Five years ago they welcomed me into their home as a daughter – now they live under Russian bombing, and every valuable phone call is interrupted by the sounds of shells.
Dad, a gray-haired man in his sixties, tells me on the phone that he sees explosions from the backyard of their house in a small village in the north of the city of Chernihiv. My mom, a few years younger than that, weeps, telling me they have no water, no electricity, and no safe way to leave.
Their only form of transport is a dilapidated Soviet-era car that is so rusty that you can see the passing dirt through a hole in the floor. And mom’s 91-year-old mother Babusya is so weak that she rarely leaves the bed. For security reasons, CNN does not publish their photos or full names.
Ukrainians in some other cities may have left their homes by fleeing Russian attacks through temporary evacuation corridors, but there is no clear path from Chernihiv or their village.
“The enemy continues to attack the city of Chernihiv from the air and missiles,” Vyacheslav Chaus, head of the regional state administration said on Saturday.
“A civilian is killed, many people are injured. The enemy is firing at civilian infrastructure in which there is no military, “he said.
Before the war, we regularly shared texts about domestic dogs and what food we eat – they were fascinated by my life outside Ukraine.
A little over a week ago, Dad sent me a photo of black smoke rising in the air from an explosion near his village.
His text: “If we survive, maybe we’ll see each other.”
Ukraine is not the same country I lived in for two years from 2017 to 2019 as a Peace Corps volunteer. After that, conversations with the host family were long, sitting at the kitchen tea table, sharing simple stories about the seasonal harvest or working with children.
Dad and mom don’t have children of their own. Knowing that I am an American of Japanese descent, Dad learned Japanese words such as “ohayo” which means “good morning”. In the evenings, we danced to the Ukrainian and American music of the 1980s – they thought that this would make their home feel more at home.
The first night at their house I felt a little awkward so Dad burst into my room with an ABBA record and nodded like I wanted to dance. I took out my phone and played music, song by song. We used up your monthly phone data that night.
Mayumi Maruyama / CNN
Dad and Mom’s life was completely different from mine. In Los Angeles, the city where I spent most of my adult life, I fell asleep to loud bar music and car honking. In Ukraine, the nights were so quiet that I only heard the sound of their dog’s footsteps.
Dad and Mum grew their own vegetables and raised their own chickens for food. In spring and summer, at the Chernihiv market, they sold flowers that they had grown in their backyard.
Every day I rode the bumpy 20 minute bus from my host parents’ house to the city where I would work at a local coffee shop. It had strong Wi-Fi signal, good coffee and thick slices of Ukrainian Kievan cake, layered cake with cream and hazelnuts.
After returning to America in 2019, Dad, Mum and Me they sent each other video and text messages, and Facetime often.
During the first week of the war, they suggested that they were continuing their normal routine – getting up at 6am, feeding the chickens, and going to work part-time. Babusya continued to watch her favorite TV shows, even as bombs fell on other cities.
But on March 2, their tone changed. Dad sent me a message: “Mama, Babusya and I only eat 150 grams” – about the weight of an average potato.
Since then, it has become increasingly difficult to reach them. My calls are not being answered. Text messages do not go through.
All I can do is watch from afar at the process of destroying their country.
Russian forces now surround Chernihiv, and the video shows the scale of the damage.
According to a video posted on Telegram, there is a large crater between local venues the library and the city football stadium where Dad trained for Desna Chernihiv as a much younger man.
And just outside the city, satellite photos show that the local Epicenter K shopping center in Chernihiv – Ukraine’s answer to Home Depot – is now a hollow, blackened shell.
In less than three weeks, the unprovoked Russian invasion dragged Dad and Mom from their peaceful, rural lives into an aggressive geopolitical war for which they had no interest.
“We live in Ukraine”
Dad and mum were born and raised in the Chernihiv region. From there, they watched their country change dramatically over the decades – from the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the Orange Revolution in late 2004, the Maidan Revolution a decade later, and now war.
They survived it all – the neighborhood is home and their family lives within 30 minutes by car.
On the first day of the invasion, Dad and Mom they seemed more interested in returning to part-time jobs in construction and nursing than in escaping. “Why?” I asked. “There is a war.”
Dad just said, “We live in Ukraine.”
It’s been four days since I last heard Dad’s voice on the phone.
The connection was shaky and we could only talk for about a minute. “We have no light” were the only words I could get out of our forced conversation as the line cut in and out.
When I call now, the phone goes straight to the voice message “Unable to answer this call”.
In an SMS, a friend who escaped from the village last Sunday tells me that her parents, who lived a 10-minute walk from Dad and Mom’s house, fled to Chernihiv after a bomb hit a nearby house.
They left the car on Wednesday and saw that Dad and Mom were still there, but she had no more information to share.
On Friday, a high-ranking US defense official said Chernihiv was isolated and under “increasing pressure.” Russian forces are “just outside the city,” the official added.
Hours later, the missile struck Hotel Ukraine, a local landmark in the city center, within walking distance of Chernihiv’s main market, where Mom was selling her flowers.
In March, temperatures hovered around freezing, but now the city “has no electricity, hardly any water, gas and heat,” said Chaus, the regional administrator. He added that attempts to reconnect the power supply failed as Russian forces fired again on the electricity grid.
When I lived in their village, Dad and Mum were very protective of me, especially my host father. He made me wear a neon orange vest when we went mushroom picking so he could always find me.
Now I feel helpless to protect them.
I stare at the phone. The texts I sent to Dad last Sunday remain unread. And so I’m sending the number to the Red Cross, in case it gets there somehow.
My last conversation with my mother on Monday was the second time I heard her cry. The first was the time for me to leave the village and go to Kiev, a city steeped in history, now under fire from Russian troops just 15 kilometers from the city center.
Mayumi Maruyama / CNN
“There is a shooting, we have to take shelter … I love you,” my mother said, leaving the house where they began planting crops in quiet times.
“Love you too.”