People evacuated from Avdiivka gather to receive food and medicine in Ocheretyne, Ukraine, on Feb. 13, 2024.
Tyler Hicks—The New York Times/Redux

The morning of Feb. 24, 2022 began with a call from my sister at 5 a.m. “Daria,” she said. “Kyiv is being bombed. Wake up.”

My first emotion was anger—I had been sleeping so sweetly. Then I walked to the window and saw explosions, heard the boom. These were real explosions, the first I’d witnessed in my life.

Two years—730 days—have passed since this moment. Explosions became part of my daily reality, along with a feeling of unstoppable anxiety. I have listened to numerous accounts of how people’s lives were altered on the morning of Feb. 24, 2022. Starting from a basement in Kyiv, I spent six months compiling 41 personal voice messages and created the Diary of War podcast. Each entry touched my heart and served as an inspiration.

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There was Anna Hontar, a wheelchair-bound 18-year-old Ukrainian Paralympic swimmer who, despite being under occupation and confined to her home, continued to train as best she could, practicing swimming movements on rubber. She spoke about her dream of leaving occupied Kherson and showing the world that even people who withstood war and suffering could still perform and win. And on the fifth day of the 2023 Para Swimming World Championships in Manchester, she did just that. She broke a world record in the women’s 50 freestyle S6 class with a time of 32.55 seconds.

Another story was from Valeria Mykhailovska, a 29-year-old from Mariupol who shared that, after rescuing her mother and their three dogs from the heavily bombed city, she was left with a burning sense of love for her city: “Mariupol is my home,” she said. “I am really looking forward to our victory, and I want to come back.”

And there was one from Alla Koshlyak, a music lover, journalist, and podcaster who reported daily on the Russian invasion, and eventually became a soldier.

In the tapestry of these very personal and specific war diaries, there are echoes of common themes: a yearning to live in Ukraine, a commitment to fighting for Ukraine, and an unwavering belief in our victory. Where does this collective belief come from? I do not know. But I see it every day. And every day, I have witnessed ordinary people become heroes.

Denys Khrystov, with whom I worked as a TV host, is now evacuating civilians from the front in the most war-torn areas and under shelling. Iryna Tsybukh, only 24 years old, gave up her media career to become a combat medic. In the first months of the invasion, more than 320,000 Ukrainian citizens returned to Ukraine from abroad. They did it voluntarily, leaving jobs and studies and friends and family in countries far away and safe from bombs and bullets. Knowing they might not survive, they came home anyway.

We have a saying in Ukraine: “Heroes never die.” I wish this was true. But our heroes die every day, and with them, their talent and potential. Activist Roman Ratushny, actors Vasyl Kukharskyi and Pavlo Lee, ballet dancers Rostyslav Yanchyshen and Oleksandr Shapoval, poet Maksym Kryvtsov, film editor Viktor Onysko—they have all lost their lives in battle. Conductor Yurii Kerpatenko was killed for refusing to take part in a Russian music concert in occupied Kherson. Photojournalist Maks Levin. Writer Victoria Amelina. The list goes on and on.

Yet amid all this loss, devastation, and destruction—out of all this unbearable darkness—has emerged an unexpected light. An awakening to who we are and who we have always been, and to what had been taken from us. As I reflect on this two-year anniversary of the full-scale invasion of my country, I am also thinking about my own personal transformation. My perception of Ukrainian culture, heritage, and family history has undergone a profound change.

I have delved deeper into my family history and discovered that my great-grandmother survived famine in Ukraine in the 1930s. She lived only because she was put on a train to Belarus by her mother, who was then killed for hiding a piece of bread to feed her other children. My great-grandmother never spoke about it. And I understand now that it was because, in order to survive Russian occupation during Soviet times and tsarist rulers before it, our ancestors had to forget their identity, language, and history. They had to rewrite the truth for themselves.

Celebrating our culture—creating it, sharing it—was dangerous. It could lead to severe consequences. In the Soviet Union, our true history was never taught to us. Instead, it was whitewashed to fit an imperial narrative.

With the Executed Renaissance, we lost an entire generation of Ukrainian writers, architects, painters, musicians, directors, intellectuals, and spiritual leaders. They were arrested, tortured, deported to prison camps. Our rich cultural heritage was systematically erased and replaced. And our brightest leaders and loudest voices were silenced.

Reflecting on this in the face of war, I have come to feel as though I have been robbed and deceived. Ukrainian music, poetry, and art were denigrated, and I was raised with a heritage that was not my own. This has left me with a sense of loss and a longing to reclaim my cultural identity.

As part of my mission, I am showcasing Ukrainian music in my work as a DJ and diving deeper into the story behind each musician I play, recognizing that every one of them, both past and present, faced challenges to release this music—in the past, due to censorship and persecution; today, under constant shelling of the cities where they live.

I’m happy to see that there is a growing interest in our culture, not only in Ukraine but also around the world. I have met Americans who are learning Ukrainian, and it’s meaningful to see this kind of interest, especially knowing that our language has survived so many bans.

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Now, in New York, I am organizing theater performances based on the Diary of War podcast. I observe people here living their lives, planning their futures. It makes me miss my life, the version of myself I had the freedom to be before. I miss the scent of Crimean cypresses, a key memory from my first kiss. I miss my mother’s varenyky and long brunches in our kitchen in Cherkasy, with the view of the Dnipro river. I miss August in Kyiv, singing Ukrainian songs on my birthday with friends. One of them, Zhenya, was killed in November. I miss the privilege to live in peace and dream about the future.

No one is born for war. I wasn’t born an activist. I was born a Ukrainian. And over the past two years, the power of that identity—the importance of understanding and preserving and celebrating it—has only grown stronger.

Daria Kolomiec is a Ukrainian activist and DJ. She is a 2022 TIME Next Generation Leader.

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