Ukrainians will never forget the events of February 24, 2022. But for some, birthdays in years to come will be especially poignant and tinged with memories of a traumatic day.
Natalia, a communications manager who lives in the capital, Kyiv, had an unusual wake-up call on her 31st birthday on Thursday.
Instead of breakfast in bed, her husband Sasha jolted her awake at 5 a.m. Their city was being bombed, he told her. “I picked up my phone and immediately opened Facebook,” said Natalia.
As she was absorbing the enormity of events, a surreal moment: A courier arrived at her apartment block with a bunch of enormous green balloons. “Natalia, celebrate life!” they screamed.
“I wanted to cry and call my mom,” she said.
Natalia grabbed a suitcase and in a daze of confusion simply dropped her Panama hat into the bottom. But she and Sasha decided not to leave the city.
“I finally burst into tears when my grandmother called me,” she said. “Her name is also Natalia, she is 90 this year. My grandmother congratulated me on my birthday and wished me good health.”
It wasn’t the birthday Natalia expected. It was one she’ll never forget.
“We went to our parents for a festive dinner, listened to the air raid alert, went down to the basement. There, in the dank dampness, a young mother was feeding a baby, small dogs in overalls were running around, cats were sitting quietly in carriers.”
Natalia is beginning to wonder whether her birthday is cursed.
“You see, there is always some kind of nightmare happening on my birthdays. Executions on the Maidan, a pandemic, now there is a war.”
In 2014, February protests in Maidan Square were targeted by snipers, and more than 100 people were killed.
“The fact is that I am an irreparable, rabid optimist and this quality has never let me down.”
Another resident of Kyiv, Natasha, also celebrates her birthday on February 24. Most years.
“Today is the scariest day of my life,” she told CNN. “My son Vadim and me were so far apart! I am at home in Dnipro, and he is in Kyiv – he has just entered the university.”
She spent her 45th birthday worrying and waiting. “In Kyiv things exploded, burned, and the sounds of an air raid alert were heard. My son and my niece rushed around Kyiv, tried to leave the city but returned.
“It seems to me that I died several times, hearing Vadim crying and being scared.”
It was the next day, and Natasha was – as it were – a year older when she was reunited with her son.
“He had been sobbing from stress. ‘Mom, it shouldn’t be like this! People should not fight and kill each other. What is all this for?’”
Vadim himself has a birthday soon, and Natasha is not looking forward to it.
“At 18 he will join the territorial defense. And he will definitely study at the military department in order to become an officer. Who knows how long this hell will last?”
Among the youngest Ukrainians to have a birthday on February 24 is Lamia, who turned five on Thursday.
Her mother, Dariia, worries about Lamia’s future birthdays. “Today is such a scary and such a joyful day. Exactly five years ago my beautiful girl was born. And yesterday we planned to make a holiday for her, but something terrible happened to our country today,” said Dariia.
“And although today such a hard time started, she will live in peace and happiness, I promise. At home, we do not show our nerves, we take pictures happily. Today, as she wanted, she is Ladybug, with costume and decorations,” she added.
Olga, aged 59, settled in Ukraine after emigrating from Russia. “I have never had such a terrible birthday. But there were also some comforts.
“For example, you are coming home from the subway, and at the monument there is a poster ‘F**k shooting’…I can see on the Internet, there’s anti-war rally in Moscow on Pushkin Square. And the sign ‘No war!’ is written with paint on the doors of the State Duma. My people are waking up.”