People look at a damaged school in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, on March 20.

'Some of us never unpacked our suitcases': Putin's refugee crisis didn't start in 2022

Updated 6:34 AM ET, Wed March 23, 2022

(CNN)In the month since Russia invaded Ukraine, at least 10 million people have fled their homes. But for countless more refugees across the world, Vladimir Putin's assault on democracy began long before 2022.

Eight years ago, the breakaway enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk, in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, became the site of fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces. That same year, 2014, Russia also annexed Crimea, sparking global condemnation.
There was precedent for this. In 2008, over the course of five days, Russian troops under then-Prime Minister Putin invaded the former Soviet state of Georgia, supposedly to defend the independence of two pro-Russian territories -- South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Beyond Europe's borders, Russian forces entered Syria's long civil war in 2015, bolstering ally President Bashar al-Assad's regime. In the wake of Russia's massive bombing assault on Aleppo, the country lost its seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.
We asked refugees and displaced people from each of these conflicts to share their stories of forging new lives -- and the lessons for Ukraine today. The opinions expressed in these commentaries are their own.


A damaged market in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk in December 2014.
The writer living under Russian attack a second time
Olena Stiazhkina is a Ukrainian writer who lived in Donetsk until 2014, where she taught in the Donetsk National University history department. She is the author of "Cecil the Lion's Death Made Sense" and "Zero Point Ukraine." She lives in Kyiv. Her words have been translated by Uilleam Blacker, associate professor at University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
Olena Stiazhkina
Over the last two weeks, the year 2014, which never ended, has been attacking me from all sides. In the spring of that year, back in my native Donetsk, I began to act like the local madwoman, muttering under her breath and occasionally screaming: "Tanks! War! The Russians are coming!"
Since I moved to Kyiv, I've kept up this persona. For years, I've been looking people in the eye and telling them: "There will be war. There will most definitely be war."
Every year, those of us from Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea relive 2014. We recall our resistance, mark the cursed anniversaries of the pseudo-referendums, remember the liberation of neighbouring cities -- Mariupol, Volnovakha, Sloviansk, Kramatorsk -- in the summer of that year.
Trying to start afresh in our new, supposedly peaceful lives, we learned to fit our existences into suitcases. Some of us never really unpacked.
My children say that their greatest fear is to be killed (torn apart, burned, shot, the Russians have multiple options). Instead of feeling horror at this, I felt relief. I felt like the fear they were talking about was normal. It was healthy, human fear that testified to the soundness of their mental state, which I feared I might have ruined -- but no, I hadn't.
My greatest fear is a long, slow death without the knowledge of whether my loved ones are alive or dead.
After 2014, Ukrainians developed the habit of thanking our soldiers in the street for halting the progress of the enemy in the east. It's a very simple, everyday gesture: if you see a fighter in the street, you place your right hand on your heart and you say 'thank you' -- say it out loud, or just whisper it, it doesn't matter.
I won't lie and say that everybody everywhere took part in this practice, but the hand placed on the heart is a gesture that is understood by all Ukrainians.
Since 2014, we also accompany our heroes on their final journey on our knees. If a funeral procession is passing through a town or village, the people, who may not have known the dead soldier, kneel down on either side of the road. And this is everybody and everywhere. Without exception.
I have difficulties with the calendar. As I write this, I know it's the 17th day of the war, but I don't know what day of the week it is. I can't think about timescales. 'The long haul', 'many years', 'frozen conflict'. It's been eight years now.
This is the 17th day of what will later be referred to as the final stage of Russia's aggression against Ukraine. We will not be broken.