TOKYO >> As millions of Ukrainians fled their country, a longtime Tokyo resident did the opposite. Sasha Kaverina left her life in Japan and rushed to Ukraine to rescue her parents after a Russian missile hit their apartment building.
Kaverina’s main goal in returning was to get her parents out of their hometown of Kharkiv, the second-largest city in battered eastern Ukraine, to a safer place in western Ukraine. But Kaverina, who had organized fund-raising and antiwar rallies in Japan for her homeland, also delivered medicine, first-aid kits and other relief goods.
Like many Ukrainian expats around the world, the war in her homeland has upended her life. Despite reports of horrendous Russian attacks, she said she is not afraid for herself, but for her parents and relatives.
Because of her antiwar and pro-Ukraine activities in Japan, she fears that the Russians could persecute or kill those close to her if they return to Kharkiv, which is now under fierce attack and may fall under Russian control.
“A lot of Ukrainians are worried (that) if Russians occupy us, pro-Ukrainian people would be killed,” as they were in Bucha and other cities, she said in an online interview from Chernivtsi, a city in southwestern Ukraine near the border with Romania where she took her parents.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Since then, more than 4 million Ukrainians have fled the country and millions more have been displaced internally.
Kaverina’s parents narrowly survived in early March when a Russian missile badly damaged their eighth-floor apartment in a 16-story building and forced them to evacuate to their relatives’ home in the suburbs.
After nearly two days on planes and buses, Kaverina made it to Chernivtsi, where she reunited with her parents, who had driven across the country from Kharkiv to meet her.
She is renting an apartment in Chernivtsi for her parents while she does remote work for her job at an IT company in Japan, where she intends to return, and volunteers as an aid worker with the help of her parents.
Ukrainian officials have urged residents in eastern Ukraine to evacuate to the west. But even in Chernivtsi the family can hear air-raid warning sirens at night, though they haven’t experienced actual bombings, she said.
Some people go to shelters every night, and the place may not be safe any more, Kaverina said.
Whenever a door bangs or they hear footsteps, her parents immediately jump, apparently because of trauma from the missile attack on their apartment.
Kaverina worries about more Russian atrocities.
“If Kharkiv is occupied, people who have been mentioned in the media or known for their pro-Ukrainian positions, they may be targeted. I have no problem … but I’m worried about my parents,” she said, requesting anonymity for her parents. “My parents will be targeted for being with me and for their pro-Ukrainian activities.”
Several times a day, her parents call their relatives, friends and colleagues in Kharkiv to make sure everyone is safe and alive. They worry whenever anyone is unreachable.
One of her father’s acquaintances was taken to “a filtering camp” where Russians forced residents to remove their shirts to look for any tattoos indicating a pro-Ukrainian stance, Kaverina said.
Her father can’t leave the country because of local laws, she said, and she hasn’t been able to persuade her mother to fly back to Tokyo with her. Her parents want to return as soon as possible to their hometown, where her father’s 89-year-old mother has stayed behind because of old age.
“My parents ask me every day when they can go back to Kharkiv, and I say, ‘No, you cannot,’” she said. “They want to go back to get their photos, not TV, money or documents. … It’s so sad and maybe stupid, but for them it’s their whole life.”
Kaverina said their apartment in Kharkiv is uninhabitable, but her parents, like many others, still hope to rebuild. To her, their determination seems linked to Ukraine’s strong resistance to the Russians.
Kaverina, who has been in Japan for five years, said she has seen a lack of tolerance for foreign residents and diversity in Japan. So she was surprised by Tokyo’s quick pledge to accept displaced Ukrainians, even though Japan does not expect many will come. Rather than going to a faraway, unfamiliar Asian country, most Ukrainians are turning to Europe, hoping to return home at some point.
About 400 war-displaced Ukrainians have arrived in Japan, where a number of municipalities and companies are offering to provide housing, language lessons and jobs.
The biggest hurdle for many Ukrainians is to get plane tickets to Japan, she said, because they have lost their jobs, homes and money since the invasion.
Japan was quick to join the United States and other leading economies in imposing sanctions against Russia and providing support for Ukraine. Tokyo has also sent nonlethal defense equipment such as helmets and bulletproof vests to Ukraine as an exception to its arms equipment transfer ban to countries in conflict.
Japan can also contribute to disaster relief, including sending construction equipment, Kaverina said. Because many people died under rubble while awaiting rescue, Kaverina said that she plans to reach out to Komatsu or other Japanese construction machine makers for help.
“I had been just an ordinary long-time resident in Japan until a month ago, but what happened changed not only the lives of Ukrainians (in the country) but also the lives of Ukrainians abroad,” she said.