Editors note: In Hollie McKay’s newest special report for Deadline, the seasoned foreign affairs correspondent and Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield author is still in Ukraine, where Russia’s invasion is turning increasingly brutal and resistance is intensifying.
I am crammed into a small, Soviet-style bunker in the nucleus of Kyiv city, air raid sirens and church bells blaring in the world above. Across from me in the cold confinement are two unfamiliar faces, who I quickly learned were budding filmmakers with a handheld camera documenting everyday moments of Russia’s searing invasion of its much smaller neighbor Ukraine.
“I guess this will be our graduation film,” Kyral Kurinsky, 38, tells me calmly. “If we ever graduate.”
Kyral and his Finnish classmate Lukas were just weeks away from completing their director’s course at the prestigious Ukrainian Film School when war ripped through their dreams in late February.
And while social media feeds have been flushed with wincing images of trauma-stricken faces fleeing across Ukraine’s borders, many physically cannot leave – no matter what the war brings in the coming days. Of course, Kyral must stay as per marital law prohibiting Ukrainian men aged 18-60 from exiting the country. Nevertheless, his wife Jen – paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair – has no choice but to endure whatever blitz and bombing campaign the Russians may ignite in the days, weeks or months to come.
But it’s a fate Jen, a 32-year-old IT and video software specialist who works on special projects for prominent video/audio technology company Avid.com, is more than prepared to take on.
The young couple was driving through western Ukraine’s mountainous terrain to go to her grandmother’s funeral in the summer of 2016 when a car overtook them at high speed, prompting Kyral to lightly brake. Summer rainfall on slippery tar sent the small car spiraling wildly, eventually landing upright in a trench on the side of the road.
“I knew straight away I had broken my neck. My chair was reclined, and it was because of that position my two vertebrae snapped,” Jen explains, eager to illuminate the silver lining. “But a rock landed right where my head would have been in if the chair had been upright, so that might have been a very different ending.”
Through arduous weeks of recovery, even the things that should be second nature became the stuff of horror movies.
“I had to learn to stop using a ventilator and to breathe by myself,” Jen recalls, detailing the extensive lung injuries she also suffered in the accident. “It was hard, and I couldn’t sleep. When you start to fall asleep, your breath gets slower, and I could feel it, and I was terrified. So I would count my breath consciously, in and out, trying to control it all day and night.”
The soft-spoken media and computing professional says she often experiences phantom pains and persistently asks her husband to uncross her arms from her chest, even though they are not positioned there. “I think this is the last position my arms were in when we were in the car,” she notes. “It is the last thing my brain remembers before everything changed.”
However, the most challenging yet most exciting moral victory was that, just four months after the horrific ordeal, Jen was maneuvered from their quiet home on a hill for a night at the movie theater, something she says she will never take for granted again.
And in a time like war, the couple concurs: those moments of entertainment and brevity matter.
“I am still developing software for live concerts, mixing sounds, and despite all this, I would really love to make a historical film, something that takes place in Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains,” Kyrel explains optimistically. “A real visual escape.”
For now, the duo says they have enough medicine and food to survive at least a little while in heavy wartime lockdown. And even when the air raid warning sirens go off, Jen cannot swiftly move to the basement from their third-level apartment. She has survived the dark days once, and believes she will do it again.
Nearly 2 million Ukrainians have fled the country as the conflict intensifies, yet Jen is just one of many millions more who cannot run away, even if she wanted too. And while she may not be able to take up arms in the streets, Jen is taking the fight to the frontline in other ways – an embodiment of almost every Ukrainian, willing to use whatever skillset possible to repel the Russian advance into their beloved land.
In Jen’s case, unable to use her arms, she uses a special straw-like stick she holds in place with her teeth to operate an iPad-type contraption.
“I can monitor cyberattacks, pass this information on and also track Russian propaganda. They use a lot of different channels, from Telegram to Facebook to Instagram and YouTube, to spread their messages, so I collect these and also pass them along to be blocked,” she says with a proud smile. “There are a lot of things civilians can do.”
On another gloomy, frozen Saturday afternoon, I meet Roman Matsyuta, a noted Ukrainian actor-musician guarding a sandbagged checkpoint near the cluster of Presidential buildings, a cigarette dangling between his lips and a rifle strapped across a slumped shoulder.
His eyes wide and wet, his face a map of emotions, Roman speaks poignantly of the various roles he played in war-themed productions. In his most recent movie The Narrow Bridge, released on Amazon Prime Video, Roman played a painter compelled to swap colors for a Kalashnikov amid a foreign invasion.
“When I was acting, I would use those blank cartridges to shoot, and I would be thinking every time, ‘God save us from having something like that in real life.’ And now it happened,” Roman says, his voice catching with grief. “And it happened in the most terrible variant of scenarios that Russia could have taken to hurt Ukraine.”
In an impassioned plea for Hollywood and broader culture to use their voices to speak out against this invasion and inform Russians of what their dictatorial leadership is doing, the 45-year-old actor makes a peace sign with his fingers and forces a smile.
“It is easier for us to win with the support of the whole cultural Western world,” Roman asserts.
Everywhere I go, arts and culture and music still hold a prominent place in people’s lives – a kind of wellspring in the crux of the chaos – as the rockets crack the air. For one, frontline medics with the Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital throw on their body armor and prepare to accelerate toward the latest sight of attack; they rally themselves with thickly accented Ukrainian operatic themes sung together, with some patriotic battlefield tunes peppered in between.
Nevertheless, this conflict has also revealed a deeply sinister side. It’s jarring to recognize that relations between these two nations may have suffered irreparable damage, with young Ukrainians who have been deeply traumatized by this unprovoked war heralded by Moscow experiencing anger, confusion and hatred.
“There is a song young children have started singing about Putin hanging himself,” one painter and volunteer driver, Olek, tells me with wide eyes one afternoon. “I don’t know where it came from, where they learned it, but the children are all learning this.”
And just minutes from curfew, as I am screeching back to my Kyiv hotel through empty roads now defined by sandbagged checkpoints and concrete chunks, set against the soundtrack of continuous artillery shelling in the distance, a baby-faced fighter checks my passport and nods with a faraway smile.
“You know, I am a cello player, and I used to dream of going to America, to Hollywood to compose,” he says wistfully. “But I am glad I never went. It is much better to be here, fighting for my country.”