АвторAuthor: Oleksandr Nikitin | Translation: Victoria Morokhovets
11 September 2022
Yuliia Pavlova lived in the village of Ukrainka, near Zaporizhia, and was running the project “Children’s Eco Village”, which provided housing to families with adopted children. Julia and her husband felt that Russia would start a war and knew that they would leave for a safe place. Julia’s child caught an intestinal infection in a church shelter near Uzhhorod, so the family went further to Vienna, looking for shelter and medical care. Eventually, the family moved to Germany, where Julia began volunteering and helping people who found themselves in occupation. Russians practically destroyed what Julia had been working on in recent years: they occupied the houses of the project, expelled people from there and mined the surrounding area. Yulia speaks about the project “Children’s Eco Village”, leaving Ukraine, volunteering and life in Europe exclusively for “War Monologues.”
My name is Yulia Pavlova, I am from Zaporizhzhia. For the last five years, my husband and I had lived in Zaporizhzhia region in the small village of Ukrainka, Vasylivskyi district. I’m a psychotherapist, but this is my new job, which I came to through charity. I am a volunteer and one of the leaders of the Children’s Eco Village project. This is a project that provided homes to families that adopted orphans into their families. My husband and I are adoptive parents, too. We have four adopted children in our family, and we also have an adopted adult with a mental disability, who, in fact, is also like a child. For the last five years, we had lived in this village, worked on the development of the project, built houses, equipped them, found new adoptive parents and helped to take children into their families. In total, there were 5 such houses in our project and currently they are all occupied. Most of the families left, but two of them remained in occupation. One of the reasons is that they bring up children with severe developmental disabilities and it’s technically difficult to take them out. So, these families are waiting to be freed in their houses.
We’d had a feeling of a possible war sometime since October. As of 20th of January, this premonition had only been increasing. We were watching a lot of BBC news in order to improve our English, and there everything was presented in such a way that there was a nightmare happening in Ukraine, and it was going to get even worse. I even went outside to see if it was really that bad. Two weeks before the war, we made a little trip — my husband, our younger children and I went to Mariupol via Berdyansk. We were looking at these cities and thinking to ourselves, if there was anything that could be done about it? In fact, I was very impressed with Mariupol and how it had changed in recent years. Its waterfront resembled some German recreation town. We were renting an apartment in the city center and it seemed no worse than in Europe. But, I understand that apartment doesn’t exist any more, and neither exist the square and the playgrounds… During our trip, a feeling of war was already in the air. We were looking out the window every hour, checking the situation to see if the invasion had begun.
Since we live in a village, on February 23, many people, obviously under the influence of alcohol, began to remember in the village chat how they served in the Soviet army. Because of this, people began to argue saying: “How can you post things like these at the time when a war is about to start any minute!?“ In that mood, we lived in those days. Although, we knew for sure that if the war began, we would leave, because we have a lot of children in our family. We also had a lot of pets and we understood that we could not take them out all, it was physically impossible. Our car is designed for 8 seats, and we also took my husband’s older daughters from his first marriage from Zaporizhzhya when we were leaving. So in an eight-seater, we had 13 people and one cat that we definitely couldn’t leave behind. So we were urgently looking for people who could live in our house and feed the animals. On February 23, my husband and I were talking for a very long time, till about 2 a.m.
On 24th of February, I woke up and was preparing for a usual working day. I was about to wake up the children and get them ready for school. While they were waking up, I opened the news and realized that no one would go to school today. I woke up my husband and told him that the war had begun. Of course, it was all with tears in my eyes. Then I called my sons. My eldest son was living in Zaporizhzhia and studying in the 10th grade of the lyceum because our village does not have a very good education system. We lived between two homes — we had an apartment in the city and this big house outside the city. So I called my son and told him to pack, because the war had begun. In a word, I awakened everyone I could with my calls. We understood that we were going to act according to the plan. Since we lived between two homes for several years, both us and each of the children knew what things we should take along. So, we dropped everything that we managed to pack into the car and drove away. When we were going to leave, it was already loud, because we live near Vasylivka, Tokmak and Melitopol. Before waking up my family, I went outside the house and remotely heard some heavy explosions. So, we got ready very quickly, filled a full tank of gasoline, took the older children from Zaporizhzhya and went away. Near our apartment in Zaporizhzhya, we went to a store to buy food for the journey. There was a huge line all the way to the street, although it was a small shop where there were usually 2-3 people.
We didn’t even have a plan where to go. Finally, we decided that we should go as far as possible to the west of Ukraine, where it would be safe. We drove practically without stops, until we could. The tension was growing, the children began to understand that this was really the beginning of the war, because everyone had subscribed to all possible channels in Telegram. We were constantly monitoring what was happening in the country and where exactly. We reached a shelter because my husband’s daughter is a parishioner of one of the churches. And churches have very quick response in such situations, they have large dwellings and basements, where they received those who were fleeing from the war. The first shelter we stayed in was in Kropyvnytskyi. We reached that church when it was already night. We were fed, we recharged all our phones and power banks. We stayed overnight there and in the morning carried on with our journey. We were only able to reach Ternopil, where we also stayed overnight in a church shelter. It was very nicely organized: large premises, there were many volunteers, people, including those with pets. We were accommodated in a sleeping room with 50-60 beds. In the morning, we were also fed and we carried on. But the next day it was very difficult to drive because of big traffic jams. There were also checkpoints with the territorial defense personnel in Western Ukraine and they were positioned nearly every 5 meters. Therefore, we only reached a small town near Uzhhorod, not far from the border, in about 15 hours. We also found a church shelter there, where we stayed for a few days. We really didn’t want to go abroad and we were even thinking about looking for a house in this town. But, it was impossible to live in that shelter and the number of people that locality had accommodated was 10 times more than lived there. And it was only 4-5th day of the war.
The children began to get sick, they caught some kind of intestinal infection. The youngest child, 3 years old, fell ill the most. He started vomiting, having diarrhea and high fever. So we came up with the idea that it would be safer to go somewhere in Europe. And all of our friends and volunteers who helped with our charitable foundation advised us to leave. One of my friends sent me information about opening of a shelter for Ukrainians in Vienna. And it was no longer possible to live in the shelter where we were staying, on the top of that they wanted to relocate our cat somewhere. And I couldn’t give him away, because he’s like another child to us. So at about 8-9 p.m. we decided that we would go further, trying to cross the border. We checked out that the smallest line was on the border with Hungary, so we went there through the Carpathians at night.
The child was already feeling very bad and everyone else wasn’t feeling well either. But in general, everyone was already exhausted and nervous. Police helped us when they saw that our child was not well. Even despite the little queue, they took us to the border and we crossed it fairly quickly, on the night of March 1. Then we were driving all the night to Budapest. There we made a stop just somewhere in the middle of the embankment, because my husband had been driving all night through. And I spent the whole night with children who had some tantrums and it was all very difficult. Some of our children have certain mental conditions, so I took them for a walk in Budapest so that my husband could rest for at least a couple of hours in the car. When we parked in the center of Budapest, a stranger who was just passing by saw our car, which is branded and it says “Let’s help Ukrainian children“. This man saw that we had a car full of children, went into McDonald’s and bought a bag of different burgers and additionally put 500 Hungarian forints there. We ate these burgers, cheered up a bit and bought some tea and coffee in that McDonald’s as well. We walked around Budapest and even took some pictures with the last of our strength. We went back to the car and decided to go to Vienna, because the small child was getting worse.
When we got there, it turned out that we were the first Ukrainians to enter that shelter. They didn’t know what to do with us at all. I ran into shouting: «I need doctor!» But the medics who were there said they were just nurses. I said, “Ok! Get the ambulance! Hospital!“, whatever. My husband remained with the children in the shelter, and the small child and I were taken to the hospital, the child was provided with assistance. Compared to Ukrainian hospitals, it was as if we had got on some kind of a spaceship. The child vomited right on the documents. But the nurse reassured us: “That’s ok, that’s ok! No problem! “. I only imagined what would have happened to us if this had been in our Zaporizhzhya hospital! They said they had to hospitalize us, asked if there was anyone available to stay with our other children.
We were hospitalized and these were just incredible conditions and I had a cultural shock. The child was immediately connected to the droppers, I was given clean clothes, because the child had been vomiting on me all day. Then the child started misbehaving and said that she wanted nothing but a lollipop. After 5 minutes, they found it somewhere and brought it to us. We spent another 3 days in that hospital, and the rest of the family was transferred from the shelter to a hostel. There, volunteers (friends of our friends) came to visit the children and entertained them in every possible way. While I was in hospital, all the personnel came to us and offered their help. And I was like crazy, I couldn’t calm down and I kept repeating to everyone: “We have a terrible war there! They are bombing our peaceful cities!” It seems to me that for the first two months the only thing I did was telling every person about what was happening in Ukraine.
After we had been cured, we didn’t manage to find a house in Vienna that could accommodate our large family. And at the time, we were offered a house in Germany, in a resort town in Southern Bavaria. It’s something like our Bukovel, but in the foothills of the Alps. It’s quite a spacious house, so we decided to go to Germany, even though I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t follow Arestovych, I didn’t even know who he was, but I really was sure that the war would last 2-3 weeks at most. And that’s what I was considering while packing. I left behind at home a lot of valuable things, like vyshyvankas (embroidered national shirts) and a flag. It was important for me to leave them at home, as a sign that we would be back soon. But when my 2-3 weeks’ prophecy didn’t come true, I was still convinced that by summer the war would be over and nothing would be wrong if we lived in Germany until then. And here we are – still in this house.
We were very warmly welcomed here. We are living in a resort town where the rich elderly Germans live. This is classic Bavaria, which hasn’t changed much since 17-19th centuries. When they put on their national clothes, you can’t understand at all that you are in the 21st century. Especially when they hide their Teslas. Every day people would come to us and ask what we needed. And it seems to me that we needed everything at that time. Because all we had was a little bit of money that was donated to us by friends with the words: “You’ve been doing charity for many years, let us help you now!” In Germany, people brought us scooters, bicycles, toys, clothes, backpacks, food, money. And I kept telling them that there was a real war going on in our country. People here are not very determined to help the war. They say that if they help, a nuclear war will break out. And people here have a negative attitude towards the United States. These are so called orthodox Bavarians. Hitler was also born here not far away from where we are.
We stayed here and we were thinking all the time about what to do next, because we are volunteers and activists. It’s not like us going to a safe place and hiding. All this time, I as a psychotherapist, have been giving many consultations, probably starting every day, since the time we stopped in the shelter near Uzhhorod. And here in Germany, I had 5-7 consultations. But there was still a great feeling of guilt that we had fled, it seemed that we were not doing enough.
Russian troops entered our village on 3rd-5th day of the war, and hostilities started there. There were Russian tanks in our yard. People came to our house from the villages which were located near the highway and they were the first to be bombed. And our house accommodated up to 40 people. But then russians came to our village on tanks. It was easy to find, because we were publicizing our project, putting geotags. Of course, there are posh houses in the area and it was very attractive for them. Russians expelled people and for about 5 days they lived in the nearby villages. But then they left our village. Russians occupied our community, but they dug up somewhere in nearby villages. Behind our house there is an uninhabited village where people no longer live. They used to come into our villages from time to time. We were in constant contact with people, organized a point of assistance to the residents of our community. At that time, it was not possible to send many things, only some diapers, baby food and medications. Nothing else could be sent because there were a lot of check points. Then, when russians occupied Melitopol, they opened some shops where people could go and buy groceries. Our foundation provides medications to severely ill children with various orphan diseases. These medications are very expensive, but our fund purchased and provided them to the children of Zaporizhzhya region, as well as to those of Mariupol. When the occupation began, it became very difficult to provide children with medications. The rashists stole them for some reason. And these medications are very specific, they cannot be taken by ordinary people.
All this time we have been persuading people to leave, because there is nothing to do in occupation, especially for children. But on a big scale people started leaving just now. Because the rashists said they would take the kids away if they didn’t go to school. And if you’re dealing with terrorists, they can actually do it. After all, they take the activists in Zaporizhzhya captive. Therefore, people’s resistance is not possible, only some guerrillas. Currently, we are helping with evacuation to families with children to Zaporizhzhia or further to Europe. Now we‘re not talking about the shame that we fled, now it‘s about keeping our children safe and alive. Russians brought some of their teachers, they’re allocating them in our houses. One family from our project left only 2-3 weeks ago. They were in occupation until the last moment and were eager to preserve our house and property.
In fact, it was very hard work. But, then, russians began to enter the house, just as if it was their property. They could just walk into the house at 2 a.m. to wash something and do their laundry and say that it seemed to them as if some men were walking around there. It was impossible to put up with it. And at one point, the rashists simply said to them, “Leave, we will not let you live in peace here anyway.“ After the last families had left, the russian military just moved to our houses. They looted all the property and there was nothing left. Our houses have become headquarters of the occupiers. When I found out about all this, of course, it hurt a lot. That’s what was simply stolen from us! It’s not even about what our family did, hundreds of people from all over the world contributed to our project. They helped us build and equip these houses. Volunteers from all over the world came to see our project. At the moment when the children started feeling something, it was stolen from them yet again! Russians broke into our houses and looted everything, expelled people from there and are using our property for their needs. 30 children were forced to leave their homes with foster parents, because they were simply expelled by russians. They’ve also mined our land. I don’t know when the time will come that it will be safe to bring our children there. Children are used that these 4 hectares are their territory where they can run safely. But now there are shells, mines and trip wires around the house. How much time and manpower does it take to defuse all this? I know for sure that if the war ends tomorrow, in a month or even in six months, it will still be dangerous to go to our house. There will still be a dozen “Patron” (demining) dogs needed to clear all of it. Russians have cut off the gas supply, took down the electricity poles and I do not understand how to restore it all, so that it is safe for children. We didn’t take them 2,000 kilometers away to return home and step on a mine.
In such difficult reflection, we are now in Germany. We’re helping children to adapt, they’re attending a German school. German school is somewhat reminiscent of the Soviet one. Local teachers wonder why Ukrainian children are making such slow progress in learning German. But, in fact, they just don’t understand what they need this German language for. As a psychologist and as a translator in one person, I organized a round table with teachers and Ukrainian children. In fact, all Ukrainian children want to go home. Some families are planning to stay here. Most of them are people who are used to such work as washing floors or dishes. European money for them is a new universe. People who had a business in Ukraine and were engaged in some important business are not really planning to stay in Germany.
At the moment, we are just watching the situation. We have several ideas of what to do next — either to return to some relatively safe part of Ukraine, after something becomes clear there, or, alternatively, to go further to an English-speaking country. We want our children to be able to integrate abroad and be useful for Ukraine as well. I understand that in Bavaria it is a very difficult task. We’re all a little bit degrading here because we don’t understand how we can be useful. Even though my volunteer therapeutic activities are ongoing and my husband and I are helping our charitable foundation so that Ukrainian families could flee or live in the conditions of war. I understand that the war has become the norm and an integral part of people’s lives in Ukraine. Especially, this concerns our Zaporizhzhya region, 67% of which is now occupied. There are ongoing hostilities and attacks on Zaporizhzhya itself. As a result of these, one of my clients died. I understand that it is definitely impossible to take children there now.
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: Victoria Morokhovets