Day 4 - "Defence sirens went off not far from us. It is a terrible sound."
We connected with Milena Mishel over Twitter - a Ukrainian children's illustrator, NFT creator and photographer. I asked Milena would she be interested in meeting us.
"Thank you but no. Don't misunderstand, I'm very grateful for the offer and I appreciate it... but we lost our homes. We do not want to talk, We want to return to Ukraine. This is very painful."
This communication was very early in our Krakow trip, and at the time I had to come to terms with the fact that a lot of people might have the same reluctance to talk. I had to think about how I would deal with people being understandably reluctant. Who were we anyway?
Over the next few days, I messaged Milena hoping she might warm up to the idea of meeting. She would politely respond. Then one day she wrote - "Yesterday I couldn’t speak very well, a rocket flew into my house in Ukraine." There was nothing I could say.
Milena told me she was now living with her mother, sister in law and niece in Krakow. I suggested to her the idea of us just taking photos of her. I figured that that idea might be less intrusive than a full on video documentary - which is our usual style.
I was happy that Milena agreed to meet at a coffee shop in the centre of the Old Town
When me and Rita got to the cafe, Milena was already sitting in the window - with her long flowing blonde hair - she could have been in a movie scene.
In the cafe / Photo by Rita Ansone
Once inside and chatting it was clear that Milena's English might prove a challenge for any lingering video ideas I had. I suggested the best idea was for us to walk around Krakow - Rita could take some photos - and I would get some b-roll footage.
As we walked - Rita and Milena seemed to build a connection. They could communicate - as Rita (being from Latvia) was able to speak some Russian to Milena.
Photos by Rita Ansone
I tagged along in the background like a child following their parents. They were stopping all the time to take photos - as I was alone and bored in my own thought. Impatient. It was a bitingly cold day. I just wanted to get back to the warmth of my hotel. "Are we done yet?"
Photos by Rita Ansone
It turned out that Milena had become a bit of a Krakow expert in her time here and at regular intervals she would give us interesting trivia about the town - translated to me by Rita.
Photos by Rita Ansone
When finally we went our separate ways I told Milena that I would conduct a proper interview with her over Twitter - where she could communicate with me a bit better.
Before I could ask a question later that day Milena messaged me.
"Can I say that Rita is a very important part of the story you are making. In the male story, a piece of light and tenderness flickers. It's about Rita. It is like a special seasoning in a dish, thanks to which the dish acquires a different taste."
Photo by Rita Ansone
Can I ask you when you arrived in Krakow? How did you get here?
I left Ukraine on February 28th. At first I came to Moldova, it was closer and more convenient from my city in Ukraine. In Moldova, I spent the night with friends and on March 1st I left by bus for Krakow. It was a very long road trip and I didn't arrive until the night of March 3rd.
What do you remember about the bus journey? There must have been a lot on your mind.
I traveled through five countries. I never understood where I was. I only navigated through offline maps. We only drove through villages, and never along the main highway. It was actually faster that way. All the time I was thinking how I would earn money and where I would move to. In the end I came to my mother who lives in Poland.
Tell me about your life in Ukraine before the war.
The last two years I lived in Odessa - although I was born in the neighbouring city of Nikolaev. I really love the sea. In Odessa every evening I would enjoy the sunset at the sea. In the winter or summer it is amazing. I am an illustrator, so often I would take work with me to the beach. There would be other freelancers like me there, people playing with children, people walking their pets. I really love Odessa and its atmosphere.
How were you feeling in the days before you had to leave?
On the first day of the war, I remember I was standing in line at the ATM. Suddenly air defence sirens went off not far from us. It is a terrible sound. From that moment my body was in a daze. But panic breeds chaos. Everyone held their nerves and tried to do everything clearly and quickly.
In order to enter Odessa, you need to go through Nikolaev. and Nikolaev is a city of courageous men! They are still fighting back and holding strong. I called my dad every day. He is a military man. I was nervous and afraid, but I continued to collect things.
The main thing is not to approach the windows. everyone was afraid of shelling from the air.
You must have had fear...
The fear was from 5 am, February 24th. when a friend from Kyiv called and said "Get ready, the war has begun!" Fear was then 24/7. But I couldn't give in to it. I lived alone in Odessa and if I was too afraid, I would not be able to plan my actions.
Can I ask you about the rocket that you said hit your home in Ukraine?
It was a cluster rocket. Exactly the type the Russians said they didn't have. It is these missiles that kill ordinary people who are just out walk their pets. These missiles explode, break into many small fragments in the air and fly at great speed. The punch through everything in their path. Part of such a rocket hit my house. Thankfully it did not bring much damage. But fragments of rockets flew into some apartments, breaking windows. Fortunately, none of the neighbours were hurt. but the people who were on the street at that time suffered. It was scary to read about.
How do you feel now being in Krakow? Has Poland been welcoming?
My mother has been living in Poland for 10 years and so I have been here very often. Poland for me is already a familiar country that I know. But I can see how the Poles help the refugees. First and foremost, they hug. Believe me, when people who come with one passport and practically no things, and it is very important to just be hugged. So yes Ukrainians feel supported. The Poles have also helped with housing and documents. They have helped with everything! Clothes, food. They take very good care of us. We thank them with all our hearts.
A walk around Krakow / Video by Stephen O'Regan
Tell me a bit about you. What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I have drawn all my life. I think my grandfather passed on his talent to me. I finished school and studied to be an interior designer. In Nikolaev I had a creative studio. I taught children to draw. Then covid began and I closed the studio and moved to Odessa. I started trying to freelance. At first I worked for publishing houses and drew author's tarot cards! But I really wanted to draw children's illustrations. and so I moved into that world. Currently I draw children's colouring pages. I also create NFT illustrations and sell them with part of the money from them going to Ukraine, to help children who suffer because of the war.
How do you think this war will end? And how do you feel about your future?
It could be a long time, but eventually the aggressor will leave Ukraine and we will need time to rebuild the country. But we are not afraid of the problems.
As for my future, I don't make plans too far ahead. Now I'm just planning to move to a warmer country. I need sun. I want to develop my NFT collections. I create them with love.
Follow Milena's Instagram here. Follow Milena on Twitter here.
- Stephen O'Regan