АвторAuthor: Olena Romanenko | Translation: Nataliia Zadorozhna
8 August 2022
Olena Merkulova is a 38-year-old housewife from Kharkiv. Together with her family and neighbors, she spent nine days in a bomb shelter. During the airstrikes, she took her two children and her mother to western Ukraine and from there to Poland. Two months of life and hard work in a foreign country undermined her health and forced to change her country of residence. Read more about how Olena managed to travel about 3,000 kilometers with young children and an elderly mother, settle in a new place and what her five-year-old daughter dreams of, in “Monologues of the War”.
A month before the war, there were talks on all channels and news media that Russia might attack Ukraine. It was hard for me to believe that in the 21st century a full-scale war could break out in the center of Europe.
A couple of days before the invasion, a friend of mine asked me to help her collect documents and medical records in one folder. Her husband was worried that if the war started, they needed to have all the necessary documents at hand.
She and I collected the documents and joked about what an alarmist he was and that we would put the documents in their usual places in a few days. When I came back home, I started panicking because everything didn’t seem as impossible as before to me. So, I decided to collect my family’s documents, just in case.
Around 11:00 p.m. on February 23, the same friend called me and said that her husband insisted on leaving Kharkiv. He received information from his relatives in Belgorod that the country would be attacked within a day and that he should immediately leave for the west of Ukraine.
I was scared but managed to calm myself down by the fact that without a car we can’t rush anywhere. Therefore I decided to wait and hoped that it was just a rumor.
Around 04:30 a. m. of February 24th, we woke up to explosions, sounds of planes and our dog’s loud barking. I realized that the worst predictions did come true. I live on the seventh floor, and when I looked out of the window, I saw columns of smoke in different parts of the city. Military vehicles drove through the streets, and there was a fire in the distance. I heard the wail of sirens and quickly started gathering the children.
A few minutes later, a friend called me and told me to run to the bomb shelter located under the central station, which is located right next to our house. So we ran there, literally, to the sound of explosions and sirens.
We came to the bomb shelter around 8 a. m. By that time, there were already about 50 people of different ages, different genders and in different emotional states.
The women were sobbing with fear, the children were terribly frightened and were also crying, the men tried to maintain external calm and tried to somehow organize the interior of the bomb shelter.
It was quite warm in the bomb shelter, especially considering the fact that we were sleeping in rooms of 20 people. If you immediately distribute responsibilities, life in a dormitory may not seem as terrible as it is.
Everyone knew that I was a good cook, so I cooked for them
Every day I cooked a 20-liter pot of borsch, fried chops and potatoes, and even baked buns. I had to occupy myself with something in order to distract myself from what was going on outside.
Everyone was watching the news around the clock. Even through the thick walls of the bomb shelter we could hear the sounds of constant explosions.
Men went outside to take things out from their houses, buy food and water. When they returned, they said that women with children should not leave the bomb shelter.
They told about people at the station and on the streets who wanted to leave Kharkiv. There were crazy traffic jams on the roads, panic, and very long queues at gas stations. We tried to stay strong and support each other inside the bomb shelter. Many believed everything would be over within a few days, so we just had to wait.
On the ninth day of life in the dungeon without fresh air, I noticed that the children were pale, they looked weak and sick. We started thinking about how to save the “future of the country”.
There was an offer to go to Poland because there was a person ready to accommodate eight people: my family and a friend’s family. Since we both don’t have cars, we decided to take the evacuation train from Kharkiv to Lviv, then cross the border and go further by bus.
There were thousands of people, children, the elderly and disabled, animals, despair and tears of being separated on the platform. It was morally difficult to watch how a father forcefully unties his daughter’s arms in order to get the family on the train in time. When lovers value every minute they spend together, because they understand that they may not see each other again. When the son helps the elderly mother climb the stairs into the carriage, she sobs and says that she cannot live without him! And he shouts: “Mother, please, go for me!”
The road to Lviv took a day. It’s terrible to remember how it was. People slept simply on the floor in the aisles, children on bags, there were three times more passengers than seats. Everyone quickly ran out of food, there was no water and nowhere to buy it, it was terribly hot, the children were crying, they were sick.
On March 5, around 5 a. m., we arrived in Lviv and had to cross the border on foot. The weather was terrible: cold, wet snow and terrible wind. For 6 hours, my children and I stood at the border with Poland in a huge queue of women and children just like us. It was scary to leave home and go into unfamiliar places, but it was even scarier to stay in a country which is bombed every day.
In Poland, a bus was waiting for us, which in 20 hours took us to the tiny town of Shoem, two hours from Poznań, where we were sheltered in a dormitory.
When we reached our destination, we were exhausted and tired, but satisfied that we were finally safe. The children simply pounced on the food, as they had not eaten for almost three days.
Besides us, about 60 Ukrainians lived in the dormitory, we slept in large rooms for 15 people. The host of the dormitory brought us food, and we cooked it ourselves. Well, I cooked again for everyone (smiles – ed. note), and the girls helped to clean vegetables and wash dishes.
We were not provided with financial aid in Poland, so we agreed to any work. Without knowledge of the Polish language, we were offered only physical, hard and low-paid work: unloading flour, sorting tons of groats, cleaning in a neglected garden. There was no division into women’s and men’s work. It was very difficult physically, I had pain in my back and legs. We worked all day, then cooked and cleaned the dormitory. After two months of living and working hard in Poland, I realized that my health could not stand it and began to think about leaving the country.
My eldest son’s father volunteered for the Armed Forces of Ukraine and told me what was happening there every day. He told about dozens of dead soldiers, his injured friends, missiles, destruction and pain. So I knew about the war not from the news, but firsthand. I am very proud of my first husband, his bravery and decision to stand up for Ukraine. I fully understand that the father may never see his son again, but now he is an example of patriotism and strength to him.
My best friend Olena, with whom we grew up together, left with her family for Italy and agreed with the organization that provided them with housing, to provide shelter for us as well. We decided to leave the country, although it was difficult to imagine how I, with my elderly mother and small children, would be able to overcome the path of more than 2,000 kilometers from the west of Poland to the south of Italy through three countries.
Kind volunteers helped organize the trip and met our family in every country From the small Polish town of Shrem, where we lived, we took a train to Poznań, from there to Krakow, where we took a bus to Turin, then to Milan, and then to Zollino, a town in the south of Italy.
The bus driver turned out to be an Italian, who let us stay overnight in his family house, surrounded by warmth and care. He and his wife are volunteers with experience who adopted a ten-year-old boy from Crimea 18 years ago. The boy’s sister remained in Crimea and now, he is suffering a lot because he is not in Ukraine and cannot fight for the freedom of his country and people. Every day he says that he wants to return to Ukraine…
We have joined the state integration project in Italy. It provides refugees from different countries with free housing in Italy, financial aid of 35 euros per week per person, language courses, as well as the opportunity to study and work.
My son went to school and my daughter to kindergarten. Italian children and parents were very supportive, everyone understood that there is a war in our country and they need to show empathy.
“During a lesson at an Italian school my ten-year-old son Dima heard thunder outside the window. He suddenly fell to the floor and hid under the desk, for he thought it was the sound of bombs exploding”.
Once, in the city where we lived, there was a strong thunderstorm with a downpour. In the afternoon, my son’s teacher called me and told me that he was very scared and that it would be better to take him home. I find it quite frightening to think that from now on Ukrainian children are afraid of the sound of fireworks, thunder and balloons that burst! Everything has changed! Children should grow up in joy, not in terror, and I dream that my children will forget the sounds of war.
We lived in the south of Italy for two months. There we learned the language, took the children to the sea and tried to do everything so that they had a happy summer. I worked part-time as a cleaner in the house of an Italian lady who was very kind and paid my work the same way she used to pay the Italian assistant.
Refugee was a word I couldn’t apply to myself for weeks. I have my own apartment, a cozy home! I want to go back to my country! I have left my heart in Ukraine!
Every day I read the news and hoped for a message that we had won the war and could return home. But my city continued to be destroyed more and more: schools, universities, hospitals and houses of ordinary Kharkiv residents! It is very dangerous to bring the children home, and for now we are staying in Italy.
From the city of Zollino, me and my friend and our families moved to the north, to a region where there are many Ukrainians, where our children will be able to communicate with them and go to the same school. We received documents and a residency permit in Italy until May 2023, with a possible extension for a year. I find it hard to think that the war will not end quickly and that our country could be completely destroyed. What for? What are children dying for?
It is very difficult to live without a plan, without understanding what to do next and how to live in a place you never dreamed of. I live in hope that soon it will be possible to return home and our children could live in a free and safe country!
In recent years, every summer we spent time at a country house in the Kharkiv region, with a friend and our children. River, fruit from trees, forest, barbecues and carefree time! Currently, the territories of these houses are under the occupation of russia.
Many country houses were destroyed, windows and doors were broken, all the people left, guard dogs died from lack of food. At the moment, there are russian soldiers everywhere.
It is now July, and we remain living in the town of Pineto, Abruzzo region in Italy. There are beautiful landscapes, incredible sunsets, many pine trees and kind people. It would be ideal to come here with the family on vacation, knowing that in two weeks you will be back home.
Recently, while swimming in the crystal clear Adriatic Sea, my five-year-old daughter asked: Mom, do you know what I dream about? She dreams of us going to the country house as soon as possible, catching frogs and eating apples from a tree. And I dream of bringing back that carefree time when we were happy with such simple things at home.
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: Olena Romanenko | Translation: Nataliia Zadorozhna