This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.
The massive boom didn’t wake Anton Piddubnyi, and neither did the windows rattling.
It was his wife, Valentyna Piddubna, nine months pregnant at the time, shaking him and yelling, “something has exploded!”
Then another boom sounded in the 5 a.m. darkness on Feb. 24, shaking their fourth-floor apartment, and Piddubnyi, 22, reached for his phone to check the news. The headlines confirmed his fear: Russia had begun its attack on Ukraine.
Piddubnyi — a former Utah Valley University student who moved back to Ukraine last summer — looked out his window and saw “so many people out on the streets, just opening their trunks of cars and just loading it with clothes, trying to leave,” he said. “Everybody was so shocked.”
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dragged on — Thursday will mark eight weeks since it started on Feb. 24 — Piddubnyi recalled the harrowing ordeal he and Valentyna, 24, have endured, fleeing their home and having a baby in the middle of a war zone.
Ukraine to Utah and back
At 17, Piddubnyi enrolled at Utah Valley University to study digital marketing and advertising, fulfilling a long-held dream of going to school in the United States.
Celest Rickers and her family in Orem took Piddubnyi in. Rickers had met him two years earlier, while traveling in Ukraine, where he was their tour guide through Kyiv and surrounding cities.
“We invited him to come live with us when he was 17,” Rickers said. “It has been a joy, and we consider him like a son.”
On his first day at UVU, Piddubnyi met Valentyna Kyzym, who also was studying digital marketing and advertising — and also was from Ukraine. She worked in the Department of English Language Learning, processing the paperwork for the new international students. She also was a coordinator for the International Student Council, organizing social events for students; Piddubnyi attended every Friday night.
“We started taking the same classes, started chatting about homework,” he said. They were friends for nearly three years, then started dating in early 2020. They married in February 2021.
Last summer, the couple moved back to Ukraine, settling just outside Bila Tservka, a city about 50 miles south of Kyiv, the country’s capital.
In the months before the invasion, reports of an increased presence of Russian military at three of Ukraine’s borders raised tensions in the region. There had been chatter in Piddubnyi’s community about Russia’s plan to invade, and some residents even set up bomb shelters.
“Until the last minute, I did not believe such a full-scale invasion could happen,” Piddubnyi said.
When the invasion started Feb. 24, the couple sought shelter, along with Valentyna’s mother and grandmother, with members of their local ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (According to Piddubnyi, Valentyna’s family was baptized in the Latter-day Saint faith in 1998, one of the first families in Bila Tserkva to do so. Piddubnyi joined the church while living in Utah.)
“They had this old basement where they put this mobile fireplace, and heater and some blankets and pillows and mattresses,” Piddubnyi said. More than a dozen people hunkered down in the unfinished basement.
Having a baby in wartime
Before the invasion started, the couple had been preparing for their daughter’s arrival.
The hospital was in Kyiv, 45 minutes away, and staff there at first told them they could begin their stay early. But the couple had to rethink their plans, because they knew Kyiv was likely to be a major target in the Russian attack.
“We cannot go to Kyiv. … We are going to be stuck in hell,” Piddubnyi recalled telling Valentyna at the time.
They could either deliver the baby themselves, or risk the hospital in Bila Tservka. Piddubnyi talked over FaceTime with their midwife, who gave advice on how to deliver the baby. But when Valentyna started having contractions on March 1, the couple went to the hospital, where a makeshift maternity ward was set up in a bomb shelter.
“It was a mess,” Piddubnyi said, adding that non-patients also were seeking refuge at the hospital. “The delivery room was assembled in front of us.”
On March 2, around 3 a.m., hospital staff moved Valentyna to the first floor, so they could monitor their progress. Piddubnyi was down in the underground shelter. As he drifted to sleep, an explosion — from a military airport two kilometers away — rocked the building.
The Russian military, Piddubnyi said, “attacked three or four times with drones and with rockets, with airplanes so it was a massive explosion.”
As the alarms sounded in the hospital, those on the first floor headed for the shelter. In the commotion, Piddubnyi found Valentyna, who was then dilated to 5 centimeters.
The situation was taking its toll on her mental well-being, Piddubnyi said. “It was so hard to watch. … Those were some hard, harsh conditions,” he said.
Later that morning, Valentyna was taken to another makeshift maternity room. Piddubnyi was not allowed in the room. Waiting by the door, he finally heard his baby daughter, Evgenia, let loose her first screams.
“I was so glad that this whole thing ended,” Piddubnyi said.
Fleeing to the west
After their harrowing 55-hour stay at the hospital, the couple returned to the relative safety of the basement shelter, with their new daughter. A few days later, they heard an explosion, followed by the sound of an incoming jet.
“It was a Russian fighter jet being chased by a Ukrainian fighter jet,” Piddubnyi said. “It was flying so low…, we knew if something launches or falls on this house, even the basement would not be able to handle it.”
So, he said, they started making new plans.
“We just kind of prepared for our fate,” he said. “I remember that Valentyna and [her] grandma covered Evgenia with their bodies.”
During a lull in the siege, the family left Bila Tserkva — joining the estimated 10 million Ukrainians who have fled their homes during the invasion, according to BBC.
“We didn’t want to leave,” Piddubnyi said. “We knew if we left, we might be leaving forever.”
The family packed one backpack per person, and moved to a town in western Ukraine, where they are now staying with the parents of a friend the couple met at UVU.
For their friends in Utah, knowing the young family has moved from the center of the fighting has been a relief.
“We have been in consistent contact since the invasion,” Rickers said. “I am very grateful for generous friends that are sheltering them and their extended family.”
Their new town has stayed relatively quiet, Piddubnyi said, though as of April 16, air raid sirens could be heard from time to time.
Watching what comes next
Piddubnyi said the claims made by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the start of the war — that Russia was not targeting civilians, and only aimed to demilitarize Ukraine — are not true.
“They are attacking civilian buildings and pretty much anything in their way,” he said.
He points to the horrific images that surfaced on April 2 from the city of Bucha, 15 miles northwest of Kyiv, that showed hundreds of dead Ukrainians. The images have added to the psychological toll on Ukrainians, and brought international investigations of war crimes.
For Piddubnyi, the horror of Bucha carries an added weight, because he and Valentyna had once considered moving there. “I just can’t sleep because of those images of dead bodies on the streets and buried families,” he said.
Since the invasion began, Piddubnyi said, he has seen overwhelming support among the Ukrainian people for their president, Volodymyr Zelensky. He also has seen many Ukrainians take up arms to join the fight.
“[Putin] thought this war was going to divide us, but it only united us even more. We are so united as a country right now. We are so supportive of each other,” Piddubnyi said. “Even though we are not a part of the European Union, we are fighting for [it]. We are at the doorstep to democracy.”
Looking at the damage Russia has inflicted, Piddubnyi said, people around the world should “understand that Putin is hungry for war” beyond Ukraine.
“Intelligent people who think more widely … understand that it’s not a war only between Russia and Ukraine,” Piddubnyi said. “People think it’s so distant, some imaginary thing, [but] it’s not.”
Piddubnyi said he hopes his fellow Ukrainians – whether in their home country or abroad – can find common ground and allow themselves and others to react to this war in their own way.
“There is no perfect way to react to this,” he said. “If you’re afraid, you have every right to be afraid. If you feel happy, don’t be guilty that you’re happy, because sometimes you need those moments of happiness.”
Piddubnyi said he feels blessed that Evgenia won’t remember the war.
“Knocking on the table, she’s just a healthy baby. She’s sleeping, pooping, eating, screaming sometimes,” he said with a chuckle.
Amie Schaeffer wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.