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War in Ukraine hits home in Ojai

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Grant Phillips, Ojai Valley News reporter

For more than a week, Russia’s attack on Ukraine came from land, air and sea, destroying parts of the country in Okhtyrkla, Kharkiv, Kherson and Kyiv in an effort to overthrow the sovereign government of Ukraine.  

More than 6,000 miles away, as the crow flies from Ojai to Kyiv, Ojai residents with families and loved ones in Ukraine and Russia are devastated by the unfolding violence and destruction.

For them, community remains integral.

Olena Kachur in Ojai

“My parents and Grandma live in a small town in the Vinnytsya region,” said Olena Kachur, an Ojai resident who first visited the United States in 2007 before returning to the Ukraine. “The majority of my college friends and colleagues live in Kyiv.” In 2008, Kachur married her husband, Etienne, and together, they moved to the Ojai Valley.

“Since the beginning of this tragedy, I don’t go to sleep until I hear back or see some activity online from my parents and very close relatives and friends,” she said. “Each day, I pray that my hometown is still standing and the people of my nation are still alive.” 

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Photo provided by Olena Kachur 

Kachur’s grandparents on their wedding night in Ukraine. 

 

Kachur has been careful to keep the news to a minimum to shield her 2-year-old son from the carnage, opting instead to focus on the beauty Ukraine has to offer. 

“Many people really have no idea how beautiful my homeland is. With vast fields of sunflowers, wheat and corn that stretch for miles and miles, green forests, mountains with breathtaking views, picturesque riverbanks and the seaside,” said Kachur. “And, of course, the cultural heritage, which I pray remains intact.”   

Konstantin in Oak View

Another Ojai resident, Konstantin of Oak View, was born in Moscow. Konstantin, who asked that the Ojai Valley News not use his last name, moved to the United States 26 years ago and settled in Ojai around 2013. 

“It is a war,” said Konstantin. “It’s a very dangerous situation. Ukraine wants to be independent from Putin’s regime…. He’s trying to put his own people into the Ukrainian government to control the country.” 

Fear and distrust of Russian President Vladimir Putin are at the forefront of concern for Konstantin’s family and friends remaining in Russia. 

“He’s threatening the world right now,” Konstantin said. “All people are afraid of that. He’s trying to get all former Soviet Union republics under his control.” 

There is a sense of nervous optimism surrounding Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has turned down several offers from the West to evacuate, opting to stay and fight for Ukraine. 

“Zelensky is doing his job really well,” said Konstantin. “He was already offered by western countries to hide him, to take him away from the Ukraine to save his life. But he said, ‘I don’t need a ride, I need the weapons.…’ He’s fighting for his freedom and probably for ours, too.”

Konstantin is married to Lyuba, who was born and raised in Ukraine. The conflict has created stress for their families, but united their relationship.

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Photo provided

Konstantin and his wife Lyuba in Paris. 

 

“We have lots of friends in Russia that we contact every day,” said Konstantin. “They’re afraid. Our friends know the truth, and they’re against the war, but you cannot even go on the street and say ‘no war.’ If you go outside with a single protest or a little chant of ‘no war,’ you can go to jail. You’ll lose your job, then there’s no money for surviving. It’s like a dictatorship.” 

While cracks in the Russian narrative are beginning to break through, resulting in protests in Moscow where Al Jazeera reported more than 5,000 demonstrators have been detained and 2,000 arrested, there is a push for unbiased media coverage for both countries. 

“There’s a very big problem because the propaganda is working very hard in Russia and is only one side — pro Putin. They don’t know any other information,” said Konstantin. “They’re just thinking Putin is making the Ukraine an anti-Nazi, anti-terrorist nation.” 

“I believe we need to bring more information to the Russian people,” said Konstantin. “But how to do it?”

Kachur also reflected a desire for truth, along with a need to showcase the travesties being committed. 

Nykyta in Ukraine

The Ojai Valley News has been in touch with a close contact, Nykyta, who is on the ground in Lviv in western Ukraine, and has been providing daily updates to the Ojai Valley News since Russian forces attacked Ukraine. He has also asked that the Ojai Valley News not use his last name.

“There are lots of sirens,” he said on Feb. 26. “The government officials were also asking for any help like making Molotov cocktails, drones, hackers’ assistance, and drivers for transporting snacks, food, military equipment, and people… The worst part is casualties from civilians — people who accidentally were at the wrong place at the wrong time….Even an ambulance was hit today a couple of hours ago.”

Nykyta provided insight on the news coverage. 

“I have been talking with my aunt who has some contacts and friends in Russia,” Nykyta said. “They don’t believe our news, and they are sure it’s ‘West Propaganda’ with actors and CGI (computer-generated imagery).” 

A 40-mile-long Russian convoy of tanks, artillery and other military vehicles continued to head north of Ivankiv towards Kyiv as of press time on March 3. Updates from Nykyta will continue to be posted on the OVN website. Nykyta said March 3 that he, his girlfriend, and their cat, Jackie, are packed and ready to evacuate at any given moment. 

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Nykyta's kitten prepares for potential evacuation. 

 

For all updates from Nykyta, visit: https://bit.ly/3vDaUlU

Lessons

“The lesson is that we are living in a global society and the effects will impact all of us,” said Kachur. “No one wants World War III and the fear of nuclear war, but if the world had united to the same extent back in 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea and the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, this war could have been prevented and thousands of lives could have been saved.” 

On March 18, 2014, Russia formally incorporated Crimea as two Russian federal subjects — the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol. 

Konstantin offered a similar perspective. 

“This problem occurred eight years ago when Putin took the Crimean peninsula,” said Konstantin. “That’s why we have a bigger problem now.” 

One of the key dissidents in the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine was Alexei Navalny, a Russian lawyer and activist who was hospitalized in serious condition after being poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in August 2020. The Russian security agency — the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation — was suspected of poisoning Navalny, resulting in sanctions against senior Russian officials by the United States, European Union and United Kingdom. 

After returning to Russia in January 2021, Navalny was jailed for violating parole conditions imposed from his 2014 protest and conviction. Navalny continues to speak out against the war via social media. 

“I am urging everyone to take to the streets and fight for peace,” said Navalny on a post to Twitter on March 2. “If — in order to stop the war — we have to fill prisons and police vans with ourselves, we will fill up the prisons and police vans with ourselves.”

Konstantin said: “Russian people have to rise and kick out Putin. Nobody can do it, only the Russians can.” 

In the midst of all the chaos and uncertainty, a moment of hope in uniting cultures occurred for Konstantin and his wife Lyuba. 

When the OVN reached out to them this week, the couple were in the car on their way to the birth of their new baby granddaughter, Alla.  

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Konstantin's daughter Julya with American Father Jade. 

 

“I’m pretty happy,” said Konstantin of his daughter Julya’s newborn. “At least one good thing has happened in the world, that brings life, not death.” 

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Konstantin's granddaughter, baby Alla. 

 

With reports confirming television towers have been bombed in Kyiv, administration buildings have been struck by apparent rockets in Kharkiv, and military bases are under attack in Okhtyrka, support for the Ukraine from Konstantin and Lyuba has strengthened. On March 3, Zelensky announced the first foreign fighters have arrived to assist Ukraine. 

“Ukraine wants to be independent and a free country, and become a member of the European Union,” said Konstantin. “He (Putin) was trying to blitzkrieg, a short war, and in three days, take over Kyiv. But it didn’t happen, because Ukrainians can fight, too.” 

Kachur has created a Facebook group called Undefeated Ukraine 

(https://bit.ly/3C6z5ds) where she shares some of the heartbreaking realities of war, as well as opportunities to donate to different organizations. 

“There is absolutely a humanitarian crisis at hand and will require continued aid and assistance from governments and individuals,” said Kachur. “There is no place for this kind of violence and aggression in our global community.” 

In a moment of solidarity, the city of Ojai — represented by Mayor Betsy Stix — will provide a proclamation to declare the city of Ojai stands against the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which will be read at the March 8 Ojai City Council meeting. 

“As an International City of Peace, the city of Ojai stands against this invasion,” said Stix. “Our hearts are with the people of Ukraine.”

“I think that people of America and people of the world are getting to see the values that we all share,” said Kachur. “Unity, compassion, service, love, standing up to injustice, and fighting for the right to determine our own future, the future of our children, and the refusal to live under tyrannical rule.”  

 

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