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  • Українці розповідають про пережите під час війни з росією

    Ukrainians talk about their experiences during the war with russia

    Ukrainian’s performance in Gdansk

    “Kherson is dying now, little by little. It’s not life, it’s constant animal fear” – story of a teacher who managed to break free from the occupied city with her child

    Life under fire

    АвторAuthor: Oleksandr Nikitin | Translation: Hanna Dzhyhaliuk

    6 August 2022

    Tetiana Chykalova is a teacher from Kherson. Together with her daughter she spent more than a month in the occupied city, hiding from shelling in her friend’s basement. She tells a story of how people of Kherson struggled to create evacuation corridors and shared their escape stories in social networks. On April 6 Tetiana and her daughter left Kherson, as the situation there worsened. She is now in Poland and looking for a job. Tetiana shared her story of the beginning of the war, occupied Kherson, evacuation and life abroad with the website “Monologues of the War”.

    I’m from Kherson. Before the war I was working in Kherson Academy of Continuing Education. I am a PHD in pedagogical sciences and a teacher of the department of preschool and primary education. Our courses were attended by teachers from Kherson and all over the region. Our academy was working up to April 30, but then russians appointed their “gauleiter” and we ceased our activities. 

    On February 22 late at night I heard the news that putin announced the recognition of the “DNR” and “LNR”. Right afterwards I turned on a live Youtube stream of Vitalii Portnikov and could see how nervous he was. Then my child came up to me and I told her: “You know, maybe we’ll have a war…” At that moment I knew it was true.

    I woke up in the morning of February 24 to get ready to work. My phone was on silent mode and I could hear a lot of vibrations. The first thing I opened was a Facebook message from a friend who took part in ATO. It read: “Guys, see you at the military office! There’s a war!” 

    After that I turned on the TV and learned the latest news. One of our balconies faces Antoniv bridge across the Dnipro river. Before noon we could already see the battles on the bridge and hear everything. We saw dozens of black russian helicopters, flying over Dnipro and launching missiles. We saw one district of our city burning. Fighter jets that flew so low that they seemed to hit our house. Now when I’m recalling it all, it seems like a horror film, but not something that really happened to me.

    The first thing we did was run to a store as soon as it opened. There was a great panic already, you couldn’t come into any shop or near an ATM. People were running around, not knowing what to do, buying what they could and withdrawing money. 

    Shelter where the family was hiding

    Basement where Tetiana and her daughter were hiding from the shelling

    Before nightfall we got really scared, because we didn’t know what to expect at night. We called our acquaintances and asked to stay in their basement. My colleagues made a chat where we could tell each other what we saw and heard. One of them wrote that she had a big basement and invited everyone to come. At night on February 24 we went there, taking a small pillow, two blankets, and our improvised emergency backpacks. We thought it was going to be over soon. Like in a day or two our army would fight off the enemy and everything would be fine. But we left the basement, roughly speaking, on April 6. We only came out to buy some food, or to take some stuff from the apartment. All that time we could hear explosions from the suburbs. We could also hear Chornobayivka very well, and not only that. In the basement I was holding on to a shovel, because I was worried that the shelling would cover us in debris. 

    “Remember, you are on your land, you are not slaves!”

    Russian troops entered Kherson on March 1. The most terrible were probably the first three days, when our guys were no longer there, and the russians stood on the approach to Kherson, not entering the city. At this time, real anarchy began, many marauders turned up, breaking windows and looting shops. Then, on the night of March 1, the russians entered the city. They walked past my house, because it is located on one of the central streets. The floor in our cellar was shaking from their equipment, we heard many shots from various weapons, no one understood where they were shooting. The children were crying, even some of the adults couldn’t stand it. I tried not to cry, because I had to support my child.

    It was also really scary when the neighboring house was shelled and I saw the burned-down floor for the first time. In addition, the situation with food was very difficult in Kherson. The conditions in the city were such that it was scary both to leave and to stay. There were no official green corridors for evacuation. The first unofficial escape route was organized by the people themselves around March 20 through Bilozerka-Stanislav in the direction of Mykolaiv. But it was working for only a couple of days. People created groups on social networks where they shared the routes, the number of roadblocks and what happened there, what questions the rashists ask and how they should be answered. I didn’t leave then, because I couldn’t find gas, the city already had a fuel problem. But I was determined to leave, because it was impossible to carry on living in Kherson. There was constant shelling, and in addition, rashists broke into apartments, searched for ATO participants and activists. There was a terrible crisis with medicines, there were no vitally necessary medicines for me. Three days later, my friend from Kyiv, whose husband was in the Territorial Defense and told her about Bucha, called us crying and begged us to leave the city.

    Then a friend wrote to me about her son, who with his wife and child left for Kropyvnytskyi by a new, man-made, unofficial corridor through Snigurivka. Through strangers, with a significant overpay, I was finally able to find gasoline and left Kherson with my daughter on the morning of April 6. It was scary, but it was necessary, because I had to save my child. At the checkpoints they searched our belongings. People said that many occupiers in the Kherson region were from the DNR and LNR. There were also Chechens who could barely speak Russian.

    “I’m not a doctor, but I can say that these people are definitely using something. You could see that in their eyes, voices and body language”.

    There were a lot of drunks, who said something like: “Well, we don’t want to check you, but you can see for yourself, our boss is standing right there.” Sometimes four people ran up to the car at once, opened all the doors and the trunk. I was afraid that they might grab the child. When I came across the first roadblock with our soldiers, I screamed, cried and kissed the boys’ hands. We left Kherson with white rags on our car. At one of the checkpoints, our soldier said to me: “Take it down! You are at home, you are not slaves!” He helped me and quickly untied these rags himself. Then he said: “Here, you will wipe the dust with it. And remember, you are on your own land! You are already home, calm down!” It was scary to drive, we could hear battles going on all the way, something was exploding, some places were mined. Many enemy roadblocks had to be passed, machine guns aimed at you and your child… People traveled in that direction for some time, but not every day. There were days when the rashists turned the columns back, did not let people through, but they remained at their own peril to spend the night in the field under shelling, some returned home to Kherson… Then there was shelling, people died or were wounded. So, that corridor was closed and it was forbidden to leave.

    Read also: Liliia Volovelska: “It felt like a page of our life in Odessa was about to close”

    On the way, we passed through troubled Mykolaiv, which had not yet been so mutilated, but the consequences of shelling were already visible. After that our path lay through the Odesa region in the direction of Palanka, on the border with Moldova. When we got there, the sun was just setting. Then I told my daughter: “Look at the sunset, because who knows when you will see it again on your native land.” Now I regret that I didn’t collect a handful of Ukrainian land then. In Palanka, we went to a huge refugee camp. There we were met by handsome Moldovan volunteers who sincerely support Ukraine. They said that at the beginning of the war, when people were leaving in huge numbers, the camp was filled to the brim, and volunteers slept in the open air on wooden benches.

    Camp in Palanka

    Margaryta, Tetiana’s daughter, in refugee camp in Palanka

    From this camp we went to Romania. We spent a night in a hotel and then went further into the country. But we didn’t feel the joy of escape, because my elderly parents stayed behind. On the road I received terrible news that on April 7 my best friend Sasha Bondarenko, from “Donbas” battalion, died in battle. 

    With the help of some friends we got a place to stay for a while. We only paid for utilities and food. Later, when we recovered a little, we went to Poland. The main reason was language, because Romanian is very difficult, but Polish is pretty close to Ukrainian. We went to Poland through Slovakia, and when an old man there came up to me and said “Good morning” in Ukrainian, I nearly kissed him, because after 40 days in occupation and 3 weeks in Romania it was incredibly heartwarming to hear our mother tongue. 

    “During the first few days I cried every time I saw our flag”

    When we arrived in Poland, we saw a lot of Ukrainian flags and banners in support of Ukraine. In Gdynia, Ukrainian and Polish flags are hanging on the city hall. During the first 3-4 days I cried every time I saw our flag. I had never thought that our symbolism could evoke so many emotions. At the beginning, when the russians entered Kherson, I sometimes had to go home from the basement. My road ran through the regional archive, on which hung the Ukrainian flag. It was taken down a few days before we left. The flag gave hope that the occupiers would soon be defeated.

    In Poland, at first we rented a room in a house of some lady. Then we also rented housing from Poles, who treated us wonderfully, and enjoyed talking about Ukraine and Poland. Now we have found a place that can be rented for a longer period of time, and are preparing my daughter’s documents for the lyceum. I also won a small grant from the city to conduct an original integrated class for Ukrainian-speaking preschoolers.

    For one week I worked as a substitute in a kindergarten in a Ukrainian-speaking group. Closer to autumn, they are planning to have an additional group, so I hope they will hire me. I’m trying to find something that I’m passionate about and that I’m good at.

    Those Polish people I met are wonderful and sincere. I already have a true friend, who has been supporting and helping me in everything! Her name is Yeva Konopko, she is a great human being. One more fantastic woman I met is Monika Sankevich, who helped my daughter get a place at the lyceum. She was really glad to help us, although we were total strangers to her. 

    “Educators in Kherson are summoned, then taken away, and brought back already beaten up”

    Sometimes helicopters fly by near us. If we are outside at this time, we always try to hide behind a tree. Everything that we experienced has taken a mental toll. There were days in Kherson when we heard explosions every day, there were some battles going on. We learned to distinguish between “Hrads”, missile launches, and other weapons. When we were hiding in the basement and the Grads were firing for the first time, my daughter fell on the concrete floor and started screaming. This was the only time when she had such a reaction. Probably because she thought that these “Hrads” could bury us there. It was also scary when the food crisis started and we could only eat one piece of bread a day. There were problems with bread, as with other foods, in Kherson. The price of bread could reach 50 UAH. So, we tried to cook some kind of porridge to get by without bread. When we left Kherson and went abroad, my daughter asked: “Can we eat everything today and not leave it for tomorrow?” She even collected the crumbs from the table and ate them. We bought a lot of bread, white and fresh, and it was a real happiness to eat it again to our heart’s content. There were people in Kherson who proved themselves very worthy. One of them is Pasha Servetnyk, who won one of the “Master Chef” seasons. He baked bread at his own expense and delivered it to different parts of the city for free.

    Event in Gdansk

    Tetiana’s daughter performing at the event in Gdansk, called “Picnic in the cultured circle”

    I think I made the right decision to leave. My former colleague is now the head of the regional education department – she is a traitor. Educators in Kherson are summoned, kidnapped, taken somewhere, and brought back already beaten up. They are tortured, and, most disgustingly, blackmailed by threatening their children – in this way they are trying to induce cooperation. I would never cooperate, so my main motivation was to save my daughter so that she would not experience any violence. I didn’t care where we would live and what would happen. Of course, my parents stayed in Kherson. Many people ask me why I didn’t take them out. But they refused, point-blank. I talked to them more than once about this, but they decided to stay and even now they refuse to go, although it is very hard to live in the city: “We will wait for victory at home, putin will die, we will win, and you will come back.” God willing, everything will be over as soon as possible, we will come and rebuild our city. It hurts that our native land is being plundered. When we were leaving we saw fields mutilated by explosions, strewn with pieces of equipment, tattered trees… Kherson is now dying little by little. This is not life, but constant animal fear. When I was going out to get some bread, I read all the prayers I knew, left my phone and keys, said goodbye to my child, and told her where the documents were. Because you leave and you don’t know if you’d come back home, because all these rashist bastards are moving around the city, and you don’t know what’s on their minds. The city is empty. In the building where I lived only some people from around four apartments stayed there, mostly elderly. I don’t even know if we will return to our home, because there are constant rumors that the occupiers may move into the apartments of those who left.

    Every day I think about lines from Pavlo Tychyna: «I am a people whose power of Truth no one has conquered yet». We believe in victory, because the Truth is on our side! We are looking forward to returning to our home, to beautiful Kherson.

    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: Oleksandr Nikitin | Translation: Hanna Dzhyhaliuk

    Life under fire

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