“I was born and raised in Bucha, where my parents were still living, but I lived in Hostomel, near the airport, until February 24. That morning at dawn my friends from Kyiv called and told me that the war had started, but I refused to believe it. Then my daughter’s class chat also got a series of messages from worried moms and dads, who didn’t know if the news was true or just an exaggeration, and if they should send their children to school or not. Then the first blasts hit the area where I live.”
What did you do when it became clear that the war had really started?
There had been rumours for months that there was a risk of war, but none of us believed it was possible. We believed that at most some military targets would be hit, but never civilians. That’s why we decided to move away from our house, too close to the airport that could be a target, and move to Bucha, to my parents’ house. Also because should we have planned to leave, we would have already been all together.
Bucha is only six kilometres away from Hostomel, but the first thing we did was refuel our car. Even from my mother’s house we could still hear the explosions, but we couldn’t accept the fact that a war had truly begun, so we decided not to leave the city, but to stay all together in the old apartment where my parents lived before they bought their new independent house. We went over to that apartment building again because it had a basement, and an engineer friend had told us that in case of bombing that would be a safe place.
While we stayed in the house the first night, we set up to sleep in the basement from the next day.
How long did you stay in the basement and how did you live those days?
We slept underground for fifteen days. At the beginning, we were able to go out in the morning, to go home to cook, get some clothes, a blanket, or go to the grocery store, which was still open, to buy food. There were ten of my family, plus eight other tenants of the building. They were the only ones remaining, because the others had already left.
We would take turns to cook for everyone, as if we were one big family. We had one single spoon, which we passed to each other, and we ate the borsh directly from the pot, which we could only wash with wet wipes. Bread was never lacking because there was an elderly lady in the building who didn’t leave her home. Every day she baked some and shared it with the other tenants who had moved into the basement.
During the first three days we had electricity, after that we used candles and flashlights from our mobiles. But we were so frightened that the Russian soldiers would come in that we tried to stay in the dark as long as possible. We also had to cover the only small window that looked out, to make sure they wouldn’t notice us. More than the air raids, our fear was the constant shooting in the street, just a few steps away from us. The only thing that would calm me down was listening to the prayers of the two young men who had recently rented a house in the building, until they decided to leave for Irpin, without knowing that even there the situation would escalate.
One thing that really struck me was that groups of volunteers immediately formed in the neighbourhood, risking their own lives to move from one building to another to deliver food, drugs, and things useful for the children. Before the war, some of them were considered wild kids, alcoholics, drug addicts, but they were those who did more than anyone else.
The war overturned the “normal” order of life: people who were once distant became family, and others who were close became distant. This experience made me look at things in a different way, but I am happy because we survived, so many can’t say the same.
When did you realise you had to consider leaving Bucha?
We had learned that the morning when we heard silence and the birds began to sing, was the right time to leave the basement. But life down there was getting worse each day, especially for the children; I felt very guilty for not taking them away right away. My daughter, 11 years old, couldn’t really understand what was going on, but she read the messages of her classmates who were already abroad and kept asking me why we were still there. Meanwhile, the situation was getting worse every day, and when we went out in the morning we started to see the dead bodies on the road, and my little girl kept asking why we hadn’t left. We had told my four-year-old grandson that sleeping in the basement was part of a game, until one day he saw a dead body and said he didn’t want to be killed like that.
What was the most frightening moment during those days?
We stayed so long in the “bunker” at the beginning that we almost never saw the Russian soldiers. The first time we had them in front of us, in front of the door of our apartment building, we were frozen. I told the others that running away would be worse because they might think we had something to hide. Plus they knew where we lived in any case. It would have been useless. Eventually, they looked at us but didn’t come closer. The second time I thought I was going to die was one night, around ten o’clock. We heard loud knocking on the door and shouting in Russian to get out because there was a fire. We thought it was the military trying to get us to open the door and break into the basement, but it was the neighbours from the building next door that had actually been hit by a missile and was on fire. They were worried about us. We apologised to them countless times for not believing them right away and wasting their precious time.
What news was coming to you from the other neighbourhoods, or from nearby towns?
Every day was just the same, we counted the days starting from the first day of the war, the second, the third and so on; no one knew anymore if it was Sunday or Thursday. We got used to the gunfire, to the soldiers passing by just a few metres away. Luckily, we met volunteers who were driving around bringing aid to civilians who, like us, were trapped underground.
One of them, whom we later discovered was a soldier of the Ukrainian Army in civilian clothes, went every day to the hospital where there were generators and also charged our power banks so that we could use our mobiles. The whole city was without electricity. One day he didn’t come, so we thought he was dead. Then he came back: he had been in the suburbs of Bucha and he told us that we were lucky because the Kadyrovtsy, Kadyrov’s Chechen militiamen, were there and it was a real hell. They couldn’t stop crying because of what they had seen, it was full of bodies on the street, and many people had been shot just for getting in their cars and trying to leave. Families had written “children” on their car windows, some with tape, others with toothpaste, using any means possible; however, it did not save their children.
Our neighbours from Hostomel had managed to escape, I don’t know how, since the Kadyrovtsy were there. They made it to the gates of Bucha. The Russian military sent them back and then shot at their car: my neighbour and her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter were wounded. She, who had my number and knew I was in Bucha, called me for help. They wanted to be evacuated and needed a hospital. I called all the contacts I had to try and get something done, saying that amongst the wounded there was a small child, but each one replied that rescuers could not enter that area. The volunteers negotiated all day with the Russian military, and only in the evening did they manage to take them away, after a day spent huddled in the back of their car, in the middle of the road, wounded and under the snow.
That’s when I realised that the Chechens were the absolute worst thing, and I began to fear that if they had come over here too, the chances of staying alive would have been reduced to almost zero.
Not everyone gets me when I say this, but we were lucky because the Russian soldiers who were monitoring our area weren’t ruthless; they required us to respect their rules but at least they allowed us to go out to collect water in the houses where there was still some left, and to light a fire in the courtyard to cook something. In other places, they seized the people they found in the basements, took away their mobiles and allowed them to call their relatives only once a day in front of them. And anyone who talked about the war was killed on the spot, in front of the others. A friend of mine told me that there were 19 of them in the basement of a building where a woman was killed. They didn’t even allow the others to take the body out to bury it; they had it with them for ten days.
I’ve heard of women being raped and then hanged: in short, we’ve been through very little compared to major horror.
How did you manage to leave?
We had heard that a humanitarian corridor would be opened on March 9, although it was never officially confirmed. However, the municipal administration had already made minivans available, and people began to gather at the meeting point to leave. Only women and children could get on. We decided to try as well, following the buses, so my husband managed to get another vehicle that could accommodate us and the neighbours with whom we shared the basement. The night before we left, the Russians slashed the tires on all the minivans that were parked on the streets, so we were left stranded. That’s when I thought about picking up an old car that was at my parents’ other house, about a fifteen-minute walk away. I wrapped a white sheet around myself and started walking. The street was empty but you could hear constant gunfire. When I arrived, the car wouldn’t start because its battery was dead. I started crying and shouting, and a neighbour heard me and ran to see what was going on. He tried to replace the battery, but this one was dead too.
So I went out into the street, completely out of my mind, and tried to stop every car that drove by, but everyone apologized and drove away. That is until a family stopped and we started my car.
I headed back trying to avoid the main roads where they were stopping at checkpoints, but one I couldn’t avoid. So before they asked for my papers, which I didn’t have on me because I had forgotten them in the rush, I got out of the car crying and yelling that they should believe me when I said the car was mine. Eventually, they just made a check, the toys and things I had loaded into the vehicle fell out of the trunk and they let me through.
That day, all the people who had decided to leave in their own cars were killed on the road. We were going to try the next day. There was no corridor, so we decided to make a caravan of cars and go; there must have been two hundred vehicles. For the first time since February 24, I saw my city again and it looked like a movie: houses destroyed, set on fire, cars reduced to debris, dead bodies along the road. We passed seven Russian checkpoints before we managed to reach the first Ukrainian checkpoint. I can’t even describe what I felt when I saw our flag again.
Where did you go?
We went to Kyiv. It took us seven hours to travel twelve kilometres and there we found a whole other world. At such a short distance there was no more destruction, there were even a few stores open, and buses were passing by. We couldn’t believe it; it was very hard to accept that our city was a place of death and destruction.
We continued on to Vasylkiv, where we found shelter in a church that had been used as a refuge for the displaced. The next day we arrived in Bila Tserkva, and we stopped in a hotel that was packed with people sleeping on the floor under blankets. From there we continued westward to Truskavets, where we are now.
How has your life changed in these weeks?
We were a well-off family, I am the chief accountant in a Canadian power company, and my husband had his own business. We had built ourselves a nice home, we travelled abroad a lot because we could afford it. Now the only one who is still working is me, remotely, but we don’t know until when because one of the power plants my company runs was destroyed. My husband has lost everything. When the phone rings I hesitate to pick it up because it could be bad news: the other day a neighbour from Hostomel called to tell me that my aunt was killed while she was cooking in the yard. A friend of mine originally from Donbass, who had already escaped the war in 2014, was shot in her car while trying to flee a second time from Irpin. She and her husband were wounded, and her teenage daughter and elderly mother were killed.
This is how we live, with bated breath and guilt, only waiting to return home. Now that Bucha has been cleared, a neighbour went to see our home and said that only the walls are left, because inside it has been completely ravaged. It may take a long time before we are able to return, but we are ready, even if there won’t be anything left.