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A woman sits on a bench in front of residential buildings partially destroyed by Russian bombing in the town of Irpin, near the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on June 16, 2022.SERGEI CHUZAVKOV/Getty Images

Lidiia Karpenko is a Ukrainian journalist living in Toronto and a member of PEN Canada’s Writers in Exile group.

After dinner, I usually scroll through my phone, check my e-mail and messages, and read the news. Then I receive a text message from my husband. “I’m fine,” he tells me.

My heart starts pounding furiously.

What’s wrong, you might ask – isn’t that a nice message? Well, while I’m in Toronto with our daughter, he’s in Kyiv, a city that is actively under attack by Russian missiles. Like all Ukrainian men between 17 and 65, he cannot leave the country.

On Telegram, I see pictures of destroyed residential buildings in some districts of the capital, with cars on fire. I see firemen helping people get out of ruined apartments, and teams clearing the rubble in the hopes of finding those who did not escape.

I read on and learn that Odesa, Lviv, Kherson, Kharkiv and Pavlohrad have also been hit by rocket fire. I watch a video of rescuers carrying out a body and hear voices say, “Watch out for the legs”; they are holding a nine-year-old girl. Her mother was also found under the rubble. Only her father survived.

I flip to Facebook and scroll through my feed. There is the now-familiar roll call – posts that say who’s alive, who’s dead, who’s injured. Friends write about how they can’t sleep any more and go to work exhausted because of the frequent early-morning shelling, or how they’ve had to watch their homes burn. Unwillingly, social media makes us bear witness to the destruction of lives: of someone’s faith in the future, of dreams, of memories burning in fire-filled apartments.

I pause. Once again, I convince myself that I made the right decision to come to Canada and save my child from the war and its consequences. I’m crying with a sense of devastation, but I’m also happy that my family and friends are safe. The missiles missed them – for now.

I write to my friend Olenka to see how she’s doing. A mother of six-year-old twins who lives in Kyiv, she begins each day monitoring the reports of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, eager for news about the situation on the battlefield. Before she takes the children to school, she checks to see if the Russians have launched warplanes with missiles. If there is an attack, there’s a small basement to shelter in, but it only holds her immediate family. Her parents insist on staying upstairs in the house, hoping to be lucky. They’re forced to play Russian roulette, in more ways than one.

”How did you spend the night?” I asked my neighbour in Kyiv.

“You know the shelter is not close, so we slept in the hall,” she replies. Ukrainians have become familiar with the simple rule of two walls: In the event of shelling or explosions, you need to have at least two walls between you and the outside, because a missile can destroy the outer wall, and debris will fly into the second wall.

Dear readers, look around and check your room. Would your walls save you?

These are impossibly strange things to have to experience, unimaginable things to have to learn. But these are just some of the survival skills that have quickly become normalized for Ukrainians – both those who fled the country, and those who stayed.

My colleague Alla, with whom I worked in radio back home, is now serving in the army. She told me she lives a spartan life, ready to go at all times; her documents, a tourniquet, an energy bar, wet wipes and a folding toothbrush are always with her, just in case. Sometimes she must sleep where there are no walls at all, such as at the open-air training grounds or in a trench. Sleeping in a bathtub has become common for most Ukrainians today. My friend Roman saved himself this way when a Kalibr cruise missile hit his yard, burning parked cars and smashing windows in neighbouring condos.

Ukrainians have a massive amount of rebuilding to do. So far, Russian troops have destroyed more than 170,000 buildings across the country, including residential high-rises, schools, hospitals, museums and shops. Cities in the east have been partially or completely burned and wiped off the map: Mariupol, Avdiivka, Bakhmut, Rubizhne, Popasna and more. Vladyslav, a resident of ruined Irpin, told me that more than 3,000 buildings were destroyed there in the first 23 days of the war, but that he and his neighbours have since returned to their residential complex. Unit owners contributed funds to rebuild the complex – including buildings that weren’t their own – even though they know at any moment an enemy missile can destroy them all over again. But if that happens, “we will rebuild them,” he said. “This is our home, we have nowhere else to go.”

We can restore everything, but we cannot bring back those who have been killed. According to the UN, at least 4,100 innocent civilian lives were lost in the first month of Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine alone; over the past two years, the number of civilian victims has exceeded 10,000. These are approximate figures, as there is no access to statistics on deaths in the occupied territories. And a Ukrainian NGO, using data from open sources, claims that as of last November, at least 24,500 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed. This number will likely increase, as it is not known how many of the 15,000 soldiers who have been reported missing are dead.

Have you heard the terrible sound of the air-raid alert? Wouldn’t you want to turn it off immediately? Its screech is very unpleasant, and it gives me goosebumps. But imagine hearing it every day for two years, as Ukrainians have.

My friend’s son, seven-year-old Myron, has had to hear it for nearly a third of his life. He has learned that when the siren sounds, he should not cry, but immediately get his backpack and go with the adults to the bomb shelter. There, everyone takes their now-usual place: Someone monitors the news, while someone keeps the children occupied. Often, people bring water, cookies and napkins to their bomb shelters – and usually, they will leave those supplies there, knowing they will be back, maybe even the same day.

Closer to the front line, the situation is much worse. People do not have enough food. They live without electricity and heating. Many go days without water, though at least in the winter, there is a natural alternative: snow and icicles, which thirsty people have been forced to melt.

It has all been very hard to get used to, but some Ukrainians don’t want to leave for calmer areas. Most of them are older and feel it would be too difficult to begin a new life in a new place. But even going outside at all can be difficult. The first thing my friend Oleksandra taught her two children was to not touch anything on the street, for fear those objects could be mines or explosives. Last October, a 14-year-old boy died while working in the backyard of his home in the Sumy region, which is constantly being shelled by Russian mortars.

And so it feels like death can come at any time. As Oksana from Kherson admits to me: “When I had to go to pick up a parcel from volunteers, I stood for a long time and looked at the sky. I had a constant feeling that drones could be flying there, and something could be dropped on my head. I feel in constant danger. My life has frozen.”

That sense – that time is being stolen from Ukrainians – has become more and more common, and many are fighting back in their own way. “We have stopped putting off important things for later. We stopped planning for the year ahead,” another friend, Tania, tells me. “We live as if tomorrow might not come.” With the future seeming vague and ephemeral, many are choosing to do what feels important, and to live in the here and now. They’ve learned to appreciate every minute of ghostly, peaceful calm, until the siren goes off. Ukrainians continue to plan important events such as weddings and refuse to postpone them. Families are still choosing to have children, though the approximately 187,000 children born in Ukraine last year marked the lowest figure in 30 years.

Ukrainians have also kept their faith in victory, with many making donations to the Armed Forces and volunteering for the cause. My sister Svitlana recalls that in the first days of the war, she was in shock and did not understand what to do, and so she decided to cook – not just for her family, but for hundreds of soldiers. She now fries up steaks and makes dumplings and soup for the military in large quantities. “Now I am always active. I can’t stop and relax,” she says.

Friends and relatives have grown even closer, as Ukrainians learn to appreciate the time they spend together even more. Despite their anxieties, people are trying to enjoy their lives and fill them with meaning, going to movies, concerts and theatres. Of course, sirens often interrupt the performances, forcing people to the nearest bomb shelter – but when the alarm ends, many return to their seats, and the show goes on.

As the war enters its third year, Russians are forcing Ukrainians to endure more lies, carnage and death. Would you have the strength to live like this? How long could you live like this? And on top of that, imagine what it would be like to feel that the world seems tired of you – to feel like nobody cares that you’re scared, that your child is sitting in a cold basement for days, that your people are being killed ruthlessly. There’s always another international tragedy to capture the world’s attention, but many Ukrainians now ask: How many deaths does it take to keep it?

The Kremlin has turned the war into a test to see how much compassion you have. While Ukrainians have become familiar with terrible new norms, our deaths cannot become normal to you. The best thing the West can do is to keep providing Ukraine with enough military support for a decisive victory – one that will bolster the entire democratic world.

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