Life in Ukraine: Ronnie Apteker on the ground in Kyiv, not Kiev

Amidst the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Ronnie Apteker reflects on life in Kyiv, detailing a 20-hour train journey to Wroclaw, Poland. Despite the challenges and constant threat, the resilient spirit of Ukrainians prevails. He explores the impact of war on daily life, the unity, and selflessness displayed by the community. As uncertainties loom, discussions about mobilisation, American aid, and changes in leadership unfold. Apteker contrasts the strength and solidarity observed in Kyiv with the potential global repercussions of conflict. Amidst the chaos, life goes on, marked by resilience, laughter, and a newfound appreciation for the essentials.

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By Ronnie Apteker*

It is Friday night, and Marta and I on the train from Kyiv back to Wroclaw, via the Polish border town of Przemyśl. This is the route I generally take. It was sad to be leaving our home once again, but I will be back towards end of next month. This was Marta’s first time back at home since the war started. It was an emotional time for her.

The train ride from Kyiv to Wroclaw takes about 20 hours. I am busy writing this text on the train. I will sleep on this tomorrow night and then finish it by Monday. There is an old joke (well, it is about a year old by now) that if a missile hits the train tracks there will be a 15 minute delay. This is one tough nation, and they know how to get back up. The trains are not the easiest experience, on the soul that is. Sure they are comfortable and modern and you can run your laptop and charge your phone, and we are mostly online, but the trains are mainly filled with women and children that have come home to see dads/husbands/soldiers. The trains are quiet and everyone looks exhausted. Everyone prays this evil war will end soon.

I often get asked how life is in Kyiv. It is not a simple answer. But for sure, life goes on. All seems ok, but just below the surface there is so much pain, trauma and anxiety. How does anyone plan for the future with so much uncertainty?! This is a brave country and everyone loves their homeland – I don’t know a single person that is not trying to help with the war effort. Of course, not everyone is a solider, but everyone I know is either donating to the military, helping to raise money, involved with different charities, helping the army with logistics and supplies, crowdsourcing drones for the armed forces, and whatever else you can imagine. These are not normal activities for countries that are not at war. So yes, in Kyiv life is different but that does not mean that you don’t hear laughter. Quite the opposite in fact. We actually went to the movies this week and saw a funny film, on Tuesday early evening, and the next day, that early Wednesday morning, before the sun came up, 22 ballistic missiles were sent by Russia to Kyiv. It is scary, and yes, people died. But again, life goes on. But nothing is normal.

One thing that people I know ask, who have spent a lot of time in Kyiv, and are now not in Ukraine, is: how is the mood at the moment? Something I often also ask all my friends in Kyiv. I was in Kyiv in early December for 2 weeks, and now I was in Kyiv for the past 4 weeks, and while the mood is not good, it was a lot better than it was in December. A few of the big subjects of discussion are the new mobilization that is coming, and the question of American aid. Ukraine needs more soldiers, and while everyone wants to help their country, not everyone wants to shoot a gun. It is not an easy discussion this. And I have many friends that may be called up to fight. As for the American aid, God knows what is going on. The main discussion on Friday was the replacement of Zaluzhny with Syrsky, as the head of the armed forces. The country admires and trusts Zaluzhny. Please God these changes will be for the better.

If America stopped supporting Ukraine (which I can’t believe will be the case) then Ukraine is going to struggle even more. And if God forbid Ukraine did not survive this war (which I also don’t believe will be the case) then Russia will not stop there. In Poland, where I am heading to now, there is an anxiety about the war, and you feel it wherever you go. The war could come to Poland as fast as it came to Ukraine. And then what? So Poland is in NATO. So what. It is just a piece of paper. Like the Budapest Memorandum where the Americans guaranteed Ukraine’s security for giving up their nuclear arsenal. If Russia attacked Estonia, for example, which is what most people around here reckon will happen if Ukraine falls (which we don’t believe will happen) then will America step in and help Estonia, because they are part of NATO. If Trump was President again I don’t think so. He will throw Estonia under the bus. That is my view.

And on the subject of war, here is something I am thinking about on this long train journey. If all the countries surrounding SA got together and attacked SA then no one I know (black or white) would go and fight for the country. I think I know good people, and I know a fair amount of folk back in SA, but no one I can think of would step up defend SA. Perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t think so.

In Ukraine there is this incredible spirit and unity, and humility. People are appreciating what they have. No one is taking anything for granted. Perhaps this is what happens when your existence is under threat. I assume it focuses the mind, and the spirit. Family, health, friends. These are the things that matter the most. Relationships. I have less friends these days. Since the start of the war I have lost touch with many people I used to know. Most of my truest friends are here in Kyiv. Again, perhaps this is because of the war. Perhaps this trauma has brought everyone in Kyiv closer together.

There is an attitude in Kyiv of “We will do it today.” Because no one knows what will happen tomorrow. Perhaps there is wisdom here for the world. And also, there is more laughter here than ever before. And love too. Yes, often it can be a nervous laughter, but no one here has given up on living. People are getting married and having babies, and life continues. And people are opening new businesses, and building homes. The real estate market is down, as one could imagine, but it it still alive and kicking. There is a demand for apartment in high rise buildings on the lower floors. The rule is: don’t live above the 10th floor. Yup, the missiles typically hit the top floors of high rise buildings, which are of course civilian targets, but this is a discussion for another article. Today I am writing about life, and spirit, and laughter.

There are some jokes going around, and a lot of commentary, about the world at large and the dysfunction in America. As someone said to me the other day in Kyiv, when the bigger war comes to the rest of the world in the next couple of years here in Ukraine everyone will be mentally ready and they will say to the West, “Welcome to the club.”

The thing about the Russian invasion in Ukraine is that it has brought the nation closer together then ever, and society has passed the test. There is no anarchy, and lawlessness. Quite the contrary. And so many people have lost their homes, their businesses, their way of life. So many people have left the country. So many people have been displaced. And with all of this pain, the society is strong and kind. In our building, there were two times when the missile strikes on the capital were intense this past month and while we were in the bomb shelter there was a lot of chatting going on with all the residents in the building. It is a new type of networking. My one friend Vitalii calls it “shelterking”.

We are living in a poor world. There may be a lot of billionaires and powerful people out there, but they are so poor. If the men with power in this world were truly rich then none of this would be happening.

South African internet pioneer and tech entrepreneur *Ronnie Apteker lives (usually) in Ukraine with his wife and baby.

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