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  • Українці розповідають про пережите під час війни з росією

    Ukrainians talk about their experiences during the war with russia

    Sitlana Bilanova

    “The walls and the windows were shaking from the explosions, the glass was scattering around, the vibrations of the floor were so intense that it almost collapsed under our feet:” The story of a woman from Severodonetsk who spent one month under shelling

    Life under fire

    АвторAuthor: Oleksandr Nikitin | Translation: Nina Tararuyeva

    18 October 2022

    Svitlana Bilova was born in Russia, but she had lived in Severodonetsk for the last 30 years. After the events of 2014, the woman constantly felt that the war was close. On February 24, the first explosions occurred in Severodonetsk. Later, electricity and heating were cut off. In the end of the spring, one shell hit the roof of Svitlana’s house, miraculously, it did not explode. After the event, the woman and her husband decided to evacuate together with their pets to Dnipro city, where she stays until this day. Svitlana says she is ready to go back to Severodonetsk only if it is under Ukraine’s control. The woman shared her story specially for “Monologues of the War”.

    My name is Svitlana. For over 30 years, I had lived in Severodonetsk. Originally, I am from Sankt-Petersburg, Russia. But it just so happened that I moved to Ukraine and fell in love with it with all my soul. Severodonetsk was the best city for me. I’ve never thought of moving from there. When I was young, I worked at “Azot” factory, then I started practicing parapsychology. I finished a special training, received a diploma, and started to become quite successful in the field. Additionally, I discovered my creativity and started making stuffed toys. My toys were shipped all around the country and even abroad. I was quite satisfied with my pre-war life. That is what I was doing, before the war started.

    In 2014, there were also military actions in Severodonetsk. We did not leave the city back then. We accepted the situation as it was, and, of course, when Ukraine returned, we were happy and lived our lives properly. Yes, there was so much grief. Constant shooting and shelling… And it happened not far from our house. At the time, my son worked in a stable in Lysychansk and it burnt. We were evacuating the horses to Novoaidar, and we had to pass through all of those checkpoints. It was so scary. So, I experienced the “beauty” of that time personally.

    I had a feeling that it may happen again one day. Of course, we were expecting it to happen, but not on such a scale. All eight years, living in Severodonetsk, we could hear rumble and explosions time after time because we were close to the “gray zone”. Of course, it was scary. However, for some reason, we were sure that our territory wouldn’t fall under Russia’s control. In 2014, the factory saved us — we were not bombarded because of it. For some reason we hoped that, thanks to the factory, the disaster would spare us. However, that is not what happened. Therefore, we have had premonition of the war not only a few days or weeks prior to February 24, 2022, we had it for the last eight years. All these years, we felt that the war was close. But we hoped it would resolve in a more or less peaceful way. 

    Handmade toys

    The toys made by Svitlana

    We thought the war would unravel somewhere in close proximity to Luhansk and Donetsk. When on February 23, putin delivered his speech, of course, everyone was discussing it. However, it was hard to believe that the events could turn this way.

    “It was so scary because we were running and praying all the way, looking around for a place to hide if something happens” 

    On February 24, when the first explosions happened, we were shocked. But we were still hoping that it wouldn’t affect us. On the same day, the local airfield was destroyed, and strikes on the city began. So, from the very first day we started to hear and feel the explosions. Of course, we were running around, from one room to another, peaking through the windows to see where there was a strike. I don’t remember the exact date, but either on February 24 or the next day, the ammo depots in the city were struck, we were shocked when we saw the columns of smoke. We called all of our friends, acquaintances, and relatives, asking which area was under attack. In general, we were in a state of shock. Our house is on the edge of the city, so we had a good view of Lysychansk from our windows. Therefore, we thought that if they shelled our city from Lysychansk, we would be the first to suffer from the attack. So, we packed the necessary things, documents, and organized a hideout in the corridor, putting some chairs in there. When the powerful explosions happened, we were hiding in the corridor. I will never forget, when the most powerful explosions began, we ran into the corridor, and the floor started to move. I thought that it would collapse under our feet. The walls and the windows were shaking from the explosions, the glass was scattering around, but it felt especially frightening when the floor started to vibrate. Gas and electricity were cut off on the very first days. Only the water supply was more or less stable. We lived by candlelight, in the darkness. In February, it was cold and dark. When the window glass scattered, we covered the windows with regular bed sheets. It was so scary. Later, we started going out occasionally, making a bonfire and cooking on it.

    Severodonetsk under shelling

    Shelling of Severodonetsk

    At first, it was very scary, however, as you know, people can adapt to anything. Therefore, we decided to stock up on food, so we were running around the city under the explosions, “hunting” for humanitarian help for the whole building. People quickly left the city and the ones who stayed were mostly disabled, old or sick. Of course, they couldn’t walk, so my husband and I were trying to get humanitarian aid for everyone. It was so scary because we were running and praying all the way, looking around for a place to hide if something happens. Once, we were caught under shelling. It is impossible to forget. Later, the basements were equipped, so old women lived there. I lived on the sixth floor, but we’ve never gone downstairs to hide in the basement. It would be very uncomfortable because we have a cat and a big dog. That is why we mostly stayed at home.

    “The roof of our building was hit by a shell, luckily, it did not explode”

    We left Severodonetsk on March 26. The reason was the shell that hit the roof of our building, luckily, it did not explode. We used to live in the 4th block, I think the shell hit the 7th. That shell could explode at any moment. On top of that, the water was cut off, so we started to lose our nerves. My son lives in the city of Dnipro, so he said to me, “Mom, you should leave, look for a way to get out of there”. We were trying to leave earlier, but they didn’t let us in the evacuation bus with our big dog. Later they started to take everyone on board, but not in the beginning. Even though there was no mobile service, we managed to hire a car and leave. Me, my husband, our dog and cat, also we took some belongings. While we were driving, it was scary too. My eyes were filled with tears when we were driving through the city.  

    It was extremely hard to evacuate in early March because people were getting to the evacuation trains and private buses on their own, no one would take you there. It was extremely hard, the queues were very long, many people couldn’t even get in the evacuation transport, others were leaving big luggage on the train station, some abandoned their animals. Later, in late March, after we had left, I still had connection with the city.

    During that period, the head of the military administration was trying to convince people to evacuate, he cursed, trying to get people to leave. I think everyone who wanted to leave, had left. However, later I received messages like this, “There is a person who’s sick, I cannot take them downstairs, how can I evacuate them?” I even had this experience myself. There were two women in Lysychansk, they lived not in the center, but in a district that was hard to reach. They lived in someone’s half-ruined house, one of them texted me, “We cannot leave, I cannot find anyone who would help us”. At the time I was in Dnipro, and I knocked on every door to find a solution. We collected money, found a car, and I called the police, a charity organization Donbas SOS, and everyone who could help. These women were evacuated for free, first to Lviv, later one of them went to Poland, now she is in Germany. That is why I am saying that if there is a will to do something, people can do anything. I don’t understand the people who stayed and say that they did not manage to leave. They would, if they wanted to. 

    We were going to Dnipro because my son lives here. He rented an apartment for us and we knew that someone was waiting for us. We continue to live in Dnipro, and even if, God forbid, something happens in Dnipro, we won’t leave, we will stay here. We are not going to leave the country because Ukraine is our home! After 5 month, we completely adapted to the new city, now we rent an apartment and have settled here enough. 

    Evacuation to the city of Dnipro

    Evacuation to Dnipro

    Of course, we want home, we cry for our home. But what can we do? We are waiting and praying to go back to Severodonetsk one day. Currently, I do not have any communication with my home, as I haven’t established a mobile connection with anyone there yet. Of course, there is a house group in a messenger. I know that people who went to Starobilsk or to russia are back now, they say that the situation in the city is rough. However, our house is still holding on. In the end, the bomb that hit our roof was demined. People still live there, but they have nothing, no communications, everything is destroyed. Usually, people who come back have no other place to live. For instance, they have no money to rent an apartment. And there they have at least something, even if it’s ruined, it’s still their own. No person I know recognizes the new authorities, they just went back home. They are trying to settle down, but they say it is extremely hard, so maybe they will have to leave again. 

    “Even if the city is destroyed, we will find the strength to rebuild it”

    Many things have changed for me since the beginning of this war. I am a very sociable person because I participated in many exhibitions with my toys, I was on TV, journalists contacted me a lot. I had a lot of activities associated with communications. Even during the war I tried to post something on social media. On the first days of war, when gas and electricity were cut off, I started to appreciate simple things, like a cup of tea. I was glad that a new morning came, and we survived the night. The values have changed a lot. Before I wanted to buy certain things, but now they have lost their value. We were glad that our relatives were alive and we had something to eat. Everything changed a lot. In the beginning of the war, I thought that people had to come together. But, when I worked with humanitarian aid delivering it, I saw how greed and selfishness manifested themselves in people’s behavior. People started to care only about themselves, not about others. They are ready to kill somebody to improve their own wellbeing. It is scary too. 

    Read also: “Let’s set aside the man of the cloth taking up arms discussion until we win”: the story of Oleksandria priest defending Ukraine

    Of course, I am planning on going back to Severodonetsk after the victory. Even if the city is destroyed, we will find the strength to rebuild it. Severodonetsk is Ukraine! Therefore, we will rebuild it together, no matter how hard it will be. Even if there’s no gas, electricity, and water, I will go back without hesitation, if only the city is under control of our Ukrainian administration.

    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: Nina Tararuyeva

    Life under fire

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