Before Russia invaded her country, Julia Pavliuk had what she considered a rather idyllic life in the town of Irpin, Ukraine, on the outskirts of the country’s capital city of Kyiv. She and Oleh, her husband, fled their home on March 5th with Emma, their 6-month old daughter, and headed for Rivne in western Ukraine. There, strangers let them stay in an apartment for no cost.
Maxim Dondyuk photographed Pavliuk at 25 years old on the day she was evacuated. She was distraught, and she was walking beside a soldier to comfort her infant. TIME spoke with Pavliuk on March 18 about the photo, which appeared this week on the cover of TIME; the family’s journey; and the challenges of being a young mother during a time of war.
Julia Pavliuk, her daughter Emma, and a Ukrainian soldier help to evacuate Irpin (a Kyiv suburb) which Russian forces attempted to capture as part their campaign to encircle Kiev on March 5.
Let me know about your family and yourself.
Julia, my name is Our family is from Irpin in Ukraine. We have been there almost my entire life. My husband is a father to a 6-month-old girl. Our beautiful, modern town was our home. It is a wonderful place to live. There are many parks, new homes, and it has been a great life. It is now ruined. On March 5, we left and are now in Rivne. Local people welcomed us when we arrived and took us into their homes.
You want to know how you got from Rivne. These were the people who accepted you?
These people met us at the station after a long train ride. Our friend shared their contact information with us as it was the first time we had met them. The meeting was wonderful. It was amazing. You can’t believe that they let us stay at their apartment. They assured us that we would be able to stay there as long as necessary. It was truly a miracle.
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What’s it been like being a mother in this stressful situation?
It’s very stressful with a 6-month-old child when you hear explosions. There’s a lot of anxiety because you just want to be safe and make sure everything will be OK for you and your kid. It’s really scary. Our minds should be focused on saving you and your child in this circumstance. I’m lucky my daughter is so young and not a few years older because I think older children would understand what’s happening better. I’m not sure our daughter feels the situation like we feel it.
Which topic have you been the most interested in during this period?
I’ve been thinking about safety. It’s easy to hear louder sounds and not think about safety. But I have to keep my eyes on the goal of making things safe. I think if I were alone and didn’t have my baby I would just cry and just fall and sit on the floor and cry, but when you have kids, you are responsible for them and you understand that you need to be strong. I am able to rely on my child for strength.
What are some moments from the last week that you stand out in?
It was one of the worst days in my entire life. This was an extremely scary experience, and I still have nightmares about how it all happened. Even here, in safety, I’m scared of loud sounds. The sound of neighbors closing the door wakes me. I don’t know if this will ever go away. I will remember those who helped me during this trying time. When you don’t know whether you will live or die, the people who help you are like miracles. It has been very helpful. We are aware that we don’t have it all. There are many good people within our country.
Julia Pavliuk uploaded this picture of Oleh Pavliuk holding Emma while riding on the train to Rivne in Ukraine on March 6.
Could you please tell me the date you were evacuated?
We didn’t want to leave our home until the very, very end. Because the sounds of bombing were too loud to endure, and especially for our little girl, we decided to flee. So March 5, we went by foot to a local church in Irpin where people were going for evacuation, along with my husband’s mother and brother. We arrived to find it crowded with people and pets. The view from there was of a collapsed bridge and an overturned vehicle. All of it looked almost like something from a horror movie. I couldn’t believe it. First, the soldiers took women and children across the bridge. My husband had to wait behind. People saw my baby and allowed us to go. We had separated and I was concerned so we waited near the bus station for our husband while we heard the sound of blasts.
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Before you set out on your journey to Rivne, did you get to reunite with him?
I tried to call him, but I couldn’t get through. It took us 20 minutes to wait for him. While it may have felt shorter, it still felt very long. This was the worst thing. I didn’t know what to do, so I just waited and hoped that every man I saw emerge was my husband. My child and I were both crying. We were both standing in cold streets. I tried to breastfeed her, but she wouldn’t stop crying. We were constantly urged by soldiers to move onto the bus. However, it was difficult to go without my husband. He came so I continued to stay until he arrived.
How did you travel with you, and how did it affect your life?
My bag contained mostly clothes and things for my son. He carried the largest bag, which contained all of his documents, clothes and personal items, on his back. You realize that the only thing important is your life. Of course we left some jewelry and expensive stuff at home, but it doesn’t matter now. Our only goal was to feel safe.
What did you think when you saw the picture on TIME’s cover? Was there anything going on?
It’s not my best picture, although it does capture the atmosphere well and it gives us the opportunity to tell the world what is happening. Many people sent me kind words of support yesterday, wishing us safety. It was the soldier who tried to comfort me while I held my child. I don’t remember it clearly, but I was trying to raise my hands to show my husband where I was and he was trying to calm my child because she was crying.
What scares you the most about the war and this moment that we’re in?
We’re only one of many families who continue to suffer. Our country is seeing the death of many children and families.
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Do you feel safe with your friends and family? Do you know of anyone missing?
We are safe, fortunately. It is a blessing that we are safe. I know of other families who have lost family members and I am very sorry.
You are a Rivne resident.
We’ve been here since March 5. It has been boring, to be quite honest. This is why we are just waiting for the situation to end. I used to never read the news before all this. I now read the news about 10 times per day.
Julia Pavliuk was on the TIME cover, March 28, 2022/April 4, 2022, with Oleh Pavliuk. They are now in Rivne Ukraine
Is your spouse employed? What’s your financial situation?
My previous job was as an office manager. I am currently on maternity leave. My husband is an IT project manager. He’s not fired, but the company isn’t paying him as much; he’s making less than half his original salary. We are able to buy almost everything we want, but we are trying to save money because we don’t know what the next few months will be like. We have some savings.
How do you see the future?
In the near future, I believe that this war will end. I also hope that nobody will ever feel that same emotion as I do. This is the 21st century, and it’s absolutely horrible. All children deserve peace. This is cruel. If someone told me a year ago that my country would be in the middle of a war, I would tell them, “You’re crazy.” Now it’s a terrible reality. It will probably be the end of all wars in this world, I believe.
How do you wish to communicate your experience with family members and other like-minded people?
All Ukrainians should know that I am proud to declare our strength. Our freedom is guaranteed. All things end and we can live an ideal life. Every country today knows we are strong.
This interview has been slightly edited to improve clarity.
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