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WBEZ reporter Anna Savchenko, wearing a “vyshyvanka” or a traditional Ukrainian blouse, is in constant contact with relatives in Ukraine and Europe as she covers the response in Chicago to the war.

Justine Tobiasz

When I’m not reporting, the fear creeps in

When the first bombs landed in Ukraine, I was lying in bed in Chicago. It was almost as if I could feel them myself.

I called my dad in Kyiv, who woke up to the sound of the explosions. Over the phone, he said that World War III was starting. That Russian President Vladimir Putin had gone insane. I couldn’t stop watching live feeds on Twitter unless it was to call relatives and friends in Kyiv.

Fear welled up in my chest — the fear of losing my dad and my country.

I felt helpless, but what could I do from so far away?

As a journalist for WBEZ, reporting became my contribution. I went to cover multiple rallies, where Ukrainians chanted “wake up Biden” and “close the sky.”

On my way home from a rally on the first day of the war in February, I left a voicemail for one of my sisters, who is in Cyprus: “I’ve been talking to dad, and he heard the bomb strikes in Kyiv last night. It’s scary but I hope you’re doing OK, I love you. I miss you so much. … I wish you were here and we were together right now …"

I told my dad about reporting on the protests. He asked, “Why are you going to cover them? What could people in Chicago do to change what’s happening in Ukraine?

His words hurt. But the resistance to the war in Chicago needed to be documented as the war’s effects extended well beyond Ukraine’s borders.

And for me, collecting the sounds of Ukrainians rallying in Chicago has also been a distraction from the fear I’ve felt.

When I’m not reporting, this fear creeps in. I’ll look at the Chicago skyline and imagine the high-rises exploding in front of me. Or when I hear a nearby plane, chills run down my spine.

It’s the first time I have experienced this feeling, but I have seen it in my parents and my grandparents. That fear was so strong that my parents chose to raise me outside Ukraine, in Cyprus.

For them, Ukraine is the place where my grandparents spent 10 years in labor camps in the 1940s. The country was still part of the Soviet Union at the time. Before the USSR collapsed in 1991, the country struggled under Soviet rule for decades.

During those years, my grandparents used words to respond to their fears, just as I am doing now.

My grandfather was a poet. He strung together words about the Soviet soldiers who stole the grain from his family’s farm, about his country being plundered, about his neighbors being killed.

My grandmother was a messenger. She smuggled the words she overheard from the Soviets to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, with the hope that they could free Ukraine.

But their deeds led to their arrest. And now that I feel a sliver of the fear they had, I can’t unfeel it.

Because there is nothing left to separate the war they lived through from the one I am living through today. The buffer of time and place that shielded me from it has been leveled, along with the places that painted my memories of Ukraine.

A week into the war, my dad reached the western border of Ukraine. He called to say he was safe. Dad told me he was glad his parents didn’t live to see this.

But I am seeing it.

A neighbor I grew up with was shot and killed a day before my dad fled. Though he was 22 — just a year younger than me — he had been defending Kyiv. I sometimes forget that he’s gone. When I remember, my heart aches.

But things like grandad’s poems or the songs I hear at rallies in Chicago keep me going. Being present and hearing Ukrainians sing about their grief — our grief — has helped me face my own.

It’s how I am dealing with my fear: Standing with a microphone in hand, recording what I hear, with tears in my eyes.

Reporter Anna Savchenko covers higher education for WBEZ. Follow her @annasavchenkoo.

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