At the beginning of a crisis it’s the adrenaline that gets you through. When Ukrainians woke up on the morning of February 24, 2022, they were jolted into a world of urgency and alarm. Explosions, jets screaming overhead, tanks on their highways.
I remember reading headlines in the sleepy village on the coast of Brittany where I live, when an email from an editor popped into my inbox: Do you want to go to Ukraine for us? Once upon a time I had been a war correspondent in Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt during the Arab Spring, but over the past few years I had started writing about food as a way to illustrate larger issues: ecology, economics, identity. I briefly weighed the article about onions I was working on against the Russian invasion. Forty-eight hours later I was in Ukraine. Call it muscle memory, my brain switched from peace to war as soon as I pulled on my Blundstone boots. All the everyday stuff—grocery shopping, admin, social events, diary entries known as “plans”—fell away.
Ukrainians were forced to make this transition at gunpoint. Very suddenly, actions were reduced to reflexes: fight or flight. In the western city of Lviv I saw volunteers for the Territorial Defense Force lined up in the street in borrowed, mismatched camouflage; at the train station there were thousands of people queuing in snow flurries, carrying children and pets and whole lives in raw, chafed hands, evacuating from cities under bombardment in the east.
Immediately a vast network of volunteers connected through social media, organizing drivers, humanitarian aid, places to stay. Among them was Anastasia Zamula, a fashion stylist and regular contributor to Vogue Ukraine, who had fled Kyiv for Lviv and, together with a friend, started fundraising to supply body armor and combat gear for frontline units. “People were so united,” she told me in September this year, remembering those early febrile days. “People would give $3,000, $4,000—huge amounts for Ukrainians. They would say: ‘I want to give you all the money I can.’ They wanted to be part of something, to help.” I heard these stories everywhere, and never worked so hard. There was barely time to brush my teeth.
At the end of March the Russians pulled back from the Kyiv region. The chaotic intensity of those first weeks ebbed, but the fighting continued. Ukrainians entered a new phase of war: endurance.
“The second year of war is the hardest,” says Nataliia Zaretska, Ph.D., a military psychologist I first met reporting a story about POWs. Nataliia also counsels wounded soldiers and people who have lived under Russian occupation—and she designs protocols for psychologists working with veterans returning to civilian life. “The first year,” she explains, “is mobilization. You are concentrated. All the regular issues from your normal life are put on the shelf. But then you begin to realize that this war is going to be a long story.” Somehow, Nataliia told me, “you have to understand that life must go on.”
Anastasia now has three jobs: in addition to her volunteer work, she continues to style for Vogue Ukraine and is a brand director for the Ukrainian womenswear label Bibliothèque Nationale. Her volunteer group, named Cvit, or Blossom, has grown to eight team members, all women, funded by ordinary Ukrainians who have developed the habit of scrolling social media and sending modest sums to volunteer organizations. Cvit has also started collaborating with artists and fashion brands and coffee shops, some of whom donate a small amount from every cup of coffee they sell. Supporting the volunteer sector has become part of Ukrainians’ financial housekeeping, like paying taxes.