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Kyiv journalist with ties to Kansas City cried as she packed to flee: 'What if I never come back?'

Anna Yakutenko, 27, was a reporter for the Kyiv Post when she was awarded a 2018 Alfred Friendly Fellowship, a University of Missouri program that brings journalists to train in U.S. newsrooms. Yakutenko spent several months of her training at KCUR.

As the war in Ukraine has accelerated, KCUR wanted to check in with our colleague. Yakutenko — now a freelance journalist — escaped Kyiv for Lviv, where hundreds of thousands of refugees are waiting to migrate into neighboring Poland. Yakutenko says she spends a lot of time helping friends find transit across the border or housing in western Ukraine.

We called Yakutenko in Lviv to get a sense of how she was doing and what her life was like.

We wanted to make sure she was all right. But we also knew her journalistic sensibility and skill as a storyteller would offer a unique perspective on life today in Ukraine. Her experience living in Kansas City gave her a frame of reference by which to describe what was happening that would be familiar to Kansas Citians.

For example, she described the recent airstrikes around Lviv as if they could have occurred in the suburbs of Kansas while she was living in downtown Kansas City.

On becoming accustomed to sirens

So air raid sirens have become kind of the soundtrack of Ukraine in the last month, so when you get used to these signs of danger you don’t really pay attention to them as much. Like, when I was first in the U.S., I was really scared to hear the tornado sirens going off. I was like, “Oh my God, what is it?” I ran and hid somewhere. But then I saw other people react as if it was normal. I guess that’s the same thing happening here. At first everybody was very scared because the sirens are loud and creepy, but as time goes on people are adjusting to this new reality. But nobody really feels 100% safe here.

On having to flee her home

Many cities in Ukraine are about the size of St. Louis and would feel familiar to (Midwesterners). We never could imagine being involved in a full scale invasion by another country. Like, you have an apartment that you were saving some money to buy and you are gradually building your life in this city.

And then at once everything is just gone. You know, I honestly don’t know if I'm ever going to be back at my apartment in Kyiv, if it will be safe. When I packed, it was actually one of the few times that I cried, because I was packing some stuff considering that, "What if I'm not coming back?" Like, what should I take with me? It's crazy to think that one country can invade another powerful, big country just overnight, but this is what has happened.

On staying positive about the future

It’s impossible to live in this kind of state, watching and reading the news all the time. You get burnout and just really, really tired. So I am doing some work, some volunteering, and I’m watching some movies. Last night I binged on the second season of Bridgerton (on Netflix).

But, of course, you never know what's going to be tomorrow. Like, you cannot plan anymore. You don't really try to look in the future anymore because you know that everything might change, maybe in one day or in one hour.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Laura Ziegler began her career at KCUR as a reporter more than 20 years ago. She became the news director in the mid 1980's and in 1988, went to National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. as a producer for Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon.