АвторAuthor: Juliya Baranko | Translation: Lisa Bolotova
21 May 2022
Diana had to run away from the war twice – in 2014, to Kyiv, and now again, 31–32 weeks pregnant, she was in the occupied Bucha, under ceaseless fire. She managed to evacuate to Germany to give birth to her baby there.
I survived the infernal battle in the city of Bucha that lasted over eight hours. In the cold, damp basement, I was praying for my life and my son’s. He is just getting ready to come into this world, in which the damned occupant, murderer, Russian fascist had troden my homeland, bombed and burnt my home, fired shells from fighting vehicles. I will never forgive those monsters heralding the “Russian world.” Those monsters, they will burn in hell, and neither their children nor their grandchildren nor their great-grandchildren will ever atone for their sins.
On February 3, I left the clamorous Kyiv, the city that became so dear to me over the eight long years, and moved to the suburbs of Bucha. It is a perfect city for living with a newborn in terms of infrastructure and ecology and what have you. There were also newly built housing estates, and I would be closer to friends—but a week before I moved to one of these estates in Bucha, I had felt anxiety and unwillingness to be there. I hadn’t known then where those feelings had come from.
At twenty past six in the morning on February 24, I woke up to a distant but very clear sound of explosion.
“Not again?” I had only one thought on my mind and was trying to calm my body.
For the second time, war came into my life…
“Welcome, 2014!” I thought, my heart pounding. I had my bags ready but threw in some more clothes, especially for the baby—slowly but surely, I was moving to the end of my second trimester. I re-checked my papers, re-counted my money, and called my colleague, who took me in.
There is safety in numbers: we would just sit through this attack together, and it would be easier psychologically, if nothing else. So at eleven, I found myself in my work friend’s flat in the neighbouring city of Hostomel.
I am standing in my friend’s kitchen and drinking tea. I discern some shapes in the overcast sky that are like planes or helicopters—I can’t tell for sure because they are still too far away. I am told that the house is about a kilometre away from the Hostomel aerodrome, close to a military base, so it must be our lads getting ready. By then, we had heard the news about Kharkiv and Sumy but could not have known how close the enemy was. Then came ceaseless sounds of enemy copters. They were transporting landing troops: the very same that would later receive their due “warm and friendly” welcome by the Ukrainian defenders. The battle started, followed by a power cut in the entire city by the evening. So we spent the night to the strains of anti-air defence, “Grad” multiple rocket launchers, and other artillery.
My phone is red-hot with calls from my parents, brother, friends, colleagues… I myself keep calling to my loved ones, sending them messages asking “How are you? Where are you?” I learn that everyone’s alive and taking precautions. February 25, we spend over eight hours without electricity and learn that we can go to Bucha because there are all the necessities. My friends pack hastily and take their documents, and we leave for the flat I have been renting out in the estate near the Bucha station. On our way there, we drive past the destroyed enemy equipment, or rather what is left of it, and the territorial defence forces sifting through those scraps. We also discover that at night, our local hospital received a lot of wounded National Guards.
On February 27, a battalion of Kadyrov’s militants and Belarus forces crossed the Belarus–Ukraine border. Their common objective was to capture Kyiv and Kharkiv by Monday come hell or high water. Basically, Russia sent the most experienced and the most dangerous battalion here on their “special mission.” Belarusian vehicles do not have any marks on them except for the letter V. The orcs [translator’s note: a label for Russian servicemen widely used by Ukrainians] entered Bucha from the villages of Dymer and Borodianka, which are not far from the city. They devastated the city centre and kept firing at people’s homes. They were going to Irpin. The road to it lies through the street where we were staying, Vokzalna. They reached us from the city centre at about nine in the morning, but Ukrainian forces let them go no farther than that. So they turned round and went through the street, randomly flattening people’s houses, not even aiming at anything in particular. A tank fired a round on a wall of the room where my things were, and then another—on another wall. Our forces’ objective was not to let them through and to dislodge them. The shells that targeted their vehicles hit a tanker truck which the orcs parked ten metres away from the house. The car burst into flames, there was a blast, and the fire spread to houses. Ours had its roof on fire, and when we saw that, we just dashed to the basement in whatever we were wearing. I was only as fast as to grab my backpack with documents and money.
The 27th of February, 2022, will be engraved in my memory forever as the day on which I, at almost 35 years of age, was born again. I could never have thought I would ever see hell on earth… What’s the use in asking why it was my friends and I that were in that house on the way to Irpin that was so important for the orcs? The enemy entered the city at about eight in the morning, and 40 minutes later, we started hearing the rumble of APCs, IFVs, and other vehicles. It was getting scarier and scarier, and I had only one thought on my mind: I need to stay alive. So we hid in one room or another, trying not to die…
Three shells hit the house where I was staying with my friend’s family, and on the fourth time, the fire from a burning enemy vehicle spread to houses. When you see the roof ablaze, you have no other choice but to jump out of the house on fire in whatever you are wearing. So we did, having left all our things but for the documents behind, went down to the basement, or rather what is called a lyokh around here — an underground earth cellar with brick walls and soil piled over it. There we saw three bags of potatoes and two neighbours of ours, namely, an old woman and her lodger. The lad was moved from the Hostomel military base three days before the battle: everyone ineligible for service was sent to local territorial defence units. And that day he was supposed to run some errand, but it was too late. I cannot reveal his name, but he became our guardian angel. In that cold basement, we had a bite to eat and a couple of blankets to keep us warm because our neighbour managed to retrieve them when the shooting ceased for a moment. Overall, we spent around eight hours in the basement.
Sometimes we even managed to find a mobile signal. If we walked a bit higher up the stairs, we called our loved ones and told them what was going on. The phrase of the day was “We are alive…” I called all my friends and parents and begged them to find a way to save us. But the only reply was, “You need to wait it out. It’ll be over soon.” That was how we spent time in that cellar, praying or thinking how every breath we take can become our last, from 9.30 in the morning to 5.15 in the evening…
During one of our calls, father warned me about a possible fake “evacuation” of civilians which might be offered by people wearing Ukrainian uniforms or civilian clothes. So we needed to pay attention to their accent and pronunciation and by no means agree to leave the cellar. The invaders disguised themselves as our military or territorial defence forces and could go from basement to basement, luring people out for “evacuation” and then using them as human shields. The orcs have been using the same ploy for years.
It was the local defence units and the mayor of Bucha that finally bid us come out. The mayor came to show the people in cellars that it is not a false-flag operation and they can go out. When we went up, we saw what had become of the yard of that house, other yards, and the entire street. For me, hell on earth looked like this photo. I also recorded a video to share with those I know and don’t know, with my friends and family, so that as many people as possible could know what those fascist brutes are doing on our land…
Hiding behind the backs of women, children, older people, and people with disabilities, and then telling fabulous tales of Ukrainian forces firing on civilians’ cars to the notorious Russian propagandists Skabeyeva and Solovyov and the like… So, we were forewarned and therefore forearmed. We were sitting there praying, listening to the whining of salvos and the stamping of feet overhead. The enemy had abandoned their vehicles and were hiding from the Ukrainian army among the smouldering ruins. They knew perfectly well that there were civilians in basements because, upon entering the city, they had used their thermal cameras to count the locals in houses. I was so cold I started having leg cramps. I was scared of the orcs just opening the door to the cellar and shooting us or throwing a grenade that I was ready to go talk to the enemy. I knew there were Kadyrov’s squads outside, and they are Muslims, if nothing else, so I would speak to them the way it should be. But it didn’t happen, and the Almighty saved us, all the while there were five people trying vainly to get into the hardly standing neighbouring house through the window. We learned it from our neighbour and my friend’s husband, who climbed up to look round when the shooting ceased from time to time.
On the evening of February 27, we made it to the Continent housing estate across the Bucha crossing, right on the way to Irpin. My neighbours, of whom I knew but few, and then only on nodding terms, welcomed us to their home. Homeless victims from the Vokzalna street, we were warmed up, given tea, clothes, and shoes. It was not only my and my baby’s emergency kits that perished in that fire but also my jacket, new trainers, a blowdryer, and a laptop that I packed into the bag with my belongings and not in a separate case. The key to the flat I was renting perished too, which made it impossible to get in, so on the following morning, my neighbour jimmied a lock and then changed it. That was how we finally came to know each other, united in our grief and the need to survive.
My neighbours turned out to be just like myself, refugees from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, who had been saving up for several years, selling property in their occupied hometowns, or paying mortgage, or who had received housing under the ISP concessional lending program. These people, they were just living their lives, working, raising kids. Looking at what was going on around us, we all kept saying only one thing: “It is worse than Donbas in 2014.” Back then, no one could even think that the hell in Bucha would last for as long as one month…
Starting from the evening of March 4, we had internet connection issues, and on March 5, phone service was cut off. Orcs came to Bucha and scattered over the city like cockroaches. And then there was silence… awful, frightening silence in which one could hear oneself breath.
Electricity went off on the same day. So on the following day, the temperature in the flat was at its lowest, at 10 degrees Celsius.
Every day all of us looked out of the windows to see the orcs—one tank and four APCs—near an ATB supermarket, and sometimes, we could hear shooting somewhere among cottages or close to the crossing. The night of March 5 was the stormiest: then, the tank which the orcs placed at the crossing was firing in the direction of Irpin. Later, we would find out that people were walking from there that evening trying to evacuate the city. The tank didn’t cease firing on the morning of March 6, but rounds were becoming rarer—until they received “reinforcement” from Borodianka or maybe the opposite end of the city…
When I was still able to make video calls, my therapist recommended remembering simple things even at times of war. Back then, neither of us knew that on the following day, orcs would enter Bucha, and I would spend an entire week not living but surviving. Yesterday, I went to the closest maternity hospital. Fifteen days at the epicentre of fierce combat had left their mark. Anaemia, fatigue, sleep deficiency. I am taking iron supplements now and trying to eat. And today, I have a new haircut—after all, however hard it is, I have to try and look well again. And take a path to a new stage of life, again, like I did in 2014…
I am looking at photos from Bucha and Irpin and my blood runs cold. I am reading shared posts, publications, comments of those who saw the murdered people only on those photos, but what can I say when I am just like them?
I have only one thought on my mind: how on earth were we so lucky to get out of the city just before those monsters torrented in, before they committed so much murder, torture, rape?
I thought that the cellar on Vokzalna on February 27 was the most frightening thing that happened while I was staying there. I was mistaken. Every day, in every corner of the Kyiv region, the Sumy region, the Kharkiv region, and the Donetsk region—every day, every week, the most frightening things happened there.
“I did not witness the crimes committed in Bucha in late March and early April. On the other hand, I lived there in the first days of occupation, when my neighbour from the first section was killed with a projectile shot at his window, when two flats in the neighbouring block were burning after tanks fired, when during the so-called first evacuation in the Enerhetykiv street, the orcs’ tank marked with the letter V came and all of us cursed them… Some locals even came close to the Ruscists and told them to go home. I don’t know what happened that they didn’t kill them. That they didn’t kill us all…”
I know what one feels when one has to sleep in a corridor every night—in this “abode,” “nest,” in this “shelter,” one can’t hear artillery fire or at least won’t hear it that clearly. You go to bed to sleep, but you can’t sleep, thinking constantly that those bastards can break into your home, torture you, rape you, kill you… I know how it feels to live every moment thinking it could be my last, to think that I might meet my unborn baby but in the otherworld. I know what words to use in case those bastards do break into my flat seeking to appease their inhuman nature. Even though they showed they didn’t really care whether it was a woman before them, or a child, or an old lady…
I know praying too. Praying to one God or to all the gods out there—reading psalms you remember from your childhood or Surahs from Quran—appealing to the pantheon of Slavic gods that are the ones holding our land on their shoulders… The egregore of beliefs, culture, and generations on Ukrainian soil works incessantly. That is why we have never been broken in 400 years. And we will never be broken.
I am only too happy for my friends from Bucha and their kids and families because they left the city via “green corridors” when they could.
Чому важливо поширити цю історію?
Якщо українці не розповідатимуть свій погляд на війну в Україні, світ поступово забуватиме про нас. Натомість цим обов’язково скористаються росіяни. Тому не даймо їм жодного шансу.
Why is it important to share this story?
If Ukrainians do not share their views on the war in Ukraine, the world will gradually forget about us. Instead, the Russians will definitely take advantage of this. So let's not give them a chance.
АвторAuthor: Juliya Baranko | Translation: Lisa Bolotova