Displacement and Displacement Again
From the Series: Russia’s War in Ukraine, Continued
This is a time of silence and thunder. Thunder is better because you know who is firing what, from where, and this gives you a sense of stability and the illusion of control.
The early morning of February 24 began with a message from a friend, “You didn’t believe bombs would fly over Kyiv.” A sudden awakening as a cruel dream came true. Rockets and bombs were flying everywhere. Before war broke out, we had moved to a rural area on the outskirts of Kyiv (Nemishayeve hromada) and had contacted the local authorities about developing local defense options. But those plans did not include aerial bombings.
When the first wave of bombs subsided on the first day, most people started to leave. We, on the contrary, found food and started working. But as luck would have it, the Hostomel Airport is very close to our town. Built as a top-secret Soviet military airport, it became a commercial cargo airport that serves Kyiv. Terrible battles took place there and continue even now. One of the most significant targets the Russians destroyed was the largest, heaviest plane with the greatest wingspan in service worldwide. It had the eloquent name of Dream. We will definitely rebuild that dream.
Already on the first day of the war, when we walked with the children, the bursting bombs were very close. Russian helicopters circled over the houses, dozens of them. My son, who is three-and-a-half years old, did not understand. He was digging a hole in the yard, “so that bad planes could land.” This is how the first day passed, with unrelenting, strong explosions that made the sky foreign and left us feeling completely uncertain. The nonstop news felt like we were back in 2013.
The next day, my husband decided we needed to leave. We didn’t want to. He is a veteran of the war in Donbas (2014–15) and a former officer. He said the gas lines to the house could not withstand even a single shot from a machine gun. He gave the orders to leave.
At the time, the road was still relatively open, although Russian infantry, military vehicles, and tanks were already on the Zhytomyr Highway. In a few hours, we made it to our dacha in Severinivka, which is not far from the highway. Later, we were joined by my father and his wife, two other families of relatives, as well as neighbors who managed to leave the capital. As it turned out, Kyiv would have been safer in many respects.
This region outside Kyiv took terrible blows as fighting intensified over the airport. We sent my husband off to serve in a territorial defense unit in Bilogorodka. When Russian troops landed, he managed to turn the car around and return to the other line of defense, closer to home. His knowledge as a gunner and commander would be very valuable.
When we first arrived at the dacha, we had light and heat. Then the lights went out. Of course, we expected this, but we hoped for better. The mobile phone connection was still there, which meant we could read news and imagine what was happening around us. The shots did not subside, but mostly it was volleys of artillery from the armed forces. Then it calmed down. Everyone tried to start their generators, checked their fuel, and began rationing food. We cannot always use the generator because it is too loud. We can’t even make a fire in the yard. Worst of all, we would have to make a long marathon of the food we had.
Within a day at the dacha, very strong shelling started. We asked a neighbor if we could go to his basement. We felt relatively safe there, although we knew that if the walls fell from a direct hit, it was unlikely we could ever get out. On the first night, more than twenty people gathered in the basement, including five small children (the smallest was four months old) and five dogs and cats. We had one gun to protect everyone. On the floor, in the dark and in the cold, we listened and tried to guess which weapons they were using. We caught snippets of internet news on our mobile phones. We lived like that for a couple of nights. Five Russian servicemen ran to the village, probably because they had abandoned their tanks. We listened to the gunfire and waited until we heard our military before going out.
And so began a routine. You are happy if you can light a fire and fry something to eat. You are happy if can you run the generator for at least an hour so that you can recharge your equipment, catch the news, and turn on the heat. Other times, you sit in the dark under the roar of shelling. Now most mobile phones no longer work because the mobile tower was damaged.
* * *
Russian militants are in a nearby village, and the neighbors have to go to the well to fetch drinking water. Some decide to leave the village and give away some of their food. Fuel is the most valuable resource. Rumors spread. Six cars went in search of fuel and three were shot at. Is anyone alive? Hardly. They say there is life. But we haven’t seen it for ten long days.
After we found their walkie-talkies and listened to them at night, Russian troops broke into our courtyard. They started shooting. One woman was taken hostage and dragged into the woods. A sudden decision. “It’s time to go,” the neighbors said. “They can shoot us tomorrow.” We start at 5 a.m. on Monday, but only after another round of negotiations. Adults, children, the elderly, dogs, cats, all together with the smallest collection of things. With each move, your life fits into a smaller bag. You shrink to the most important things. A column of nine cars lined up that morning. I was behind the wheel, with my son and dog. They became a faithful couple and supported each other in our terrifying exit.
We managed to escape along an evacuation corridor during short pauses between shellings. We drove, dodging the wreckage of destroyed equipment, shot-up civilian cars, and dead bodies lying on the ground. No one even able to pick them up . . . We drove farther along the Zhytomyr Highway, knowing that if they start shooting at a column of cars, everyone’s goal is to simply survive. We hit our first checkpoint. We removed the white sign, “children.” We knew it would not stop them from shooting.
* * *
Even farther from home now, once again. But here we can drink hot tea, listen to the silence, and wash. From this place in the countryside, we coordinate aid, and long to go home to build a renewed, even stronger Ukraine. I am praying for everyone to get their cup of hot tea and be safe tonight. I know that the dawn is coming. Always. Very soon.
Translated from Ukrainian by Catherine Wanner.