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'I'm Devastated': Bay Area Ukrainians React to Russian Invasion of Their Homeland

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People protesting hold signs in front of SF City hall.
Demonstrators gather in front of San Francisco City Hall in the evening on Feb. 24, 2022, to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Ostap Korkuna is among the thousands of Ukrainian Americans in the Bay Area who have been ceaselessly monitoring news reports and social media feeds since Wednesday night in California, when Russia began its military assault on the nation.

"This is definitely an absolutely stressful situation for me and my family. I can just imagine how stressful it is for people back in Ukraine," said Korkuna, who was born and raised in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, and is now the director of Nova Ukraine, a humanitarian nonprofit based in Palo Alto. "We thought the full-scale invasion would be the worst thing that could absolutely happen. And that's exactly what happened."

Russia commenced its attack on Ukraine early Thursday morning (local time), unleashing a barrage of airstrikes on cities and military bases and sending in troops and tanks from multiple directions, as civilians piled into trains and cars to flee.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video address early Friday local time that 137 people, both service members and civilians, have been killed so far, with hundreds more wounded.

Ignoring months of global condemnation and cascading new financial sanctions from the U.S. and Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday morning declared a "special military operation," chillingly referring to his country’s nuclear arsenal. Any country that tried to interfere, he warned, would face "consequences you have never seen."

The conflict marks the first major European land war in decades. It comes more than 30 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when Ukraine and other Eastern bloc countries won their independence. Ukraine has since distanced itself from Russia and steadily embraced European institutions — including an ongoing push to join NATO — which Putin considers a threat.

Two women hold signs above their heads that say 'One united sovereign Ukraine!' and 'Russian Soldier Stay Home.'
Iuliia Kovbasiuk (left) and Ganna Aleksenko hoist signs in front of San Francisco City Hall on Feb. 24, 2022, during a protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Since receiving word of the first bomb blasts, Korkuna said he has been frantically attempting to check in with family and friends in Ukraine, noting that those who live further away from the Russian border feel slightly safer.

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"That being said, given that the bomb shelling is happening all over the territory of Ukraine, I don't think anyone can feel safe at this point," he said. "It's just hard to imagine what people feel when they hear the bombs firing really close to them."

Korkuna's group is raising funds to send emergency supplies to people on the ground, and organizing remote medical trainings to prepare them for what he called an imminent humanitarian crisis.

"There will be injuries, there will be casualties," he said. "We need people to be prepared."

The group also organized a rally Thursday evening in front of San Francisco City Hall, planned in partnership with members of the Bay Area's Russian and Belarusian communities, in a unified stance against Russia's actions.

Lesya Hendrix, a San Francisco resident who grew up in Ukraine, joined hundreds of other demonstrators at the event. She said her grandparents and uncle's family, who live in the central Ukrainian city of Poltava, were woken up Thursday morning to the sounds of explosions and fighter jets.

"They don't have anywhere to go. It's too late," she said. "There is no gas. No means of transportation really to go at this point."

Hendrix said her family's internet service is still working, so she's been able to remain in touch with them. "But as soon as they don't reply for an hour, both me and my mom are just worried. Was there a bomb on their house?" she said. "Are they not answering because they're busy or they could fall asleep for an hour. Or are they not answering because they're not alive anymore?"

Of the more than 1 million people of Ukrainian descent in the U.S., some 20,000 live in the Bay Area — concentrated primarily in San Francisco and the South Bay — according to the Ukrainian consulate in San Francisco.

A group of people stand together behind a large sign that reads, 'Save Ukraine - Stop Putin.'
Hundreds of demonstrators gather in front of San Francisco City Hall on Feb. 24, 2022, to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

San Jose resident Denys Mamrak, who came to Thursday's rally with a Ukrainian flag draped over his shoulders, said the attack reminds him of the 1941 Nazi invasion of Ukraine.

"They have the same rhetoric, the same narrative, the same attitude," he said, of Putin and his forces. "I can't believe this is happening here and now, in the 21st century, nearly in the middle of Europe."

Mamrak, a Ukrainian national, said he feels betrayed by Western nations, who he contends are more interested in containing the conflict than in actually helping Ukraine defend itself. "I feel like the entire world left us alone," he said.

Ukrainian officials on Friday said their forces were battling Russians on multiple fronts, and had lost control of the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant, scene of the world's worst nuclear disaster.

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"Russia has embarked on a path of evil, but Ukraine is defending itself and won’t give up its freedom," Zelenskyy tweeted. He earlier cut diplomatic ties with Moscow and declared martial law, while pleading for international support.

"I am devastated," said Alex Rozovsky, a Sunnyvale resident who was born in Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city about 25 miles from Russia's border that has been a major early target of Russia's forces.

"I am in contact with friends in Ukraine and also in Moscow. And these people are, you know, suffering right now," added Rozovsky, who said he's been glued to the TV and internet for the past 24 hours, trying to decipher fact from fiction. "But their spirit is amazing. They want to fight and they're prepared to defend. Even if Putin occupies the country, the resistance will continue. That's what I'm hearing. So that gives me hope."

Rozovsky, a retired tech worker, predicted Russia would seize Kyiv and replace the government with a puppet regime — an outcome that senior U.S. defense officials now agree is likely.

"I'm hoping that President Zelenskyy can escape and maybe form a government in exile," Rozovsky said. "That probably counts as the best scenario at this point."

From the U.S. to Western Europe and Japan, South Korea and Australia, nations lined up to denounce the Kremlin as the outbreak of fighting raised fears about the shape of Europe to come — prompting NATO to strengthen its eastern flank.

In Washington, President Biden on Thursday announced new sanctions against Russia, saying Putin “chose this war” and that his country would bear the consequences of his actions.

North Bay Democratic Congress member John Garamendi, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and had just returned from a meeting in Europe Wednesday night with military allies, said 30 members of NATO showed support for tougher sanctions against Russia.

Garamendi accused Putin of starting "a tragic new chapter in European history."

A group of people stand together holding blue and yellow Ukrainian flags and small signs in support of Ukraine.
Demonstrators wrapped in Ukrainian flags gather in San Francisco Civic Center on Feb. 24, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

But Rozovsky said the sanctions imposed don't go far enough.

"Putin only understands strength, and I don't see enough strength from the United States and from NATO. This is not enough for Putin to understand," he said, calling for financial sanctions that hit Putin's personal fortune.

"I understand the U.S. isn’t going to send troops. That's out of the question. But there are much more severe sanctions," he added. "Biden could have done a lot more."

Rozovsky said the current situation ominously hearkens back to what he imagines his grandparents experienced during World War II.

"I'm really, really distraught," he said. "It's my native country, you know, and the people who are still there, I'm thinking I could have been in their shoes."

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This post includes reporting from KQED’s Tara Siler, Alex Emslie and April Dembosky, with additional coverage from The Associated Press.

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