NAGOYA -- When a Ukrainian woman came to this central Japan city fleeing Russia's invasion of her country, it was not the first time she had been forced to flee. Yelyzaveta Korotkova was driven from her home once before, by the long-running conflict between Russian-backed separatists and Ukraine in the country's east.
Looking back on her latest escape, Korotkova recounted days spent in a chilly apartment building basement, and shared her thoughts on her family in Ukraine and on her homeland.
Korotkova, 22, lived in Irpin just northwest of Kyiv, Ukraine's capital. She was going to graduate school and doing design work for beauty products and other items. That all ended in late February, when the Russian army rolled across the border.
On March 26, she came alone to Nagoya with the help of a 24-year-old Japanese man she met on a language exchange app. When she arrived in Japan, she felt relieved, but at the same time, losing her job and being separated from her family left her feeling anxious.
Korotkova was born in Donetsk province in eastern Ukraine. After fighting began between pro-Russian militias and the Ukrainian military in 2014, her family was forced to relocate to Irpin. She was 18. Coming through these hard times together strengthened her family's bonds, and in Irpin she was living with her mother, 42, and her grandfather and grandmother, both 66. Other relatives lived in the apartment one floor down.
On Feb. 24 this year, however, Russia brought war to her second hometown, too. She could hear bombs in the distance starting in the early morning, and she remembered the sad day she had been driven from Donetsk. "I couldn't wait through the next war again," she recalls thinking. She couldn't bring herself to work.
That night, Korotkova's family and other residents sheltered in the apartment's basement parking garage. It was almost 10 degrees Celsius below zero outside. Her family and neighbors took turns resting on the seats of parked cars and on chairs they had brought down with them.
There was no water, food or a bathroom. The residents had no internet access, cutting them off from outside information. Korotkova would sneak a peek outside and, if the situation permitted, returned to her apartment to fetch daily necessities such as milk and clothes. She also checked the news on her smartphone, which was able to get a signal there.
Her subterranean life went on for 10 days. As many as 100 residents or so were sheltering there, including young children.
She had thought the Russian invasion would finish in about a week, but there was no end to the assault. From her apartment window, she could see destroyed buildings and smoke billowing from nearby cities, including Bucha.
"The most important (thing) is how to survive. I was just caring of my family every moment that I had," she recalls, adding that they couldn't predict anything about what would happen next.
On March 5, Korotkova's family decided to evacuate along a "humanitarian corridor" to be set up during a temporary ceasefire.
Her family left the parking garage and set out by car. However, it took them about six hours just to reach the next city -- a journey that usually takes half that. After driving for about a week, her entire family made it from Irpin to Ternopil, about 500 kilometers west of Kyiv. While air raid sirens went off at times, it was safer than in the capital.
Korotkova is not sure what has happened to her home in Irpin, but has heard the building has been shelled twice. Two neighbors, people who had also fled from the east in 2020, were killed. "We had (a) really good relationship with them," she says, shoulders slumping.
From photos posted on social media and other information, she learned that her university in Irpin had been bombed, and that 70% of the city had been destroyed, including hospitals, markets and businesses. "I feel like (there's) nothing to come back (to), no place to come back (to)," she lamented.
While Korotkova's family planned to pull their life together in Ternopil, she was thinking about fleeing to Japan. She had already been preparing to go to Japan after completing graduate school. She had been fond of anime and other Japanese culture since childhood, and working overseas was one of her life goals. She also wanted to see a Japanese friend who had phoned her shortly after the Russian invasion began.
She began preparing the paperwork to get visas for her family as well, but they were opposed to the plan. For aging family members, moving to a faraway country was a difficult choice. After hearing her mother's and grandparents' resolve, she got a visa for herself in Poland and flew to Japan.
It was already spring, with cherry blossoms beginning to bloom when she touched down at Haneda Airport in Tokyo. Korotkova says that despite the day-long journey, she was relieved to be "finally safe."
She went to Nagoya, where her friend is, and found a place to live. Korotkova can stay in the apartment rent-free until August because she's a Ukrainian evacuee. Her 90-day visa was also upgraded to a one-year "designated activities" visa that allows her to work.
After she arrived in Japan, however, a French company she had been working for declined to renew her contract because of the time difference between Japan and France. Now jobless and with minimal Japanese, her daily life is a struggle. Nevertheless, Korotkova stays positive. "I need to learn the language," she says, adding that she wants to live and work in Japan using her English skills.
But she worries for her family still in Ukraine. She calls them at least once every two days and frequently contacts them on social media. Her family always tell her cheerfully, "Yeah, everything is good," so as not to worry her. Their consideration sometimes pains Korotkova.
She has no idea what will become of Ukraine. She believes that the damage wrought on her homeland is in fact far greater and more serious than the images and footage shown on the news. She has witnessed and heard about what is really happening as the Russian onslaught continued.
"Innocent people are dying and kids are dying," Korotkova tells the Mainichi Shimbun. I want people to know the truth. That's all. For me, (the) only one way to help (is) to tell the truth," she says.
(Japanese original by Richi Tanaka, Nagoya News Center)