Mariya Gut sipped water at a restaurant near the Baruch College campus in Manhattan – where students squinted into the cool glare of laptops and the only sign of war was a message spray painted on scaffolding across the street demanding Russia remove its “bloody hands from Ukraine!”
For the 18-year-old business management major from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, her freshman year has become an afterthought. The plight of her homeland, nearly 5,000 miles away, is all consuming. She frets over her mother and only brother, who have no military training yet returned to the historic city to support the resistance to the Russian invasion.
Gut’s brother, Nazar, 22, arrived in New York from Ukraine days before Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 24 unleashed his full-scale invasion.
Nazar had planned to spend a month or two in New York – as he has done in the past – with his sister and their divorced parents, get a job, save a little money and continue pursuing an online degree in computer science from a Ukrainian university.
In the early hours of Monday, Nazar was back in Lviv. He had found his passport, which his sister had hidden under a mattress in the family home in Queens, according to Gut. He used her credit card to buy an $800 airline ticket and left her cash to cover the flight to neighboring Poland.
A week into the deadly incursion, her brother had armed himself with an assault rifle, Gut said this weekend. He’s now learning how to use it in case Russia advances to the historic city in the far west of the country – which for now has been spared the kind of aerial bombardment seen in Kyiv and other places.
“I know it sounds crazy but thank God he got it,” Gut said of the rifle, as Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings blared from the restaurant’s speakers.
She had implored him to stay. On her knees, she begged and cried. Their father, Oleksiy, warned of the perils of war.
“How could I ever go back and look at the Ukrainian people in the eyes if I stay?” Gut recalled Nazar telling them. “I’m old enough to decide.”
On the night of February 26, Nazar boarded a flight to Poland, carrying only a black backpack slung over his right shoulder – a moment Mariya captured on cellphone video. She bawled all the way home from the airport.
Gut said her mother and brother were too preoccupied with the situation back home to speak to CNN.
‘I don’t know if I’m coming back’
Hours before Gut’s brother arrived in New York, their mother, Iryna, 42, left for what the family thought would be a one week stay in Lviv. This was two days before Putin launched Russia’s military arsenal on his neighbor.
“I was taking her to the airport and she’s like, ‘Look Mariya, I don’t know if I’m coming back,’ ” Gut recalled. “I said, ‘Mom, everything is fine. There’s not going to be war.’ ”
But Russian troops had been lining up along the Ukrainian border for weeks and, some 48 hours after Gut kissed her mother goodbye, the battle for Ukraine began in the early morning hours there.
“I started calling my mom,” Gut said. “I told her, ‘Mom, if you’re going to die, I’m going to die, too. So you can’t die. I swear.’ ”
Now, her mother spends her days alternately cooking for Poland-bound refugees arriving from the center and east of the country and mixing Molotov cocktail fire bombs with other volunteers in makeshift factories.
“I’m not going to run away,” Gut recalled her mother telling her. “I’m going to stay and help.”
She learned how to make Molotov cocktails in 6th grade
Gut was 11 years old in 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The military incursion came in response to mass protests in the Ukrainian capital that forced out a Moscow-supported president who refused to sign a historic political and trade agreement with the European Union. Russian-backed separatists have controlled the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine since then.
That was when Gut first heard of Molotov cocktails, the anti-tank, improvised incendiary devices now being produced assembly line style in Lviv and other cities.
“It was very scary but it wasn’t that bad in my city,” said Gut, who moved to New York about seven years ago. “In school they were teaching us how to do those (Molotov) cocktails. In the sixth grade. In case something happened.”
Over the last week, Gut said, her mother, an 80-year-old aunt and the refugees they’ve taken in – including a large dog – have been rushing down to the basement of her family’s four-story house as air raid sirens wail over Lviv.
“Sometimes I’m on the phone with her and the alarms go and I’m like, ‘Mom, what’s going on?’ She says, ‘I can’t talk right now. Bye.’ And I’m just waiting for her to call me back. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Gut cringed at the thought of the “huge spiders” that populate that small basement.
An uncle recovers from gunshot wounds
By this weekend, the refugees staying at the Gut home just outside of the city center included two women and two children from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, which endured a barrage of attacks targeting schools, shops, hospitals, apartments and churches. At least 34 civilians were killed and 285 injured – including 10 children – in the Kharkiv region, the Ukrainian State Emergency Service said Thursday.
Gut said her family on Saturday had to bury an uncle, in his 60s, who died of cancer last week in the city of Yavoriv. Her mother messaged her from the funeral that another uncle, a soldier in his 50s, was recovering from surgery in the city of Zhytomyr after he was shot twice in the leg by Russian troops on Thursday, she said.
Her brother, Gut said, has been assisting people at a shelter housing refugees trying to reach Poland. More than a million refugees have fled the country in the past week, according to the United Nations. They include half a million children in what UNICEF warned could be Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II.
“All the clothes we had in the house we gave to them,” Gut said.
‘This has united people in Ukraine’
Gut, like most Ukrainians outside the country of 44 million, has been doomscrolling the war, especially as it edges closer to home. She is glued to the Telegram messaging app and other social media for news and conversation about the invasion.
One video appeared to show a farmer on a tractor towing a tank, with a Russian soldier giving chase. Video from the embattled city of Kherson showed residents defiantly waving Ukrainian flags in front of what appear to be Russian troops and tanks.
There are so many videos that it is hard for people to figure out what’s real and what’s not. In fact, some have turned out to be fake. But many posts show the war so far has not gone as smoothly as the Kremlin might have hoped. They have contributed to an increase in patriotic feeling in Ukraine and drawn attention to its cause.
“Mom is always like begging me to not cry, you know,” Gut said. “She says everything’s going to be fine. She’s laughing, you know, like everything’s okay.”
‘I pray you will never, ever have to see war’
Gut isn’t surprised at the courage and resolve of Ukrainians.
“I think no other country would fight like Ukraine,” she said. “We have been through too much… This has united people in Ukraine. They’re helping each other.”
William Taylor, a former ambassador to Ukraine and vice president of Russia and Europe at the US Institute of Peace, also isn’t surprised by the response of the Ukrainian people.
“I think this crisis ends in a long grind, a long resistance,” he told CNN last week. “Whatever the military outcome of the next week or two or three, the Ukrainians will resist.”
Gut said her great grandmother, Katerina, who died last year in Lviv at the age of 96, instilled in her pride in Ukraine and its culture. Katia, as her great grandmother was known, used to speak of previous Russian incursions, including one in which the woman was wounded by a soldier, according to Gut.
“She even had like a scar from the bullet,” Gut remembered.
“It was hard for my great grandmother. She told a lot of stories. She didn’t want Ukrainians to lose their language. She would tell us, ‘I pray you will never, ever have to see war.’ “
She made a pledge to her mother
Now Gut thinks about nothing but war. And her brother and mother, who nine years ago came to the US – where she worked caring for children to save money to buy Mariya and Nazar apartments in Lviv.
Lviv, which dates to the late Middle Ages, is famous for its ornate classical and baroque buildings. The city of about one million people feels more European – and even sits closer to NATO member Poland, about 50 miles from the border, than to Russia.
“Russia has always been something else for us,” said Gut, adding that the 80-year-old aunt staying at her home in Lviv doesn’t speak Russian, only Ukrainian.
On her phone she has videos taken during her visit to Lviv during the recent winter break. They show people holding hands, dancing and singing Ukrainian folk songs on cobblestone streets and snow falling in the night over the city’s colorful electric trams.
“I hope they don’t destroy my country,” she said.
At a protest in Times Square the other day, she met a young Russian who said he supported the Ukrainian cause.
“He said, ‘I hate myself for being Russian. Please forgive us,’ ” Gut recalled. “I told him this is not his fault, you know, but he still felt so bad.”
It’s hard to focus on her studies, Gut said. Sick with worry, she was unable to study for an exam last week. She burst out crying after one class and told a professor she was thinking of dropping her five courses.
“But I promised my mom that no matter what,” she said with a slight smile, “I’m going to keep studying.”
Gut said the future of Ukraine will depend on its people – like her mom and brother and so many others fighting for the motherland.