Neonila “Augusta” Martyniuk was in Montrose when her cell phone, registered in the Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine, received the first air raid alert on March 1, warning her to take cover as Russian forces began bombing civilians in Ukraine.
It’s now been 11 weeks since the world witnessed Ukraine’s invasion and sparked the world’s largest human displacement crisis, but Martyniuk long ago considered the attack inevitable.
“I’m not surprised that it happened, I’m surprised that they’re trying to destroy Ukraine – that’s the part I did not believe,” Martyniuk said of her family’s home country, which has fallen victim to bombing and shelling since late February. “I did not believe they wanted to destroy Ukraine. Control Ukraine … yes, we’ve known that all our lives, but I never expected them to want to scorch the earth.”
Martyniuk doesn’t own a television, but she listens online to the country’s 24/7 live news broadcast as it rotates through different channels via a single stream. The medium allows people like Martyniuk to remain connected and informed as air raids occur, alerting them of risks and attacks to regions where loved ones have joined the fight or where others seek refuge.
Martyniuk, having lived and worked alongside Russians in Ukraine and having traveled to Russian for work, initially believed Russian citizens would show support for her mother country following the February attack.
She hoped they would present “powerful objections to the Kremlin to cease the nonstop destruction, torture, killings, kidnappings and thievery in Ukraine.”
She was surprised, then, to find many in Russia show support for their own government instead of Ukraine, expressing “hatred” toward Ukrainians due to misinformation.
Now Martyniuk is one of many around the world waiting for news on the welfare of loved ones after Russian president Vladimir Putin began targeted attacks on the country.
Since martial law was enacted in Ukraine on Feb. 25, males ages 18-60 have not been allowed to leave the country. Although women and children were allowed to evacuate, most of Martyniuk’s family elected to stay with their drafted loved ones.
“They’re calling it winter camp for the kids,” said Martyniuk of her family in Ukraine. Her family lives near an airport, a marker considered a bomb risk. They spend most of their time in the basement.
Martyniuk’s godson, 28, found himself back in Ukraine after attempting to return to Poland on a work visa on Feb. 25.
“All my other family groups are in Ukraine because they do not want the men to be left alone – they cannot leave,” she said.
The village of Maiske, or Майске in the Cyrillic alphabet, where Martyniuk used to live and work, is located in the district of Synel’nykove. The area borders regions laden with active ground fighting and has therefore been subject to intermittent bombing.
She still sees the faces of those she lived with.
“You know, this is all very, very real to me,” she said.
Although a second-generation American, Martyniuk was raised as a Ukrainian.
She traveled to Ukraine in 1991 after the country declared independence. She initially intended to visit family for two weeks, but 23 years passed before she returned to the United States, no longer feeling it was "safe" to remain in Ukraine once Russian military tanks moved within 120 miles of Maiske.
The move, Martyniuk noted, came after Crimea’s forced annexation in 2014 and Russian military incursions into the Donbas region of Ukraine.
Surrounding villages were infiltrated by Kremlin "collaborators" from within the community, she added.
While living in Ukraine, she worked in agriculture, working with Citizens Network Agribusiness Alliance, a non-government organization funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) before transitioning to a privately owned Ukrainian agriculture company.
Martyniuk’s educational background is in physical therapy, but her hands-on experience and knowledge in agriculture became the backbone of her career while in Ukraine.
Not only was her father’s education focused on agriculture, but Martyniuk herself was out in the fields while growing up in the Hudson Valley of New York State.
“My father had three daughters and a wife, we were always in the soil,” she recalled of her childhood, “and so, when I saw that sea of land, I started roaming around the villages because all my family had been forced into collective farms under Soviet rule.”
Martyniuk referenced the Ukrainian famine under Joseph Stalin, a chapter in history known as the Holodomor (combination of the Ukrainian words for “starvation” and “to inflict death”) that claimed the lives of approximately 3.9 million people, about 13 percent of the population.
Stalin’s desire to replace the country’s family farms with state-run collectives drove the famine – and all of Martyniuk’s relatives on her mother’s side were forced to work the farms.
“By rotating through the collective farms where my relatives lived and worked, I developed a good sense of what was going on in agriculture in Ukraine in the early 1990s.”
The refugee crisis
More than 12 million people are estimated to have fled Ukraine since Feb. 24, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNRA).
Just over six million have sought refuge in neighboring countries while another eight million are thought to be displaced within Ukraine, according to a May 11 UNRA report. Even more are thought to be stranded or unable to leave due to heightened security risks, destruction of bridges and roads, as well as a lack of resources or information on how to find safety.
The U.S. government promised refuge to 100,000 Ukrainians in March and have since closed the Mexican border as a legal option for entering the country. Ukrainians presenting at U.S. entry ports without a visa or pre-authorized travel following the launch of the federal “Uniting for Ukraine” program in April will be denied entry and referred to the online application.
The federal program also encourages eligible citizens to sponsor and support a Ukrainian refugee if interested.
Recently, Martyniuk was asked to put her bilingual skills to use as a translator at the Mexican border, where thousands of Ukrainian refugees sought informal access to the U.S. after fleeing their home country.
Now back in the U.S., Martyniuk’s love for Ukraine remains strong.
Many may know her for the yellow and blue crocheted hat she wears around Montrose, a symbol of her mother land. She has spoken at events around the county, such as at the Montrose Regional Library, where she shared her own story and knowledge of Ukraine, its history and the ongoing war.
Martyniuk has also sought ways to provide direct assistance to her loved ones living amidst the war-torn country.
“Who would have known?” she asked, thinking back to the last time she left Crimea with a friend. “I remember when I was leaving that area with my friend, a Crimean farmer – who would have thought that was the last time? I remember looking at that beautiful Black Sea coastline.”
Martyniuk never imagined that eight years on, Russian forces would occupy significant swathes of her former home.
She translated a message sent by a young relative soon after the February attack: “I cannot accept the fact that our daily lives are being taken away from us, which we have been enjoying until recently; and overall, that life itself is being taken away from us.”
Anyone interested in direct communication with Martyniuk can reach her via email: CatskillOwl2021@icloud.com
Cassie Knust is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press.