‘It was like the end of the world’
Ukrainian musicians find healing in performance after fleeing war-torn homeland
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For the Ukrainian people, Mariia Balieieva says, there is a before and an after.
Before Feb. 24, 2022, Balieieva, 32, was a flutist who performed with the contemporary symphony orchestra Lords of the Sound in Kyiv, alongside her friend Yarynka Chepiha, a pianist and vocalist. They had full lives, with boyfriends and friends and, of course, music.
Then, the harrowing after. Russia began its unrelenting invasion of their country, forcing them to flee after weeks of living in bomb shelters with little more than the clothes on their backs and tiny backpacks of belongings.
Balieieva clutched her flute to her chest during a train ride to Lviv that took 10 hours, standing the whole way. Chepiha, 33, had to leave her piano behind, along with everything else.
So the fact that Balieieva and Chepiha will be joining the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra on the Centennial Concert Hall stage this weekend for the WSO/Folklorama co-production A Celebration of Nations isn’t just a big deal. It’s everything.
“We feel like it’s before — before the war,” Balieieva says softly.
It’s a cold December evening, and she and Chepiha are sitting in the WSO offices downtown, the windows overlooking the lights of their new city, blinking in the night. The pair have been living in Winnipeg since the spring, but the road to get here has been incredibly difficult.
On the morning of Feb. 24, Balieieva got a call from a friend. “‘Hey, wake up, the war has started,’” she recalls. “I didn’t believe it.”
Balieieva took shelter in the basement of a house for two weeks. “It’s hard to run to shop,” Balieieva says. “Because in the shop, no bread. No milk, no cheese. It was hard. Every time you hear the siren, you need to go to basement. We lived and slept there.”
One night, Balieieva was woken up by the sound of explosions. “It was very scary. Scary, because you don’t know what will happen next day. You live or not.”
At the behest of her boyfriend and her family, Balieieva went to Poland, where she lived for two months but struggled to find a job. Then she found out that Chepiha was going to Canada. “I asked her if I had the chance to go with her,” she says.
“No, no, Mariia, five bucks,” Chepiha jokes, which makes Balieieva laugh. A sense of humour, she says, has helped them survive.
Chepiha was with friends that day in February. “It was like a fairy tale, or unbelievable that in the 21st century it’s possible, war,” she says, shaking her head.
After her initial panic subsided, Chepiha’s thoughts turned to getting home and getting her documents in order. The subway system, now a de facto bomb shelter, was crammed full of people. “It was, first time for me, that I saw the things I read about,” she says.
Chepiha lived in a bomb shelter, separate from Balieieva, for nearly three weeks.
“All streets was no people. No people in the centre of Kyiv, capital of Ukraine,” Chepiha says, her disbelief still fresh. “First of my life I saw the streets without people. Just like in movies with zombies, with only the newspaper blowing. It was like the end of world.”
Chepiha also made it to Poland and then eventually Vienna, but the hyper-vigilance from living in the bomb shelter still hummed in her veins. She was haunted by the sirens, which alerted people to the fact they had 30 minutes to find shelter.
“It was 2 a.m. and I was in the street and (thought), ‘No, I can’t be here, military time,’ and then, ‘Oh my God, it’s Poland,’” she recalls. “My brain didn’t understand that.”
Chepiha’s first few months in Winnipeg were lonely before the arrival of Balieieva, who she says is like a sister to her.
“I arrived here and I just asked myself, what will I do? What will I do?” Chepiha says. “Yes, I’m alive, but my life? You leave your city, your friends, your orchestra. I had a choir. You just must leave all what you love.”
In Winnipeg, the friends didn’t just reconnect with each other. They also reconnected with music. Both of them have been playing their respective instruments since they were small children.
“You know, when you are a musician, you can’t not play,” Chepiha says. But, for a long time, she didn’t have an instrument.
The team at Seven Oaks Immigrant Services were eventually able to hook her up with her own piano.
“I cried. I cried. I smiled. I cried again,” Chepiha says. “When I get the piano, it was like home for me.”
The pair have been performing together around the city over the past few months, and every performance has been a chance for healing, Chepiha says. They are thrilled (and a little nervous) about the chance to perform with the WSO.
“We really can’t wait to play with them,” Chepiha says. “And it’s like a miracle for us that they invited us, because we know that it’s so popular, so serious (an) orchestra. Thank God we have the chance to connect and share.”
“We’re musicians,” Balieieva adds. “It’s not only words for us. It’s not our job. It’s not our hobby. It’s our life.”
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Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.