The war in Ukraine doesn’t feel distant for anyone who has a personal connection to Ukraine. Add 16-year-old Ryan Cotzen to that list.
For nearly a year, he’s been teaching English to Alex, a 15-year-old boy in Bakhmut, a town in the eastern part of the country.
Ryan signed up to tutor through a group called ENGin. He and Alex discuss all kinds of things, learning about each other’s culture, but these days, the conversations are dominated by the fact that one of them is experiencing the terror of war firsthand.
“Woke up and think about, oh, congratulations, I am alive today,” Alex said when Ryan asked him about how his daily life has changed since the Russians invaded Ukraine. “Of course, I feel scared, of course, all people in my city, my family, all people in Ukraine are very scared.”
“I’m very nervous about the people of Ukraine and specifically how close he is to all the conflict,” Ryan said.
Alex lives in the town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. Out of an abundance of caution, we are not revealing his last name, to protect him against any possible reprisals. Alex said life with his family was totally normal until war came to his country, to his city, to his front door.
“My mom, wake up me and said, we have a war, the president of Russia is said, they started war with Ukraine, and I decided what to do, what I needed to do and I was in panic attack, I didn’t know what to do, what I should I do, where should I go,” Alex said.
For Ryan, his sessions with Alex have become an illuminating experience.
“It adds faces to all these terrible stories we’re all seeing on the news,” said Ryan.
Alex says he’s not allowed to go outside these days. He hears explosions and gunfire all the time.
“And it’s very dangerous, when you wake up and think, I have a war under my window, we have a lot of soldiers under my windows and we see the situation, it’s very terrible, it’s very scary, a lot of air attacks, a lot of attacks by soldiers on the ground,” Alex said.
I asked him if he’s angry.
“For Russia federation, yes, of course, I’m angry,” Alex responded.
If he was old enough, Alex says, he would be fighting Russians right now instead of doing school work.
“If I have 18 years old I will fight for my country because it’s my country, I’m in my country, I need to fight with another country that want to kill the Ukraine from the politics map,” he said.
So Alex is living through something no one, especially a kid, should ever experience.
“War is very bad, not for my country, it’s bad for all world, it’s bad for our planet,” Alex said, but added that he also has hope that a war which started suddenly can also come to a swift end.
“I don’t know, I think everything will be OK because I’m an optimist,” Alex said.