‘Terrifying and exhausting:’ Central Floridians offer window into Ukraine preparing for war

ORLANDO, Fla. — Shawn Sullivan sits at his dining table, flipping through the contents of a hard drive on his computer. His eyes, behind narrow glasses, dart back and forth as he categorizes the events of the last 16 days.


The wiry man’s house doesn’t stand out in his South Clermont neighborhood, but the story inside it does. Sullivan, jetlagged, stepped off a flight from Ukraine less than 24 hours before.

READ: Ukraine-Russia crisis: What to know about the fears of war

Now, a reporter was inside his house, asking about a country on the verge of invasion.

“Bomb shelters are being prepared in downtown Kyiv,” he said. “First time I’ve ever seen in 22 years.”

Technically, Ukraine has been at war since Russia and Russian-backed separatists began invading it in 2014, though the fighting has been contained to the easternmost parts of the nation. The missionary has been flying in and out every few weeks through it all, as he has done for more than 20 years.

Sullivan’s nonprofit, Mission 823, serves many of the people affected by battle. His team runs youth camps for children with PTSD. They hand out water filters to people stuck near the front lines. Two million Ukrainians have been displaced since fighting began, he said, including 700,000 children.

“If you veer off of the road, there are entire fields full of landlines, millions of landlines and their markers, little signs and wooden stakes,” he described. “If you pass those wooden stakes, you will not survive.”

An invasion is projected to kill tens of thousands and displace millions more. Sullivan said his departure was pre-planned. Unlike most Americans, who are leaving after the State Department warned them to get out.

For now, DeLand native Myroslav Boitchouk is staying. In his fifth out of six years of medical school in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in the western part of the country, he said daily live was moving a little more quickly than usual.

“You’re going to the store, you’re studying, you’re just going for a walk, and all of a sudden that it snaps into your mind again, you know, I need to check the news,” he said.

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Calling the experience “terrifying and exhausting,” he said the last month has felt like a lifetime. He said everyday Ukrainians were quietly preparing – but unsure if tanks would ever come.

That’s what is keeping him in the country for now.

“It’s like, this doesn’t happen in 2022, it doesn’t happen. Not anymore,” he said, before listing a number of areas Russia has annexed or occupied since the breakup of the Soviet Union to contradict himself. “I don’t think about it too much. That sort of immediately puts me in that mind space of it’s all doomed.”

While a full-blown invasion is projected to be swift and bloody, it is not automatically permanent. Both Sullivan and Boitchouk described scenes of communities preparing to wear out occupying forces. Men and women training, defenses being constructed, and supplies being stocked.

“It was kind of a Soviet mentality, kind of do what you’re told, but this sense of independence has really taken root,” Sullivan said.

Boitchouk’s description was slightly more vivid.

“People here are not resigning, they are absolutely willing to fight to the end to keep their freedom,” he said. “They just want to live their lives. They want to do everything everyone in America wants to do, but they can’t, because they have to live in fear of other nations that want to completely destroy all of that.”

READ: Biden orders 3K more troops to Poland amid Ukraine crisis

For his part, Sullivan said he plans to return to Ukraine in about a month, regardless of whether the Ukrainian or Russian flags fly over Kiev. If entering the country is banned, he’ll go to Poland instead and rely on his team of locals on the ground to continue working with the nation’s most vulnerable.

“The world is just a broken place,” he said. I don’t think this is our permanent destiny.”

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