‘I heard the missiles whizzing overhead’

Oak Harbor man shares experience living in, leaving Ukraine

Jeffrey Groton was riding an early-morning train when he heard missile fire.

Feb. 24 had otherwise begun as a normal day — albeit one overcast with tension caused by Russian troops massing at Ukraine’s border. Groton, an Oak Harbor native, had been living in Kyiv working in the nonprofit sector and had just left on a trip to his organization’s offices in Mariupol when some strange things began to happen.

When stopped at a station along his route, he noticed a long line of cars at a nearby gas station. Soon after, his phone began ringing incessantly and text messages from various people came flooding in.

“That’s when I heard the missiles whizzing overhead,” he said.

The conflict did not come as a surprise to Groton or his Ukrainian friends and neighbors. As Groton put it, when Russia began increasing its military presence at the border, it was only a matter of when the troops would make their move.

At the time, Groton and his fellow Ukraine residents expected Russia would enact a targeted incursion meant to take only a small number of specific border regions. What they did not anticipate was that the conflict would erupt into an all-out war that would drastically upend their lives.

“None of us really imagined that there would be a full-scale invasion of the country,” he said. “That was the shocking part.”

Groton has an extensive personal history with Russia, Ukraine and the surrounding area. After graduating from Oak Harbor High School, he studied Russian literature at Reed College in Portland. While working on his undergraduate degree, he participated in a study abroad in the Soviet Union and “fell in love” with the area.

Shortly after graduating, he returned to Russia and has been living in various countries in Europe and Asia for almost 30 years. Besides Russia, he has also lived in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia.

Most recently, Groton was living in Ukraine, serving as the country director for a Swiss nonprofit focused on child welfare. His life prior to Russia’s invasion, as he describes it, was pretty normal. He went to work. He spent time with friends and neighbors. He was considering purchasing the apartment he was renting.

Beyond his normal routine, Groton also enjoyed watching Ukraine and its inhabitants flourish. The country’s history has been pockmarked with conflict, but according to Groton, these struggles have helped shape a unique and resilient national identity.

Formerly a Soviet territory, Ukraine declared its independence in 1991, though Russia has continued to have a significant political influence that Ukrainians have repeatedly had to shake off. In 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin meddled in the Ukrainian presidential election, sparking the Orange Revolution, a series of protests against the fraud. In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine in support of pro-Russia separatists in a conflict that left thousands of Ukraine citizens dead.

In the years since Russia’s last invasion, Ukraine has made incredible strides in establishing democracy and ousting corruption from government operations and citizens’ daily lives, according to Groton.

For example, Groton, who has lived in Ukraine on and off since 2000, remembers a recent history in which bribery was a regular part of life for most Ukrainians — it was found in situations as commonplace as interactions with law enforcement and visits to the hospital. As the country has undergone police reforms and integrated updated technology, however, Groton said the “culture of corruption” has all but disappeared.

In the wake of these and other reforms, the nation’s arts and food scenes have burgeoned, Groton said. Restaurants sprang up even in the smallest of towns. Cities were beautified and cultural events took place. Many cities had free electric bikes and scooters for residents and visitors to ride around town.

“It’s impressive,” he said of Ukraine’s rapid development. “It has all the accoutrements you would expect in the U.S. these days.”

But with the advent of the Russian invasion and subsequent widespread warfare, daily life was turned on its head, Groton said.

Over the course of a single day, bustling streets emptied. Curfews were imposed that kept Ukrainians indoors. As the invasion progressed, meat, dairy products and other perishables became more difficult to find in grocery stores. Public transit stopped running.

What normalcy persisted was made eerie by its stark juxtaposition with the conflict. Groton said he spent many nights with his neighbors hunkering in the basement of a nearby kindergarten, which was serving as a makeshift air raid shelter.

Conversation on those nights often centered around the run-of-the-mill — how the kids were doing in school, new recipes they had tried out recently, the latest gossip in the apartment complex. Children played with each other or with the pet dogs people had brought down. And from outside, the intermittent sounds of explosions or gunfire would permeate the room, occasionally causing a rumbling Groton and his neighbors could feel throughout the building.

Those moments were scary, Groton remembered, saying he sometimes worried the kindergarten would collapse on top of him and his neighbors. But more than anything, life in Ukraine during those days was simply odd.

Groton compared it to the clear skies that often preceded tornados in the midwest, where he spent part of his childhood.

“​​It’s that very stillness, and the very fact of a clear sky, that is actually the most disturbing in a way,” he said. “You know that is actually pointing to the fact that something bad is probably going to happen.”

Though the feeling of dread was nearly ubiquitous, Groton said the Ukrainians never gave in to panic. He said he was impressed by their “sheer resilience,” built up over years of intermittent conflict.

Groton said his neighbors pooled their groceries together to help everyone get the food they needed. Some of his neighbors volunteered for the territorial guard. Others helped grocery shop or distribute food to the elderly or home-bound members of the community.

“Everybody has mobilized in one way or another,” he said. “There’s some people that can’t do much, but they’re doing what they can.”

Eventually, however, the situation became dangerous enough that Groton’s organization decided to pull him out. Groton remembered being surrounded by the sound of artillery fire when the Russian troops were pushing into Kyiv, accompanied by wailing sirens and his apartment building shaking.

Still, despite the danger, it was difficult for Groton to say goodbye to his home.

“If that decision had not been made, and it were up to me, I’m not quite sure whether I would have left or not,” he said. “I tend to think I wouldn’t. I didn’t want to, although I knew intellectually of course that it was probably a pretty good idea.”

He traveled west by train to Uzhhorod with nothing more than a backpack, where he crossed the border into Slovakia on foot. The border crossing was chaotic, he said, with thousands of other people trying to get out of Ukraine. On the Slovak side, however, Ukrainian refugees were met with food and other accommodations, including transportation farther into Europe.

Groton stayed with a friend in Prague, the Czech Republic capital, for a while before returning to Oak Harbor to spend time with his parents.

As soon as it’s safe, he plans to return to Ukraine. Things won’t be the same upon his return; the Ukraine branch of the organization he works for is on hiatus for the time being, having had to relocate all of its staff. Groton said the organization has even lost contact entirely with a few of his colleagues and doesn’t know what happened to them after the invasion began.

Furthermore, Groton recently received news that two Russian missiles struck his neighborhood near his apartment building.

Still, despite the tragedy, Groton said he feels this conflict will position Ukraine to align itself with the European Union and further strengthen its democracy and cultural identity.

“I think after all of this is over, and it will eventually be over, that Ukraine will be in a very good position to develop further,” he said. “I’m very optimistic about the country’s future.”