Ukraine Conflict Student Interview Series: ‘At 5am I realized Russia had started a full-scale war’ Features
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Ukraine Conflict Student Interview Series: ‘At 5am I realized Russia had started a full-scale war’

JURIST Deputy Features Editor Jaimee Francis talked with Ukrainian student Mariia Lazareva to get her unique perspective on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Mariia is originally from Kyiv, Ukraine and is still currently living there. This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with JURIST’s Ukraine correspondents, who include law and policy students and young lawyers with ties to Ukraine. Below, you will find the original video footage of their interview, followed by a text transcript. 

Mariia, will you please tell us more about yourself?

Sure. I am a newly graduate. But when the war started, I was a student at the Institute of International Relations of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. I was pursuing a degree in International Relations, and I was receiving the highest scores in my university. So I was ranked number one among all students and was awarded with the Merit Scholarship for my academic achievements. I have always been dreaming about becoming a politician and helping to give back to my motherland and promoting international law and rule of law. Both in my home country and abroad. At the time the invasion started, I was an intern in the Government Office for Coordination on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration. I have recently realized, then I was living my best life. And a lot of things changed since the 24th of February.

Can you please tell us more about how your life has changed since the 24th of February? How did you learn about the invasion? And what were your initial thoughts?

Well, I was woken up by the sound of the powerful explosions near my house around 5am on 24th of February, and I realized that the full-scale war had started by Russia. As you know, during the last several months, a lot of experts as well as the American intelligence services, had predicted that this war was coming. So the Russian invasion of Ukraine has turned my life apart, but it has also reaffirmed my aim to be a future change maker and to make a contribution to my society in every way possible. So I I decided to stay in Ukraine. I decided to continue my studies, with flying colors, regardless of constant shelling, bombings, and constant deaths. So I decided to become professional and to perform a decent representation of Ukraine in the international arena. Well, from the first day of war, I realized that I cannot stay apart from all this with people around me are suffering. And I decided to start volunteering and helping Ukrainians in need. So for more than four months of full scale war, I’m working hard to address the needs of our army and the Territorial Defense Forces. By the way, my father and my uncles, they have been involved in this Territorial Defense movement from the first day of war. And on the morning of 24th of February, I have also called this special service of Territorial Defense.  I asked what should I do to get weapons and to get to be involved in this moment. And they unfortunately denied because I’m lady and I had no war experience. And they answered me that we will write down your phone number and maybe if we will need some help, we will call you back. So I understood that it was a denial. But my relatives are in Territorial Defense forces, and I believe that it is my duty to show the courage during such dark times and adversities. That is why I stayed in Ukraine. And I’m not planning to leave it until all this finishes.

Thank you for sharing, especially about the volunteer opportunities in Ukraine. I wanted to ask if you have any recommendations for how individuals abroad can get involved in the effort?

Well, the most important thing is to continue telling the truth about what is going on, to share this information with all your friends. And to remember that here is the center of Europe. Ukraine is the geographical center of Europe. So we have this special point. Ukraine is Europe. And there is no doubt about this. We have recently got this candidate status to join the European Union. Well, I beg you, and all our foreign friends to remember that the war is still on, that the Russian Federation is continuing to commit genocide, and to kill us just because we are Ukrainians. What about my recommendations? I suppose that it is just being active, being aware of all of this, and participating in all our initiatives. Social media is a very powerful instrument and these developments, which are going on in Ukraine, has proven this. We all are united through Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn, so on and so forth. That is why I would like to say that every euro, every dollar is of extreme importance, and it may save lives of our soldiers of our civilians. So please, participate in all these initiatives. Please, stay in contact with your Ukrainian friends, because now we are fighting for freedom. And we share the same values as the United States of America and the European Union. And now we are fighting for the civilized world. So I see it like a civilized world against Russia. So that the war is not just between this country, but that Ukraine is fighting for the whole civilized world. That is why I ask all of you to do your best to participate in all this. To donate money. By the way, you know, recently, our civil society and volunteer organization has collected $10 million in 24 hours to buy a special flying weapon. It sounds unrealistic, it’s like a fairy tale. But that’s what we have done by our hands, by the hands of ordinary people, businesses, politicians and change makers. And just five days ago, if I’m not mistaken, we have bought four Baykars. But this Turkish company decided to grant this for free because of our activity. So as I have already mentioned, every euro every dollar is of great importance.

Thank you for the recommendations. I want to ask you now that we are over four months into this conflict, how do you think it has changed over time from the initial days you were talking about to the present?

Unfortunately the world community is getting less and less interested in this topic. And the statistics prove this fact — that during the first month of war, there were about 170,000 requests on the Internet about what is going on in Ukraine.  Now, this number has diminished to 7,000. So people are getting tired of all of this. They are donating less, they are participating less, and they are not being so aware of what is going on every day. So nowadays we see such unpleasant statistics. What about Ukrainians? Well, most of my friends or my colleagues are in this volunteer movement. We are we are fighting the same as we fight it during the first days. So we are very tired, to be honest. It is the fourth month of full-scale war. So more than four months, we are living in full scale war realities. And without a doubt, this is a very, very morally difficult, emotionally difficult phase of war. But we all know that the enemy will not succeed. But we do not feel the time limits of this. We do not feel how many more losses there will be before we see that victory is already on our horizon. But we still are strong. We have to stay. We have to fight. We have no other option. It’s our motherland.

So I know that you stayed in Ukraine the whole time, but not everyone has. So I want to ask if you have been seeing more refugees returning to the country now that we are so many months in?

Well, to be honest, these statistics are also horrible. More than 10 million people have been made to flee from their homes. But I strongly believe that a lot of them will come back. When I’m talking to my friends who have moved abroad, they all tell me that they are going to return to Ukraine to their family members who are left in Ukraine. But, of course, there is a brain drain. And now loads of students decided to permanently move abroad. But it is extremely important for our Western partners to help Ukrainians smoothly transition back to their homeland. If and when circumstances allow, more people will be safe here. So I strongly believe in a bright future of my Ukraine. And I have no doubt that my children will live in a free, independent, and prosperous Ukraine, while our eastern neighbor, so called neighbor, Russia does not have this bright future. I suppose they do not have a future at all. All the brightest Russians minds –– their artists, journalists, IT workers, academics –– are leaving the country and they are not going to return to Russia.

I know you talked a little bit about what you expect for Ukraine. And I always like to end by asking what are your hopes for the future of Ukraine, if you could give us a little more detail about what you see in the future?

Well, I have mentioned that I’m an intern in the Government Office for Coordination on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration. That is why I’m working in the field of international relations and international law. We we were granted with this candidate status to become a member of the European Union. So therefore, I believe in a European future. Maybe it will be in 10 years. Of course, it won’t be tomorrow. But I believe that Ukraine will become a member of the European Union. I believe that the war will finish, and it will finish with our victory. I believe in a civilized world, and I believe in international rule –– rules based in international order and international law. I know that yesterday, the NATO Summit has started, and I really believe in Western leaders and for their decisions. We will be able to overcome all this authoritarian challenges together. Well, I should say that I believe that the Western response to Russian invasion of Ukraine wasn’t adequate during the first month of war. We needed more weapons, and we needed more sanctions on Russia. But the West handed this initiative to allow Moscow to dictate the pace and that is why we should be more decisive. But the future of Ukraine is going to become bright. Even if now we may be killed at any moment. Even now when I’m giving this interview to you. I don’t know what will happen in the next several minutes. Our reality is constantly bombing, shelling, and air attack. I can demonstrate you the sound we are living with, which wake us up in the middle of the night and during the whole day. I can’t say that we got used to it because it’s unreal to get used to such a reality. But we are trying to live with it. We are trying to do our best we are trying to imitate the normal living but to be honest we’re not okay.