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Ukraine crisis: ‘I pray but I don’t have right to cry’

Ukrainian mothers share their stories of escape from war where ‘people are like meat’

Sabrina Tavernise Published 21.03.22, 02:41 AM
Representational Image

Representational Image File Photo

In war, things can change quickly. You look away and the kaleidoscope has turned. Suddenly the greens click out of view and the reds have taken their place.

I wanted to capture — in what ever blurry way one can in a war — where the kaleidoscope had stopped turning, at this moment, three weeks in. For several days, I interviewed people who had come from places that were often too dangerous for reporters to get to, talking to them over phone after they had reached quieter places in western Ukraine or had made it safely across the border.


All of them were women, many with children, as that is overwhelmingly who is doing the leaving in Ukraine today, and I realised the small stories of their lives were telling me something about the broader war, too.

It reminded me of the stunned quality of the early moments of other wars, when people are still in disbelief, habits have not hardened, and society has yet to fully collapse.Here are the accounts of four women that capture this moment. These interviews have been edited and condensed.

Vika Kurilenko, 46
television screenwriter and journalist
Three children, aged 20, 10, 5

Interviewed on March 12. She escaped Bucha, a small town northwest of Kyiv, which was taken by the Russians after days of fierce fighting.

That morning, my daughter had to have a filling fixed, so we went to the dentist. And already when we were driving, we began seeing these terrible explosions. The sky had begun to rumble, and there was black smoke. It was so weird. It was like some dream. There we were going to the dentist to fix her tooth, and suddenly there’s this background of big black clouds of smoke on the horizon and fighter aircraft.

Our building was eventually hit by a shell or a mortar. The building itself did not collapse, but the water supply system was damaged. Then there was no power, no water, no heating. On the fourth day, the telephone communication was cut.

We were afraid to be seen or heard at all. We even blew out the candles at night so that the Russians wouldn’t see us from the windows.

At some point, I remember, trying to catch a mobile phone signal on the balcony. And I looked out over our city — we have such a lively city. There are lots of storefronts and streetlights and trees and water and rivers, cars driving around. But when I opened the window, it was as if we were on the steppe, somewhere with no light. Only a sky so black, as if you were somewhere on the outskirts of civilisation. Some kind of apocalypse.

Somewhere on the fifth day, the Russians took control of Bucha. One night, a woman knocked on our door and, crying, begging my husband to help her husband. He had been wounded. He just went for a walk down the street to get a sense of whether his family could leave. And a Russian armoured personnel carrier shot him on both of his thighs.

And so my husband with this other guy, Sasha, somehow brought him in. A doctor lives in our building. She bandaged him. But they didn’t have medicine. They couldn’t call an ambulance because there was none.

I just had a feeling that we had to get out of there. Every minute you hear these explosions, these shots somewhere nearby, it’s hard to understand, are you a target?

And I had a great sense of guilt that I was not protecting my children. I felt like a terrible mother because my children are in danger and they’re suffering. It’s cold and they have nothing to eat. So, we decided to leave.

We needed to get to Irpin. There was some kind of transfer that would help take us to Kyiv. To get there, we had to cross this park. And as we entered the park, some kind of madness started. It was shelling, it was shooting. We all fell to the ground and covered our heads. Everywhere around us, there was glass exploding, flying glass. My husband put his body over my daughter, the youngest one.

The bridge was out. So, we had to walk across this piece of metal. Suddenly, again, there was shooting from both sides. There was a sound of the shots hitting metal. We got to the ground, on our palms, you know? And on the other side, there was a soldier, one of ours. He picked up Marina, my youngest daughter. She thought it was all a game. When he picked her up, she laughed.

I write TV shows. But now I feel like I’m a character in one of them. I didn’t want to leave my homeland. But now I understand that tomorrow is my last day in my country. I don’t want to be a refugee somewhere in a foreign land.

Daria Peshkova, 37
Office worker at the Mariupol port
Two children, aged 8 and 14

Interviewed on March 11. She escaped Mariupol, a port city in southern Ukraine that has been under siege by the Russian military for more than two weeks.

On March 5, they announced a green corridor, a safe passage. So we got gathered all together, a huge column of lots of our friends and people we knew. There’s a lot of shelling, but we still decided we should try to drive. There were about 120 cars.

We drove through about six checkpoints. They were all Russian. It was about 40km. But then when we got to the seventh, it was a Donetsk People’s Republic checkpoint. They said only the cars with no men can pass.

We waited for five hours on the road. It was very cold. We couldn’t turn on the cars for heat because we didn’t have enough gas. Our convoy had a large number of pregnant women, lots of children, even animals. At some point, the head of the nearby village came and offered the whole column to drive into the village and wait till morning. Locals took everyone into their houses to spend the night.

At 8am, we met and realised that we were again not allowed to pass the checkpoint. So a reconnaissance group of four guys went to find a different entrance onto the highway. They came back and said they’d found a way. But the road was very dangerous. They said we had to hide the children to make sure that their faces didn’t see what was outside, didn’t see the horror. We drove along for about an hour down this road. There was a lot of burned equipment, things on fire. There were dead military men and there were parts of bodies.

Now it is a catastrophic situation in Mariupol. People take water from the radiators, from the pipes that heat the radiators. There is no civilisation in Mariupol. There’s nothing. We survived, but there are hundreds of thousands of people left who are dying from this now. We left the keys for our apartment to our friends because we still had some water left.

They try to give the water first to the children and then to the elderly. For themselves, they just wet their lips. They wet their lips so as not to die from thirst. Also, there are almost no windows left in the houses. Recently, it was minus five degrees in Mariupol. People are freezing in the cold.

Alyona Zub-Zolotarova, 33
account manager at an advertising agency
One child, aged 8

Interviewed on March 10. She escaped Irpin, a small city northwest of Kyiv that Russia invaded in early March.

Since the beginning of the war, I have completely abandoned the Russian language. In the beginning, my husband, Alexei, wrote to a group of parents saying anybody who needs food and help can come to our courtyard, and about three families did. We had a lot of potatoes in the basement.

On the eighth day, the Russian troops began to fully occupy Bucha (the neighbouring town).

The men went out onto the street to consult, and after five minutes, they came back and told everybody to urgently pack their things, that we have to leave at that moment. And just at that moment, very strong bombing began.

We all got into our cars and we started going. There were four cars. The first car immediately left, and we didn’t have time to catch it because the bombing started to go so heavily. You know, nobody’s waiting for anybody.

We went back and there was some quiet and then we tried again. We drove 100 metres from the house and the bombing began again, but this time, we did not turn back. There were very terrible sounds of explosions.

We went in the direction of Fastov on the road. We got lost and we had only 20 litres of gasoline. By night, we could hardly find a place to stay. We were 13, but people took us in. We were sheltered by people who had themselves 10. They gave us bread. We spent two days and one night with them.

The most terrible moment was when we left Irpin because that was when the Russians entered. Four shells hit our house. The kindergarten 800 metres from us also was burning. My friends who were about to evacuate were killed. Three people. They were heading in the direction of the evacuation route on foot. And they were shot on the road.

Yesterday, 50 buses were blocked and Russian soldiers didn’t allow them to pass down the green corridor that had been agreed on by the Red Cross. Only civilian cars were allowed to pass. People got out of the buses and ran out onto the street and fell on the cars and begged them to take them. My friends saw this. They loaded their car with 10 people. They threw out every belonging so they could get more people in.

I was received by a wonderful Polish family. This family gives me food and a place to sleep and something to eat and warm socks. My husband stayed in Kyiv to defend his right to live in his country. We have to be strong for his sake. I pray all the time. But I don’t have the right to cry.

Maria Nuzhna, 36
interior designer
Two children, aged 12 and 7

Interviewed on March 15. She escaped from the small village of Andriyivka, an hour and a half west of Kyiv, where her family has a dacha (house). It has been occupied by Russians since early March.

Our house and garden is on 25 acres. We plant vegetables there. If you go out of the house, you can see the old farm next to us. The Russians put a Grad rocket launcher in this farm. We counted how many volleys. From three to seven and sometimes up to 30. It makes very scary noises. These rockets fly with such force, and at night they make these red streaks. It sounds like a murderous force.

Missiles were also hitting. Tanks were passing by. The roof was constantly shaking. The dishes in the closet clattering.

The first time the Russian soldiers came to us, they said they wanted to check the men’s documents and see how many of us were in the house. My husband’s mother did not let them in. She said, “No, we have children in the house.”

Suddenly, I heard bangs. There are four people out on the street from our family. And four shots were fired. Bang bang bang bang. It was like my heart burst. The children started screaming: “Where’s Dad?” I ran outside then saw that both my husband and brother and husband’s parents were still talking, that they were still alive.

We were lucky because my husband’s mother, she found a connection. The soldiers were from Dagestan and Buryatiya. They were not Russian. Russians are mean. But these were national minorities. My mother-in-law, she said: “We’ve also been to Dagestan.” She was very calm with him.

He said: “We’re here to protect you.” She said to him, “From whom?” He said they were looking for foreigners in the village.

They really believed that there is no army in Ukraine and that foreigners are fighting for us. They hear from the propaganda that Russia is at war with Nato and with the West here.

We left on March 10.

And for the first time since it began, I went out of the gate. My husband had the children in his car. I was carrying the guinea pigs. I was driving alone and crying. Tanks were in people’s yards. Equipment scattered. One car was just a pile of metal. A bike was broken in two pieces. Gates had fallen off houses.

We saw two soldiers in uniform lay face down on one part of the road. It’s so inhuman. People are like meat. When we finally got out and we were in a city in Ivano-Frankivsk region, we went to buy some clothes and a teapot.

Now I’m talking to you and crying, but I haven’t cried for two days. This is my personal achievement.

(New York Times News Service)

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