For Anton Piddubnyi, 21, the morning of Feb. 24 met him with a disorienting boom.
As the windows of his fourth-story apartment rattled, his wife Valentyna, 24-years-old and nine months pregnant, shook him awake. “Something has exploded!”
Another boom shook the 5 a.m. darkness, prompting Anton to reach for his phone to check the news. The headlines confirmed his fear — Russia had begun their attack on Ukraine. Anton looked out his window and saw his neighbors readying themselves to flee.
“I looked down and I see so many people out on the streets, just opening their trunks of cars and just loading it with clothes, trying to leave,” he said. “Everybody was so shocked.”
Anton and his wife were living in Bila Tserkva, located about 50 miles outside of Kyiv. The couple, along with Valentyna’s mother and grandmother, decided to seek shelter.
Anton said rumors of an invasion prompted some citizens to mobilize and set up bomb shelters. The family, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were invited to stay with members of their ward.
“They had this old basement where they put this mobile fireplace, and heater and some blankets and pillows and mattresses,” Anton said. Over a dozen people hunkered down in the unfinished basement.
In 2017, Anton realized his dream of attending college in the United States when he enrolled at Utah Valley University, which is where he met his wife – also from Ukraine.
Upon his arrival in Utah, Anton stayed with a family in Orem. Celest Rickers, Anton’s host mother, met him two years earlier while on a trip to Ukraine where he acted as their guide through Kyiv and surrounding cities. Rickers said she came to regard Anton as a son.
Anton and Valentyna married in February 2021. That summer, the couple returned to Ukraine, settling in Bila Tserkva.
In the months leading to the invasion, reports of an increased presence of Russian military on three of Ukraine’s borders caused tensions in the region to intensify. By mid-January, an estimated 100,000 troops flanked the Ukraine borders in Russia and Belarus.
Although there had been chatter about Russia’s plan to invade, Anton said he was one of many who did not think an invasion would materialize.
“Until last minute, I did not believe such a full-scale invasion could happen,” Anton said.
“We have been in consistent contact since the invasion,” Rickers said. “I am very grateful for generous friends that are sheltering them and their extended family.”
Delivery in a war zone
Before Feb. 24, Anton and Valentyna were preparing for the arrival of their daughter, who was due any day. Because travel time to the hospital was 45 minutes, hospital staff told them they could begin their stay early.
However, following the invasion and knowing that Kyiv was likely to be a major target for Russia, the couple began to rethink their birth plan.
“We cannot go to Kyiv,” Anton said at the time. “We are going to be stuck in hell … We were left with only two choices.”
They could either deliver the baby themselves or risk the hospital in Bila Tserkva. Anton received advice from their midwife via FaceTime on delivering his daughter. However, when his wife started having contractions on March 1, they decided to go to the hospital where a make-shift maternity ward was set up in the facility’s bomb shelter.
On arrival, they were met with a chaotic scene.
“It was a mess,” Anton said, adding that non-patients were looking for refuge. “The delivery room was assembled in front of us.”
At around 3 a.m. on the morning of March 2, hospital staff moved Valentyna to the first floor so they could monitor her progress, leaving Anton in the underground shelter. As Anton drifted to sleep, an explosion — which came from a military airport only two kilometers away — rocked the building.
“They [Russian military] attacked three or four times with drones and with rockets, with airplanes, so it was a massive explosion,” Anton explained.
As the hospital alarms sounded, those on the first floor began to seek safety in the shelter below them. Anton found his wife in the commotion, who was now dilated to five centimeters, and said the situation began taking a toll on her mental well-being.
“Those were some hard, harsh conditions … it was so hard to watch,” Anton said.
Later that morning, Valentyna was taken to yet another makeshift room to give birth. Anton was not allowed to enter, so he waited outside the door, listening for signs that his daughter — Evgenia — had arrived.
“I heard Evgenia screaming. I was so glad that this whole thing ended,” Anton said.
After a harrowing 55-hour stay at the hospital, the family returned to the safety of the basement shelter where they had previously stayed.
A few days later, Anton and his family heard an explosion followed by the sound of an incoming jet, the context of which soon became clear.
“It was a Russian fighter jet being chased by a Ukrainian fighter jet,” Anton said. “It was flying so low … we knew if something launches or falls on this house even the basement would not be able to handle it.”
“So, we just kind of prepared for our fate. I remember that Valentyna and Valentyna’s grandma covered Evgenia with their bodies,” Anton continued.
It was then that the family decided it was time to leave Bila Tserkva. In doing so, the family joined an estimated 10 million Ukrainians who have also fled their homes since the start of the invasion, according to BBC.
“We didn’t want to leave,” Anton said. “We knew if we are leaving, we might be leaving forever.”
The family packed one backpack each and moved to western Ukraine. They are now staying with the parents of a friend who the couple met through UVU.
Although their new location has remained relatively quiet, Anton said air raid sirens can be heard intermittently as of March 28.
On March 29, delegates from Ukraine and Russia met for peace talks in Istanbul for the first time in weeks. Ukraine proposed to not host any foreign military bases within its borders, whereas Russia pledged to “significantly scale back its military activity around Kyiv and northern Ukraine.” U.S officials remain skeptical of Russia’s intent.
“As the previous wars have shown with Russia, when troops go back it means there will be more rocket strikes,” said Anton in response to the current dialogue from Russia. “If they can’t capture the city, they will burn it down. That’s their method.”
In the initial stages of the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that Russia’s goal was to demilitarize Ukraine and not target civilian populations, a point which Anton refuted.
“Now, as we see it, they are attacking civilian buildings and pretty much anything in their way,” Anton said.
Anton noted the overwhelming support for Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky among Ukrainian people, adding that there are not enough rifles for the number of citizens signing up to fight.
“Putin, he miscalculated,” Anton said. “He thought this war was going to divide us, but it only united us even more. We are so united as a country right now. We are so supportive of each other.”
Additionally, tens of thousands of people from over 50 countries have signed up to fight on behalf of Ukraine, a development which has not surprised Anton.
“Intelligent people who think more widely … they understand that it’s not a war only between Russia and Ukraine,” Anton said, adding that the conflict is a war for democracy.
“They [foreign supporters] understand that Putin is hungry for war,” Anton continued. “He’s hungry for death. He’s hungry for territories that he hates.”
The damage inflicted by Russia is clear, Anton said, and that the war should concern people beyond Ukraine’s borders.
“People think it’s so distant … some imaginary thing, it’s not,” Anton said. “Look what is happening in Syria … Russians are using the same type of bombs that they used in Syria in Ukraine right now. Like the city of Mariupol, they are using vacuum bombs that are so dangerous … if you look at the pictures of Mariupol, the city is gone.”
Anton said the U.S. has an obligation to defend Ukraine, citing the Budapest Memorandum — signed in 1994 by several nations, including the U.S., which gave Ukraine security assurances in exchange for its nuclear arsenal.
“They [countries that signed the Memorandum] promised Ukraine that, ‘we will protect your sovereignty, we will protect your freedom,’ and Russia has violated this,” Anton said, adding that he does not believe Putin will stop at Ukraine.
“The United States has been this ambassador of democracy and freedom in the entire world,” Anton said. “If they [U.S.] help Ukraine, they help Europe, they help the entire world to show that democracy wins.”
A message to the Ukrainian people
Anton hopes his fellow Ukrainians can find common ground and allow themselves and others to react to this war in their own way.
“There is no perfect way to react to this,” he said. “If you’re afraid, you have every right to be afraid. If you feel happy, don’t be guilty that you’re happy, because sometimes you need those moments of happiness.”
Anton continued to address Ukrainian immigrants abroad. “You can do so many amazing things by not allowing the world to get accustomed to this news. We have to keep this going, people should know about this, people should help us … even though we are not a part of the European Union, we are fighting for European Union … We are at the doorstep to democracy.”