Ruslana, Tetiana, Diana are Roma girls who have seen with their own eyes how the Russian occupiers invaded their native Ukrainian cities, ruining buildings and killing neighbors. Each of them has her own story about home. They left what they could not take with them – old granny, cat Tom, parents, favorite scarf. Finally, they packed all the pain that would live inside them for a long time. Okhtyrka, Nizhyn, Zaporizhzhia are cities that now rather resemble the ruins in which the fluidity of life has stopped due to the war. However, the girls believe that one day they will be able to come back there again and to meet those who have been left on the other side of the border.
“There were no green corridors then, we were taken in a bus and we went”, Diana, 23, Nizhyn, Chernihiv region.
Diana, like everyone else, lived a peaceful and steady life before the war. The morning of February 24 changed everything. At dawn, the girl was awoken in horror by the word “war”.
“At five o’clock in the morning, my sister called, saying the worst words in my life – “Wake up! The war has started!” Diana and her family lived in the city of Nizhyn near the airport, which was one of the first to be shelled, so she heard the first rocket explosions. She says that in a short time of intense shelling she learned to distinguish the sounds of tanks, Grads, armored personnel carriers, and air missiles. They slept for two or three hours. On March 30, Nizhyn became a battlefield. There was a constant roar of bombing. People panicked, but tried to be as organized as possible. Diana did not want to leave her home city because she had to go only with her younger sister and leave her parents who had to take care of her sick grandmother. “My friends from the non-governmental organization “ARKA” wrote to me all the time: “Are you alive?” It was the only and short way of communication. They helped me escape.” There was an extremely difficult choice to leave everything and go away. No one gave any security guarantees by evacuating from the city. The shelling continued, in particular, against civilians. At the exit from Nizhyn, the sounds of Grads’ explosions were constantly heard. Russian troops ruthlessly bombed the infrastructure. Fear and despair.
“There were no green corridors then, we were taken in a bus and we went. I can’t describe it. You say goodbye and realize that this may be the last meeting in your life.”
After crossing the lines outside the Kyiv region, Diana finally breathed a sigh of relief. For the first time in thirty days, she heard silence which was a signal of security. Then there was the road again. The route was Lviv-Krakow-Vienna; beside her were 16-year-old sister and a small suitcase, which the girl had packed in haste before the evacuation. “I don’t seem to live. I just walk, look, eat and sleep. All my life before that became just a memory.”
“Boarding a bus to Rome, I remembered that I had left my favorite scarf at the train station in Poland. Apparently, this is a sign that I will come back home soon. At least, I would really wish that”, Ruslana, 22, Zaporizhzhia
Four days on the road to leave home country: people lost consciousness from exhaustion and anxiety.
“My brother called me a taxi, hung an icon on the sweater and said, “Let it protect you.” It was a very heartfelt gift from the familiar priest, but he insisted on taking it. We went.” This was a long and exhausting road to Italy for Ruslana, which lasted more than four days. But it was later. First there were explosions, Grads, and rockets. And constant fear.
March 3, 2022
“On the way to the railway station of Zaporizhzhia, I was silent, barely holding back tears. The driver asked nothing, but upon arrival he wished for a good journey and a quick return: “Don’t worry, we will cope here. Take care of yourself.” I only managed to thank him, after which my friends approached the car and took my suitcase. As it turned out, the train was already on track, we did not know the time of its arrival, so we were almost late. Approaching the train, we saw that all the entrances to the cars were blocked by the crowd. At first, women with children and the elderly were allowed in, but as there were almost no places left, the push began. The children cried, the men quarreled, and the train conductors asked to give a way. Even a little girl was hit on the head; a pregnant woman was almost trampled. The train was moving, leaving at least a few hundred people on the platform. A minute later we saw a half-empty train standing behind us. No one knew exactly its route, but it had to get to Lviv or Uzhhorod. People boarded the train at their own risk.
March 3, 2022
There were seven of us in the compartment: four of us and a woman with two teenage children. Panic and emotions turned off common sense – no one thought about food and water. I had to travel for more than 18 hours with one bottle. Trying to get out of the compartment into the vestibule was hopeless – people were sitting along the corridor on the floor. Young children, elderly people, women – all accommodated as they could, and it was quite difficult to pass. Around 7 pm, a train conductor approached us for the first time: “For your own safety, turn off geolocation. Don’t sleep on the upper shelves, don’t photograph the military, don’t look into the eyes and don’t talk to anyone. You understand everything yourself.” We lost network connection at night and could no longer write to our family. Someone said that strong explosions started in Kyiv; because our train was moving in this direction, another panic started. Around 2 am, messages began to arrive from the family. Finally I managed to answer: “Where are you?” “Explosions near Kyiv railway station”, “Why don’t you answer?”, “Take care of yourself”.
March 4, 2022
It was noisy at the train station in Lviv. People were fussing. Ukrainian soldiers dressed in military uniforms were saying goodbye to their children and wives. The queue for the train to Poland stretched from the entrance of the station. We stayed there for 13 hours.
Next to us was a girl with three cats. She decided not to take any things, only cages and some food. From time to time I heard that somewhere in the crowd had lost a child, not everyone was found even in a few hours. The children sat on suitcases and tried to get some sleep on their mothers’ laps. “And you know, I also have a dog – Baks. Unfortunately, he stayed with my father. But they will expel all occupiers from Zaporizhia, and we’ll come back.” About 2:00 a.m. those who were in the queue with us became very nervous and literally fought for the opportunity to take their seats earlier.
March 5, 2022
The tightly packed car was ventilated by two half-open windows. People rode standing up with hope for a quick arrival. After 15 minutes of travel we stopped abruptly. As it turned out, we managed to go only 7 kilometers. Nobody understood why we were standing. About 4:00 a.m. there was a great panic. There was almost no air in the car, the exit to the vestibule was blocked by suitcases, the door to the street was not opened, and there were no train conductors with us. The train driver could not be reached. Two hours later, people began to lose consciousness. I heard a cry of a young woman, who held almost unconscious daughter in her arms. Everyone was affected by lack of oxygen, exhaustion and anxiety. At the other end of the car, an elderly woman became ill. She had a sick heart. Everyone tried to contact the employees of the station, some called medics, police, SES (State Emergency Service). In fact, it was scary when strangers started knocking on the windows; they asked to open the door for them. We were scared, so we didn’t dare let them in. There were a few more such stops and instead of 5 hours we had to go 17. Food and water supplies ran out long ago, there was nowhere to buy them. We were periodically rescued by volunteers.
A few more exhausting and dark days, and we were already in Poland. Friendly Poles smiled and showed us with hands the shape of “hearts” as a sign of solidarity. Here I finally felt safe. After passing the control, volunteers ran up to us and gave us food and clothes. They helped everyone in need. I was lucky – I managed to buy a bus ticket to Italy, but I had to sit at the station for another 20 hours. Fatigue was no longer so important. I felt safe and calm, that was more important.
Boarding a bus to Rome, I remembered that I had left my favorite scarf at the train station in Poland. Apparently, this is a sign that I will come back home soon. At least, I would really wish that.
“Only Tom is waiting for us at home, which my mother was not able to take with her. Uncle Sasha, a family friend who comes to feed him, says that the cat has turned into a ghost. Tom is hiding all the time. But after all this, will we be able to look into Tom’s green eyes, which have long been tired of waiting for us? And will we see these eyes again?” Tetiana Storozhko, Okhtyrka, Sumy region.
News of the latest events in the Donbass was depressing every day. Tatiana and her boyfriend Dima predicted the approach of war, but their hearts refused to accept it. And also mother made it clear that in the case of the military offensive she wouldn’t leave the house. She did not separate herself from home, because she was a single whole with it. “My mother never liked to go out, she felt uncomfortable in other people’s homes. And I didn’t want to think that I would have to go anywhere, leave my own almost finished house, where I planned to move this summer, and cancel all plans for a happy life.”
The young couple did not think about the “anxiety suitcase” because they did not want to believe that it would be needed. Finally, they decided to just collect all the family valuables and documents in a small bag. Tatiana gazed at her grandfathers’ medals and orders during World War II. Although she has never seen her grandfathers, she knew that they bravely defended their families and homes. Grandfather Vasyl returned from the war without a leg. The girl did not believe that everything happened again. This was the end of the preparation of the “anxiety suitcase”. It was unbearable to pack clothes or other things.
“I also found a carrier for my cat in the cellar. He is a house cat, he has never been in the yard, he could not stay even an hour alone, so he certainly would not have survived without his people,” says Tatiana.
In the evening of February 23, one of the girl’s dreams came true – she was invited to join the educational team as a coach and come to their youth center. The event was scheduled for early April. Tatiana has been dreaming about this for many years. She studied, read dozens of manuals, took courses, practiced, and developed her own programs to one day become part of the coaching team. But all plans were ruined by the war.
“On the morning of February 24, we were awoken by calls from friends and colleagues. Vova and Natasha constantly asked: “What do you have there?” and shouted “war”, “planes in the sky”, “we are being fired on, sirens are everywhere”. I jumped to the window – a siren was really howling somewhere far away. I ran into my mother’s room. I tried to explain to her to get together and go away as soon as possible. She only repeated in a calm voice, “Go, and I stay at home.”
If you go by road – it’s 60 km, by fields – 40 km to the border. At best, they (the occupiers) needed an hour to be in Okhtyrka or maybe less.
“Then everything was like a nightmare – I ran around the rooms, took something out of the closets, stuffed it in bags, raked up together work equipment, and got my and Dima’s documents from the “anxiety suitcase”. In the meantime, I threw myself on my mother’s neck, begging to go with us, to save the child. But every time I heard an affirmative “no” that her daughter-in-law, the mother of my nephew would come soon.
I hugged my nephew for the last time, he muttered in confusion, “Aunt, don’t cry.” We did not take away the frightened furry Scottish cat Tom – at least one living soul will remain in the house with my mother. While I was packing my bags, Dima paved the route by the most abandoned roads, which were not of strategic importance, but had huge pits, and therefore – had to be safer.”
As historians, Tania and Dima knew what the enemy army was doing to young men and women. Later, a message arrived from Tania’s mother. “They are already by the windows. They are going to the city center. They are shooting there.” Then everything was like a nightmare.
“It was the worst trip of our lives. 23 hours in a row. More than 1000 kilometers. I only changed Dima at the wheel once an hour. Now I don’t even know how he managed to overcome such a path almost without stopping. We have never seen such huge columns of cars racing to the west of Ukraine. It was terrifying to realize that this was an accessible target for enemy shells, well tracked from the sky. There were many accidents on the road, near the broken cars lay motionless bodies of people who could not get to safety. The blood grew thick with fear as we drove past military equipment rushing to defend the borders. At one point, darkness descended around us and a giant tank almost flew out of nowhere, and others followed it more and more. At such moments the mind turns to logic: they are ours, they go without light, so it is safer. But emotions do not obey and respond with loud crying.”
Tired and scared, the young couple was able to reach safe territory. But even here it was not so good and cozy. Wandering continued again. They spent a week in relatives’ and acquaintances’ homes. Then they lived in a refugee shelter, later in a distant village somewhere in Transcarpathia. It was a tiny rented room that looked more like a bunker than a house. They are being chased by war again. They can’t stop running away.
“Already on the way, they realized that they hadn’t bought a new reliable phone for mother, and this one – almost does not hold a charge. She was cut off from the news, sitting in her neighbor’s basement. There were unbearable weeks of shifts staring at the mobile phone screen … They were afraid to be distracted from the phone even for a minute and not have time to report about another raid and air-raid alarm. We turned into ghosts; people around us were terrified and did not understand the reason for such nervousness. The main military forces guarded the strategically important Kharkiv. So the enemy chose my city, thinking that it would be easy to pass through us and go deep into the country. We were wrong. The city was recaptured from the invader countless times. Hurricane’s shells flew here for the first time, a vacuum bomb was dropped here, shelling of a military unit killed 70 soldiers in one day, little Alice remained an angel forever and opened a terrible account of child deaths.”
Tatiana slowly began to live with the thought that she would never see her family again. She managed to evacuate her sister-in-law and nephew with great efforts. And after the airstrikes that had destroyed the city center, Tatiana’s mother talked for the first time about the evacuation.
“Somewhere in the depths there was a bitter and painful realization that now our house is deserted, it is lonely and defenseless, my mother was its soul, and house was her armor. Now they have been separated.
Even when my mother came to us, she was silent, only sadly repeating: “Now only our father is waiting for us at home, it is good that he didn’t live up to these days. My father is here with us, I grabbed his portrait and our family album while running away.”
Tatiana’s family home in Okhtyrka is completely orphaned. There is no one there. Except for cat Tom. He still believes that one day he will be able to see his owners again.
“Only Tom is waiting for us at home, which my mother was not able to take with her. Uncle Sasha, a family friend who comes to feed him, says that the cat has turned into a ghost. Tom is hiding all the time. But after all this, will we be able to look into Tom’s green eyes, which have long been tired of waiting for us? And will we see these eyes again?”