АвторAuthor: Iryna Hyliuk | Translation: Hanna Dzhyhaliuk
18 August 2022
In 2014, when the first explosions were heard in Severodonetsk, Valentyna Chernikova was waiting for the birth of her daughter. In 2022, she was already saving her from shelling in the basements. The war took away the girl’s childhood and hometown. And her parents were deprived of the sense of security and faith in the future. 10 years of married life were able to fit into two travel bags and three backpacks. Valentyna Chernikova told our project what children of the war think and say.
In 2014, when Severodonetsk was shelled, I was pregnant. Then it seemed like something big and scary. I lived alone, my husband and my brother went abroad to earn money and they did not see all of this. And our apartment was just in the area that was shelled.
What happened then and now is, as they say, worlds apart. But people went to shelters, hid in the basements of houses. I was there once and never went again, because at that time it really impressed me. I was staying in my apartment.
“There were no hostilities in Severodonetsk then. That’s why we can say that everything was more or less calm.”
The russians entered quietly, drove through the city, showed that ‘here we are, the government has changed.’ They stayed for two weeks, didn’t touch local women, but there were cases when men disappeared. I tried not to go out into the city more than necessary. That’s how we survived it.
“The fact that I was pregnant during the war affected my daughter: we have a speech development delay. We have been treating it all this time, and now we are going to a psychologist and eliminating the consequences of 2022 as well.”
The events that are happening now are terrible, especially for children. To see how they are going through all this, what they are saying… It is tough.
On the morning of February 24, I went out for a walk with my dog and learned from other dog owners that there would be a war. I asked where they heard about it. It turned out that it was from russian news. I replied that they should not listen to it at all and not spread the nonsense.
“Literally half an hour later, my brother, who’s in the military, calls me and says: “Don’t take your kid to school today, because something terrible is going to happen.” And in half an hour he asked me to prepare my documents and money.”
I took my daughter to my parents, and went to work. I work in a ritual service. There I heard the first explosions. My husband was also at work, his shift starts at 5 am, because he works as a forwarder, delivering products.
At 10 o’clock my friends from Kharkiv called me and said that the Belgorod border was demolished. Then a call from Novopskov, Luhansk region, saying that the russians had crossed the border. And then my brother confirmed that the war had begun. I remember asking him:
‘Will it be like in 2014?’
‘No, it was a walk in the park back then. Now all hell will break loose’.
I took time off work, and when I went outside they were shooting. We’d heard it before. We knew a little about what may happen. But the first day was still complete chaos.
“There were a lot of soldiers in the city, and you don’t understand where they came from. A bunch of police cars, everyone is running somewhere. You can’t get into the transport. Queues near ATMs. Queues in shops. Queues in pharmacies.”
At home, I quickly packed my things, called a taxi, and picked up my child from my parents. What next? My husband was in another city, and would return only in the evening. I didn’ know what to do. I didn’t know where to run.
We lived in the city center on the 5th floor of a 5-story building. It was scary to go home. We have a bomb shelter at work, and our family lived there for a week together with some other employees.
We were lucky: the ritual service had its own kitchen and dining room, so we could make some food. But we were very cold. My child and mother-in-law fell ill, so we moved from there to my husband’s cousin, who lives on the first floor. We came there, and it looked like a can of sardines. All relatives were packed in the 3-room apartment. We stayed there for 3 days.
We left a cat at home, and took the dog with us. It is a 45-minute walk from the shelter to the house, in peacetime. But when they shoot and the military vehicles drive by, you run up these streets as fast as you can.
“At first I decided to walk along the roadway. You walk in one direction quietly. You return, and there is already a missile. You walk along the sidewalk, and it’s the same: there everything is fine, back – the road is destroyed. Then I started walking under the walls of residential buildings. Again, as soon as you turn around – the missiles have struck and there are holes in the houses. And you understand that you could be there at that moment… It’s terrible.”
We returned home from the cousin’s place. We lived in the corridor for a week, but it is small. When my husband went on a business trip, there was enough space for my daughter and me. But when he spent the nights at home, we turned the chairs to the window in the living room and lay down on the floor. My husband told me and my daughter to go to the corridor to sleep, but I refused. Worst case scenario: we would all die together.
We made food when we could. I rarely went out for food, we were saved by the fact that my husband was in delivery and he could bring home everything we needed. Queues at the stores were 3-4 hours long. It is difficult to stand there with a kid. She was crying and saying: “I am afraid to go outside, because they are shooting there.”
“Sometimes missiles hit the queues that gathered near the stores… That is, you go to buy groceries and realize that you may not come back.”
We didn’t close the apartment door, just in case. Because anything could happen. Sometimes we had to run out in the middle of the night.
On March 8, our block was heavily shelled. My daughter’s godmother’s parents live in the house next door, so they barely managed to escape from the living room. The projectile flew into the apartment. They jumped out in their pajamas. And if they hadn’t had time, they would all be dead.
“On this day, a missile struck the kindergarten, which my child attended. From March 9 to 10, we spent the night in the basement. My girl began to stutter…”
My mother worked at a vocational school and she and my father hid there. After these shellings, we joined them. It was warm and nice in that bomb shelter. The Red Cross was with them there, and they also provided some equipment – refrigerators, microwave ovens, electric ovens. It was possible to cook some food. We slept on mats, it was not the worst option. We stayed with my parents in a bomb shelter for a week.
The shelling was unstoppable. My mother was afraid to go upstairs. She once went to throw out garbage and came under fire. If it hadn’t been for the men standing outside smoking, I don’t know if she would be alive…
“My husband and I came under fire twice, and it was so terrible that we thought that was it. Thank God, we made it.”
But I went outside every day to see what was happening. You go out and see that your city is simply being destroyed. Infrastructure is half the problem. Everything can be rebuilt. But to see the residential blocks being wiped off the face of the earth… And it was not simple shells that they used, but the phosphorus ones.
“If a projectile hits an apartment, the house is left with a hole in it. And if it is phosphorus, it causes a fire. When it hit the 5th floor of a high-story building, all three sections burned down…”
And these phosphorus shells started flying as soon as the curfew began. This is after 5 pm, when the firefighters could no longer come, then heavy shelling began. Not just houses, but whole neighborhoods burned down. We had a microdistrict, it was called “New” because it was the last to be built in the city. So it was simply destroyed with phosphorus shells. It’s all black now.
On March 13, a friend from Kramatorsk called me. They lived in a private house and it collapsed while they were in the basement. She didn’t know if she would be able to get out. So she called to say goodbye to me and her life. Fortunately, their neighbors managed to unearth them.
After that, I told my husband that we had to go. I didn’t know where. But it had to be done. He returned from Kostyantynivka on March 15 and we left on March 16. By a pure miracle.
“We don’t have a car, so we left by bus. We noticed that it leaves at 7 am, and from 6 o’clock the shelling began. It happened this time as well. We left at 6 o’clock, it was quiet outside. And in a few minutes, the shelling began. It’s good that my husband asked a friend to pick us up by car, so we jumped in and drove away.”
Now I’m in Cherkasy. I really like it here, it reminds me of Severodonetsk. But I want to go home, you can’t even imagine! I would go home on foot… But there is nowhere to go. The city is no more.
Death does not scare me. Working in a ritual service, I encountered it every working day. There were many deaths in the city, both from explosions and from heart disease. People couldn’t bear it. But I was calm about it. But when children suffer, it’s horrifying…
What impressed me the most was when people were fighting in the market for some chicken legs. There was a long line, and one man took 10 kg at once. People started shouting at him to leave some to others. He explained that he didn’t take it for himself, but for all the inhabitants of the basement.
“And there was a girl with three children standing in line. She was crying and saying: “Leave at least three pieces for my children.” The hardest thing was not to sit in basements, not the shelling, but the fact that there would be no food left for your children.”
Since we are from the ATO zone, my daughter has heard explosions all her life. I explained to her that there is a war in Ukraine, since 2014 they are trying to take our lands from us, we are defending it. She understands everything, and knows that her uncle is a soldier. She always says: “My uncle will protect us.”
“I have a nephew, he is 4 years old. He knows where the missiles come from, how they strike, what it does and where to run. This is scary.”
When we heard the first explosion in Cherkasy, at first my daughter did not understand what had happened, but I said that there was a cargo port next to us, maybe something had fallen somewhere.
“And in the evening before going to sleep, my daughter says: “Mom, that was an explosion, wasn’t it? And is it possible that it strikes once and we all die? I don’t want to run to the basements anymore.”
Then I cried all night. It is the most terrible thing to hear from your child.
A child you couldn’t take away from the street, who used to run around with her friends in the yard until 10 pm, but who now refuses to go outside. We started attending various classes, signed up for the taekwondo section. She liked it and has been attending it for three months. The coach praises her. That’s how she loosened up a little.
She believes in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, in her military uncle, and that’s what matters.
When it got warmer, and children went outside with their bicycles, I started looking for a scooter for my child in Cherkasy. And we have a brand new bicycle and a scooter left at home. My daughter started crying, saying: “go back and bring it here.”
I was advised to contact Anya the volunteer. I wrote to her, she asked what was needed, what the height is, took a photo and disappeared. And in 2 weeks, she sends me a message that almost killed me (in a good way): “I’m sorry it took so long.”
“It turned out that Anya was collecting money for a scooter for a complete stranger! And there are thousands of people like us. She collected funds, and then started looking for the right model in the right color and brought a similar one to the one we had!”
I come home, and my daughter tells me: “Mommy! You couldn’t bring me my scooter, but aunt Anya did!”.
But I have never seen this girl with my eyes! She’s a stranger. And for a long time I did not know what to write to her. Then I texted her, saying thanks, but it was just a word flow, just emotions. Now we are friends.
There are many good and kind people there. They help a lot. I don’t know how we would live without them… People give you clothes and equipment. I am very grateful to them.
As it turned out, 10 years of marriage can fit into two bags and three backpacks, one of which is a child’s.
“Talking about it is one thing, understanding is another, and accepting is difficult. When you worked, made plans, but were left with nothing. And I’m still young, I have a life ahead of me. I have to pull myself together and start doing something, but it’s hard. I’ve been in Cherkasy for 4 months, and I can’t come to my senses…”
Someone loses it at first, it depends on the character. I am strong, so I broke down later. I understand that life goes on, that a child needs to be put back on her feet, but I don’t know how anything can be good when there is a war in my country, when people are constantly dying, families are broken, children become not only orphans, but also crippled. I don’t know how to put myself together.
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: Hanna Dzhyhaliuk