АвторAuthor: Vera Korolchenko | Translation: Anna Shliakhova
27 September 2022
Larysa Boyko met the war in Sievierodonetsk where she had worked in the local factory “Azov” for more than thirty years. Part of her family is still under the occupation and her husband is serving in the AFU. Larysa managed to flee the city at the beginning of March and it wasn’t easy. Only after the evacuation did she find out that one of her ex-colleagues had set fire to their workplace. Larysa told the “Monologues of the War” project about this and war life in Sievierodonetsk.
On the 23rd of February I ended my singing lesson at 6pm. I didn’t take the trolleybus as usual but, instead, I decided to walk home by foot through the whole city. I had a strange feeling beforehand. I wanted to walk through Sievierodonetsk and remember it as it was back then: a bright city with beautiful avenues. Walking, I was happy. Children were riding around on scooters, mothers were walking with strollers, there were a lot pf people on the streets. Despite being February, it was warm. No-one wore a hat. I tried to remember every moment. I walked past the “Budivelnyk” cultural centre, Peremoga square, “Hytrij” market, and went to the “Depo” area. Walking, I was thinking: “Is it possible that all this will fall over soon, the whole world we live in?”
After the ATO, Sievierodonetsk was as if stilled. Before 2017 the city was already empty at 7pm. It didn’t matter if it was summer or winter, after work people ran shopping and then home. We had gotten accustomed to it since 2014. Only in the last few years was the city back to life. Maybe, youth grew up and felt more free. Boys weren’t afraid to go outside anymore. They started to set off fireworks. They could go outside to sing songs with a guitar. As it turned out, peaceful life did not last long.
On the 24th of February I woke up at 5am, although there were no explosions yet. I just woke up on my own. My windows overlooked the forest. I opened them and just started to look into the distance and listen. At 6am my brother called me and said: “Larysa, the war has begun. Kharkiv is under shelling. My friends from there told me about it.” An hour later my daughter called me from Kyiv and said that the Zhulyany airport was under bombing. I started to think about packing a grab-and-go bag. My bed linen was not ironed and, for some reason, I started to iron it.
For us, the first explosion was about 9:30am, and it was very strong. Our house was trembling and my ironing board almost fell over — I caught it falling down. I was so afraid of the thought that a nine-storey building would fold like a cardboard box. I left everything and went to my brother who lived in a building nearby. At that moment cellars and basements were already open. Together with my brother, we went to check where it could be safe to hide from the shelling.
About 6pm a column of our tanks drove through the city. The loud hum lasted about an hour and a half. There was already fighting somewhere in the distance but not in the city, yet. We even took a risk spending that night at home. The next night Ukrainian soldiers started to walk on the roofs. One of the officers told us that a Russian column was coming from Aydar to Sievierodonetsk. For that reason the AFU were about to hold position near our house and, for the residents, it would be better to leave it. He warned us that our houses would be hit directly by Russian tanks. I had already known since 2014 that it’s really scary when a tank fires directly at something.
My brother and I decided to go further inside the city and hide in the cellar of my nephew’s house. So, I was there till the 5th of March when I left on an evacuation train.
On the 26th of February , the morning shelling of the city began, we heard volleys of Grad MLRS. When the shelling ceased, I tried to get to my home in the “Depo” district but couldn’t. Everything was dug up around our house: our guys were digging trenches.
On the 27th of February I went home again and this time I managed to get there. I didn’t know it was my last time there. There was already no electricity, elevators didn’t work, all the entrances were open. It was dark, and also armed soldiers walked around there. I was so scared. Fighters warned me not to stay for a long time because they were anticipating an aircraft strike. I ran to the sixth floor, opened my door with shaking hands not knowing what I should take. I knew that I needed some pillows, blankets and food for the bomb shelter. But I wasn’t going to leave the city, so I didn’t take any personal things. I took those things that everyone might use in the bomb shelter. Even at that moment, somehow, I didn’t think it would be so serious. We didn’t believe that our city could be erased from the Earth’s surface.
When I got back to the bomb shelter the first really heavy shelling began. They hit civilian houses directly. The first three people died.
In new districts of the city, heating was shut down on the 25th of February, then on the 26th the electricity and gas went off, water supply was cut off at the beginning of March. As our bomb shelter was in the old part of the city, the utilities still continued to function, so women went up to their apartments to cook something. If shelling began, they ran immediately down to the basement, sometimes not even locking the door.
Firstly, Russians shelled in the morning from 5am till 7am or after 12am at night, but not for long, about forty minutes. We seized the moments of stillness. Some people even managed to wait out the shelling in the basement and then went up to their apartments to sleep.
During the shelling so many people crammed into the basement that it was even hard to breathe. There were about 35 constant residents of the basement, but sometimes there were even more than 70 people.
A lot of youths were in our basements. Everyone brought everything they could. Boys found car tires somewhere and brought them. We wrapped them and turned them into places for sitting. Someone brought a big carpet, another one brought sofa pillows. We put everything on the floor for the children. We had children there from 3 to 14. They played on the floor and we sat around watching them.
At first, some stores were still open, but there were only dumplings, vodka and cigarettes on the shelves. True, bread was baked in the city until the last: the bakery continued to work throughout March despite taking a direct hit.
At the beginning of March, Russians started directly hitting pharmacies and food stores. Then they bombed our “Khytryi” (cunning, literally) market. During one of the shellings people were killed. They were queuing at a pharmacy.
We were lucky because a woman from our basement worked at a wholesale food base. Once, she managed to go to her work and brought us everything we asked her to.
Humanitarian aid was distributed in the city, but we didn’t receive it. Only once at the beginning of March a Ukrainian soldier came to the basement and handed out condensed milk to the children. He told the men: “Get your beautiful women out of the city”.
Taxis operated in the city, but it was impossible to reach the operator. The line was constantly busy. You could order a taxi only if you had the phone number of a driver. People often took taxis to Lysychansk, because evacuation trains started to run from there and there were too few buses from Sievierodonetsk; they didn’t have enough space for everyone who wanted to flee.
Due to shelling, ambulances often came too late. On the second floor of the house where we hid, an elderly woman had a stroke. Due to the bombing, she was taken to hospital only the next morning.
At first, the fire brigade responded to calls, but there were so many fires because of shelling that just physically, they couldn’t put all the fires out. Sometimes the buildings burned down so quickly that it made no sense for the fire service to come. In particular, the Russians used the Solntsepyok TOS to shell the city. So some buildings burned down completely. Since 2014 we had known that the Grad lunch systems couldn’t trigger such a big fire.
If only you could see what the Russians did to Sievierodonetsk! It’s the second Mariupol. It’s so unbelievably scary…
Before the war I worked at the local factory “Azot”. I started working there in 1990, and I didn’t change my workplace for 32 years. At first, I was a lab technician. Lastly, after the lab was closed, I moved to the Department of Regime and Security as a security guard.
My work shift was to be on the 26th of February, but after the war began the management ordered all the women to stay at home. Men from our department kept working. They guarded the perimeter of the factory. It was huge. Like Azovstal, it was a city within the city. The men moved there and worked around the clock. They slept in a factory bomb shelter.
The factory stopped working after the war began. We had ammonia, urea, ammonium nitrate, and strong nitric acid there. All this was taken away from the territory of the plant. At the beginning of March, after heavy shelling began, the management allowed the workers and their families to hide in the factory bomb shelters. Later, they let everyone in.
Although the plant stopped working, we still chatted with our colleagues. We realized that there was a traitor among us. The person behaved in such a way that it was impossible not to suspect him of collaboration. He posted photos at times when there was no electricity and no internet connection in the city. He could drive through the city without fear, because he knew where shelling was at the moment. He wasn’t afraid. He always knew who was shelling and where. He knew about what was destroyed in the city. Of course, I am not the Security Service of Ukraine, but together with my colleagues we decided that this person directed the fire to the city and the plant. He worked there and he knew exactly where everything was located. Rushists bombed all the crucial facilities of it. The factory can’t work without them.
I started cursing him in our chat. I told him everything I was thinking about him. After that he posted a rushists propaganda video, in which Buryats were coming into the city through my district. I saw exactly my house and my entrance in that video. He posted it to the chat purposely with a comment: “Maybe, someone would like to see their own houses”. I realized that it was about me. I left the chat after that.
My daughter from Kyiv kept calling me and telling me that I had to flee. Maybe I would have stayed longer if it had not been for my illness. Just before the war in the middle of February I was discharged from the hospital. I had to be on a strict diet, but the food in the bomb shelter was limited. And it became even harder to find medicine in the city. Pharmacies made lists and then they tried to find medicine that was needed. People called pharmacies that weren’t bombed yet and got appointments in a few days.
When we heard about a new evacuation train from Lysychansk, together with one more family from our bomb shelter, we decided to take the risk and flee. When we arrived at the railway station, I was shocked by the number of children aged one month and older there. The line to the train was enormous. At first, there was a line for tickets where one should write their name, date of birth and passport number. It was impossible to get on the train without this ticket. We almost got the tickets when an announcement was made. They said that there were no more places on this train. I started panicking. I knew that if I couldn’t get on this train, I would go to Sievierodonetsk by foot on the road that was under the fire. I had to find the audacity to try to get on the train without this ticket. I ran to one of the carriages and I was lucky to be allowed in.
I got to a sleeping car. The whole corridor was filled with bags, cats, dogs and parrots. I was lucky to get into a compartment. There were eight of us. Two people slept head-to-toe on each shelf. Near me was a woman from Taiwan. She did Thai massage in Sievierodonetsk. The embassy representative waited for her in Poland to help her to get home from Europe.
A man slept on the floor in our compartment. We gave him all the blankets, so he could put them on the floor. I gave him my winter jacket as a blanket. Some people slept just in the corridor on their jackets among the bags. Opposite our compartment sat a woman with a cat. I slept half a night and then let her sleep on my half of the shelf. I took her pet. Other people from our compartment also gave their places to people from the corridor.
We went through Popasna. It wasn’t occupied yet. When we were arriving at Kharkiv we had to turn all the lights down for a black-out. We spent a long time somewhere in steppe. We saw in the windows bombing in the distance. Such a journey to Lviv took 32 hours.
From Lviv I went to Zakarpattia, where my daughter had been evacuated from Kyiv. I was a little bit afraid of going there but I was met so warmly. People are very kind and friendly there.
It was difficult for me to start speaking Ukrainian but half a year later I can speak very quickly. No-one ever made a complaint about me speaking Russian there. People answered me in Russian, no problems. Our neighbours in the village were wonderful people. They gave us clothes, often helped with food. If they cooked something they always brought it to us.
I left Sievierodonetsk without anything. I took only my papers and money. I had only some lingerie, a pair of woollen socks and a pair of stockings with me. That was all that I had when I came to Zakarpattia. Later, I received some clothes from the local centre for humanitarian aid.
My cousins and their families stayed in Sievierodonetsk. My parents stayed in a village near the city. One of my cousins hid in the basement at home, the other one was in the Azot plant until rushists arrived there. According to my parents, rushists weren’t so violent there as they were in Bucha. Still, they took away Ukrainian activists. They still don’t know where they are and if they are alive.
For now, Ukrainian mobile operators don’t work in my native city. There are only some companies of so-called “LNR”. We can call each other over the internet, only.
In June, when the city was already completely occupied, my father managed to get out of the village to Sievierodonetsk to check what had happened with my house. I was lucky that my apartment wasn’t damaged badly. Only a piece of wall fell on my bed. The occupiers did not touch most of the things. They only took all the men’s clothes and some dinnerware.
Now, in Sievierodonetsk there are Buryats, Chechens and some other military, who hardly speak Russian. There is garbage everywhere. There are no utilities at all. People wash themselves and their clothes in ponds nearby.
Rubles and hryvnias are circulating simultaneously in the city. Almost all the stores are bombed out. Only one supermarket stayed more or less undamaged. A store from Luhansk has moved there. Prices are enormous there. They are several times higher than they were before.
At the moment the war began my husband was on a business trip. He should have come home at the beginning of March. As it was, we met with him at Zakarpattia. When he told me that we needed to talk, I expected everything except what he told me. He just confronted me with the fact: “I’m a man and I have to defend Ukraine”. Of course, I cried.
He went to the military commissariat and served in the Territorial Defence Unit for several months. Then he was sent to the frontline. He was at the very frontline and risked his life. Luckily, he’s alive. I’m really looking forward to his coming back and to the moment we can all go home to liberated Sievierodonetsk.
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: Vera Korolchenko | Translation: Anna Shliakhova
“In order to survive, we melted the snow and drained the water from the batteries in the apartment.” The story of a family from Kharkiv that was living in a bomb shelter under constant shelling, without water and food