Dmitry Rudas sits in the living room of his home in Sitka. Although he hasn’t lived in Ukraine for the last 20 years, he’s anguished as his family members remain under threat of Russian missile strikes, and as his former neighborhood is destroyed. (KCAW/Tash Kimmell)

The first thing I  see when approaching Dimitry Rudas’ house is a “Stand with Ukraine” sign displayed prominently in the window. When he greets me at the door, he’s wearing a zip up jacket adorned with Ukraine’s electric blue and yellow. Underneath, his black t-shirt displays the nation’s coat of arms. Although Rudas hasn’t lived in Ukraine for more than two decades, it’s easy to see how he feels about his home country. While social media has enabled us to witness the atrocities of war with unmatched speed and accessibility, few of us know what it’s like to have family on the front lines, or to mourn the destruction of a childhood home. Rudas does.

 “It’s your homeland. It’s where you were born. It’s something that you can never stop worrying about, no matter how far away you are, or how long of a time that’s passed. You still worry about it like it’s your child,” he explains.

Originally from Kharkiv, Rudas says Ukraine’s second largest city is one of the hardest hit by Russian forces. Hearing the news of Russia’s invasion was personally devastating.  

 “It was awful. I cried,” he said. “We thought that it would de-escalate. But on that evening, which was evening here, morning in Ukraine, that’s when the first cruise missiles were starting to hit all the cities in Ukraine. It was very difficult to bear.”

For many Ukrainians, February 24 will live in infamy. And as the conflict escalates, it’s unclear when normalcy will return or what it will look like when it does. Rudas says his remaining family in Kharkiv is simply trying to survive. 

“Where my cousins live, my uncle and his son and his wife, that building just got hit with a missile,” said Rudas. “Their window on the ground floor was completely shattered. The missile hit two floors above them right over top of their windows, two floors above. That’s how close they are to the consequences.”

A text exchange between Rudas and one of his family member shows the damage done to the apartment building where his family lives
(Photo courtesy of Rudas)

Rudas shows me a map of Ukraine on his iPad. The eastern areas are shaded in red, now controlled by Russia. Kharkiv has yet to fall, but Russia’s shadow looms. As Rudas explains it, for the Ukrainian people it’s more than just their independence at stake, it’s their identity. 

“Their existence their peoplehood you know, their culture, their identity,” he said. “The Russian government through its spokespeople have continuously denigrated the Ukrainian identity. Right now with the intensity and the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, it’s literally a matter of survival. But on the other stage here, it’s also their identity as people. ”

Rudas last visited Ukraine four years ago. He shows me photographs from the trip.

Rudas in front of the City Coucil Building in Kharkiv’s Freedom Square during his last trip to Ukraine in 2018. The building has since sustained substantial damage following heavy shelling on March 1. (Photo courtesy of Dmitry Rudas)

“This is where I showed you my grandparents’ home in the country. This barber shop is maybe a five minute walk from where that cruise missile hit,” he says, gesturing toward the photo album. “There were subsequent damage all down the street. This place doesn’t exist anymore. It just doesn’t exist,” he said, his voice trailing off.

“This place doesn’t exist anymore,” says Dmitry Rudas, gesturing toward a photo of a barbershop which has since been destroyed by Russian bombardment. (KCAW/Kimmell)

Rudas took his sign and flag and stood on Sitka’s downtown roundabout shortly after the invasion began. While a few people spontaneously joined his demonstration, he says that many other Sitkans have offered less visible support.

 “People have been calling me have been texting me have been just catching me in the street, expressing their support. Saying that they’re worried for me for my family. I’ve never seen, I’ve never experienced this level of support from local community, from my colleagues at work and from the global stage at large as as well, as I’m seeing right now,” said Rudas.

Rudas is leaning on that support, as every day brings fresh images of destruction in his home country. For Rudas and other Ukrainians witnessing the war from afar, the distance does little to ease his suffering. And he doesn’t see a silver lining. “It already is a catastrophe,” he says.

Tash Kimmell is a Report for America Corps member.