АвторAuthor: Iryna Hyliuk | Translation: Victoria Yaremenko
24 May 2022
The large Yarmolenko family, fleeing the war, moved from Kyiv to a small village near Bucha. If only they knew that they will be trapped instead. Since then, each new day began with thoughts of how to escape the occupation and save the children.
Disturbing news hung in the air for several weeks before February 24th. We received a message from the school administration calling to pack a go-bag, but still, no one believed the full-scale invasion was possible. And then, probably, we calmed down somehow.
I will never forget that morning, it was very emotional. I remember waking up from the sounds of the first explosions and being overwhelmed with anxiety. Has the war really started? The window in a kid’s room was open, and it faces Boryspil and Brovary’s side. We ran to the window and saw a glow in the sky and heard loud explosions again.
A couple of minutes later, the fighter jet flew. Is it our or the enemy one? And then we clearly realized, it started. This is a war. The sense of panic and anxiety overwhelmed us…
My husband was insisting that we should leave Kyiv, as it is a strategic point. He said we need to leave the big city, because in case it will be destroyed, it will be hard to survive. Besides, we have three sons, 6, 12, and 16 years old, we should take care of. We immediately started packing our personal belongings, quickly grabbed the documents, some other things.
There are 4 families living on the same floor of our building and we all keep in touch. We immediately called each other and decided to leave together. At first, we had the idea to head to a country house, near Zhytomyr. But then, we decided to head to a village in the Kyiv region.
At about 7 a.m. we got in the car to evacuate from Kyiv. The traffic was already jammed up. The traffic on the Left Bank was progressing a little, and on the Right Bank- there were continuous traffic jams.
Only closer to noon we had finally left the city and headed through Irpin to Mykhailivka-Rubezhivka village where the parents of our friends live. The village is only 5 km from the airport, and right behind the garden fields, Bucha is located.
We decided that it would be safer there, as we have our own house there, that is heated, and has all the amenities in it.
The first few days there was shooting, and something exploded, but we haven’t seen a big threat yet. About 2 days later the lights in the village went out, there was no water supply as well because almost everyone had a well in the yard. Since then, we were busy primarily searching for water. We were living in one house, 13 people in total, with the friends’ parents and kids.
We thought we would stay here for another couple of days and will return to Kyiv. But the situation was getting worse. Locals, who lived on our street, started to form a territorial defense.
During the shelling, we first hid in the basement, but the basement was not actually suitable for this. And it was hard to stay there with small children for a long time. It was cold in the house and much colder in the basement.
“When the whole house was shaking from the shelling, we gathered in one room without windows, which was protected on both sides by walls. We just lay down on the floor. And then it came to the point where the instinct of self-preservation turned off, we felt indifferent. The shooting continues, and we lie in bed and listen to where the explosions are – closer or farther from us”.
We survived thanks to the farm of our friends’ parents. They had food supplies, and canned food, so we did not suffer from hunger.
Once we went for water to a well near the forest. As we were walking we heard a shootout. On the way back, the territorial defense forbade us from going there. And the next day people were shot there.
We kept thinking about how to get out of here. There was information that not all gas stations have been bombed yet and that there is still a gas station at the exit from Rubezhivka. But the owner of this gas station kept the fuel for our territorial defense. And when it became clear that the invaders were approaching, he began selling fuel to anyone who needed it. We gathered quickly and managed to refuel one car. And in the late afternoon I drove in my car with my eldest son.
Opposite the gas station there was a checkpoint which our territorial defense deployed. And while we were refueling, a shooting broke out. Now you realize, that each bullet could have actually hit you, and it would all be over. So we hurried to refuel quickly and left immediately. We felt a bit safer as the tank was full and now we only needed to wait for a proper chance to leave.
The next day, Russian tanks entered. They were moving in a column through the whole village, and then a serious shelling began. The tanks were driving through the streets above and we were lucky that we lived on a side street, in the lowlands.
They fired non-stop. I was very worried about the kids. With each explosion sound, everything inside me turned upside down. There was no connection and no internet, so I ran to the village headman to find out if we could leave now or not. He told: “There are Russian checkpoints all around. Where will you go?”.
While the car’s engine warmed up, we could recharge our phones a bit. The boys connected to the radio stream using headphones and mobile phones so we could listen to the news. And as the shelling subsided, locals went outside from shelters to share the news and information.
There was no electricity and water supply. And then the gas supply was disrupted. The men on the street cooperated, someone brought a generator that was connected to the pump, and thus the water supply was restored. While we were standing in line, we heard that a day ago a family from Bucha was trying to leave as well.
On the way, we saw a convoy. The Russians started firing into the air to stop them. One driver allegedly lost his temper and pressed the gas pedal. Occupants opened fire immediately. Luckily people were able to pick up the children from that car. The bodies of shot people, wrapped in white sheets, were carried on a wheelbarrow through the whole village to be buried.
That was such a difficult and painful moment. When you hear about it, it’s one thing, but when you see it with your own eyes…
Later we were told, that there were more victims shot.
“On the one hand, we really wanted to leave, and on the other hand, all the adults were hesitant, because you can go to certain death. And my husband said: “Do you want us to take the children to be shot?”
Then we talked to our neighbors. They were holding a baby. There was a feeling of complete hopelessness: either starve the baby or take a risk to escape. The next day they decided to leave. So we quickly decided to join and breakthrough.
We hung a white sheet on the car, hoping that they would not shoot civil car, but it did not help. We also attached a sign in Russian “Children”, because we had to pass through their checkpoints. And finally, we passed this hell. We kept praying aloud all the way.
As we were getting to the first checkpoint, we were joined by another car, which, as I suppose, was waiting for the others, because it felt safer in the convoy. There were kind of more loyal Russians at this checkpoint. We opened all the car windows, and I slowly showed that the children were sitting inside, and somehow they let us go.
And the second checkpoint was near the gas station where we refueled the day before. There was nothing but ruins. A killed gas station attendant laid on the ground dressed in a work uniform.
As we kept driving, we were joined by several more cars, a total of 6-8 cars. At the 4th or 5th checkpoint, one Russian soldier released us and another fired into the air shouting: “Why are you letting them go?” We heard a whistle near the car. It turned out that occupants were firing at us.
There was a damaged ambulance on the way. People were lying on the ground next to it… What we saw on the Zhytomyr highway resembled a horror movie: supermarkets were smashed, and the asphalt was littered with unexploded ordnance. And on the other side of the highway – a lot of bombed homes in which people once lived. It’s a scary reality.
At the first Ukrainian checkpoint, our soldiers treated our kids with candies. Our boys were shocked. And when I saw people in masks walking in Boyarka near the grocery store, I burst into laughter! There is a coronavirus here! There is life here! We were simply happy to see people in masks.
Later I learned, that shortly after we left the country house, a column of Russian tanks passed through the village. If we had stayed for a few minutes more and left later, we would have jumped on this column, and who knows, maybe we would have repeated the poor fate of that shot family in Bucha.
We had no idea where to head next. We called our friends. We planned to go to the west of the country, away from Kyiv. While we were near Bucha, friends from Poland messaged us, offering their help. But we found it out only when the connection was restored.
We stayed for one night at acquaintances’ place in Uman. They hosted us in the apartment for free. They cooked dinner for us – a soup and dumplings. After all the horror, we did not believe that all this was really happening. That there are Ruscists and almost holy people and they all live on the same land.
The parents of our friends stayed in that village, they did not leave, because they have a farm, and cattle to take care of. Friends left with us, but decided to stop in the west of the country. And we moved on.
We did not have information at the time on whether men with large families were allowed to cross the border. So we decided that I would go to Poland with our children. On the way to the border, we spent the night in Kamyanets-Podilsky. Volunteers hosted us in a kindergarten and fed us, but it was so cold there.
When we reached the border, we stood in line for eight hours. There I learned that my husband could join us. I was so happy, because it is not easy to cope with three boys alone. A week later we were all together.
In my opinion, everything happens for a reason. Probably, we were supposed to be near Bucha then. So we had to learn our lessons. These events made us rethink our lives, compare what we once had and are having in present, and understand the true value of what we are losing. That’s such a strong reset of consciousness…What seemed important has become insignificant. I used to be very worried about everyday things before, but now all I wanted was to survive.
At first, we really hoped the war will end in a couple of weeks. Then we began to realize that it could last a few months, and now they say, it can last for years. But we still sincerely believe that this war will end soon and the development and revival of our country will begin. And Ukraine will, indeed, become a free European country. And we will make our best to make it happen.
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: Iryna Hyliuk | Translation: Victoria Yaremenko