Participants: Zinaida Piddubna (Z.P.), Nicoleta Mușat (N.M.), Evghenia Jane Rozbytska (J)
Location & date: FITT Timișoara, Romania / August 2022
N.M.: Can you tell me a little about your family? Where are you from? What school did you go to? What was your daily life in Ukraine like?
Z.P.: Where should I start from? I had an ordinary childhood. I was born in Rivne and I lived there until I got married, when I moved to Lviv, and then to Ivano-Frankivsk together with my husband. When I was pregnant, I attended two universities: Polytechnic and Foreign Languages. At the time, education was not of any use to me, I was just bored. (smiles) I was working as an administrator of a cleaning business.
N.M.: What was your daily life before the war?
Z.P.: We worked, went on holiday, educated the kids, travelled…
N.M.: How many children do you have?
Z.P.: I have two boys. One is 11 years old. He is here, with me. The other is 16 and he is a football player. He plays for a team in Ukraine. My husband is a football trainer. He is the Sports Director of the Lutsk team. It’s called “Lubart”. But now he can’t do his regular job because of the war.
N.M.: What did he do before the war?
Z.P.: He was a football player and then he became a trainer. This is the usual career path for sports people. So he’s been doing this all his life. And I have liked football all my life. (laughs) He is from Lutsk. We live in both cities. (smiles) My husband was a friend of my cousin’s. That’s how we met.
N.M.: Can you tell me a few words about your day-to-day life before the war? What was your routine? What was the atmosphere? Was there any tension or was everything calm?
Until the last moment, I told everyone there wouldn’t be a war. I woke up in the middle of the night because I heard something, most probably rockets flying. I don’t know what time it was. My husband wasn’t at home at the time. It was so scary. (crying) My husband was in Lutsk on the 24rd of February and there were already some explosions in Lutsk on that day. When I went to wake up my son to take him to school, I got a call from my husband. He said the war had started. I started crying. Then I went to work.
My husband came back to Rivne on the afternoon 24th. There is a military airport in the Rivne area, and it was bombed on the 25th. On the 25th we decided to move out of the city and into a village. On the 26th it was my oldest son’s 16th birthday. Can you imagine the kind of present he got for his birthday? I ordered a present for him, he wanted a Chanel perfume. It didn’t arrive, unfortunately.
N.M.: Were there air raid sirens in those days?
Z.P.: In the first days no. But then several times a day, every couple of hours.
J: I read somewhere that when a rocket is fired, they [the Ukrainian authorities] know it is in the air, but they don’t know where it is going to land, and the entire Ukrainian territory is under air raid sirens.
Z.P.: In our case they bombed not the city, but surrounding area where there are the military bases and the airport. At first, they only bombed military objectives, it lasted for a week or maybe more. My oldest son will remember his 16th birthday all his life. (smiles)
N.M.: What village did you move to? Did you live in a house? Whose house was it?
Z.P.: My grandmother lives in a village. It is a small village, not far away from Rivne.
N.M.: How old is your grandmother? Does she have any memories from the Second World War?
Z.P.: She is 86. Yes, she does remember things. She was 5 years old when the Second World War started. She remembers it very well. She was very much afraid of the communists coming. She remembers the Soviet Union and what happened when the communists came. They were really poor, they wore shabby clothes, they didn’t have any shoes.
N.M.: What happened when the communists came?
Z.P.: My great grandfather had a lot of land, and it all was taken away from them. My great grandmother was tortured, and they made her sign documents saying she was giving away the land willingly. So my grandmother is really afraid of them.
N.M.: Did you manage to recover that land after the Soviet Union dismantled?
Z.P.: No, of course not. If we had, I would be a rich woman now. (laughs) My youngest son is always talking to his granny, so he knows everything that happened and when. Lutsk and Rivne are really nice historical areas. They have nice castles. There was also a palace that was destroyed during the Second World War. Historically, the area was part of Poland and people lived a nice European life.
N.M.: How long did you stay in the village? And how did you decide to come here?
Z.P.: We left the village on the 17th of March. By that time, it was clear that the kids wouldn’t be able to play any sports. We called their trainer on the 10th of March, and he said that somebody from the Football Federation was taking kids abroad, to Romania. But there was a problem. The boys had to be accompanied by an adult. And at that moment there was nobody else to do it. So I agreed. I went back to Rivne on the 17th of March, I got some things from home and in the morning we started out trip to Romania.
N.M.: How many boys were in the group?
Z.P.: There were 12 football players, plus myself and my son. Later 3 other football players and their mothers joined us. So there were 19 people in the group. We found a minivan sponsored by one of the wealthy people in Rivne, which took us to the border, and afterwards the Federation took care of us. A man from Bucharest met us after we crossed the border.
N.M.: Where did you cross the border?
Z.P.: At Solotvino. We were all really scared and hungry. But the boys behaved and listened to me, which was good.
N.M.: Did you come straight to Timișoara?
Z.P.: Yes, we came directly here. We came to register at the Support Centre—three mothers and nineteen passports. (smiles). I stayed in Timișoara for 2 weeks all alone with the boys.
N.M.: How did you feel? It must have been a big responsibility.
Z.P.: I was scared. My husband said: I can’t believe you agreed to all of this. When we got to the border, I didn’t have any way of getting in touch with the people from Bucharest and I didn’t know if they would meet us there or not. And a couple of days later the trainer called my husband and said: your wife is a hero, she should get an award. He was really proud of me. (smiles) At the border, a customs officer asked the boy: who is she to you, how come your parents signed these papers and allowed you to go with her? (laughs). And they answered: she is our trainer.
N.M.: Do the boys speak foreign languages?
Z.P.: Most of them speak English. And most of them went back to Ukraine. They have contracts with teams, and they have to continue playing.
N.M.: Where were you accommodated when you came here?
Z.P.: In a dormitory. We were also offered some meals. Boys are happy when they have something to eat. (smiles)
N.M.: So you arrived in March and you stayed in a dormitory. What are your plans for the upcoming months?
J: I have something to add. On our first meeting at the school where the volunteer hub is, we asked for help to load Alexander Shepelev’s minivan and Zina’s boys did it and Sasha was amazed by how quickly and how well they did it. Another time, there was a church that organised a transport to Odessa. And my friend, who was in charge of this transport, sent a message on the volunteers group and we asked Zina if her boys could help with loading. It was another minivan. And they loaded it again very quickly. They are really young and energetic.
Later, they started to look for a place to train. Some of them went to train with the team in Timișoara. Others went to the football field near the stadium.
When Logs organised a football match at the end of May, they bought the boys sport socks, and the football team in Timișoara gave them equipment. So they played against the team in Timișoara wearing the equipment of Romania’s national team. And boys won with a score of 8:2. (smiles). They are the best players from different teams, that’s the explication.
In the summer we had an idea: we had among us professional football players, so why not ask them to train the kids? So they trained them.
N.M.: Where did they do it?
J: In various places. On the stadium, on a field close the stadium. But now they are finished. Only 2 boys are still here and they have training 2 times per day trainings. Also, school will start soon.
N.M.: How is your child, the one who is here?
Z.P.: I went to Ukraine for 2 weeks to see my husband. I don’t want to take him out of the school in Ukraine yet. It is private school, we have all the documents there and they have online courses. So he will continue studying there and attend the after-school here.
N.M.: How many Ukrainian children are here, in Timișoara?
J: I don’t know. There are 700 people on the Telegram group, but not all of them are here, in Timișoara. There are maybe 500 adults at the moment, each of them has children, at least one. So there are over 500 kids.
N.M.: Irina told me she had talked to the Serbian school in Timișoara and they might create some Ukrainian classes there.
J: I know nothing about it. Kids are not my priority. (laughs)
N.M.: What are your plans for the next months?
Z.P.: No plans. I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.
N.M.: How are you dealing with the uncertainty? I imagine it’s not easy.
Z.P.: By laughing, crying, living in the moment. It is really difficult. Every morning I wake up and think: maybe I had a dream and I am at home, and none of this actually happened. Or maybe something has changed.
N.M.: What would be the ideal situation for you?
Z.P.: I want everything to stop so we can go home.
N.M.: Was your house not affected by the war?
Z.P.: No, it is safe. My husband works from time to time, but there is no sport in Ukraine at the moment. For him football is his life, and if nothing changes, I don’t know what he is going to do. So now we have to cooperate, to collaborate and to ask for help. Our students say: the war is entering a new phase, already there is little news in the media. In Ukraine only a few cities are still under attack: Zaporiggia, Nikolaev, Odessa. In Zaporiggia there is nuclear plant which is occupied by Russians. We are waiting for the 24th of August, which is a symbolic date, and probably Putin is preparing us some surprise. We will see.
N.M.: Were you born when the tragedy in Chenobyl happened? Do you have any memories related to it?
Z.P.: I lived on the 11th floor of a building, and we always used to watch the 1st of May parade from the balcony. Chernobyl happened on the 26th of April, and I remember that the parade was cancelled. And my father’s village was affected by the radiation cloud.
N.M.: Do you remember what the adults were saying about it?
J: I don’t remember anything special. Also, my uncle worked for the governmental in and he was told to take his kids and get out of the city. But this was later, not right after the accident. I remember we stayed in Odesa for a month in Odessa. We didn’t leave in the first days because of the Soviet Union. Have you seen this movie “Chernobyl”? Now we know what happened thanks to Netflix. (smiles)
N.M.: I have read it was based on the real events. Most of it is true.
J: I have been to Chernobyl several times, on guided tours.
N.M.: Is it completely deserted?
J: No. It depends. There is a huge area where very few people still live. Nature has rested, it has recovered and it has become wild. The city of Chernobyl still exists. People live there and some of them go to work at the plant. The city of Prypiat, that is the ghost town. It is deserted.
The pictures you saw at school were from Pripyat. As for the radiation, it changes place. When it rains, it turns into vapours and moves somewhere else. Some surfaces absorb it. There are metal constructions in Prypiat that have a very high level of radiation. The highest level is near the plant, near the 4th reactor. It is prohibited to go there. We only went there for a couple of minutes.
N.M.: Did you wear special suits?
J: No, most of the area around Chernobyl is clear now. When you travel there, you have a special thermometer with you. And the guys who lead the tours know the dangerous places. In Prypiat, the level of radiation is high, I think. Prypiat was a new, rich city, where a lot of nuclear specialists lived. So there were a lot of metal constructions, and now there is a high level of radiation. There is also the Red Forest. The wind blew and all trees became red because of radiation. It still has the highest level of radiation, but you drive through very quickly and with raised windows. Another place I was impressed with was the graveyard for old machinery. It is huge field where there are a lot of machines that were used to clean up after the accident. They were made of metal, so they had a high level of radiation and they were abandoned there. When the Soviet Union ended, a lot of things were stolen, not just from Prypiat, where people had left their homes filled with household items, buy also from this field. Can you imagine? So only a few vehicles are left now. The rest was stolen. It was all about stupidity and heroism. The same thing is happening now: this war is absolutely stupid and at the same time there is the heroism of our people.
J: Why did you decide to come back to Romania after you went to Rivne two weeks ago?
Z.P.: My husband insisted, and my youngest son gets nervous when he hears the air raid sirens.
N.M.: I understand. Thank you very much for sharing your story!
Translation: Evghenia Jane Rozbitska
Proofreading: Cristina Chira, Alexandra Palconi-Sitov
Photo credits: Mircea Sorin Albuțiu