From the border with Ukraine: living through Instagram and TikTok, even among refugees

The first thing he does when he crosses the border is send a message via Telegram to his brother. Viktoria, 32, has managed to cross into Moldova and flee the war in Ukraine. A few kilometers away, Pete , 16, is about to embark with his family on a long trip to Georgia. He is telling his friends on Instagram how they plan to get there. “They want to know how we will do it because maybe they will do the same thing and leave the country.” Liubov, 31 years old, does the same route but in reverse.

He has left Georgia to return to Odessa, his hometown. She doesn't take off her cell phone because on the other side of her, some friends are waiting for her to take her to her house. “I have to let them know when I'm going to cross,” she says.

The lives of these people will take very different paths, but they have one thing in common. On this trip to or from Ukraine, mobile phones will almost be the protagonists of your story. All three are victims of a war that has caused more than 3 million people to flee their homes. More than 300,000 have decided to cross the border from Ukraine to Moldova and from there continue on their way to other European cities or stay in the capital, Chisinau.

Viktoria looks on the map where exactly this city is, to which she will travel by bus from the Palanca border, one of the busiest at the moment due to its proximity to the Odessa region. She then answers her brother to explain that they are in line waiting for the bus to leave, which will be the start of a trip that they don't know how long it will take. Her life will no longer be what it was, but she says she doesn't feel alone. “I am here with my family but I also see how my friends are getting ahead every day. I see it on Instagram, in their stories”, she explains to Hipertextual.

Instagram has become a bittersweet social network for Viktoria. For one thing, you can see firsthand that her contacts and friends are alive. But also how violence is intensifying in Nikolaev, a city 65 kilometers from the Black Sea. “Videos about the attacks are published because the Russians are not able to see what they are doing in my country. Everyone needs to see what is happening.”

Viktoria rarely leaves her iPhone, quickly typing a message to her sister on Telegram. Look at stories on Instagram. Read the news continuously to find out if anything has changed in Russia's invasion of Ukraine. She also looks at the map to find out how far it is to Bucharest, the Romanian capital that will become the first stop to another European city.

Viktoria and her family still don't know exactly what their destination will be, but Pete is clear that the trip to Georgia begins at the border with Moldova, where he has family and will spend time with his mother and siblings. He also comes from Nikolaev, the same city as Viktoria. It's been a week since the bombs and attacks hit that area and just a few days before Pete had seen on the news how they were getting closer and closer. Also by TikTok.

Pete tells this medium that he does not have an account but that he logs in every day because of the amount of information he finds about the war in Ukraine. The algorithmic user profiling system has done its job well, and almost all the videos that appear are related to the conflict. “It's almost live tracking in some cases,” he says.

TikTok has been one of the places where the most videos have been published since the beginning of the conflict. First the disinformation alert grew because a large part of the content was false. Now, however, some content creators have become a kind of war co-responsible, explaining first-hand what is happening in their country. Like the Ukrainian influencer Kristina Korban, who has gone from doing makeup tutorials to uploading a video with the sound of bombs in the background.

“All this that we are sharing shows what we are experiencing. And it will make us stronger”

Pete's life has completely changed in a few days. He has already normalized that almost all the videos that appear on TikTok are related to the war in Ukraine. Now, this is the only thing that worries him. This was not the case 3 weeks ago, just before the start of the Russian offensive. “The first videos I did not believe them. Because this has been unexpected. He continues: “All this that we are sharing shows what we are experiencing. And it will make us stronger. It is the history of our country, and we are going to fight for our freedom”.

Liubov's cell phone is considerably older than Viktoria and Pete's. Unlike the thousands of refugees who cross the Palanca border every day, she will travel backwards. She returns to her hometown, Odessa. While parts of the region and the outskirts of the city have already been attacked, the center remains quiet. Liubov hopes that she will continue like this. she does not part with her mobile and sends almost continuous updates to friends waiting for her on the Ukrainian side. She has had a long trip and is very close to her house.

To be connected with Ukraine, no matter what

Refugees crossing into Moldova are taken to a reception area, where they are assigned a seat on a bus depending on their destination. There, volunteers have built tents to provide support. They give them food, hot drinks and even psychological support. In this area an electrical system and plugs have also been enabled. Mainly, to charge the mobile. Action Against Hunger —the NGO that brought us here— has been in charge of installing the plugs.

“Maintaining that contact through the phone gives them peace of mind in the midst of uncertainty”

Janire Zulaika, coordinator of the Action Against Hunger emergency team, explains to Hipertextual that the installation of plugs was one of the priorities since they were on the ground. “Refugees arrive with the uncertainty of where to go or what to do. The mobile is a connection with their friends and family from different parts and maintaining that contact through the phone gives them peace of mind in the midst of uncertainty”, she underlines.

On the other hand, a telephone operator has been distributing SIM cards with network and internet for those who cross the border. Some can still use their Ukrainian cards but are afraid that at some point they will stop working and communication will be cut off.

Having a SIM card, in this case from Moldova, gives them the security that they will be operational and connected at all times.

Dasha can still use her Ukrainian mobile line. This 23-year-old girl has come from Odessa, but not as a refugee. Her city has not yet been attacked but she has decided to come to Chisinau to help the Ukrainians who arrive at one of the many hotels in the Moldovan capital that offer food and accommodation.

Every night, before going to sleep, open YouTube and watch the Masterchef contest: “I think it's very nice, there is no war there”

She mainly uses Telegram because, in addition to talking through this messaging app with family and friends, she also checks the news channel. She has Instagram, but she hardly gets on it because right now, she laments, “everything is war.”

Dasha tells Hipertextual that at the beginning of the conflict she did watch videos on TikTok, but she can't anymore. “The war is on all the networks and I see people suffering, people who have had to leave their families and their country. After a long day helping refugees here, I don't want to see more people suffer on Instagram”, she laments.

Every night before going to sleep, open YouTube and watch the Masterchef contest that was broadcast a few years ago in Ukraine. “I see how they cook chicken and potatoes and I think it's very nice. There is no war there; that program was recorded in kyiv and now they couldn't have done it. I watch the program and think: what good times, when no one thought there would be a war”.

Ludmila is 65 years old, Ella is 52. They are staying at the hotel where Dasha helps refugees. The only platform they use is Telegram and they are part of a channel that notifies when there is an anti-aircraft alarm in their places of origin.

She is from Kharkov, Ludmila from Dnipro, two of the places affected by the war in Ukraine. “We can know when there is an alarm and when it ends. We immediately spoke with our families to find out if they are in the shelter and have been able to protect themselves. We are in a safe place but our families are not”, they explain to this medium.

Unlike Dasha, these two women constantly watch the different Telegram channels where there are videos and photos of the latest bombings in the country. When images of their cities come out, they recognize the streets that are being attacked. It is a way to get an idea of ​​how far the destruction is reaching their homes.

“We are scared but we want to see everything. Our phones are the most important thing we have here. It is the only thing that connects us with our families and our country at war”.