly on my mind,” said Pavlo of the potential loss of a family member or friend. “Because of the internet and stuff, you constantly see all the information coming in, and it’s like updated on a minute-by-minute basis, so there is always a danger (of someone you know dying).”
Since his hometown was invaded, Pavlo has been making phone calls like never before.
“I call my family like my grandmothers and my friends in Kherson, which is occupied now, and all the (horrific) stuff they’re telling me now is crazy,” he said. “You have to accept that there is a possibility (you might lose someone). And there is nothing I can do about it.”
Dealing with personal loss isn’t a new concept for Pavlo and his family. In 2015, Pavlo lost his stepbrother, a member of Ukraine’s armed forces. Knowing the heartbreak that can result from war, Pavlo says he is bracing himself for the worst.
“Unfortunately, I keep thinking about it,” said Pavlo. “I try to say that it will be good, that nothing is going to happen, But being objective about it, there is a war going on, so anything could happen. And that’s why I’m so worried about my parents because I don’t know if they’re going to start moving in on the western part of Ukraine tomorrow. What is going to happen? Is it going to be the same as in Kyiv?”
WHERE THINGS BEGAN & WHERE THEY’RE GOING
Nearly a decade ago, in February and March 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in a matter of days.
The Ukrainian revolution had just concluded, and without a structured government in place within the country, it wasn’t difficult for Putin to seize control. Upon taking Crimea, Russia then began to move its people into the eastern part of Ukraine.
Eight years later, the conflict in Crimea has proven to be a significant step toward the devastation people have seen unfold over the past several weeks.
In February, Putin declared two separatist regions within the eastern part of Ukraine — Luhansk and Donetsk — where Russian supporters had made their way following the Crimean crisis, as independent from Ukrainian rule. In Putin’s mind, many observers say, this gave Russia the green light to invade Ukraine to “protect” the Russian people living within each city.
“Before (the Crimean crisis), Russians and Ukrainians, we were pretty close — let’s be honest, really close,” recalled Pavlo. “The culture is somewhat similar and people, we have like so many relatives and friends across our two countries, so a lot of people move from Ukraine to Russian, and maybe move to Russia from Ukraine. So it’s all interchangeable, so we all know each other.”
Then, in Pavlo’s eyes and those of many other Ukrainians, Russia turned its back on Ukraine in Crimea. Since that moment, the dynamic between the two countries has shifted.
“From that point on, (Ukrainian-Russian relations) started to deteriorate,” said Pavlo. “Slowly but steadily, you can see it. It just progresses. People started to hate Russians. Not just (the) country, but other people in Russia because they’re basically the ones who brought it.”
Pavlo and many other Ukrainians are frustrated with the Russian people for standing by as their president wields power in such a destructive manner.
“They’re an independent country, and they should have a right to manage their own government and to tell their government what to do,” said Pavlo. “Because they supposedly elected (Putin). But from what we see, they’re afraid of their government, and they just follow their orders. So from (the crisis in Crimea) up until now, it’s just getting worse.”
Before the war, Ukraine was a freedom-loving country whose people valued their independence above all else. Now, Russia is challenging everything Pavlo and his fellow Ukrainians hold dear.
“That’s why probably the conflict happened,” he said. “Because we want to be on our own. We want to be independent, and that’s what I love about Ukraine. We know who we are, and we want to tell Russia that we are not a part of them.
“We just want to be free. And that’s why we are looking into (NATO and the European Union). We want to be a part of that democratic movement. Because we believe it’s correct.”
Putin’s actions against Ukraine also stemmed from the Russian president’s eagerness to block Ukraine’s membership in NATO, an intergovernmental military alliance, which was rumored to be on the horizon before the war escalated.
“We are our own country, our own culture, our own people,” said Pavlo. “It’s not about being better than Russia.”
Pavlo continues: “And that’s why we fight so hard right now. That’s incredible. That’s the spirit of being free. And that’s why we look at Russia, and we laugh at them right now because they are claiming to be an independent country. But they are not free.”
Pavlo says due to the recent aggression from Russia, relations between the two countries have likely been forever tarnished.
“From now on, I don’t think we will ever claim to be friendly to Russians,” said Pavlo. “I don’t think so. It’s like we are no longer brothers, and we will never be, probably because there is just so much hatred. They’re coming to Ukraine, an independent state, and killing people. Why? Why?”
RETURN TO NORMALCY
With Ukraine under siege by the Russian military, Pavlo’s parents are searching for a return to normalcy and safety — whether that comes within their native country or abroad.
“The plan was, for me, I was actually asking them to come here and seek asylum or something,” said Pavlo. “Because if it’s going to go (as it has), I don’t see the crisis (stopping) anytime soon. It’s an ongoing situation, and it’s just getting worse. And we see that Russia is just bombing every city. And I’m afraid that they’re just going to destroy it all, so there is pretty much just nowhere to go back.”
Despite the current restrictions preventing his parents from leaving Ukraine together, Pavlo hopes that he will soon be reunited with his family.
“I’m hoping that at some point they’ll be able to come here,” he said. “My parents, they really don’t want to leave because they have business, they have friends and everything there. So it’s really hard for someone, especially at that age, just to abandon everything and leave. So they try to be optimistic that things will get better.”
Pavlo says his mom hopes that she and her husband will return to Kyiv. But with things continuing to trend in a troublesome direction, it’s difficult for Pavlo to believe that things will work out back home.
“My mom just said today, ‘Everything is going to be good. We’re going to come back,’” said Pavlo. “But honestly, deep down, I’m afraid that may not happen. I wish Ukrainian troops will be strong and continue to be strong — they are strong right now. And there is still a possibility that nothing will go as bad as people might expect, and we’ll have some good ending soon — finally, we’ll get some peace. But so far, peace talks are not bringing anything good, and we just see cities getting bombed, and people and children die.”
If the war between the Russians and Ukrainians continues to escalate, Pavlo says he would like his parents to join him in the city and country that he has called home for the past eight years.
“I went to (Genesee Community College) first, transferred to (SUNY Geneseo), graduated, and I decided to stay here,” said Pavlo. “I love this place. Batavia is just a small town but a lot of great people, a great community, and a lot of support. I can’t believe how many people called me or emailed me or texted me over the past week. And I wasn’t surprised, surprised. But I felt, wow, so people actually do care. Even though it’s so far away, people, they still try to understand what’s going on and to learn. And it was great, and it’s fantastic how people are supportive around here. That’s why I stick around here because I think it’s a great place to be and to do business. Great people, great community, I enjoy it.”
When asked what those in Batavia and beyond can do to help aid Ukraine’s battle for independence, Pavlo provided a simple answer.
“I really want people to know that the war is bad, it’s disgusting, and people (are dying),” he said. “And when you’re far away from it, you don’t see it. You don’t feel it. But pay attention. Pay attention because you never know how close it might come to you or your family or friends and how you might be impacted by it.”
When things initially heated up between the Russians and Ukrainians, Pavlo noticed few people in the U.S. were paying attention to what was going on overseas.
“I was so disappointed,” said Pavlo. “I couldn’t believe when the whole thing started, and nobody cared.”
His frustration grew as governments worldwide refused to step in and provide assistance to Ukraine.
“I was like, how can you allow in the middle of Europe one country start to take over the other?” said Pavlo.
Various nations have since stepped in to impose harsh sanctions against Russia in hopes of dissuading Putin from continuing to pursue such a destructive path. Military aid has also been offered to Ukraine.
“They probably realized there is danger, not just to Ukraine but to all the democratic world,” said Pavlo on what he felt prompted other nations to step in. “And they started to make moves, and by Monday (Feb. 28), we started to see huge, huge support.”
It doesn’t take much to support those afflicted, says Pavlo. It’s not just governmental support that is needed. Individuals can also aid the effort.
“Try to understand what’s going on, and don’t be sorry — be optimistic,” he said. “Try to support people who got impacted. Be involved in some form or shape. If you can, support financially. Say something. Share the information. If you can, participate in something.”
Over the past few weeks, life has not been easy for Pavlo, his family, his friends, and all those affected by the ongoing Russo-Ukraine war. But Ukrainians aren’t giving up hope that they will once again be safe within their own country.
For now, Pavlo is asking all those with a voice to speak out against tyranny and the potential destruction of freedom in his native country.
“It’s important,” he said. “Right now, it’s Ukraine. But you never know what could happen next and what other country might be impacted. Try to be involved, try to get information, try to understand what’s going on and support the idea of freedom, independence and democracy.”