Excerpt: Ukrainian Portraits: Diaries from the Border by Marina Sonkina


Marina Sonkina is a scholar, a former CBC producer, and the author of several collections of short stories, among them, Expulsion and Other Stories. Having come to Canada as a refugee with two young sons she did not hesitate to help Ukrainians fleeing the war. Her experience at the Ukrainian-Polish border is reflected in her latest collection, Ukrainian Portraits: Diaries from the Border.

More about the book: 

At the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in February 2022, Canadian author Marina Sonkina flew to the Ukrainian-Polish border to be one of the first respondents at the border for Ukrainians fleeing the war. There, working with the JDC—Jewish Distribution Committee—she used her knowledge of Russian and some Ukrainian to try to help women and children in the transition camp. The suffering on a massive scale was beyond what she could possibly expect.

Ukrainian Portraits: Diaries from the Border

On February 24, 2022, Putin attacked Ukraine, launching the largest and the most brutal war on the Eu- ropean continent since WWII. Very quickly, in Russia, expressing any negative sentiments towards what was officially called a “special operation”, would become a criminal offence. But then, in the early days of the inva- sion, an anonymous Russian woman bared her feelings in a post on the internet: “Overnight it became totally ir- relevant how one looks; what kind of clothing one wears, what kind of films one watches. There is no point in any entertainment; no point in creative work or anything else. Food has no taste. Everything that has been familiar has totally lost its meaning.”

Her emotions mirrored mine: bewilderment, numb- ness, stupor, inability to work, to focus on anything un- related to the war, unfolding half a globe away from me, that’ s what I felt in these early days of invasion. Why? What for? No amount of political buzz could provide answers to these vexing questions.

I was born and raised in Moscow and spent there half of my professional life. My two sons were born there. I still have family both in Russia and Ukraine. For many years, I’ve been teaching Russian literature and the clas- sical questions the classical Russian writers always asked “who is to blame” or “what is to be done?” could never be more poignant than at this pivotal moment of history. Clearly, the war with Ukraine was unleashed by Putin.

But was he the only culprit? Haven’t Russians been turning a blind eye to the twenty-three years of his rule while he was poisoning and executing his opponents? Didn’t they welcome the annexation of Crimea while taking a stroll along the theatrical sets that Moscow has been turned into? Or was there some invisible point of no return when a burgeoning democracy turned into autocracy, then into fascism? When any attempts at resistance – and there were many – would be doomed? Did the West play any role in it, looking at Putin as at a business partner first, an authoritarian second? And what would be the fate of Ukraine, the fate of Russia and Europe in the years to come?

History seemed to be exposing its nuts and bolts. But it wasn’t providing any answers or telling me which turn it would take next.

In this state of confusion, I decided to help Ukrainian refugees. My friends responded readily and generously to the fundraising I organized. My goal was to give this money directly to refugees, from hand to hand. But how to go about it, I didn’t know. Things started to gain steam when I saw on my computer screen an application form from the JDC (Jewish Distribution Committee). I quickly filled it out and was interviewed next day. By that time close to two million refugees had already crossed the border into Poland. Volunteers and interpreters were urgently needed. I had to arrive in Warsaw the following Monday. It was already Friday. I had a week-end to fill out numerous forms and then pack.

It was the end of March.


The flight from Vancouver, Canada to Europe takes a day. Around midnight, I arrived in Warsaw. Derek, a Pole, who had been working for JDC tirelessly, on three- four hours of sleep, asked me if I wanted to see right then what it was all about or should he take me to the hotel for some rest? He put my suitcase into his van and five hours later I and two other volunteers from the US arrived to the Ukrainian-Polish border.

With no booths or guards in sight, it didn’t look to me like a border. It was dark, windy and bitterly cold. The at-mosphere was sombre; asking questions somehow didn’t feel right. I decided we were taken to a special crossing, designated for some special purpose. There was nothing around, except a German Red Cross ambulance brightly illuminated from inside. Next to it, on the ground, were placed seven stretchers. Their white fabric contrasted sharply with the night darkness upon dark gravel. It was the sight of these stretchers, empty for now but soon to be filled with sick or wounded, that shocked me into the realization that the war zone was at hand.

Half an hour later, a bus from Ukraine with Holocaust survivors had arrived. As I found out later, Germany had made special arrangements to take them in. Six or seven frail women in their late eighties and nineteen and one man were helped out of the bus. They clung to their old-fashioned, worn out purses and plastic bags, all they had by way of luggage. The man, as far as I could tell, didn’t have anything at all in his hands. Most of the women could walk if helped. But one, extremely emaciated, was unconscious, either wounded or sick. The German nurses (all volunteers) administered intravenous. From their conversation I understood they weren’t sure the lady would make it to Germany. One woman seemed terribly distraught: nervously turning her handbag inside out, she refused to go any further. A watch, her late husband’s present, was missing. Finally, she settled on a stretcher, her handbag on top of her chest. Some women didn’t realize there was another long journey to endure. They had been on the road for 15 hours already crossing Ukraine. As far as they were concerned, they had already arrived. The man sitting at the back of the bus looked unperturbed: “I’ve started my life with one war. And now I’m finishing it with another. Does it matter to me where to die?”

In the next three weeks, I met hundreds more victims of Putin’s war. Listening to them I realized that the war had laid bare what was usually concealed from the eyes of a stranger: human attachments and loves, support for one another and acts of kindness. But also, the seismic faults running through so many families; their discon- tents, their arguments, and the way they deal with them in the time of crises.

Inadvertently, I became privy to the lives of many simply because I happened to be there at the time of their great vulnerability and need. Those I met (and, with rare exceptions, these were women with children) were traumatized. All needed practical help, advice, information and, above all, empathy.

But what they also needed, I discovered, was to talk about what they had gone through. That need was spontaneous and raw. They broke into stories often without any or just a slight invitation on my part. Each story was different, yet many followed a similar pattern: destruction and loss of property or homes; weeks in basements with scarcely any water, food supplies and electricity; the howl of air raid sirens; separation from loved ones and concern about their well-being; screams of traumatized children; and, then, finally escape, over many days. Escape on foot, by trains, buses or sometimes cars, with detours necessitated by rockets and missiles; crossing rivers on boats where bridges were blown up.

I heard repeated gratitude towards Ukrainian volunteers who facilitated the escapes, relaying families from one safe place to another; warning about the dangers on the way and how to bypass them. I heard stories of churches that sheltered families overnight; of people harbouring strangers in their homes; of volunteers who organized food that awaited fleeing families at different points of their long and hazardous journey to safety. I learned a new word – humanitarka, meaning clothing, food and other necessities that poured into Ukraine from the West as humanitarian aid.

And I heard stories of the brutality of Russian soldiers towards civilians. Stories of looting, torture and rape. I heard how Russian soldiers pretended they would allow villagers to run to safety, only to shoot them in their legs, and finish them off later like hunted animals.

I heard stories of booby-trapped corpses, of Russians abandoning their dead. Of little girls being raped in view of their parents.

In the weeks I volunteered with the JDC at a border crossing and in a temporary refugee shelter several kilometres away from the border with Ukraine, I met people of all walks of life. I met the Ukrainian Nation.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Guernica Editions (Sept. 1 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 100 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 177183854X
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771838542