Feb. 24, 2022, was a dark day for Ukraine that will be jotted down in history. Russian forces invaded the country, one of the largest conventional military attacks on a European state since the Second World War.
Jonathan Stewart, a Canadian citizen and a graduate with an applied degree in journalism from what is now Mount Royal University, moved to Ukraine to teach English.
Stewart made a lot of friends in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city that became his home for five years. But now all he has of that city are the memories he left following the invasion.
The Calgary Journal spoke with Stewart about life in Ukraine and his escape from the country. Here is an excerpt of the interview.
Do you recall how your day started on Feb. 24, 2022; the day Russia invaded?
I woke up at five a.m. to the sounds of bombings, and this was unexpected because we knew Russia is like days away from invading. But, even two years before that, they were always saying they were putting troops to the border and going to invade. I think nobody thought it was going to happen too. I’ve seen things that were shocking that made me react and I just instantly reacted. But when it comes to like bombs and, like, one of the biggest countries in the world attacking your country, I didn’t know what to do. I went a whole week figuring out, trying to think, like, is this going to end soon? Is this going to be a few days?
How did you make it out of Ukraine – what was your escape route like?
On March 1, I got a phone call from a woman who got me to a safe location the next day 50 kilometres south of Kharkiv where there were no Russian forces. On March 5, I got in a car with a friend of mine and his family. We drove first to Poltava. I can’t remember cities right now, but we drove basically west. We were going through villages mostly to avoid the main roads because they were being blasted.
After I left Kharkiv we got pretty far from any kind of Russian forces. We went to a bunch of cities. We stayed four nights, in different places, different cities. The cities I’d visited hadn’t been shelled yet, but since then they’ve all been shelled.
We got to the Romanian border and a Ukrainian friend that was with me wanted to buy his way out. However, we heard that no one was able to bribe their way out of the Romanian border and therefore we had to turn around and drive south to the Moldovan border but he also couldn’t buy his way out. At this point, we used all the American cash we both had on us and they wouldn’t accept any of it. He stayed with his family and now he’s gone back to Poltava, which now is being blasted. At that point, I needed to get out of the country, so I crossed the border.
What is your experience of the war?
You don’t want to know what it’s like. It’s the worst thing you could ever probably live through. I believe in God, I’m a Christian, I really believe in hell and I don’t know how hell could be worse than war because it’s legit, it’s terrifying. I mean you have people shooting and you have people dying. I was pretty fortunate to not have seen as much as I could have seen. But everybody’s on edge and the whole free Ukraine and the whole beautiful country I’ve loved for five years is gone. It’s the USSR now. It’s back to Soviet times. All the young people left, all the freedom and joy is gone. People are lining up for basic food and it’s not even just like the Soviet Union, it’s worse than that. It’s like the 90s basically in Russia and Ukraine.
There are people with assault rifles running around with auto machine guns, not like you could buy in America and Canada because those are all banned. In Ukraine, I know in Kyiv, and I think in Kharkiv too, they’re giving them out to anybody who wants to fight, they just show their ID number and you get a fully automatic machine gun. That’s how desperate they are, and that’s how terrifying it is. There’s no police, there’s no law. Whatever happens to men, women and children in that situation, you’re on your own.
I wanted to show my passport and surrender and just say, take me anywhere safe. I actually heard that you could go east and I was 30 kilometres from the Russian border, but I mean, I could have been shot on the way there. One thing I was told when I fled that day was to shave my beard, and look like a young student because there’s the possibility of being pulled out of a car and given a gun and having to fight and be in the front lines.
Will you go back to Ukraine – or will you be returning to Canada?
I wouldn’t want to go back to Ukraine. I wouldn’t go back further than Lviv. I usually feel safe in Lviv, but even now, there are different militants running around. Who knows what’s happening there? Everything’s in rubble in the country and there are mass graves in Mariupol. If I go back to Ukraine, it would probably be just to see my friends.
As for Canada, yes, I might. My parents really want me to, of course, especially my mother, but I want to be in Europe. I’m happy here.
Will you try to help those behind in some way?
I’m trying to help everybody immigrate to Canada. I’m trying to get people money but they won’t take it. I gave some people money already but a lot of people won’t take it. I would like to try to work with immigration to help people get across. I think that’s maybe what I’ll do for the next while. There’s so much damage done and it was so hard before the war to make any money and to make any kind of a living in Ukraine, imagine now what it’s like with the war.
Has your experience of the war in Ukraine changed your perspective of life in any way?
I’ve really changed my viewpoint on refugees and bringing refugees. I have way more empathy now because of where these people are coming from, like what I’ve seen in Ukraine. Many people have been through much worse stuff than I imagined.
I’m so lucky to be a Canadian guy that has cash and has parents that are helping me with whatever. I’ve had the most privileged, most easy way of war, but it was still the most horrible hell I’ve ever experienced. It was unbelievably awful! Having a Canadian passport and getting across the border is a privilege.
What is the message you’d like to pass on to those you left behind in Ukraine?
I just feel like I would be an arrogant prick to even pretend like I understand what they’re going through. I was amazed by their bravery and the courage that I saw from all ages and all genders and everybody.
I was just so blown away by their calmness in really devastating, dire circumstances and just how easy they seem to have taken everything. It was a tremendous level of courage that I saw from them and I’m in awe of it.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story contained an incorrect photo of Stewart. We apologize for the error.