Ukraine war: "My city is being bombed, but mom doesn't believe me" (2023)

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Ukraine war: "My city is being bombed, but mom doesn't believe me" (1)image Source,Oleksandra

By Maria Korenyuk and Jack Goodman

World Service Disinformation Team

Oleksandra and her four rescue dogs have been holed up in the bathroom of her Kharkiv apartment since the shelling began.

"When I heard the first explosions, I ran outside to get my dogs out of their enclosures. People were terrified, abandoning their cars. They were so scared," she says.

The 25-year-old has been speaking regularly with her mother, who lives in Moscow. But in these conversations, and even after sending videos of her heavily bombed hometown, Oleksandra is unable to convince her mother of the danger she finds herself in.

“I didn't want to scare my parents, but I started telling them directly that civilians and children are dying,” he says.

“But even if they care about me, they still say that it probably just happened by accident, that the Russian military would never attack civilians. That it is the Ukrainians who are killing their own people.”

It is common for Ukrainians to have family across the border in Russia. But for some, like Oleksandra, their Russian relatives have a different understanding of the conflict. She believes this is due to the stories being told by the tightly controlled Russian media.

image Source,Oleksandra

Oleksandra says that her mother simply repeats the narratives she hears on Russian state television channels.

"I was very scared when my mother quoted exactly from Russian television. They are just people who brainwash them. And people trust them," says Oleksandra.

“My parents understand that a military action is taking place here. But they say: 'The Russians have come to free you. They will not spoil anything, they will not touch you. They're just targeting military bases.'

While we were interviewing Oleksandra, the shelling continued. The internet connection was bad so we had to exchange voice messages.

"I almost forgot what silence sounds like. They're shelling non-stop," he said.

But on Russian state television channels the same day, there was no mention of missile strikes in Kharkiv's residential neighborhoods, civilian casualties or four people killed while waiting for water.

image Source,Russia channel 1

Russian media say that the threat to Ukrainian civilians does not come from the Russian armed forces, but from Ukrainian nationalists who use civilians as human shields.

Russian state television channels justify the war by blaming the Ukrainian aggression and continue to call it "a special liberation operation." Any Russian outlet that uses the words "war," "invasion" or "attack" could be blocked by the country's media regulator for spreading "deliberately false information about the actions of the Russian military" in Ukraine.

And now the Russian Parliament has passed a new law that means people who spread "false" information about Russia's military forces can be jailed for up to 15 years.

Some Russians took to the streets to protest against the war, but these demonstrations were not broadcast on the main state television channels.

Mykhailo, a well-known Kyiv restaurateur, had neither the time nor the inclination to watch coverage of the invasion on Russian television.

When the shelling of the Ukrainian capital began, he and his wife were focused on how to protect their six-year-old daughter and baby.

image Source,Myjailo

At night, their children would wake up to the sound of the explosions and would not stop crying. The family decided to move to the outskirts of Kyiv and then flee abroad.

They traveled to Hungary, where Mykhailo left his wife and children and returned to western Ukraine to help the war effort.

He was surprised that he had not heard from his father, who works at a monastery near Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. She called his father and described what was happening. Her father replied that this was not true; there was no war, and in fact the Russians were saving the Ukraine from the Nazis.

Mykhailo said he felt he knew the power of Russian propaganda, but when he heard it from his father, he was devastated.

Russia attacks Ukraine: more coverage

“My own father does not believe me, knowing that I am here and seeing everything with my own eyes. And my mother, his ex-wife, is also going through that, ”he says.

"He is hiding with my grandmother in the bathroom because of the bombing."

The Russian media has been tightly controlled for many years, and viewers receive an uncritical view of Russia and its actions around the world.

"The state narrative always shows Russia as the good guy." says Dr. Joanna Szostek, an expert on Russia and political communication at the University of Glasgow.

"Even in the stories they tell about World War II, the Great Patriotic War, Russia never did anything wrong. And that's why they won't believe it now."

Most Russians, he says, don't seek other points of view. She believes that the one-sided narrative that is highly critical of the West helps explain why Russians may have opposing views to their relatives in neighboring countries.

"People who criticize Russia have long been portrayed as traitors or foreign agents; the critics are all foreign agents working for the West. So you don't even believe your own daughter."

Anastasiya's parents live in a small town 20 kilometers from the rebel-controlled Donetsk People's Republic. The town is still under the control of the Kyiv authorities, but Russian state television channels are always on at her home. They even have their clocks set to Moscow time, a throwback to the Soviet past.

So when Anastasiya woke up in Kyiv to the sound of sirens on February 24, she knew how her parents would react.

“My mom was the first person I called when I jumped out of bed at five, disoriented. She was surprised that she called her and she seemed very calm, almost casual," she says.

Anastasiya, a Ukrainian correspondent for the BBC who moved to Kyiv 10 years ago, heard the bombs going off after waking up and was worried about where he would be hit next.

image Source,Anastasia

"I called my mother again. I told her I was scared. 'Don't worry,' she told me reassuringly. 'They [Russia] will never bomb Kyiv.'"

But they are already doing it, answered Anastasiya.

"I told him there were civilian casualties. 'But this is what happened when Ukraine attacked Donbass!' ."

Anastasiya believes that the image that the Russian media have created is that of a "glorified Russian army" ridding Ukraine of the Nazis. For years, she avoided political discussions with her parents, but this time she closed the phone in her mother's face.

We spoke to Anastasiya as she was traveling away from Kyiv after four nights in a bomb shelter. Her mind was on an uncertain future.

"There are a lot of thoughts in my head right now. What will happen to all of us? Where will this go? Will I ever come back? Will I ever see my parents again? I still love them very much, but something inside of me snapped and I don't think this can be fixed."

More about this story

  • Five ways the war in Ukraine could end

    • March 3, 2022

  • Who is in Putin's inner circle and is leading the war?

    • March 3, 2022

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  • Russia-Ukraine War
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