Semenkova Maryna, 39 years.
Lives and works in Odessa, Ukraine.
Mediums used - photography and performance.
Started artistic practice since 2008.
On February 28, she left Ukraine due to hostilities by the Russian Federation and is currently Artist in Residence at Galerie Huit Arles.
The last 4 days of February : Dairy
On February 24th, I fell asleep at 4 AM, processing photos as usual. At 8 AM my boyfriend woke me up and asked if I had heard anything like explosions at 5 AM. I said no. I logged onto the Internet to watch the news about these alleged explosions.
Simultaneously, my boyfriend went to take tests in the laboratory, since after contracting covid, he was unable to recover over the last 2 weeks and felt constant dizziness.
The news was disturbing. After a while I heard very loud explosions from the window of my house, which were heard from different directions. It was already being discussed on social media, the news was exploding and I realised that the WAR HAD BEGUN - all this was bleeding in my veins, and it was completely unclear what to do next. Time passed excruciatingly slowly - in one hour, I felt like I had lived a whole year.
I hoped that the media was exaggerating. Strangely, in that moment, I wanted to sleep.
To fall asleep, to wake up - and to realise it was all a dream.
That day I was scheduled to visit a local electricity organization and a doctor because of the effects of covid. Both of these visits were cancelled - I was called and communicated that it was to be postponed for some time.
Explosions were heard in the city all day.
2 tanks had settled in our lane.
It was not recommended to go outside, but it was impossible to sit quietly; so I cleaned the house, and made vases out of concrete (my hobby).
The night was relatively calm, and this was especially disturbing, as if what was to be the "most interesting" was ahead.
The next day, my boyfriend, a Frenchman, persuaded me to leave the country. On the same day he was supposed to receive the results of the tests, but he was called and told: If you want, we will refund you or you can wait for an unknown amount, but for the time being your blood is frozen.
We called the family doctor who was no longer in the city, and he recommended us calling an ambulance, if the situation deteriorated. If your condition is stable, he said, then be patient, the country is at war.
Towards being persuaded to leave the country, I replied that I did not want to go; here is my house, my friends, my work, my world - why should I leave it all.
In addition, there was faith in our Military Forces of Ukraine, which were able to repel the first blow of Russian troops. And in general, they showed courage, technical equipment, and training. We argued and decided to go for a walk, as there was still time before curfew. "Take a walk" are words from a peaceful life that we could still use.
To complete the picture, I must say that the apartment we rent is located near the Port of Odessa, in the heart of the city. This area is amongst one of the strategically important landmarks for the military. There are 2 exits from our yard: one leads to Vorontsov Lane - where there were the tanks - and the other to the Military Descent. We went out on the first, but it was barricaded, and the alley was darker than ever. Then we went through the Military Descent. The streets were terribly empty. I took out a camera and began to film this terrible emptiness.
Going up to Kateryna Square, we were met by guys in camouflage clothes, who asked to present documents and told us that no shops were open. They said walking was a bad idea, that we had better go home and that they would not let us through further.
The grocery store was open, though the shelves were almost empty, so we packed canned food and dry bread and went for a walk through Primorsky Boulevard. The walk did not work out; we cwere constantly asked for documents, regular posts and were told that we could not come here but to go around. We walked through the Opera House. At every corner stood a military vehicle and guys in camouflage.
In a flash, when my playful tourist town had turned off its lights, it turned into its scenery of before the war. If up to this point the whole war had unfolded only on the Internet: in the news and social media, I finally began to realize that all this is real. After passing through Primorsky Boulevard, we were met again near Duke monument and asked for documents.
The shortest way would be to return home through Vorontsov Lane, but the entrance was barricaded. Back through the Military Descent through Kateryna Square, they said they would not let us in - the only way out was to go down the Potemkin Stairs and Primorska Street through the bottom.
When we reached half of the Potemkin Stairs, automatic fire guns began shooting from the side where we were heading. Guys in camouflage started shouting BACK! RUN HOME !!!!
The closest would be through Vorontsovsky, but it was barricaded, and we were overwhelmed by an animal terror;I felt like a wild beast, which was hunted, blocked by the exits and chased through the only possible direction, and eventually shot – so we ran around.
Only recently, having fallen ill with covid, we were not in the shape of racing at all. When we reached home alive, I coughed for another 30 minutes and at the same time anxiously packed my suitcase and the gun shots subsided as I stopped to collect things.
According to official sources, it was announced that the next night will be vicious and that it would be better not to go to bed tonight. There was a danger of missile strikes, so it was better to seal the windows with scotch tape (in the event of an explosion, the tape retains broken glass). When I was tapping the windows, I thought - strangely enough, my life now depends on the tape.
At night I did not sleep, I lay down and listened to tanks driving along the Military Descent - I already knew what they sounded like. Then I heard a man's desperate scream, after which there was a single shot and everything calmed down. My body trembled at every sound. There is a very good audibility from the Port in my apartment. The sounds of the port have always lulled me, calmed me down, and now this sound was penetrating through me.
A special installation aimed to destroy bombs was firing in the port. The level of horror from these shots made my body shrink, and at the same time I was so tired that when the shooting subsided, I fell asleep again. The shots felt so insanely heavy I felt like they were going through me. The night was vicious, as promised. I really wanted this never to happen again, but this was just the beginning.
My boyfriend continued to complain about his dizziness and because he would not be provided with medical care in Ukraine, he persuaded me to leave. But the planes no longer flew. And bus companies did not pick up the phone. We didn't have a car. I had no idea where to get one. And I was frozen, my head could not organize my thoughts or merely think of anything.
Eventually, I called a bus company, where they told that in 2 hours there will be a bus to Berlin, and the price would be 500 euros per person. My boyfriend said: its ok, I'll pay, let's go.
I dropped documents off to the women I was phoning with on Viber. I gathered a suitcase with the most important things - my cameras, laptop, money and documents. I took almost nothing from my clothes because I had no idea what I needed: where we were going, how much it was going to be, where we would be, and so on - nothing was known.
When we were ready, I called the bus station again but the woman did not pick up the phone, I called again and again – no answer. Our messages with copies of our documents had not been read.
At that moment, one of my friends living in Odessa - originally from Izmail - wrote to me. She said she would drive us to Izmail, and from there told us that a bus was going to Bulgaria for 100 euros per person. She gave us all the right contacts. I immediately called that bus company - they confirmed. I buy us train tickets to Izmail the next day and booked tickets to Bulgaria.
We spent that night in my boyfriend friend’s apartment, which is also located in the city center, but away from the port. We drove from our district surrounded by the sounds of machine guns. But at a 10 minutes drive from that place, life was bustling, people were drinking coffee, walking with dogs. The night was quiet and we slept. The next day we got a call from Izmail station; the train had been cancelled due to explosions in Artsyz, and that we would probably not be able to get there until morning to take the bus to Varna. I said, wait for us please, we still have time.
At that time, it was clear that Putin's plan to catch Ukraine in full swing and impose its plan – failed. Now he had nothing to lose, and he would soon begin to generate agony and create and commit lawlessness, wherever he could. And even though Ukraine was resisting, there was a feeling that anything could happen. We went to the train station; the train indeed was cancelled and no more trains were running. There was a bus station nearby, but there were no buses to Izmail. We began to think; maybe we can change the plan, take the train to Uzhgorod, and then somehow go further.
The reality was that trains and buses were easily cancelled, and no one could guarantee you anything: neither the time of departure, nor the reassurance that you would reach your destination. If there was a reliable option, even if it was more complicated, it was better to go with it.
The last idea flashed in my head - Blablacar – hardly feasible, but miracles happen. On the app, it showed one result to Vasylivka village, it was 8 km from the required place, and the driver was ready to take us, but at a price that was 5 times higher than the usual price. Our carrier to Bulgaria promised to meet us, stay overnight, and take us to Varna by bus in the morning.
A blablacar driver was waiting on the outskirts of the city.
We spent the night in a sports complex in Kamyanka village, Izmail district; we were the only residents of this preserved building from the Soviet times. It was cold, and we were shaking from every breeze. All attention was focused on the news. We almost did not sleep. I was in a state where I could not understand whether I had slept or not. At 6 AM we were picked up and taken by bus to Varna.
For about an hour we rode the bus. We passed the Ukrainian border, where it was very cold- the wind and the snow had begun- and I was there in light sneakers, a spring raincoat and a small hat, since in Odessa it was warm when we packed up. We had to wait for 3 hours, and then on the ferry across the Danube we were to be transported to the other shore to Romania.
When we were landed on the Romanian coast, I could no longer feel my limbs. We were gathered at the checkpoint, in the wind and cold; documents were collected to seal, photographed and we were interviewed as refugees. They distributed Romanian sim cards to us. They asked a lot of questions: where will you go? What will you do? An interesting question from the journalist was - how long were you on the road? In that moment I counted, and including when we started the journey in Odessa, it had already been 20 hours.
After a while, the kindness of the Romanian volunteers frustrated me, because I was frozen to the core whilst a bus was waiting for us, and they just asked questions and offered cold water. Eventually, one kind Romanian man put a blanket on me. It was not the cleanest blanket, even dirty in places, but warm. When I took off all my snow-soaked outerwear on the bus, this blanket kept me warm. The road thereafter was relatively calm. In the snowstorm we rode in a warm bus. From time to time, I fell asleep as much as I could in the reclining seat. We reached Varna at about 6 pm.
Next to the landing site was a shopping center, on the 3rd floor of which there were cafes with Wi-Fi and food. We ate and felt our fatigue overwhelm us. We still had to find housing. On the internet we found the nearest hotel from our location, to crash at least one night, and then continue to navigate. We left the mall and realized that at night, in a blizzard, with our degree of tiredness, we could not afford to walk to this hotel. There was a taxi nearby, so we jumped into it.
Whilst we getting out of the taxi, I understood that if there was something wrong with the hotel, we would have to stay on this god-forsaken street at night, without a taxi driver, exhausted. I tell Max, check first to see if there was availability, he checked - there were no free rooms. What to do? We did not have Internet. I told the taxi driver; help us please - we have just arrived in the country, we do not have a phone, or internet. He turned out to speak Russian. He found us an inexpensive guest and called them: there were places, he brought us there, asked about the situation in Ukraine and left us at this hotel. It ended on February 28th.
We were so exhausted that there was no energy to even think, we just fell on the bed and fell asleep. The mission to move our bodies to safety was accomplished. Only our soul remained in Ukraine, with relatives and friends who were still there.
After a few days, the emotional blockage I needed to make decisions and act, was gone. For a few days, I just burst into tears and walked with a swollen face with my attention focused on the news from Ukraine. I had to delete about 150-250 videos of the news every day because it took up all the memory on my phone.
I caught myself thinking that I felt guilty about the people who stayed in Ukraine, lost someone close, lost property.
On the 9th day of the war, I felt that there was only war in my life and no room left for myself, my body’s functions were completely disabled and I needed to slowly return to myself.
When I was making this video, looking at the photos over and over and re-reading the text, everything in my head seemed to be structured. And the further it was structured, the more I grasped the scale of the Uncertainty ahead.