I talk to my mom every day. I call her every morning and ask, How was the night? But in my head, I’m asking her the question that has been running through my head since the last time we spoke, Are you still alive?
I think this is how every morning starts now, for every Ukrainian. We call our family and our friends to see if they survived the night. Whether we are there or not, our days begin the same.
My name is Kateryna Khurshudyan, and I am a Ukrainian showjumper. I live and work in Belgium, so I was not there when the bombs began to fall on my country. That first day, when the news of the bombing hit and I realized what was happening, the only thing I wanted to do was go home. I wanted to be there, to help, to get my family out somehow. I soon found out that evacuation might not be possible for them. People from every city were rushing to get out of the country. There were lines forty-six kilometers long at the border, made up of mostly women and children, because many of the men were being mobilized to fight and defend Ukraine.
My family, including my mother and grandmother, made it to a country house outside the city, where they have access to an underground shelter. It was hard for me to accept that they would not be able to make it any farther. Evacuating itself is risky and incredibly difficult for the elderly and the sick. And even if my grandmother could physically make it to the border, how could we force her to leave? This is her land, where she was born. She does not want to leave the place where her husband is buried, where she gave birth to her children. Her roots are in Ukraine, and my mom is not going to go without her. So, right now, they are all staying together, waiting.
There are others who were able to evacuate; many people were scrambling for passports, some leaving with no documents or identification. My good friend was able to make it to the border, and she is on her way here with her young child. They left as soon as they could, in the middle of the night with bombs falling right next to the place where they live.
And of course, in the confusion and panic, as she grabbed her child and left her home, there was no option to take her horse.
There are veterinarians waiting at the border ready to help, and I have friends and acquaintances in the equestrian communities in Poland and Hungary who are messaging me, saying that they are willing to take in horses. So many compassionate, horse-loving people want to open their barns and provide free shelter and care, but there is no way to get the horses out. To get the horses from the stables, through the cities, and make it to the border is just impossible right now. There is no one willing to take the risk. Even from within the country, I’ve had news of stables being occupied, and horse owners begging to be able to go in and at least give their horses water. They were refused.
As equestrians, we love our horses like family. They are our family.
I cannot imagine leaving my horses. I cannot imagine leaving my dogs. But today, in Ukraine, people are forced to do the unimaginable. War has turned lives upside down in a moment. People are leaving their homeland, leaving their pets and animals, and most heartrending of all, leaving the people they love more than anything. They are being forced to make impossible decisions, and there is no right answer. Should I evacuate, or is it safer to stay? Do I fight to defend my city? If I leave, where will I go? Do I take my daughter and leave my grandmother? And so many have had to walk away from their beloved dogs and cats and horses in order to get their families and children out of danger. Even as they ask themselves all these questions, in the end, people have no choice.
None of us can say what we would or would not do.
As for our equestrian community, we are international; riders come from all over the world. We share a common commitment to horses, and we build friendships with competitors from other countries. I have friends through this sport from every corner of the globe, including Russia. Good friends. We travel together for shows, and even though we might speak different languages, we understand each other’s love of riding and the sport. No matter where we come from, we want peace. We want to wake up in the morning safe in our homes; we want to ride our horses; we want to be with our friends and families.
I know that the world is filled with good people, in every country. People are asking what they can do and how they can help. Already people in Ukraine are mobilizing volunteers. I’ve had messages of people bringing hay to feed horses left behind or helping in animal shelters. Others are providing assistance to those who are sick or disabled and can’t take care of themselves. I have friends calling me, asking where to send donations or what charities to support. We can start first by acknowledging the truth of what is happening: war is horrible, and innocent people are dying. Schools, homes, hospitals, cathedrals and churches are burning. And none of us want this. We are all warriors in our own field, speaking out against violence, donating money, supporting refugees, giving a voice to those who are fighting for their freedom. Our grandparents lived through World War ll. I hope that together we can stop history from repeating itself. What is happening now in Ukraine is a disaster, but if the invasion isn’t stopped, the disaster will only spread throughout the world.
I ask you to keep all Ukrainian people in your prayers. We hope that the coming spring will bring only peace.
As told to Cheryl Witty-Castillo.
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Written by Kateryna Khurshudyan
Kateryna Khurshudyan is a 32-year-old Ukrainian show jumper who is currently living and working in Belgium.