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Many fleeing Ukraine were still rebuilding their lives after the 2014 Russian assault


The United Nations estimates the Russian invasion of Ukraine will displace at least 5 million people. And some of the same people fleeing this war had already lost their homes during the previous Russian assault in 2014. NPR's Joanna Kakissis met a teenager in Kyiv who has spent eight years trying to rebuild her life only to lose everything again.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Taisiia Omelchenko is 16 years old. She's a tall, strong, multilingual high achiever. And she's known war half of her life. She's from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

TAISIIA OMELCHENKO: I'm proud that I am from there. And I'm like, OK, I'm not so broken. Actually, I am kind of, but still, I am a good person, and I can do something.

KAKISSIS: Taisiia says in 2014, Russian-backed separatists badly beat up her mother and took over her family home in Donetsk. The family lost everything. Her parents, both doctors, found work in Kyiv, but they could not afford rent for a family of six.


KAKISSIS: The family kept moving from place to place until they found this small sunny apartment where I first met Taisiia and her mother, Natalia, earlier this month.


KAKISSIS: Hi, Natalia. Hi.

Taisiia took me to her room, where she bunked with her 9-year-old sister, Alexandra. A desk wedged in the corner was piled high with school textbooks.

OMELCHENKO: It's preparing for exam in Ukrainian language. This biology, physics, chemistry, English.

KAKISSIS: Alexandra stroked the family's snow-white pet rabbit, Lucifer, as we talked. Taisiia says her sister craves stability.

OMELCHENKO: She wakes up at night and starts crying. And she never remembers what she says. And right now, when I see my traumatized little sister, I understand that if the war will happen again, the best option will be to move to another country. Because children don't deserve this.

KAKISSIS: And then last week, the Russians invaded and attacked Kyiv. The family fled again with basically the clothes on their backs. Taisiia says she wept as she left Lucifer the rabbit with a neighbor. She started sending me voice memos from train stations.

OMELCHENKO: Right now, we really don't know where to go, you know? We just traveled by two trains without any tickets. We just make a decision every minute. We don't have a plan.

KAKISSIS: The stress and exhaustion of the journey started getting to her. Here's another voice memo.

OMELCHENKO: I can't think properly. And it's just like I'm in some kind of stupid game or - I really don't know. I'm just - it doesn't feel real at all.

KAKISSIS: The family headed for the border with Slovakia, but Taisiia could not stop thinking about all they left in Kyiv.

OMELCHENKO: We left everything there, again, just like in 2014. But even in 2014, we took more stuff from our house. Now we just left everything. And we know that we'll have no possibility to get it.

KAKISSIS: They waited at the border for more than two days. They ran out of money, food and medicine. They walked and walked and were so cold.

OMELCHENKO: People need to know about what's going on here, but I'm just too exhausted and too lost to give normal answers.

KAKISSIS: I get another voice memo a day later. She tells me volunteers in Slovakia helped the family get to Vienna.

OMELCHENKO: We were already met by volunteers and really lots of people. And they're trying to help and to give us shelter and to buy us food. So it's - they're just amazing.

KAKISSIS: Taisiia's family is now staying in the home of an Austrian who is helping Ukrainian refugees. She says they're not sure where they will go next.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Rzeszow, Poland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.