Olha Mahinko: In Ukraine, there is an illusion of a normal life. But that can change in a second

Olha Mahinko is a journalist at Radio Svoboda. She has worked for this Ukrainian branch of the Radio Free Europe back in Kyiv and she continues to do so now that she’s living in Prague. Her husband Oleg stayed in Ukraine to fight for their homeland and the young couple’s relationship continues over a long distance. We meet in a cozy coffee shop near Olha’s new home in Žižkov, and in the beginning of our interview, the young woman emphasises how much she loves Ukraine. She has no doubt that one day, the country will finally be free.

You were born in Nikopol, a city in the Dnipro region, but for the past few years, you were living in Kyiv. What was your life like before the outbreak of the war?

I was working as a journalist and practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu in my free time. The guys and girls who trained with me are now helping our army a lot. I also worked as a barista in a coffee shop on the weekends, and I really enjoyed it. I had a cool but an ordinary life, and I loved it.

You worked as a journalist in Ukraine and continue to do so now, in the Czech Republic. You actually got here thanks to your job at Radio Svoboda. How exactly did your work help you?

On February 12th, 2022, my team and I were sent on a business trip to Prague, because the head office of Radio Svoboda and Radio Free Europe is located here. The plan was to stay in Prague for a few weeks, meet with our international colleagues, spend some time together and share our experiences. I only brought a small suitcase and a backpack. At the time, I could not even imagine that I would stay in Prague for such a long time. When the war began, our management decided not to send us back home. They found it too dangerous. We need to do our daily broadcasts live from our studio, which is possible here, in Prague, but in Kyiv, with the air raids and attacks from the Russians, this would have been unmanageable.

As a journalist, you are covering the war in your own country, which must be very emotional. Were there any moments that made you feel down?

I produce news from Ukraine, and we primarily cover military events in the cities where active battles are taking place. Once, I was asked to assort videos of the consequences of shelling in my hometown Nikopol. Every day, I opened the Telegram channel (disclaimer: popular social network in Russia and Ukraine) and checked to see whether my house was still there or not. I was very frustrated. Anytime I looked at the photos, I had to think of my family. My parents stayed in Nikopol because they work there and they need to take care of my grandparents, who live in the neighbouring village.

Olha checks the notifications on her phone quite often due to the turbulent military situation in her hometown of Nikopol.

Your husband Oleg stayed in Ukraine too, and he is now fighting the Russian invaders. Is this his first active fight experience?

No. He was already fighting in 2014, during the Crimean crisis. The independence of our country is very important to him. Oleg was expecting another war after 2014, and even before it all started on 24 February 2022, he would sometimes talk to me about it, telling me that if there was a war, he would immediately go back to fighting. I was constantly trying to isolate myself from this topic and I was afraid to take his expectations seriously.

Eventually, he was right. What were you doing on February 24th, 2022? 

I came to the Prague office of Radio Svoboda very early. I usually wake up at 3:30 AM because we have a morning broadcast. We started working, turned on our laptops and I talked with a colleague about the topics of the day. At that moment, our editor-in-chief was sitting and listening carefully to something, and then, after a few minutes, he said: “That’s it. He declared war.” I was asked to call all my colleagues and inform them about the outbreak of the conflict. We went on air right away, but I can’t even remember for how long it lasted. Everyone wanted to work even harder than usual, we would willingly stay at the office 24/7, because each of us was afraid to be alone. No one wanted to go back to their thoughts and anxieties. I had a very strong feeling of guilt because I was safe, here, in Prague, and other people at home were going through war. This feeling hasn’t left me yet – it’s been almost a year now, and it still lives with me.

Do you feel like you have a “double life” – here, in the Czech Republic, and in Ukraine – because you and your husband are so far apart?

I feel that physically I am here, but mentally I am constantly in Ukraine. I wouldn’t even call it a “double life”. Maybe it’s not quite right to say that, but I feel like my real life is still in Ukraine. My husband, my family, and all my friends, whom I love very much, are there.

During the interview, Olha repeatedly talks about her love for Ukraine and her strong wish to return home.

How many times have you been back to your home country?

I have already been to Nikopol three times since the full-scale invasion. In fact, I’ve travelled to Ukraine a couple times – for example, I have visited Kyiv and Odesa. I love our country so much, it is an incredible place.

How are your parents keeping up?

They are in the shelling zone, so it’s obviously very tough for them. Nevertheless, I feel like they are still in a better mood than I am, even though I’m sitting here in safety. For a while, I even believed that my parents’ situation was not so bad. But that was only until my last trip home after the New Year. I arrived in Nikopol and the first thing I saw was a burnt-out bus station and an old lady sitting next to it. She used to sell some goods at the nearby market. I immediately felt uncomfortable. Then I drove around the city, and everything looked surprisingly quiet. The city seemed to be living the same way as it did before the war. I went for a coffee with my friend and then the air raid alert started. At that moment, the power went out. My mom called me and asked me to stay in the coffee shop because the area where our house is located was being shelled. I started to panic because I heard so many explosions. Then, I realized that people in Ukraine live like this all the time – there is an illusion of a normal life, and then, at any given moment, everything can change.

Since you miss your home so much, are you thinking of coming back any time soon?

Sure. I want to go back, I think about it all the time. I am not afraid of danger, possible shelling, or power outages. The only thing that holds me back is my work. Firstly, I understand that by working in the international media and covering the war, I am doing something useful.  And secondly, I came here with my colleagues, my Kyiv team, and I can’t let them down. I believe that the moment will come when we will all be able to return to Kyiv together.

How has your relationship to your homeland changed since the outbreak of the war?

Not much, because I have felt a strong love for my homeland ever since my childhood. My husband and I are similar in this sense (smiles). There were five Cossack sichs in the Nikopol district where I lived. All my great-grandfathers were Cossacks. The Cossacks fought for the freedom and independence of Ukraine, and I carry their resilience within me. That is why I find this alignment of historical events very symbolic. Even though we live in a Russian-speaking region, my parents always spoke Ukrainian. My mom was constantly telling me about the history of Ukraine, and I always took great interest in it. My feelings for Ukraine are so strong and intense that I can’t even describe them.

Do you plan to return home after the war ends, or would your husband like to move to Prague with you?

I dream of returning home, and my husband would never want to move abroad. He’s fighting for Ukraine’s independence now, and when it’s achieved, we’ll enjoy it to the fullest. Besides, I believe that we need to go back and rebuild our country after the war is over.

Olha is grateful to Prague and the people who helped her adapt here.

Is it possible to keep in touch with your husband every day, or are there any difficulties?

Well, it depends. He serves in the army as a military intelligence officer, and sometimes, he can be unavailable for 3–4 days in a row. He usually tells me about it in advance, but I still worry. For me, this is the worst and the most terrifying thing. During these moments, I update the notifications on my phone almost every minute. By the way, even though we have been living so far apart for almost a year, it doesn’t feel like it. It seems like our relationship has become even stronger, and our love has grown 500 times (laughs).

I saw on your Instagram that you got married just recently. How was it like, getting engaged and having a wedding during the war?

It happened in the fall. I had no idea that Oleg would propose to me and that we would soon be married. Even before that, we already felt like a family. The proposal came quite suddenly. We hadn’t seen each other for a long time, and I realized that I miss him very much. But since he never knew when he would be free – it all depended on his superiors – we could not plan a date. One day, Oleg said he was allowed to go to Odesa, since it was the closest location to their military base. I immediately bought a ticket and took a bus from Prague to Odesa, which took about 40 hours. The bus broke down three times, so my arrival was delayed by 10 hours. When I arrived, I felt terrible. I almost rolled off the bus. Oleg ran up to me and immediately asked me to marry him. He had planned a much more romantic proposal, but when he saw me so upset and tired, he really wanted to cheer me up. It happened on the symbolic date of October 14th, which is the day when Ukraine celebrates the Intercession of the Theotokos.

The Intercession of the Theotokos

Often called Pokrova in Ukraine, the Intercession of the Theotokos is a special holiday for Ukrainians, as it is very closely linked to their country‘s history. The Intercession and the Mother of God herself were highly respected by the Ukrainian Cossacks. On this day, a new ataman was elected. The Cossacks believed that the Holy Intercession protected them, and they considered the Holy Virgin to be their intercessor and patroness. Find out more about the influence of Cossacks on the Ukrainian history.

And your wedding also took place in Odesa.

Yes, on November 12th, 2022. We initially planned to have a small wedding with only the two of us, but eventually, there were about 20 people, including our parents, relatives, and friends. We had a rather modest celebration: we got married, had a wedding photo shoot, and went to a restaurant. We were lucky because Odesa was very calm that day and there was no shelling, or even sirens. On November 11th, the Armed Forces of Ukraine liberated Kherson, which made our wedding even more symbolic.

Being alone in a new country, knowing that your loved one is in danger, that must be extremely difficult. Can you give any advice to Ukrainians who are also refugees on how to keep it together?

Do you know what my husband always tells me? The Russians came to our land to kill us, physically and morally. But we must be unbreakable and continue to live, marry, have children, and altogether enjoy our lives. We are Ukrainians and we must show them that they will never break us.

Olha Mahinko, journalist

Olha was born in Nikopol. She graduated from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and then she worked at the Centre for Investigative Journalism in Kyiv. After that, Olya took a job in the news media Suspilne, and then she started to work for Radio Svoboda. She was practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a hobby.


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