As Diana Totok and her sister reached through the wire fence separating Romania from Ukraine to grasp her father’s hand, it occurred to her that she might never see him again.
Ukraine’s new wartime laws barred their father, a pastor, from fleeing the country with them. Nevertheless, he promised his teenage daughters and wife, Svetlana, that they would meet again soon.
“I was crying and having a panic attack … I was so frustrated and scared,” Totok says. “Still at this moment I’m not sure if I’m going to see him [again] or not.”
Two weeks earlier the 19-year-old’s biggest worry had been making a good impression at her new internship. Now she had just a few seconds to say goodbye to her father, her country, and any semblance of the life she assumed she would have.
The only way Totok could think to get through the moment was to film it. Not only did she want to bear witness to what was happening in Ukraine, but, since the start of the bombing days earlier, she had found it easier to process the horror she was seeing through a camera lens.
“It feels just like a horror movie, and I don’t know, filming is just one of the ways I can just put everything that’s going on my mind, like, in order … I was filming this moment and actually saw in my head how I would edit it, what song I would put on it, all of that,” she says.
The video of the goodbye has been viewed more than 20m times. It shows her father leaning his face against the fence and kissing his daughters’ foreheads through a gap in the wire.
The video cuts there. Totok saved the final goodbyes for the family alone.
She and her sister, 17-year-old Darina, got on a train with their mother, traveling into the depths of Romania, praying that their father would live to see them again.
‘Girls, the war has started’
Totok was at a sleepover at a friend’s house the night the Russian invasion began.
“We woke up because her mum called us and she’s like: ‘Girls, the war has started, they’re bombing everywhere.’”
When Totok learned that the military airbase in her city of Mykolaiv, near the Crimean border in the south, had been bombed, she knew she needed to get back to her family. “I was leaving my friend’s house and her last words to me were like, ‘Bye, don’t die!’ You know, it was kind of funny, but it’s not.”
That night, all four Totoks crammed into the same bed trying to sleep, listening to planes overhead. “It was scary, we had all our clothes on, ready to go to the basement,” she says.
It occurred to Totok then that what was happening to her deserved to be documented, so she pulled out her phone and started recording for the first time.
“In the second world war, there was no gadgets and no filming … I knew that these videos would be like, historic,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to show these videos to my kids and say that’s what we had to go through’.”
A new medium
Totok is one of dozens of young people, mostly women, who have been sharing their daily lives in Ukraine on TikTok.
Associate professor Aimée Morrison, an internet culture scholar at the University of Waterloo in Toronto, says that although wars have been documented on social media before, the video diary format of TikTok has made coverage in Ukraine feel more personal and immediate.
“We imagine ourselves in the terrible situation they find themselves in, it becomes real to us,” she says. “Even the vertical orientation of [the] screen changes things … it feels like you’re friends with this person because they are close to the camera.”
The comments on Totok’s TikToks reflect this intimate connection, telling her that they are praying for her family and father, and saying again and again how horrific the situation is.
Unlike platforms such as Twitter or Instagram, which primarily show users content that people they already follow have liked or shared, TikTok is much less reliable on social networks. Its algorithm sends videos to people’s home screens, known as the “for you page”, based on their interests, pushing out high-performing content far and wide.
“It’s absolutely going to change the way we think about conflict,” Morrison says. “War has traditionally been written as the history of great men making military decisions.”
On the second day of the war, Totok’s parents decided they needed to get their girls across the border.
This was another moment Totok filmed: throwing clothes in a bag, pausing in fear every time a plane flew overhead. As the realization sank in for her that she was leaving her pets and home of 16 years behind, she began to cry. But rather than hiding it, she left the camera running.
Morrison says there is “a power” in the victims of war making the world “bear witness to what they are going through”.
“So much of what we’re seeing online now has been described in the past as [the] collateral damage of war … but that’s people’s lives and the collateral damage can speak back now,” she says.
‘I put a link in so people can donate’
Another TikToker, 20-year-old Valeria Shashenok, lives in the heavily bombed northern city of Chernihiv, and has been using dark humor and memes to show the devastation.
She has taken viewers on an MTV Cribs-style tour of her bomb shelter, danced to the sounds of air raid sirens and gesticulated wildly in front of destroyed blocks of flats.
Morrison says comedy has always been a staple for those on the frontline of tragedy, and, although it may be surprising to some, this melds perfectly with the internet culture of younger generations.
“Turning things that are out of your control into things that are funny is exactly what social media is built on. It’s what youth expression is built on,” she says.
Diana, Darina and Svetlana are now living in a flat with a number of other refugees and the sisters have found ways to help other Ukrainians, even from across the border. “It’s crazy how many views [my videos] have, but it’s kind of cool, actually, because we are raising money. I put a link in my bio on my TikTok so people can donate,” says Totok. “I’ve got a lot of messages on Instagram … saying: ‘If you know someone, someone who’s at the border with, like, Poland, my family is ready to take in a family.’”
All the while, the family try to keep in touch with their father. “We’re trying to call him at least like once every six or so hours, just so we know that he’s still alive, you know?” she says.
Totok recorded one of these video calls. In it, the family crowds around a phone, her father’s smile filling up most of the frame as the girls make heart shapes with their hands.
“Filming it kind of helps for a moment,” Totok says.