As Russian bombs rained down near her house in Dnipro, Ukraine, on Thursday March 10th, Alina Lyman wept for her city, her safety and her unborn child.
And the unthinkable decision she must make. Quickly.
“I’m kind of choosing between the worst scenarios, both really awful, because if I stay, I will die,” she said in an audio message to a friend in Columbus. “If I (leave), I can get lost; I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know how I will get out of that location. I will be alone. I am pregnant. I have a heavy backpack on my shoulders.”
Her friends in Columbus are desperately trying to help Alina, 26, who is four-and-a-half months pregnant, escape Ukraine and return to the United States, where she worked at the Whole Foods store at Easton about five years ago.
The casual tone of the GoFundMe message (https://bit.ly/3t2T8Xp) from her friend, Eric Ponce, belies the urgency of this moment: “Hi, my name is Eric, I’m trying to raise money to help my Ukrainian friends escape and start a new life.” His note is beneath a picture of a smiling Alina with her fiance, Dima Kvitka, 24.
From Columbus, Ponce, 26, is asking friends and acquaintances for help. Alina stayed with Ponce in Columbus while working as a cashier at Whole Foods before going back to her native Ukraine two years ago to be with Dima.
“Her neighbors and friends, they all have horror stories – possessions lost, people missing,” Ponce said.
“It just seems really unfair. I live a relatively safe life here in Columbus. She works so hard – and for this to happen to her…” he said, his voice trailing off.
Jamie Longo, 27, also met Alina while working at Whole Foods. She’s helping Ponce get the word out about their friend and the fundraiser. Longo said she always thought the kinds of events that have rocked Ukraine in the past month happened to other people, but now they’re happening to someone she knows and cares about.
“If I could sprout wings and fly her back myself, I would,” she said.
In an interview with The Reporting Project via the Telegram messenger app from Dnipro, Alina said she traveled from Ukraine to New York at age 18 to see the United States. While crisscrossing the country, she was drawn to Columbus, got a job and decided to go to college here.
“I liked the town, people and education,” she said.
She said she obtained citizenship while in Columbus. She studied graphic design and advertising at Columbus State Community College, where she made the dean’s list in 2018, and had hoped to study at the Columbus College of Art and Design but moved back to her hometown of Dnipro.
Now Alina is on her own, because Dima is among the thousands of men ages 18 to 60 who have joined the fight against Russian troops. She often stays in an underground bomb shelter.
”No one’s going to help you because everyone’s busy with their own problems, each has his own horror story,” she said.
The couple just learned they are having a girl.
Dima’s last name, Kvitka, means “flower” in Ukrainian, Alina wrote in a message, “and we are planning to name our daughter Lily Rose! LILY ROSE KVITKA!!!”
Alina prays for safe passage to Poland or Germany. She’d like to get to the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. Ponce said that from one of those countries, she could access funds to travel to the United States.
“I need medicine for my pregnancy, and also to go to the hospital to check my blood and stuff, just the regular things that I need to do with the pregnancy, but it’s not working,” Alina said in an audio message to Ponce. “There’s no way I can go (to the hospital). It’s only taking the injured, the soldiers, and women who are giving birth. There is no place for me to go.”
At the same time Alina is wrestling with whether and how to escape Ukraine, she is overwhelmed with concern for Dima.
“Dima went to war and he doesn’t have enough ammunition, and a lot of cities don’t have it,” she said. “So we are trying to get it (ammunition) from Poland, and the nearby countries. I don’t know how we will manage it, but at this moment, I’m trying to do it, because he’s just defending us in his pajamas, you know. It’s scary, and now [Russian President Vladimir] Putin says that he is ready to use atomic weapons, and this is the thing that really scares me, because there will be no place to live if he uses his atomic weapons,” she said, beginning to weep.
Dnipro is a city of nearly 1 million people on the Dnieper River in the center of Ukraine. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Dnipro had become a “critical target,” despite Ukrainians being able to hold off the Russian army in recent days.
CNN reported a day earlier that “Russia was mounting resources to ‘encircle’ the city.” The cable news organization quoted a March 6 Facebook post by Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.
“The enemy does not give up hopes to seize Kyiv and mounts resources to encircle Dnipro,” Danilov continued, adding that Russia’s plan was to “encircle the major cities, exsanguinate the Ukrainian Armed Forces and create a situation of humanitarian catastrophe for civilians.”
That is happening in Dnipro now.
CNN quoted the State Emergency Service of Ukraine on Friday as saying, “On March 11 at about 6:10 a.m., there were three airstrikes in Novokodatsky District of Dnipro City, namely: a strike near a preschool and an apartment building, as well as a strike that hit a two-story shoe factory and caused fire.”
In an audio message to Ponce this week from Alina, who gave Ponce permission to share her audio recordings with The Reporting Project, she described her anguish.
“I was begging him (Dima) to please stop and stay with me, because there are enough people defending, protecting our territory, our state, but he said that I can just stay at home. … He said he can’t just do nothing about it.”
They are trying to obtain military supplies from the Czech Republic for Dima and other fighters – helmets and body armor. Alina described it as “a jacket with metal things that protect you from gunshots.”
She said that the train stations are packed and she shared a video of a blocks-long line of people waiting to get into a train station. “You stand in line the whole [time], and after a certain point, they tell you that you could be denied and you’d have to come back the next day. …You walk out and wait all day.”
She also fears taking a train because it, too, could be attacked.
“I’m afraid to go and cross the border so I can leave, because I’m afraid that I, I don’t know, I will be lost, because it’s crowded, and people panic so much and it’s not really safe to travel anymore,” Alina said. “Like on the roads, I don’t know how to get to the border, or from the airport. I would be alone and I can’t carry heavy stuff, and I’m just scared to travel with only my backpack on me.
“I so believe and hope it will be over soon, and we can go together,” she said before Russians began shelling her city on Thursday. “If not, I will probably go by myself. I will give it one month, and after that, I must go, because I cannot check my pregnancy. I cannot buy vitamins for it, I cannot do anything about it. So, basically, it’s just like, I don’t know what’s happening inside. That’s really scary, so I’m giving it one month, and after that, it’s really scary, but I’ll risk it and try to get out by myself.”
She blames Putin for the deaths of innocent Ukrainians and for tearing apart her family.
“Sixteen kids were killed, and Russia is saying, ‘We’re not attacking civilians, and no one is hurt, and it’s just like on military bases,’ but whole cities are falling – the middle of the cities, the cultural centers, the hospitals, and civilian buildings, communities,” she said.
Alina told The Reporting Project that before Putin launched war on Ukraine, she and Dima planned to get married, sell their home and move to the United States in April so that she could give birth here in August.
“But now (Dima) can’t get out of Ukraine, we have a war, we can’t sell our business or apartment,” she wrote. “I don’t know how to escape, and even if I do, I don’t know how I will manage it there all alone. I’m afraid it’s just impossible.”