Olena Kurylo, face of the Ukraine war, recalls Russia's invasion

One year after photographs of her bloody face and bandaged head became early symbols of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Olena Kurylo vividly remembers the devastating events of February 24, 2022.. Ukraine needed help," Kurylo said.

One year after photographs of her bloody face and bandaged head became early symbols of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Olena Kurylo vividly remembers the devastating events of February 24, 2022.

A teacher at the time, now a refugee, she dreams of home.

"An explosion jolted me awake at 5:00 am," said the now 53-year-old who lives in Poland, where millions of Ukrainians have found refuge and help.

"I understood that it was the beginning of the end," she told AFP from an apartment hotel in the southern Polish city of Katowice, recalling day one of the invasion.

The first missile struck an airstrip at a military base 500 metres (550 yards) from her home in Chuguiv, near Kharkiv, in the northeast of Ukraine. The second demolished her apartment.

"I was on the sofa when I heard a loud noise and saw the window shatter against the wall. Then the pieces hit me," she said, describing a moment she has replayed in her head in slow motion time and time again.

"After I got covered in broken glass, there was total silence for, like, 10 seconds. Then I heard the cries of the wounded," she recalled.

"For a fraction of a second, the thought crossed my mind that I wasn't ready to die, not right now."

Outside, she was treated by medics, who removed a large shard of glass from her head. Nearby a boy lay dead, his father in tears -- a scene she said she will never forget.

- 'Not a fake' -

She later saw a trio of photographers arrive, including AFP's Aris Messinis.

"They took my picture, and I didn't care. I wasn't thinking about anything. Then I thanked God I was still alive," Kurylo said. 

By the following day, her face had made it into "every newspaper in the world", her daughter reported.

"I didn't believe it. I looked at the photos without interest... but as it turns out, they were the first to become a sort of symbol of the war," Kurylo said.  

Russian propaganda quickly targeted her, claiming that she did not exist, that she was a soldier or actress, that her injuries had been caused by a gas explosion, that her blood was in fact pomegranate juice. 

To prove she was "not a fake", she posted a video of herself on Instagram, footage viewed by more than two million people. 

Kurylo arrived in Poland a few weeks later for medical treatment. 

"I had a shard of dirty glass in my eye and was missing a piece of my retina, which is also wrinkled now," she said. 

- 'Four operations' -

"I've had four operations. Three in Poland and one in London," she added, fingering the lengthy scar near her temple, carefully concealed with makeup.

To add insult to injury, Kurylo's long-time partner left her while she was still in hospital, saying he did not want the responsibility.

"War really shows you who's who and makes masks fall," she said.

The photographs of Kurylo were seen all over the world and sympathy poured in.

A US artist painted her portrait and auctioned it off for $100,000.

"She called to say she wanted me to have the money.

"But I really wanted the war to end as soon as possible. Ukraine needed help," Kurylo said.

The money went towards equipment for the Ukrainian army.

"I've since done a number of projects and every penny raised has gone to help Ukraine," said Kurylo, whose nails are painted the blue and yellow of her homeland's national flag.

- 'Known the world over' -

Down the road she hopes to start a foundation to help Ukraine's orphans, a way to harness her fame for good.

"I don't have any money, but I have a name known the world over," she said. 

As for the situation on the ground, she does not see it changing anytime soon. 

"I'd like to believe that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin will no longer be here, that a coup will have eliminated him, that everything will end in an instant," she said.

"But it will take some time for the wheel to spin and stop. When a car's going at full speed, it can't just come to a halt in a single second."

Still, Kurylo dreams of returning and setting up a new home for herself. 

"When I get back, I'd like to just sit down with a hot cup of tea," she said.

"Then the following day I'll go to the florist and get a lot of plants."


© Agence France-Presse

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