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News: A desperate search for family and friends

Les Yakymchuk didn’t sleep Wednesday night in Athens, Ohio. Neither did his mother in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Yakymchuk, a 29-year-old Ukrainian student at Ohio University, eventually connected with his mom over Facebook. Her neighborhood in Ukraine’s capital was not under attack, but sirens warning of possible bombing drove her to an underground parking garage for shelter.

“Information keeps changing every 10 minutes,” the journalism student said of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of his native land. “It’s hard to filter.”

Across the U.S., people with family and friends in Ukraine desperately sought to reach them. What had been a lingering threat turned quickly into a full-blown war Wednesday with Russia bombing major cities. Over Skype, Facebook, cell phone and every imaginable form of communication frantic people sought the fate of those they love.

The feeling for folks like Yakymchuk is one of frustration for being absent, but also of foreboding. The last face-off with Russia in 2014 came in a small, isolated section in the eastern part of the nation. In the eight years since, Ukrainians knew they faced an attack, but learned to live with it. “Now,” said Yakymchuk, “the bombing is everywhere.”

A surreal sense of uncertainty prevails, a kind of suspended animation.

When Greg Stricharchuk reached family members Thursday, the news was mixed. “Some of my family are very scared; others are seemingly calm,” said the former American journalist who retired to Northumberland County Virginia. One relative worried because her son faced a call-up to defend his country with no military training. “It’s like volunteering to be murdered,” Stricharchuk said.

Yakymchuk said he has friends called into service who he can no longer reach. He busies himself explaining the geopolitics of Russia and Ukraine to classmates. He planned to drive to Cleveland for a Thursday night protest of the Russians invasion with Ukrainians in that city. Still, he said he has moments where he feels “useless.”

Cheryl Reed, an ex-journalist who is married to Stricharchuk, spent time Wednesday and Thursday texting journalism students she taught as a Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine in 2016 and 2017. She found one working with CBS news. She expected that others might be working with foreign media translating for English-speaking journalists.

When Reed lived in Ukraine as a Fulbright Scholar and in 2019-2020 when her husband was awarded a Fulbright, program officials encouraged participants and their families to have “go bags” filled with essentials so they could escape quickly if the Russians attacked. What may now be generally true just one day into the war is that almost no one will be going anywhere fast. Many people do not have cars, and buses and trains could be stymied by bombing damage.

“We had friends fleeing to western Ukraine,” Stricharchuk said. “In the last couple of days, everything collapses. You can’t get train tickets. You can’t get bus tickets. There’s been major cyber attacks on banks. Cheryl and I know from living [in Ukraine] you can only withdraw tiny amounts from an ATM. Everything now is conducted with cash. Ultimately, there will be food issues and money issues. But many people are just resigned to staying put.”


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