“It was unexpectable. It was like a horror movie or a survival movie, but it was happening in real life.”
Mykhailo Pluzhnikov and his family are five of eight million people who have fled Ukraine in the last year.
One year ago they were living in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city, when the Russian bombs fell and the invasion started.
Today, they are five of over 160 Ukrainians settled in Prince George.
He sat down with Vista Radio and told his story, from the moments before the invasion until they arrived in Prince George.
“At the last moment, me and my wife did not believe [the invasion] would happen,” Pluzhnikov said, thinking back to last February.
A few days later, they were woken up by the sounds of explosions and air raid sirens.
“We saw outside, our neighborhood packing luggage in their cars and driving away from the place they are living. It was unexpectable. It was like a horror movie, or a survival movie, but it was happening in real life.”
He said that morning, himself and his wife decided hunkering down in their home would be safer than joining the masses of people fleeing the city.
“This was a mistake. The war is happening very fast… Russians within two days were already inside our capital.”
They were in the middle of it. Next to his building, Pluzhnikov said there were two Russian tanks that had been destroyed by Ukrainian military forces.
“You were not allowed to go outside. It is not safe. You realize there is no more supermarkets, no more drug stores, even simple things like water. You have water in your pipes, but the drinking water – you need to buy that and you cannot do that.”
The family sat in their washroom for one week – abiding by their “two walls” rule, always keeping two walls between themselves and the outside in case an explosion hit their building.
“Each night our kids would sleep in the bathroom with steel helmets on their heads, [in case] the building crashes,” he remembered.
Pluzhnikov said he looked at his wife, and they shared a moment where they both realized they had no option other than leaving.
“This is not a normal way of living for our children. And nobody knows in those days what will happen the next day.”
In that moment, Pluzhnikov said they “went out of their home, forever,” and fled the city.
One week into the invasion Kyiv was surrounded by Russian forces, but at that time civilians were still allowed safe passage out of the city on some roads, so they joined the masses who were leaving the city whose population was over 2.8 million people.
The main roads were not an option, they had to take a long and winding path through villages and backroads to the western border of Ukraine – a drive that Pluzhnikov said normally takes seven hours.
“We were driving to the west border from Kyiv for seven days. Seven days living in a car… there was thousands and thousands of people like we are.”
He said some vehicles other people were fleeing in were riddled with bullet holes.
This carried on for days, living in a car with inconsistent amenities.
At long last they arrived in a village in the north-western side of the country, a host family gave the Pluzhnikovs their summer home where they stayed for a few months while they waited for approval to come to Canada.
At the end of February the invasion started, at the end of August their plane touched down in Vancouver.
“Now we are trying to build our life from zero. This is our last 365 days,” he said.
“There are millions of such stories from Ukrainian refugees, we all have our story. What is similar is the pain, it will be a part of you for the rest of your life.”
“But,” he continued, “Ukrainians are brave, we are strong… you need to build your new life, you need to be a part of the Ukrainian community, you also need to support your friends, your cousins, and all your people who were left inside the country.”
“Even if we live in Canada, New Zeland, Australia, anywhere on this planet, your body may be outside Ukraine but your soul, it feels that war.”
“Each Ukrainian feels like a warrior. Not only the territory, but surviving as a Ukrainian nation,” he said. “Each of us try to do our small part of the job so we can win this war. This act of genocide will be over, and all of Putin’s bastards will be punished.”
Pluzhnikov said three of his best friends are still in Ukraine, all fighting on the front line.
“Sometimes we have a phone connection with them and try to help with what they need. There is no list of families in Ukraine without someone who is on the front line. There is no such family left.”
Mentioned previously, they are one of many Ukrainian families who have settled in Prince George, in large part thanks to the PG for Ukraine and Share Hope volunteer organizations.
When they touched down in Vancouver, Pluzhnikov said they did not have a solid plan.
“Being on your own in a country that you are first visiting, in a big expensive city and you don’t know how things are here, it was quite challenging.”
They found PG for Ukraine, after some conversations they decided to make the move north.
“We arrived here and from the first day we received support… when you are not on your own, when people help things become easier.”
Both he and his wife were able to find work in Prince George, and their kids are all enrolled in school and child care.
“We have a normal life again. It just happened, one month life [went from] building from zero to a normal way of living. It is an incredible thing… Prince George is a lovely place. It is magic from a small town.”
“When people usually live their lives, they are dreaming of something. But when you lose everything, returning to a normal way of life is already a big dream for you, and it has come true in Prince George. We are very thankful to this local community and this wonderful city, and how it has warmly welcomed us.”
Pluzhnikov is the main planner behind Prince George’s Thursday (February 23) ceremony marking one year since the invasion.
It will be held at City Hall at 6:00 – 4:00am in Ukraine, the exact moment the first bombs dropped.
For more information, click here.