Anna Goes Ukraine: Escape from the DPR – a Queer Teen’s Story

7 April 2023

Anna Bowles is a pro-Ukrainian activist from the UK, and from 23 March to 6 April she is in East and South Ukraine, with her friends from the Freefilmers NGO, interviewing local people – especially women in rural communities – about their experiences and survival strategies. Anna is blogging about her trip here – we are also republishing some of her blogs on Rights in Russia, but please also visit Anna’s site. You can donate here to support the people Anna meets.

Escape from the DPR – a Queer Teen’s Story

Maria and Denys recently made a new friend, Natalie, and we hung out in a café in Zaporizhzhia for a couple of hours. Maria told her about Ptichka Fund, and my blog.

Natalie, who is now 24, comes from Makiivka, a city that almost forms a single urban area with Donetsk; and is non-binary. She says she isn’t committed to particular pronouns, but that I should use she/her for this blog as it focuses on women. At the café, she asked me to send her questions via Telegram so she could give considered answers, and replied to me in English, as she is trying to stop speaking Russian. The following text is all hers; I’ve only corrected where absolutely necessary to clarify meaning and tidy up grammar.

1 You’re from Makiivka. What was life like there before 24.02.22?

I lived in Makiivka for all eight years of the Russian occupation. Those were very depressing times, when you understand you’re living in a cage, you’re nobody, you have nowhere to go. You can’t get any mental help, every time you just hear, ‘Everyone is having a rough time, get yourself together’, and of course there was no escape.

2014 was a fun time when I graduated Ninth Grade at school and went to college to train as a primary school teacher. The war had just begun, and we still went to classes. In that period I felt anxious for the first time in my life and, as I remember, that anxiety wasn’t about war and survival, it was about being around those people again. I actually had really transgender tendencies during that period, so felt really out of place there. The binary system really choked me and the things that they were teaching I never found appropriate in the first place.

It wasn’t about identity, it was about ‘teaching your children to be normal’. I wasn’t ‘normal’ at all. So basically, to escape that place I started poisoning myself by taking random meds from the med kit, because it was easier to go to a hospital feeling sick than tell my parents the truth, that I hated studying there. They never actually listened to my feelings until I got really sick, falling down unconscious. After a year and a half I dropped out of college, reasoning that if I wanted to hurt myself just to leave, that place wasn’t okay at all.

Then after a year I started studying English Philology at University, because I thought that knowing English was the only thing I could do. Guess what? After two weeks there I felt really useless and stupid, felt guilty that my parents were paying for someone bad like me, so I started wanting to kill myself REALLY BAD. So I went to the mental hospital by myself and just randomly started crying for help.

My doctor kept saying to my parents that I was just acting younger than my age and didn’t want to grow up. They just casually wrote ‘depression’ in my diagnosis and gave me prescriptions for antidepressants and just let me go. They didn’t feel like enough, so I stopped taking them and just started doing nothing. Back then, I got my first therapist, who was actually also my friend, so that was a long struggle with few enjoyable feelings of being acceptable.

Basically, the therapy didn’t help me at all, because I couldn’t stop hating myself and blaming myself for anything bad that happened to me or people I loved. My very first relationship was painful for my partner, because I never loved them, I just wanted to be loved. The second one just ended because I was empty and depressed so there was nothing to speak with me about. Also, I felt like I’m so miserable not normal compared to them. In the end, I started to drink alcohol just to not feel pain when I was hurting.

In the new year, I found the Clique (Twenty-One Pilots fans). There I was honest with everyone, and with myself. I was the person I actually am. Twenty One Pilots’ music actually told me something I couldn’t hear from people around me. A little sight of hope. I think that was the time when I really started wanting to be alive. I just needed to escape. You know, there were lyrics that said, ‘In time I will leave that city, for now I will stay alive.’ Music saves lives for real.

But of course it wasn’t enough, so back in 2021 I fell into a crippling deep depression, and thought I would see the end very soon. But I have motivation to live. I had a person that I loved more than anything, and I knew that I couldn’t leave them alone and should still fight for life. So, once again, I went to the mental hospital to seek help. That time my parents did help me. They paid for the psychotherapist and my meds. So, after half a year taking meds I finally felt alive.

But then came 2022.

2 Tell me a bit about your family. Why did you argue?

My parents were actually pretty normal people. My father was a retired miner, my mom worked in city utilities, and they wanted pretty basic things like a car, or a smart-TV, or grandkids and repairs to their house. I was different. I wanted to do art, travel the world. I didn’t want a family or something basic. My father was a cheerful and hardworking person, but also really paranoid and distrustful. A basic typical old white man – racist, sexist, homophobic and ageist. My mother was pretty unsure of her own beliefs in that respect, which left me some hope that she might understand me.

We always fight about stupid things, like the length of my hair, the colour and style of my clothes. Sometimes they shamed me for being irresponsible and asocial. They believe Russian propaganda and raised me according to the values of the “Russian world” – in fear, shame, devaluation, saying that everything about Ukraine is fake, it’s made by the West. My father was always against me going to the mental hospital, saying it will affect my life, leave a mark on my future. I’d never get a job. Mother just supported all his choices. I never said to them that I was non-binary or bisexual because I knew they’d say I’m being stupid or a clown, and devalue everything I say. I never told them my political opinions. They thought I was a child. When I wasn’t at all. The last thing I heard from my dad before I left is that I’m a naïve and disrespectful person, and if I leave them to go to free Ukraine we’ll be enemies.

3 How did you flee to Ukraine?

I’d actually been looking for a chance to leave the occupied territories for a long time. Not even leave to Ukrainian territory, but to go further – somewhere far way from the conflict, from Russians and Ukrainians, somewhere like Norway, UK, Canada, even New Zealand, just to be somewhere, where I will never see people like in my hometown, somewhere I can me myself and still be safe.

24 February put a stop to my plan to leave via the Russian border, because I couldn’t get through the Ukrainian side because I had no identification papers. However, the war gave me a new chance, because of volunteers. The volunteer group ‘Helping to Leave’ told me the next date they were evacuating people. Mostly they helped people from Mariupol and the nearby towns, but they still agreed to help me even though I haven’t got much money. I only knew I was leaving two days before departure.

I took only essential things with me, said goodbye to my parents honestly, got traumatised by them one last time, then got on a bus. Five hours later I was in Berdyansk [in the occupied south of Ukraine], where I changed some money to Ukrainian hryvnias and slept in a hotel that helped refugees. I still remember the Russian billboards that said, ‘Russia will be here forever’. The next stop was Vasilivka, the main Russian checkpoint before Zaporizhzhia. I was lucky to wait there for only 30 hours, unlike most people who had to wait two to five days. I was so scared they would turn me back, find my hard drive, ask about where I’m going, but I was really lucky that nothing bad happened and I got to Zaporizhzhia safely. When I saw Ukrainian flags, I cried.  

4 You have problems with your identity documents. We don’t have a system like that in the UK. Please explain the system and the kind of problem facing refugees from the east.

In Ukrainne in 2014 a law was passed that obliged you to apply for identification papers (a passport) when you turned sixteen. (Since 2018, I think, it’s been fourteen). In 2014 I was just fifteen, and after that I never left the uncontrolled [by Russians] territories to get them because my father was scared that the Ukrainian police or army would take me hostage to get my brother, who was in the DPR army [the pro-Russian militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a Russian puppet state formed after the 2014 invasion].

So when I got to Zaporizhzhia there was no mention of my existence in photo databases, so the Migration Department couldn’t identify me. The only way to prove I’m the person whose name is written on my birth certificate was for my parents to come to the city and identify me. Of course there was no chance they’d come here for any reason, so I gave up. But recently the government approved a new law that made it possible to carry out the identification process by video. That’s saved me from having stateless status. Now I’m waiting for my first ID card, as the age of 24.

5 Are there other teenagers and young people like you in the occupied territories who can’t or don’t want to leave?

I have some friends in my hometown and nearby cities; basically every one of them was part of the Clique. Some of them even wanted to leave with me, but they hadn’t got any money, or couldn’t leave their families, or were underage. Half of them don’t have any Ukrainian papers to leave through the other countries, so they’re stuck at home. We still talk sometimes and really miss each other.

6 What is life like for young queer people in Ukraine?

It’s really hard for me to sum up the LGBTQA+ situation in Ukraine because I haven’t been there for eight years. Back in Donetsk, the police almost arrested us for the LGBT flag, and some radical groups beat up our community. In Ukraine it’s safer, but we still need to be careful about saying who we are, because our society is full of aggressive, hateful people.

7 Is there a big difference between the younger and older generations?

The older generation was raised to believe everything that Russian authorities say, because they teach that Russia is always great and powerful, and being Russian is a privilege. Those authorities raised slaves. They raised a generation of distrustful people, who will always be afraid that the whole world is cruel and hates you. Now they are saying my generation are fooled by the internet, but the internet actually gave me and my generation a chance to not be afraid of the world.

8 Why do so many people trust the Russian world?

In the Russian world, domestic violence and alcoholism are normalised; education is miserable and children are raised in shame and fear, under despotic authorities. The linguistic and cultural genocide doesn’t just apply to Ukraine, because every Asian culture in Russia is almost extinct. We still have many problems that the Russian world gave us, and it’s really hard to defeat the propaganda machine, but we are taking really big steps to win our freedom.

9 Can Russia change?

In the form of the Russian Federation, no way. Russia should collapse into hundreds of free states, leaving people to rethink whether it was OK to be ‘Russia’, because you’ll never find a more fascist state. The coming generations there will still be prevented from understanding what freedom and responsibility are.

10 Tell me a bit about your partner.

I met my partner on the internet. Most web relationships end without ever meeting, but we intended to meet. They were my only motivation to live, to leave, to survive. And afterwards they made it here, they’re next to me, and I’m happy. They’re also Ukrainian and have given me all the support I needed and helped me find out the truth about who is actually my enemy. Now we are planning our future together and I finally feel like I have a home, where I am accepted.

11 Tell me a bit about your art.

I create art mostly for my own ideas and dreams. I love creating people, characters, their lives, interests, their goals and fears. I love people and people are my life. I want to talk about people, create whole stories about them; I just don’t know how. Maybe some day I’ll write a comic or a book. Now I just write down concepts and ideas and this is how I live.

12 What do you want to do after the victory? As a profession, or in general?

After the war, I want to go back once, see my hometown one last time, tell my family wht I always wanted to tell them, and never go back again. I don’t know what kind of future I can plan because I’m still unsure of my own strength and confidence, and my skills. Sometimes I want to live my life as an artist, find something incredible and new in my own self. Mostly I want to see the world around me, go somewhere outside Ukraine, know that I’m not bound any more.

13 In your opinion, what does the West not understand about Ukraine? What do we need to know?

That something which is old and still works is nevertheless not always practical and rational, or morally right. That you never get freedom by talking, only through harm and blood, metaphorical or not. That Empires will fall when we stop admiring and fearing them, and Privileged people never reject their privilege for the sake of justice.

14 Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Stop being afraid to donate to the Ukrainian military. It’s not just our fight for survival, but all Europe’s. That’s the only way to end the war.

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