Svitlana Zapara: The basement of our university became a safe space for foreign students who could not leave Sumy


From the editor: Svitlana Zapara is a law professor at Sumy National Agrarian University. Besides multiple academic publications and text books, several years ago she also acted as a judge on the popular Ukrainian TV show Family Court.

Svitlana sent us her diary where she describes the first three days of the war. Her story tells the reader how it is to wake up immediately at the frontline. It is also about courage of the average city residents who were not afraid to take weapons and protect their homes.

The Russian military reached Sumy on the first day of the full-scale invasion. However, despite harsh hostilities, street fights and attempts to blockade the city, Sumy has never been occupied. The city of almost 400-year history and unique cultural legacy suffered a lot from the military actions, dozens of households and infrastructural objects were razed to the ground, periodically there was no electricity or water supply. In particular, on March 12 Russian air forces dropped five bombs near the Symu National University campus. The university library suffered the most, all the windows were shattered. Russian troupes finaly retreated from the city in the beginning of April.

February 24. The war in Ukraine began. More precisely, a new stage of the war, which began in 2014. For us, it started with my son calling us at five in the morning. He rang from the United States. He said that Russian troops had crossed the border and we were all in jeopardy. He urged us to leave the city immediately because it was very dangerous. My husband and I live together with my mother. She is 85 and it’s hard for her to move around, unfortunately. Our apartment is located on the 12th floor and since the elevators were turned off immediately, we realized that the evacuation of the elderly would be extremely difficult… We could clearly see the queues at gas stations and shops from the 12th floor though. In despair and panic, people seemed to take everything they could bear and pay for…

At 15.20 we saw Russian armored vehicles for the first time. We did not immediately realize that it was the enemy. After all, they did not shoot. It was not clear why they drove freely in our city. It seemed that not only the residents of the city were confused. In addition, this endless information flow about the enemy vehicle convoys on the roads of the Sumy region. I could not understand why enemy vehicles moved freely on Ukrainian roads. Only a few signs of military resistance.

About 4 pm directly from our balcony, we could observe a fight between our soldiers and enemy groups near the artillery school. At night it was hot for the first time. The explosions were right next to our house. One of the shells exploded in a nearby apartment on our floor. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Everything around seemed to be on fire. At night, when I recovered from the first fear and the acute phase of the military attack ended, I decided to approach that place, because someone might need help. I was stopped by a warning shot into the air and realized that I was not welcome there… Of course, it was very dangerous, but at that moment I could not think of anything else… I returned home…

We were not able to refuel the car on the first day.

February 25. In the morning, we saw the first damaged vehicles and learned about the first victims of the war. Six defenders of Sumy were injured. Three killed in action… We have already learned that there was a large-scale Russian invasion in the direction of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, Berdyansk, Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Sumy.

Friends were calling us asking, how we were doing and whether the city of Sumy was still Ukrainian. We knew that the Russian military had taken several photos in the center of Sumy and announced it captured. It seemed that Sumy was captured, but no, the enemy marched through the city and directed his vehicles elsewhere since they did not expect any resistance.

At this time, the territorial defense began to act chaotically but confidently. We had a premonition that the authorities had left us. But we knew we had to unite and act. Among the Ukrainians, there were those who had military experience from 2014. This experience seems to be the only positive acquisition from that period. Ukraine had a skilled army, too small to defend against full-scale war though. Therefore, we knew at once that we needed to dress, feed, and arm those who were ready to defend the city. And if necessary, defend the city on our own. On the first day, there were many people near the conscription office who came with all the necessary equipment. The conscription office office was still working.

February 26. We live on the edge of the city near the airport. Our airport has not been operating since the Soviet times and there were only plans to restore it. Probably that’s why it was not actively attacked. However, our defenders were based at the artillery school nearby. This made our location extremely dangerous. We didn't know if we would be able to survive till the next day, how to protect the lives of our loved ones, where to park the car, how to evacuate, what things to take with us? It seemed the whole world had changed instantly. Everything that seemed important before changed beyond recognition.

It became obvious that our life won’t be the same any more. I remember my husband getting dressed, saying he needed to run some errands. Then he called and asked to bring him shoes that were more or less suitable for being out for a long time. He was standing in line among those who wanted to protect the city. On that day, weapons were given to almost everyone. But no weapon was left for him… There were too many people volunteering.

At the university, there were still students who could not go home for various reasons. Students of our faculty. They desperately needed food, drinking water, medicines. The basement of the university building was the safe place, where they found shelter. We, the teachers of the law faculty, joined our forces and took turns cooking and bringing them food.

I wrote to an acquaintance at the Sumy City Council with a question how we could help. That’s how we learned that an alternative to territorial defense is patrolling the city.

Senast uppdaterad: 2022-04-11