“Until a month and a half ago, I was working in a private primary school in Chernihiv and I was planning to move into a new house in the coming year. I had a normal life with my family. Since the end of December, there had been talk of Russian troops gathering along the Ukrainian borders, but no one would have thought that they would invade our territory. We thought it would be a demonstrative action, a show of force, a scare tactic, but nobody imagined that we would have a war on our soil.”
But on 24 February everything changed
24 February was supposed to be a day like any other; the children had to get ready for school and we would then go to work. We usually get up at seven o’clock but that morning the phone rang earlier; I picked it up and it was a friend who kept shouting, saying we had to get ready to run away because the Russians were coming into Ukraine; in short, the war had started. I couldn’t believe it, so I told her I was going to call a military friend to ask; but in the meantime, the news about the war was even spreading on Viber, in the chat room of my son’s school. Three minutes later the air-raid siren blew, the first one I had ever heard in my life: I can’t even describe how I felt, I was petrified. All of a sudden, we had to find shelter underground. The problem was that there are no real bunkers in Chernihiv, only the basements of the buildings, which don’t guarantee real protection if a bomb is dropped on the building.
What did you do then?
First, I called my mother and my sister, who live in two different parts of the city. We decided that my mother would come and stay with me, to be together whatever decision was taken. I told her to pack the bare essentials and leave the house, but the buses stopped running, so she had to walk eight kilometres under the sound of sirens. Meanwhile, friends over the phone and via chat were saying that we should leave, but many did not have a vehicle. Anyway, I still couldn’t believe that the war had really started, my mind was rejecting it. I never thought that the Russians could hit the civilians; I thought they would just hit some military targets and nothing more.
When my mother arrived, we tried to figure out what we should do, whether we had to buy food, stock up. It was crazy, people were terrified and didn’t know what to do. At first, we were calm because we had food, but after a couple of days the food began to run out; the grocery stores became empty and were no longer being supplied. Then I started to panic.
When did you decide to ‘move’ down to the basement?
We spent the first day in total hesitation, but from the second day onwards, the Russians started targeting the city, initially with ground vehicles, and from the third day on with aircraft. We had no choice but to go down to the basement, even though the building was old and the conditions down there were terrible, with mold and dust. My neighbourhood was the first to be attacked because it is on the northern outskirts. After the first bombings, the shooting started in the streets; what really upset me was that the children quickly learned to distinguish the sounds of the bullets, where they came from, and the weapons used.
When we had to cook or get something from home, my mother and I took turns so that my children could always be safe in the basement with myself or with her. Cooking could take up to five or six hours, because every time the alarm rang, you had to turn off the cooker, leave everything and go back downstairs. Every two or three days I would bring my children upstairs to wash them, trying to do it as quickly as possible. That was in the beginning when we still had water and gas.
Then what happened?
The mayor announced that no house, not even on the lower floors, was safe, because the attacks were intensifying. From the small windows in the basement, we could see Ukrainian tanks returning fire, which made us realise that the Russians were getting very close to the city. The first time they hit the building next to mine with a bomb, I was at home, on the fifth floor. The vibrations were so strong that I thought everything would collapse. I have learned that from the sound of the aircraft to the explosion of the bomb is about ten seconds: that’s the time you have to make any decision, without knowing if it’s going to save your children’s lives.
In the beginning, there were people who, despite the siren, kept queuing in front of supermarkets or pharmacies. Many died like this, waiting to buy some food or medicine.
When did you start planning to leave Chernihiv?
The fighting in the streets lasted 24 hours a day, there was no respite. Except for one morning, after several days, when there was silence again. It was then that my mother remembered that she had forgotten her papers at home when she had come to me in a hurry on the first day of the war. So we had to find a way to get them back as soon as possible. I don’t know how, but we found a taxi who was still working, who managed to take her not exactly all the way home, but halfway, which still saved her four kilometres. That same day, four planes arrived together and started dropping bombs all over the city. But the next day I received a phone call from my sister telling me that she had found a vehicle to leave and that she had only one more free seat: I decided that my mother should go with her, but there was no way to convince her; she was crying because she couldn’t think of leaving me and her nephews under the bombs while she tried to save herself. So, I told her that the more people we were together, the less chance we had of escaping. Eventually, I convinced her, and as she was leaving my house, a Russian plane was shot down by Ukrainian forces and crashed into the garage where the car that would take them away had been parked just a few minutes before. It all happened in front of my eyes.
Did they manage to leave at last?
Yes, although they had to wait many hours. Before the Russians blew it up, there was a bridge in Chernihiv that you had to cross to get out of the town. Everyone who tried to leave had to cross it, but it was often closed because of the intense shooting. My mother and sister also found it closed and had to wait on a nearby road for our military to give the cars the green light again. We spoke again when they arrived in Kyiv, it was 7 March. My sister, who has a six-month-old baby girl, told me that she thought they wouldn’t make it during the whole trip. She said there was no real humanitarian corridor open from Chernihiv for the entire month of the siege, and any attempt to evacuate was always a huge risk. Many were killed trying to leave, even those who had written “children” on their cars.
You were left alone with your children. It was your turn to try and leave
I found someone on Instagram who had two or three minivans and wanted to make them available to evacuate people, but you had to arrive at the spot in thirty or forty minutes at the most. Pregnant women had priority, then women with small children would get on, and then the others, as long as there was room. So no one, even if they managed to arrive in time, knew if they would actually leave.
To reach the spot you had to walk four kilometres, surrounded by gunfire and the danger of more bombings, so I decided that I could not take the children to die. It seemed safer to stay underground, but it felt like I was choosing the place where we would be buried.
Calling for help became more and more difficult because we were almost always without power and connection, the phone would run out of power and it was not always possible to recharge it. One day I managed to hear from a friend from Kyiv who was evacuating civilians from Irpin, and when I explained the situation to him, he told me he would come to pick me up in Chernihiv. He had eight, maybe nine places, so I called some friends to tell them about this opportunity, but some of them didn’t want to leave their husbands. In the end I convinced two of them. The meet-up with him was after the bridge because they wouldn’t let him in the city, so we started walking that morning. When we arrived at the checkpoint, the military told us we had to go back because there was a very heavy attack going on. It was horrible because we had to walk back again along that dangerous road while my friend was waiting on the other side, and I had no connection nor battery to tell him. All hope of leaving was gone. I stayed with my friend Svetlana because we decided that we would try again the next day if he had waited for us, so we went to his house, which was closer. It was 8 March, Women’s Day, but of course, we weren’t even thinking about that, although it’s a very important holiday. But a Ukrainian soldier wished us well at a checkpoint.
At Svetlana’s, we slept in a house for the first time since the war began, and after all those days it felt great. That evening I managed to get in touch with my friend from Kyiv: he was alive but had moved back about eighty kilometres from the bridge because the shooting was too intense. He had found a place to sleep and the next morning he was heading back to the city. Just like the day before, we started to walk to the bridge, but the military told us that the situation was the same and they could not let anyone pass because we would all die, us and the children. This time my friend wouldn’t have had enough fuel to make a third attempt, otherwise, he wouldn’t have made it back to Kyiv. There was no hope for us, I can’t describe how I felt: thinking that a person had come so far to save us and had to go back without us was devastating. I looked at the children and didn’t know how long we would still be alive.
What happened next?
That night I stayed at Svetlana’s, but the next day I went home because there were 13 people there and there was very little space. We went back to the basement but there was too much dust, mould, the children wouldn’t stop coughing, so I decided to sleep in the house, between the load-bearing walls, on the floor and away from the windows. In the evening, for four or five hours, there was an unusual calm that was even more frightening. Then, around midnight, I began to hear the aircraft: I woke the children up as fast as I could and shouted at them to go down the stairs to the basement. I stayed in the house for a while to get something to eat, clothes, blankets, but after a few seconds they started bombing and we were still on the stairs and didn’t know if we would make it to the basement. Then I heard that minivans would be coming the next morning to evacuate the civilians, so I called Svetlana who didn’t want to leave because she was too terrified to cross the city again. In the end, her brother offered to drive her and I managed to find a taxi. There must have been more than 150 people at the meeting point, but we were told that only three minivans would be arriving. The local defence units told us that it was foolish to try to go outside, because the Russians would certainly shoot at us. While we were waiting, it started to snow and about half of the people decided to go home. Finally these volunteers with vehicles arrived and said that those who had been waiting could come aboard. We were on top of each other, but no one was left behind.
Normally it takes an hour and a half to drive from Chernihiv to Kyiv, but it took us more than five hours because we bypassed the most dangerous main roads and went into the woods. In the capital, we were dropped off at the station, where there were other volunteers looking after the children, asking us where we wanted to go and giving us directions to the trains. I said I wanted to go to Lviv. I got on the train with the children and people were all over the place, even on the ground, but we didn’t care because we were safe.
Did you leave any relatives in Chernihiv?
My father stayed there, and he told me that two days after we left the situation got even worse. They were left without electricity, water, or heating. The city is destroyed. The people who were killed were buried in the backyards of houses and buildings, because even the cemetery had been targeted. Now that the Russians have been pushed back, the municipal service is able to deliver water to people’s homes in tanks, ten litres per person. After our trip I heard that a convoy of civilians was targeted and there were more victims.
How do you live today in a city that is not your own, but in better security conditions?
The feeling of fear remains, as does the feeling of disorientation, of constant tension, as if you were facing a new crisis any minute. Here in Lviv, the first time I went into a shop, it seemed incredible to me to see the shelves full and the instinct to stock up on supplies, milk, eggs, was very strong, because I’m still terrorised that my children will be left without food. Leaving my home was difficult, and even though I’ve been welcomed here, I still feel like a guest. Leaving Ukraine would have been even worse. Svetlana did, she is now in Belgium and her children have already started school again. My mother and sister are in the countryside near Ivano-Frankivsk. One day soon, we will all be back in our Chernihiv.
Cover image via Twitter/Chora Media.