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This is why I stay

Photo project revealing human stories in Mykolaiv in the early days of full-scale russian invasion.
To mark the 2nd anniversary since the start of the Russian full-scale invasion, Royal Danish Embassy is presenting the online photo exhibition “This Is Why I Stay” curated and implemented by online magazine about visual culture (tag) “Bird in Flight”. The project includes photographs, video reels and interviews that reveal the human factor behind the heroic resistance that the city of Mykolaiv exercised during the first months of the full-scale Russian invasion. 

The project owes its origins to Mykolaiv-Denmark Partnership, a multi-faceted and vibrant alliance that was concluded at the request of President Zelensky in spring 2022, and now covers many areas: physical and social infrastructure, energy supply, private sector development, water and agriculture, as well as culture, youth, civil society and human rehabilitation. The heroes who generously share their stories for the project, are the residents of Mykolaiv representing various professions, ages and genders. All of them were asked to provide their answers about why they had stayed in Mykolaiv at times when the enemy was at the city gate. 

Pavlo Petrovych Oliinyk

Pavlo Petrovych Oliinyk, 67 years old. Power engineer at Mykolaiivoblenergo
“My children are at war, so I didn't plan to leave, and I don't plan to run away— it's not my style. Besides, I have work to do — the city's power system needs to be restored.
I'm a master of sports in boxing. Last time, I stepped into the ring last year, then got my new teeth made, and I said: that's it, I'm not getting back into the ring, as it's too expensive! I mention this because despite the heavy workload, I don't feel tired. Sometimes, I even charge my younger colleagues with my energy.
I'm worried about my own team because I'm responsible for them. If something happens to them, I can't imagine myself looking into the eyes of their loved ones. But people already have experience as they worked on restoring the power system last year. We work together smoothly, we aren't afraid of physical exertion, even though the job has to be done under the rain, snow, and enemy fire.
We walked through minefields, repeatedly coming under fire. Once our car hit a mine. We also came under shelling with cluster munitions: then I shouted 'down!' to everyone, and we all took cover under the car. Two colleagues were injured (they have already recovered), but we survived — that's what counts. Work- ing was difficult, but those who are in the trenches have a much more difficult mission. Soldiers are in trenches. Power engineers are soldiers in their own way, — they are warriors of light.
Mykolaiv held out thanks to people who stood up for it. And we, the power engineers, make sure that these people have light”.
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Ganna Trokhymenko

Ganna Trokhymenko, 49 years old. Ecologist, lecturer at Admiral Makarov National University of Shipbuilding, volunteer
“Just before the full-scale invasion, I was supposed to be hospitalised with COVID. But when the war start- ed, even the cough disappeared. My husband suggested we leave the country with our child. But how can you just abandon everything and run away?
Since February 25, I was preparing to face the enemy — learning how to shoot, how to throw grenades. But fortunately, the Russians were forced to retreat from Mykolaiv. And I started working at the humanitar- ian centre opened in our university. Since then, I've been finding medicines and all necessary stuff, deliver- ing aid to those in need.
During this time, I often felt scared, most of all when my father had a stroke after shelling. Despite the curfew, I ran to him — they live not far from my house. On my way, the shelling was not what scared me but rather that I might be detained for violating the curfew, and that my dad would die while the police would be figuring out who I am and why I'm running in the street. My dad passed away the next day. And I still remember that evening.
After that, I was shell-shocked — there was an impact when I was working at the distribution point near our university. When delivering medicines, I got caught in heavy shelling. And after that situation, I decid- ed to take care of myself for the sake of the children.
Perhaps, I won't be original, but I have to say: the city means its people. So, it was the people who cared that saved Mykolaiv — they gathered together at the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Thanks to them, not only our city but the whole country persisted”.
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Hryhorii Cheremushev

Hryhorii Cheremushev, 33 years old. Actor at Mykolayiv Academic Art Drama Theatre
“I wasn't prepared for the war, and I had no intention of leaving the city. There's one reason: this is my home. The beginning of the full-scale invasion was a mess. I tried to join the territorial defense, but they wouldn’t take me in. Due to a disability I’ve had since childhood I knew I would not be admitted at the military enlistment office. But I really wanted to contribute and looked for something to do. On the third day of the full-scale war, I found it.
I was told that a businessman needed workers to manufacture anti-tank hedgehogs. I know how to work with a welding machine, so I took up welding. In March, we gathered a creative group and started giving concerts. Some sang, some danced, and some recited poems. We performed for the military, later — for the internally displaced people from the occupied territories. At first, it felt awkward: what concerts could ever be while the city is under daily attacks? But after one displaced person thanked us, all doubts were gone.
When it hit my home theater, I was at my place. The next day, my colleagues and I went to clear the debris. I think that's the secret of why Mykolaiv withstood. Because the residents who didn't leave, joined forces. They quickly adapted to wartime life, they built defenses, and it became clear — our home will persist”.
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Dan Frych

Dan Frych, 20 years old. Founder and head of a youth organization TUT
“At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, somebody suggested that I move to Kyiv. But the capital was also under siege, and my dad and grandma would remain in Mykolaiv. Abandoning a family would be a controversial thing to do.
Although you get used to daily shelling, it is still scary. Once, while at work, I heard some explosions. I rushed down the stairs from the second floor. I realized that these were cluster bombs, and dashed so quickly that I simply rolled down the last steps of the stairs.
In the fall of 2022, I learned about a youth project. I attended events, read about it, and got involved in youth movements. We formed a team of four people, and since there wasn't even a youth center in Mykolaiv prior to the war, we decided to create one. The first event took place after eleven months — fast for a time of war.
Why did Mykolaiv withstand? It did so primarily thanks to the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and then thanks to ordinary residents, the help from entrepreneurs, and international support”. 
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Andrii Tsehelnyi

Andrii Tsehelnyi, 35 years old. Machine operator at Mykolaivoblenergo
“At the beginning of the war, our manager said: whoever wants to leave, go ahead, I'll understand it, but people need you, so I’m asking you to stay, although I warn you — it will be difficult. Most of us stayed. I stayed too, even though I could have easily left — specialists in my profession are in demand everywhere. However, I can't just abandon everything.
With my colleagues, we went through a lot. Once we had to restore a power transmission line three kilo- metres long. We arrived at the location, we did our job. Then the military arrived and they were amazed, asking how we got there. It turned out that the surrounding fields were mined. We were stepping on our own footprints as we walked back so we didn't detonate anything. Another time, the Russians shot at us as if we were targets in a shooting range. But even after that, I didn't regret staying in the city and continuing to do my job.
The Russians entered Kherson unexpectedly, using large forces. In Mykolaiv, they have already infiltrated in small groups. If there had been a blitz, the residents simply wouldn't have had time to join forces. How- ever, people managed to get together. Everyone was helping each other. When we drove past the military, many of them asked if we needed help. This sense of solidarity saved the city”. 
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Ania Kurkurina

Ania Kurkurina, 57 years old. Volunteer, helps animals, professional athlete
“I have many fans around the world, so there were plenty of offers to live abroad for free. But I replied: I won't abandon animals. Besides, there's a peculiarity in my body — so I must not experience any kind of anxiety. If I were abroad, learning about the horrors happening at home, I would worry to death.
I have nothing — no house, no apartment. But I raised money and bought a machine for animal sterilization. I asked my photographer friend for help. Since then, we go on animal rescuing together. It's impossible to do it without a catcher — stressed animals are afraid of people, so catching them is difficult. Once my friend evacuated an Alabai — a giant gray dog who looked like a wolf. I said: don't approach him, it can be dangerous. But the friend didn't listen and went for it. He talked to the dog as if it were a human, said a bunch of nice things, and almost kissed him. And finally, he carried the dog out of the house in his hands.
Many outstanding personalities were born in Mykolaiv. Some powerful energy must be coming from the earth's crust where the city stands. This energy, together with the strength of the people, helped Mykolaiv withstand. My entourage includes people of different types: athletes, police officers, gangsters. In peacetime, they may not like each other, but still, they unite to protect their home from danger. Never before had I seen this kind of unity”.
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Khrystia and Ihor Dmytrychenky

Khrуstia and Ihor Dmytrychenky, 31 and 33 years old. They work in the IT industry and have been volunteers since the beginning of the full-scale invasion.

“Before the invasion started, we had planned a long road trip in a motorhome. The route was mapped out for two years. The journey was supposed to kick off on February 28. But it didn't work out. On February 24, when Ukrainian fighter jets were already flying over our house, we packed our things into the car and were ready to leave. However, before that, we wanted to meet with our parents for a family council. They were running late, so we waited. And then, all of a sudden, we realized that we didn't want to leave. We wanted to fight for our native city.
Our friend created a chat where people from Mykolaiv gathered and helped the city. One day, he messaged that there were many wounded in the hospital, and there was not enough toilet paper and cigarettes. Igor, my husband, spent his entire salary to provide for this request. That's how we started volunteering. We started by delivering small orders, crisscrossing the city for 200 kilometers and visiting 40 points a day. We didn't stay in one place for more than three minutes — so we didn't get shot at. We haven't stopped ever since.
Mykolaiv held on thanks to Kherson, where many of our soldiers fell. Our 79th brigade has been active since 2014. Those who served in it took up arms again at the beginning of the full-scale invasion, and volunteered to join the army. Many continue to fight, and many lost their lives. I think almost every Mykolaiv resident has acquaintances, relatives, or friends taken away by the war. So those who stayed in the city, those who didn't give up, those who volunteer, do it for their sake. We didn’t have any other options, and we still don’t”.

Larysa Ivanivna Zaichenko

Larysa Ivanivna Zaichenko, 63 years old. Retiree, activist
“I am an oncology patient, and for the past few years, I've been under treatment. I faced the start of the full-scale invasion while lying on the surgical table. I was unable to leave the city, and I didn't even consider that option. My children had lost their jobs, we had no money but our pension. Besides, I had to take care of my husband after his stroke. We woke up at four o’clock in the morning and went out to get some free food.
I saw planes soaring through the sky, I saw Russians shelling the tank factory and the sailors' hospital, I saw them blowing up the house next door. But even lying in the hospital I wasn't afraid for myself — I was scared only for the children. Especially when I saw a Russian helicopter dropping paratroopers in our yard. For almost a year, my husband, children, grandchildren, and I spent nights in the bomb shelter, and returned home in the mornings. Due to the stress, my daughter started stuttering, and my grandson stopped speaking. But when the Russians were pushed out of Kherson, it became easier.
I know everyone in this area; one could say I'm the chief of this neighbourhood. Neighbours seek my advice, open up their hearts, and turn to me for help. When many neighbours left, I keeped an eye on their houses to prevent looting. Then, a sick and bald woman as I was after chemotherapy, I walked around to deliver necessary things to other pensioners. One of my granddaughters, also an activist, received an award from Kim (Vitaliy Kim — head of the Mykolaiv Regional Military Administration. — Ed.). The city held out thanks to people like her, thanks to Kim, Dmytro Marchenko (Major General who led the defence of Mykolaiv. — Ed.), and to our soldiers who carried all the burden on their shoulders”.

Elina Nevaliona

Elina Nevaliona, 24 years old. Speech therapist at SOS Children's Villages
“By profession, I am a speech therapist, a special psychologist, and a defectologist. Before coming into this profession, I was a kindergarten teacher. I take much joy in my work, especially when I see its results and witness the happiness in the eyes of children who discover that they are now able to speak. Currently, my patients are children who started stuttering due to shelling or whose speech deteriorated for the same reasons. Some stopped speaking altogether.
At the beginning of the war, Mykolaiv was heavily shelled. Every day, at five in the morning, the city was hit by at least 30 rockets. But even then, I didn't think about going away. Men were not allowed to leave Ukraine, and I didn't want to travel alone. I couldn't imagine living abroad, knowing that my loved one would be facing a threat every single moment.
On March 11, my house was shelled. I heard the explosions while watching a movie on the couch. I ran into the hallway, screaming, as I saw a fire starting in the yard through the window. It took me a while to recover after that. I cried before going to sleep, and horrors haunted me every night. In summer, while I was distributing humanitarian aid with colleagues, I got under shelling once more. I probably would have been scared again, but I pulled myself together because I had to take care of those who were queuing for this help. There were moments of panic when it seemed that Mykolaiv's fate would resemble that of Mariupol. But I didn't succumb to despair, finding strength in work and colleagues with whom I constantly communicated. Interacting with others makes you realize that you are not alone, that there are many people in the city who are just like you. In fact, that's why I believe that Mykolaiv withstood thanks to the people and organizations that helped everyone in need. And, of course, thanks to our military. We owe them gratitude every morning”. 

Kostiantyn Danylenko

Kostiantyn Danylenko, 31 years old. Rescuer at State Emergency Service of Ukraine
“In February 2022, I was in Kryvyi Rih for training. When the war broke out, I went to Mykolaiv to join my family. Once there, I dived into work. I didn’t have any thoughts on leaving the city. My family didn't want to leave either, so I didn’t stay by myself.
When at work, a man needs to think rationally and fulfil his duties properly. Yet, there are times when even rescuers become emotionally challenged. Once, we were retrieving a teenager from under the rubble. When the missile struck, he was lying on a bed. Concrete slabs fell onto his legs. It took us four hours to pull him out. Then I went on another call; that time we were retrieving my former colleague, Pavlo, from under the debris. I arrived when they had just brought him to the surface. Pavlo was dead, and the teenag- er died in the hospital a few hours later. I will remember that day for the rest of my life.
At the beginning of the war, the city faced serious problems. There was no water available. The elderly didn't have any food because going out of their homes for shopping was risky. They were taken good care of, and it was so cool. Mykolaiv persisted thanks to its citizens. We were united like never before, helping each other. Even if the enemy had entered the city, the residents would have fought till the end”.
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