Participants: Sergey Roh, Svitlana Roh, Nicoleta Mușat (N.M.), Evghenia Jane Rozbytska (J)
Location & date: The Ukrainian Shop, Timișoara, Romania / August 2022
Sergey: We are an ordinary Ukrainian family. We’ve lived together for more than 42 years, we have 2 daughters and 1 granddaughter. Before the war started, we were retired, we had our own house where we hoped to happily live our retirement years, watching our children and grandchildren grow up. Now we have left everything behind and have come to live in Romania, in Timișoara.
J: Sergey didn’t tell you. They are from Odesa. Their house is near the airport.
Svitlana Roh: The first bomb was dropped on the airport on the 24th of February. It was a great explosion. We woke up and didn’t know what to do or think. We didn’t think something like this could happen.
N.M.: Had you watched the news?
Svitlana: Yes, we watched the news, but we didn’t think this could happen in general.
N.M.: This is the fifth time I hear it: no one thought this could happen.
J: That’s because our mind refuses to believe the worst. We want to believe nothing bad can ever happen.
N.M.: Yes, but there was the precedent of Crimea in 2014.
J: That was a bit different because it was a local conflict. When you live far away from Crimea, as we do, you don’t see it. It is just a conflict on the border. But when explosions wake you up and you read in the news that the war has started—that is another thing. How many rockets were dropped on the 24th?
Sergey: Bombs were dropped all over Ukraine. A hundred bombs and rockets, maybe more.
J: So you wake up to the news that more than a hundred bombs have been dropped over your country. Just imagine all of Romania bombed from the sky—it’s hard to believe and accept that, you know. From that moment on, you don’t feel safe anywhere anymore, it can happen at any moment, anywhere.
Svitlana: After we got over the initial shock, we started calling our friends and relatives. We called a family in Uman that we’ve been friends with for more than 150 years. The great-grandmothers in our families were friends, and the next several generations were friends too. When I called my sister, Valentine, she picked up the phone crying. She said there had been a huge explosion, that all the windows were broken, even the doors were damaged, and she didn’t know what to do.
Sergey: Then we called our youngest daughter, Maria, who lives in Kyiv.
J: Masha Dmitrieva, she was here from the middle of March till the beginning of July. I probably told you about her, we became close friends. Maybe you can have a call with her, as she was in Timișoara and we did a lot of things together. Now she is in Kyiv with Mircea.
N.M.: So she went back to Kyiv?
J: Yes, to her husband. They hope she will come back. (smiles)
Sergey: And thanks to our daughter, who was here as a volunteer and organized everything, we were able to come here. We were allowed to cross the border because we are retired. She first went to Irpin, as her husband’s brother had a house there and she thought it would be safer, but Irpin was under severe bombing and shooting, so she took her cat and her pajamas and came here, to Timișoara.
J: And her husband?
Svitlana: He enrolled in the local defense force.
Sergey: So we packed our things and brought our daughter some clothes and some food. We came in the middle of April, when she was already working here as a volunteer.
J: What took you so long?
Svitlana: We were hiding in the basement; we even have a photo. There were shootings and air raid sirens every night. (showing photos of her daughter)
N.M.: So did you spend all your time in the basement or did you go outside from time to time?
Svitlana: There were a lot of air raid sirens, and a lot of explosions at the time. Of course, we went out sometimes, when it was quiet.
J: Is your house empty now?
Sergeiy: We have an older daughter, Katerina, whose husband Andrey lives there and looks after it. I was working at the Odesa airport, I was filling airplanes with fuel.
J: Their family is connected to traveling and tourism. Masha works for a tourism agency called Join Up and Katerina is Head of Sales for an airport, but not in Odesa. The Odesa airport was under construction for a long time, they were building a new terminal, and everybody was waiting for it. Two years ago, they finally opened it: a big, modern, beautiful new terminal, with a new landing strip. Because of the sea, the weather is not so good at times, so they made this landing strip longer than usual, so that planes could land in any weather. And it was bombed.
N.M.: Was it destroyed?
J: Partly. We don’t know for sure.
Sergey: This is our granddaughter Veronika in Antalya. (showing pictures).Odesa is the city of humor. You have to stay strong. The war will end someday. Thanks to our daughter, who was working here as a volunteer, we have a place to live in Romania. We are grateful to the Romanian people and to the Romanian government because we have a place to stay and a job here.
Svitlana: After a few days in the basement, we stopped going down because we couldn’t take it anymore. When we heard an air raid siren, we would just go outside and see if there was anything flying in our part of the sky. Our house is at the edge of the city, and there were shootings in near-by villages—it was really unnerving and stressful. The house windows were broken, the walls were partly damaged.
N.M.: So Masha was the first to come to Romania?
Svitlana: Yes, Masha insisted and made us come to Romania too.
J: We were here with Masha from the middle of March until the beginning of July.
N.M.: How did you come here? By car?
Sergey: We came by car. We packed the car with things for our daughter and came via Isapcha, Constanța, Bucharest, Sibiu, Timișoara—1,200 kilometers total.
J: How long did you travel for?
Svitlana: Two days. When we were leaving Odesa, there were air raid sirens and explosions in Bessarabia, they bombed Sergeevka.
N.M.: Did a lot of people from your neighborhood leave?
Svitlana: Yes, many. When it all started, you couldn’t go to the checkpoint in Palanka, as the queue was 3 to 4 days long. But when we passed through the checkpoint a month later, it was ok—the huge wave of refugees had already passed.
Sergey: Odesa is called „Mother Odesa”.
J: It is interesting. Kyiv is seen as male and Odesa as female. And people from Odesa sometimes change the gender of nouns to make them female: table is male, but they call it she-table. Odesa is like a mother: there is always nice, tasty food there, it’s a nice, comfortable city.
N.M.: What did you pack with you?
Sergey: First of all, things for our daughter, as she didn’t have anything here. We didn’t think it would last this long. But we also took a tent, gas, an axe—things we could use if we needed to live outdoors. Plus clothes. We didn’t think we were going away for so long; we thought it would be a month, tops. We have already been here for four months.
Svitlana: And we have no idea when this will end. But we are not going back now, we are too frightened.
Sergey: We received temporary asylum in Romania, which gives us the right to work here for a year.
Svitlana: We feel at home in Romania. Our ancestors were from Bessarabia. Sergey’s mother was from Bessarabia, so we want to study the archives and maybe apply for repatriation. My grandfather is from Bessarabia as well.
Sergey: We are now 60 years old and we don’t have a house, we don’t have a job, we don’t have clothes. Thanks to volunteers and Romanian colleagues we found a job, but we still don’t have a house.
N.M.: Do you feel like you have to start all over again?
Sergey: Yes, I want a cat, a dog, and a grandson. And I am ready to start over again, if the Romanian government supports me. And I hope our children will join us. No one knows when the war is going to end. We can’t make any plans. We want some stability, as we are quite old. At the moment, we are surrounded by problems—war, Putin—but we have to live on. And we have to show our children how to survive during the war. Thank God, the shop is here, and we are working. We talk to all the Ukrainians who come here, we know all the stories. Many of them cry, some of them lost their houses, their relatives, their documents. We try to support them as much as we can, but it is very difficult for us too. We have a granddaughter in Turkey, one daughter in the Czech Republic, and another daughter in Kyiv, and we are here. This is all very difficult. For now, they went back to their husbands, but we are waiting for them to return here.
N.M.: And your other relatives in Ukraine? How are they? Where are they?
Sergey: Our other relatives in Ukraine are pretty old and they don’t have the ability to leave. Some of them are ill, and some are too old. My sister is 73. Svitlana’s sister is ill, so you understand. During the COVID pandemic, we buried 5 friends—all of them between 50 and 55 years old. In Ukraine we only have our daughter and our son-in-law, five cats and three dogs. That’s all.
N.M.: Have you lived in Odesa your entire life?
Svitlana: I am the 4th generation to be born in Odesa, I am a pure Odesa lady.
Sergyi: I am from Kharkiv. Svitlana’s family has a rich history. Her maiden name is Karaffa. It’s an Italian surname that goes back to the Vatican. Her family roots go as far back as 1432.
J: It’s important to know Odesa’s history. It was founded thanks to Ekaterina II, Potemkin and Deribas. It was like a project: they were building a city port. Odesa has 100 years of bright history. It was the city of free people, located in the south and surrounded by steppes. It was thought that if you managed to get to Odesa, you would be free. So people who escaped from prison went to Odesa, as well as people who escaped being serfs. Jewish people, whose freedom of movement was restricted in those days, also found a safe space in Odesa where they could stay and study. At the time, city mayors were really European-oriented. Vorontsov was from Russia, but he was very European-oriented. De Richelieu, the prime minister of France, ruled in Odesa for I don’t remember how many years. And during his government, a lot of good decisions were made. He attracted European businessmen by giving them free land to build their factories on. Very quickly, Odessa became a big cereal exporter, it was called the “bread feeder” of Europe. A lot of ships delivered cereal to Europe and came back with other goods for import. As a result, Odesa became a big multicultural and multiethnic city. A lot of famous families went to live and build their businesses there. On the one hand, the conditions for business were so good that you could become rich quite fast. On the other hand, there were so many strange, poor people who had escaped from prison that it became multicultural in other ways too. Italian was a commonly spoken language, as well as many others. Around a hundred nationalities lived in Odesa. Thanks to investments, the business culture developed quickly, and there were a lot of innovations, but at the same time, there was flourishing contraband. And then, in 1918, the Revolution happened, and everything was destroyed. That’s why Sergey and Svitlana miss home: Odesa is a very special city.
N.M.: You mentioned that you were born in Kharkiv. Did you study there?
Sergey: No. I came to Odesa when I was 2 years old. I met my wife working on cruise ships. That’s why we have stayed together for so long. (smiles)
N.M.: Did you go to school in Odesa?
Sergey: I went to school in Odesa, I graduated from university there. We both have a degree in economy, we studied at the same university.
N.M.: Did you work on the ships after you graduated?
Sergey: No, we went to work on cruise ships right after high school. We worked for three years. We made some money, bought an apartment, then went to university. After we graduated from university, Svitlana started work as an accountant, and I worked at the Odesa airport as an engineer.
N.M.: Where did you travel with the cruise ships?
Sergey: All over Europe. To Cuba. Svitlana was in Alger.
J: That was 40 years ago.
N.M.: In Soviet Union times? In the 1980s?
N.M.: And you had soviet passports?
J: Yes, but when you work on a ship you have a sailor passport, and this offers more opportunities. A close friend of mine worked on a ship for 15 years with that type of passport.
N.M.: Did you served in the Soviet Army?
Sergey: Yes, I served in the army for two years.
N.M.: Where did you serve?
Sergey: In Poltava. In the anti-aircraft forces.
N.M.: Do you have photos from your days on the cruise ships?
Sergey: Yes, back home in Odesa. Before we left, I took photos of them with my phone, as I didn’t know if we were coming back.
N.M.: Did you take anything special from home?
Svitlana: No, just documents. We thought we would come back in a month.
Sergey: I like fishing. It is my hobby. Can you fish in the Bega river?
N.M.: I have seen people fishing, but I think you need a permit. How did you become the managers of the Ukrainian shop?
J: I asked them to. (smiles) Masha, their daughter, is my friend. When the idea of a shop came up, I thought about people who could work with clothes, who were communicative, and who needed a job. And who were also not mothers with a lot of kids. (smiles)
N.M.: May I take a photo of you?
Sergey: Yes, of course. What I wanted to add is: we can joke about it, but all of us are waiting for the war to end so we can go back home.
N.M.: But being in high spirits is good, it keeps you going.
Thank you very much for the interview!
Translation: Evghenia Jane Rozbitska
Proofreading: Cristina Chira, Alexandra Palconi-Sitov
Photo credit: Mircea Sorin Albuțiu