АвторAuthor: Natalia Al Baz | Translation: Kateryna Doroshenko
25 July 2022
On the first day of the war, Natalia Al Baz and her family happened to be in the occupation, in the village of Tsyrkuny near Kharkiv. The family’s house was without electricity, gas and heating since morning. And the village immediately appeared to be on the front line. Shelling and bombing continued all the time. On March 1, the family miraculously managed to escape from the occupation. Natalia created a series of posts where she talked about everything she experienced those days. The woman shared her diary with the journalists of the “Monologues of the War” website.
In my dream, I felt the cold, heard the roar of fighter jets and the sounds of explosions that were getting closer and closer, but then I opened my eyes and realized that it was not a dream. My body began to shrink from fear, and I involuntarily began to pray. The world seemed to freeze, only a terrible roar filled the entire space around, and flashes from explosions were visible in the windows. The first thought is that it has begun. And then I tried to reassure myself that now everything will be over and we will still make it to the kindergarten on time, then we will go to the office and continue to live our usual lives. Well, if not that day, then definitely the next day.
There was no light in the house since morning that day, and with it, the gas column and the pump did not work. Water and heating were also turned off. The Internet disappeared, and there was no connection. We seem to be in a cold vacuum, without a clear understanding of what was going on.
The house was gradually cooling down, and we did not buy groceries in the evening, nor did we buy gasoline, hoping that we would do it in the morning.
Another reality began. A little later, we managed to find a place in the yard where there was a connection and we could call our relatives. We learned from them that they started to blow up the city – the airport, then something else and all this was, conditionally, next to us. Only after these events did we begin to fully realize the tragedy of what was happening in the country. It became really scary…
The man immediately decided to go to the gas station in the city, because there was almost no gas in the car. He didn’t show up for three hours, although it was no more than ten minutes before refueling, there were huge traffic jams and queues of cars everywhere. ATMs were not working, and we had no cash at all. The man at the gas station spent several hours transferring money into cash — he paid with a card for those who had it. On the way out of the city, on the way home, at a checkpoint, our military did not let him pass through, because Tsyrkuny was already under the occupation at that time and there was the frontline. We were lucky he was able to go around the field, off-road, and still could reach us. A tank was going right straight to him on one of the narrow streets of the village. It’s good that he then managed to turn back, drive in the other direction for another hundred meters and overtake it. Unfortunately, not everyone was so lucky.
When he returned home, he was able to buy the last ten packs of buckwheat, ten packs of peas, and the last couple of dozen of “Mivina” noodles in a small shop near the house. That’s all, there were no more products at all. People said that there was still something left in the store on the highway. russian tanks were already standing right next to this shop, so we did not dare to go there.
Near us there were constant explosions and sounds of gunshots. It seemed that it was very close, so I immediately taped all the windows in a criss-cross way to at least somehow calm myself down, and as they say, so that the fragments of glass do not fly too much if something would explode nearby. It was possible at that time to look at the windows only through the so-called “snowflakes” made out of tape, even like this it seemed to be a little safer there. But it was still very scary at home. Whenever I saw someone’s windows taped up, I remembered that day. I’m talking about it and I have goosebumps.
The house had no electricity, water and heating since that very morning, since we have an electric boiler. The house began to cool down quickly. It’s good that there was gas and a heater outside, we could at least collect water and warm ourselves with it. The temperature in the children’s room was around +6, so we decided to sleep together in the bedroom, where it was possible to heat up to +12. We slept under all blankets and bedspreads, in warm sports suits and with several layers of clothes and two warm pairs of socks, we were wearing the same clothes during the day.
It was impossible to charge the phone, the connection was only in one place in the middle of the yard, and even then it was a very weak connection and not for every day. There was no internet at all. We didn’t really know what was happening and what the situation was like in the city and what happened to our village. We tried to save the level of charging on our phones a lot, because to charge the phone we had to start the car, and it was scary to do that even in the garage, because the cars were simply taken away. Probably, that’s why I don’t have a single photo of the war in my phone or because I just didn’t want to believe what was around me.
The only reliable source of information was to go out into the yard and listen to who was shooting from where and where they were coming from. Those who were in the occupation will understand me. This is how we learned when we could try to break out, but more on that later…
Calling up all relatives and friends became a morning and evening ritual, even if only for a moment, because the charge on the phone was decreasing day by day. Every time, with a sinking heart, I had to look for where I could catch the connection in the yard, and then wait for the long-awaited “hello” to be said at the other end.
Life was filled with constant fear, cold and stress. Sedatives did not help at all, I drank everything I could for stress – magnesium, vitamins B, valerian, but nothing of them worked. I don’t drink strong alcohol at all (even at New Year’s I drank Borjomi instead of fruity champagne), or rather, I didn’t drink until the first day of the war. With those pills it was at least a little easier and at least a little calmer, and the sounds of the bombs became less distinct. All the days in the occupation were very scary, I started panicking, and I didn’t even want to eat at all because of the stress.
Every day, the rockets flew closer, and the range of enemy weapons expanded. They fired exactly from our place, the front line was 500-1000 meters from our house, and sometimes even closer. The sounds of rockets were almost constant, they were complemented by machine gun fire, tanks and “grads”. Some weapons fired 10 or 20 shots, some more, I counted them at the time… If you close your eyes and don’t think about the war, the sounds were very similar to fireworks, and some even to a train. It was strange at that time to feel complete helplessness.
The front line was located in the middle of our village Tsyrkuny. They bombed constantly every day and every night, the rumble spread through the ground, through the house, everything shook, the explosions were very loud, sometimes they were closer to us, sometimes a little further away, but also nearby. Sometimes the explosions were so bright that the fully curtained room was lit up with a bright light, like a camera flash.
It seemed if you covered yourself with all the blankets with your head completely, then everything would be fine. We didn’t have a basement, a cellar either, there was nowhere to run. Every night I went to sleep for a few hours. The nervous system could not stand it. My five-year-old daughter prayed every day, and I told her that everything would be fine with us, because we are protected by the great power of love, it’s like a very big heart around us.
On the third day, when I was talking to my mother on the phone, a military helicopter was circling just above our porch. I have only seen such helicopters in boys’ transport toy sets, it was very low and it was very scary. A little later two light missiles were fired, I saw them right from the kitchen window, they flew right through our yard, from the river to the house, it seemed like an eternity before they disappeared. My heart just jumped out of my chest.
On the 5th day, a rocket hit a white house across the river, I saw it burning from the yard, it was 500 meters away from us behind the trees. Again, fear, helplessness, and the hope that maybe we wouldn’t get into it. The situation only got worse.
On the sixth day, we woke up at night from flashes and a very loud explosion, the whole house shook strongly, these were ballistic missiles that hit somewhere in a nearby village. It became extremely dangerous to stay at home, and it was impossible to leave – there were constant battles along the highway. And the occupiers were not allowed to enter Kharkiv. I had to come up with something…
That night, I had a dream that we were driving very fast along the unusually empty Science Avenue, there were no cars on the road, it was completely empty, the traffic lights were not working, and we managed to pass at the last moment at breakneck speed.
At 8:00 a.m., they bombed the City Council in the very center of Kharkiv, on the largest square in Europe. I understood that we were going to go that day, the sounds of explosions were getting closer and louder. There were not even breaks between them. If earlier I instinctively ran to the house when I heard them, now there were so many of them that even my body stopped being afraid, and I just watched the smoke from the explosions without any emotions. It was necessary to act.
My husband said that we would try to leave in an hour, during this time we loaded everything we could into the car – gasoline, some food, tools, fishing rods, a tent, very few things, me, my daughter, my husband’s younger brother, a cat and a shepherd dog. Tetris games in childhood were not in vain, the car barely closed. We sat down and went into the unknown.
We couldn’t leave the highway, so we tried to leave through the village, on the way we met four people and all of them said that even this exit was controlled by the russians and they wouldn’t let anyone out, one advised us to tie the car with white rags so that they wouldn’t be shot immediately.
Before leaving for the highway, the man turned the car across the road, took cigarettes and vodka and told me: get behind the wheel, if I don’t come back, go home. The chances were 50/50. It seemed like an eternity had passed. During this time, a one-eyed old woman from the house next door came to me and told me to go back, because it is definitely impossible to leave here. But in a minute I saw the man, he was quickly turning around, and he was shouting so I sat back down. We set off at cosmic speed. We were fantastically lucky – there was only blown-up equipment and a military vehicle on the highway, and the broken checkpoint had not yet been replaced after nightfall.
We managed to escape from the occupied Tsyrkuny. It was impossible to drive on the ring road, on the Bilhorod highway and Danylivka too, there were battles there, the Ecopark was constantly being shelled, so the only chance was to drive through the 17th cemetery through the fields at least somewhere into the city. We drove up to the gate of the cemetery, it was closed. The man mumbled and opened them. But we quickly drove straight down the central avenue to an unknown destination. It was very dangerous not only to drive there, but also to get stuck in the mud in the fields. Explosions were heard all around. The car skidded terribly on plowing, but thank God we drove to Zhuky.
We drove through an empty broken city, wires were hanging in the middle of the road, there were stones, debris, broken glass. Science Avenue was exactly like in my dream – not a single car, no traffic lights and total emptiness, no people.
We drove through several checkpoints and finally left the city. A few minutes later my mother called me and said that the Flight School had been blown up, many were injured and the houses around were badly damaged by the strong impact. It happened 20 minutes after we drove by. We finally arrived. For the first time in a week, we were in the heat and did not hear the explosions of bombs, here they were too, but we did not even notice them.
We were accommodated in a small outbuilding, which consisted of one room about 20 meters, the entrance to which was directly from the street, with a wood-burning stove and the most necessary furniture. There was no water or toilet here, but the most important thing was that it was warm and calm here. But we were happy. That day we drank horilka (Ukrainian strong alcoholic drink) and sobbed after the whole gained experience.
My five-year-old daughter said that she really liked it here and even better than at home, because there were no bombs and no airplanes and helicopters flying here.
It seemed to me that I would finally be able to sleep peacefully at night. But no. On the first night, I woke up from every sound of firewood in the stove. I went outside to listen for an attack, I thought it was the sound of explosions. The silence was even more frightening. Till this day, my heart beats faster and chills run down my spine when wood is chopped or doors are slammed, these sounds sound exactly like bomb explosions. I don’t know if I will ever be able to stop being afraid of them.
For the first days, we put things in order in the outhouse, everything here remained untouched after the death of the previous owner, so there was enough work. They calmed down a little, got used to it, even managed to get used to the four of them in a small room, when the folding bed takes up all the free space of the room at night.
And here in a few days we were offered to see the abandoned houses on the farm. In recent years, the village was practically empty, only a few families lived here, and many houses were completely destroyed. The gypsies took away everything they could, broke the stoves and even removed the doors. Surprisingly, there were still whole houses, one of them had been empty for the last five or seven years, contact with the owners had been cut off. There was light in the house, and the wood stove was in working condition. We were lucky – the neighbor even found the keys to the house, so due to such an unusual coincidence of circumstances, we managed to move to live in an abandoned house.
The house had the most necessary furniture and even two beds, but there were four of us. The man fulfilled this task in a creative way. In long-abandoned houses, they found two very old wooden doors, joined them with boards and added logs from the bottom as legs.In such a way we got a double bed, we covered it with blankets, and in a few days we brought a mattress from friends. It turned out to be very practical and convenient. You will not immediately guess what is actually there.
The next thing that was needed in the room was a wardrobe. We found it in a nearby half-destroyed house. The wardrobe is interesting, vintage. It is surprising that no one needed it for many years. There we also found a large table on the porch (“veranda”). If someone had told me at the beginning of February that I would have such adventures and all this would be my reality, I definitely would not have believed it.
At first I regained consciousness and learned how to live not under bombing. I would break out in a cold sweat in the middle of the night from the crackling of wood in the stove, my heart beating wildly at every loud sound, the slamming of a gate or the blows of an ax chopping wood. I cried and couldn’t calm down during a thunderstorm with the sounds of thunder and flashes of lightning. I learned again how to breathe and not to constantly catch my breath, lurking in anticipation of danger.
Little by little, I began to come back to life and feel my new reality on the farm – completely different. It seemed to me that everything here was unusual and at the same time very interesting, ethnic, with its own aesthetics. So I began to reflect almost everything that surrounded me, diluting the photos with my thoughts and observations.
All the news and social networks were filled with pain and destruction, and I, looking at all this, wanted to add at least a little warmth and comfort with my photos, to remind that life does not stop and does not stand on pause waiting for better times, it continues regardless for what And even without having comfortable living conditions, one can enjoy the beautiful things that are around them. After all, it is not so important where we are, it is important who we are! Let there be peace soon!
Written by Oleksandr Nikitin
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: Natalia Al Baz | Translation: Kateryna Doroshenko