Participants: Maryna Pasechniuk (M.P.), Tamara Leliuk (T.L.), Nicoleta Mușat (N.M.), Evghenia Jane Rozbytska (J)
Location & date: FITT Timișoara, Romania / August 2022
N.M.: Can we go back to the 24th of February? How was everything? How did things escalate?
M.P.: We lived a normal life. We were working, we made plans. No one expected this, no one believed the war would start. Chornobaivka is like a suburb of Kherson, so we were able to see and hear everything.
J: Maryna worked as an accountant all her life; she has been in finance for more than 18 years. On the 23rd of February she had an interview and was accepted for a new position.
M.P.: On the 24th of February, at 5 a.m., we heard an explosion, but we didn’t understand what it was. Then a friend called and said the war had started. And those explosions were the bombing of Chernobaivka airport. We had heard military planes, but as we had just woken up, we didn’t realize what was happening. Our friend also said they had started bombing Odessa, his brother lived there. At first, we didn’t know what to do. Then my husband said: get up, get dressed and let’s go to the shop to buy things, I mean mostly food and some things of first need. And it was a good decision, we took 2 trolleys, bought what we needed and in 2 hours the shop was completely empty. People were buying everything. We also tried to take out some cash, but the banks had put a limit to how much you could withdraw, and my cards didn’t work.
J: In those days, it was like the collapse of society. Everyone was buying food, gas, trying to take out cash at the same time.
M.P.: Then it got quiet. We heard some explosions, but they were far away, and it wasn’t clear what was going on. People were walking around; this went on the whole morning. Close to noon, they started bombing the military bases in Kherson. One of the bases was not too far from our house. We had brought all the shopping home and we were thinking what to do. We thought of going to the dacha (holiday house) to hide, it’s on the water and you need a boat to get to it. Kherson is on the shores of Dnipro river, and there are some islands and channels on the river where there are dachas. They are called Potemkin’s islands. You can only get there by boat, there is no route by car. And since it was winter and there was no navigation, we had to find someone to take us there by boat.
J: There are a lot of military objectives near Kherson.
M.P.: We decided to stay home and see what would happen. The next morning it was busy—there were some military planes flying over, some explosions—but after lunch it got quiet. In the evening, after 9 p.m., we started to hear huge explosions in the direction of Antonivka Bridge, that is the bridge towards Crimea. There is a big field near our house, and after this field there is a city region near Antonivka Bridge, so we could hear all these explosions from far away. The fights lasted for three or four days. Rockets were flying just over our house. I was so stressed I couldn’t remember how to put toothpaste on my toothbrush, my hands were shaking all the time. The next morning, we decided to go to the dacha. We took our friends, gathered our things, took Dima’s mother, my mother refused to go. An interesting fact: in Tavricheskiy, where we lived, we didn’t hear any air raid sirens, but at the dacha we could hear all the air raid sirens from around the city. It was really scary. Also, we could hear Grady shootings, we started to recognize the type of weapon by sound.
It started to be very noisy in the city. There were some tanks. My mother and her sister came to stay with us at the dacha, because it was too stressful in the city.
N.M.: Where did you stay those two days before you left? In a shelter?
M.P.: We didn’t go to a shelter. And when we moved to dacha, we knew they wouldn’t be coming by water. We heard the fighting line, but we knew they wouldn’t shoot in our direction, there was no point. During the first months, they didn’t know there were houses with people in them in that area, so it was more or less safe, because there was no access by land, only by water. They only showed up at the beginning of April. The first week it was really bad in the city: lots of shootings, tanks everywhere, bombings. Tanks were shooting at everything—schools, car parks—some cars exploded.
N.M.: Just for the sake of destroying things?
M.P.: Yes. By the 1st of March the whole area was fully occupied.
N.M.: They occupied the city, but not the dacha?
M.P.: They didn’t know about the dacha. It was also cold, minus 5-10 degrees, sometimes even minus 20. Until navigation resumed at the beginning of April, no one knew about that place. The dacha was past the occupation line. It was neutral. After 10 days, we went back home, but then the explosions started in Chornobaivka, so we returned to the dacha. Our daughter stayed at the dacha for 2 months while we went around buying supplies.
J: Those islands are called plavni. It is like a delta, the river flows into the sea creating islands.
M.P.: The front line was really close, so we could hear everything. Our dacha is situated not far away from city Hola Prystan. In April, they occupied Hola Prystan, but they were going in and out of it. It was like a transit point, they came in and then left for Kherson. One day during first 10 days of war, when Hola Prystan was not not occupied, we went there to buy some food and all the shops were closed, but eventually we managed to find an open one. Then we read in the news that the Russians had come into the city, so we got frightened and went back. In the first days, people in Kherson were hiding, as the Russians were shooting at everything—schools, kindergartens, shops. My friend stayed in a shelter with her kids for 6 days. When they stopped shooting and fully occupied the city, they started patrolling it. Everything was closed at that time, as people were scared. But then the shops started opening. One bakery was even giving away bread for free. We went back to Kherson as we needed to buy food. The shops were mostly empty, and they were only open between certain hours. There were big queues, you had to wait in a queue for 3-4 hours, and sometimes you didn’t even know what you were queueing for.
N.M.: Were there Russian products?
M.P.: No, the products were Ukrainian. There were some warehouses around the city. But there were limits to how much you could buy—one kilo of flour per shopper, for example.
N.M.: Who imposed those limits?
M.P.: The shops, because they wanted to prevent speculative buying.
J: They didn’t want someone buying all the food and leaving none for the others. The front line had moved towards Mykolaiv, so it was more or less quiet in the city.
N.M.: Were there checkpoints in the city?
M.P.: Yes. They were checking documents all the time. Whenever you went by car or on foot, they stopped you and checked everything. Especially men.
J: Did they ask where you were going?
M.P.: They had lists and they checked whether you were on them. If you were using public transport, they stopped the vehicle, came in with those lists, and looked for the people on the lists. If you didn’t have a passport, they took you some place.
N.M.: Who they were looking for?
M.P.: Militaries, former militaries, government people, activists. Kherson was the first city where protests were organized from the beginning of the occupation until the middle of April.
There was a huge problem with medicine. There were no warehouses in the area, so pharmacies quickly became empty. They [the Russians] shot all the volunteers who wanted to help. We had to run to the shops in the morning, then stay indoors, as the Russians started patrolling the streets at noon. Everyone was scared to go out.
N.M.: They could stop you on the street and ask for documents?
M.P.: Yes. They were walking, driving, moving around.
N.M.: Did children go to school during that time?
M.P.: No, children had online classes.
N.M.: What about adults? Did they go to work?
M.P.: We all lost our jobs. Only some teachers, shop assistants and doctors were still working. My husband lost his job. I was working for a car dealership, from which I resigned shortly before the start of the war. On February 23, I found a new job, but I didn’t have time to go out and start working, because the war started on February 24. Life became very expensive, as nothing was being delivered, and no one controlled the prices. We couldn’t pay by card or online, only cash. The dollar started going up, so prices rose higher and higher.
Every day, people had to adapt. By the end of April, they were going to Crimea to shop for supplies as the shops in Kherson were empty. Kherson is a symbol of agriculture, an agricultural region known for its vegetables and watermelons, so it shouldn’t have been a problem finding food. But Russians made it impossible to live there. There was news about how the Russians prevented farmers from selling their products and they had to throw them away.
My problem was that I couldn’t buy my hormone treatment. At first, volunteers managed to bring me the drugs, but then I had to take another medicine with a higher dose of hormones, and I had a bad reaction to it. This was before I came here.
One of my colleagues needed insulin, and she died because she couldn’t buy it. If you called an ambulance, it would arrive, but paramedics couldn’t do much. So a lot of people died because they couldn’t get the help they needed. There was no mobile network coverage either, as Russians had cut everyone off. From time to time, you would get a bar or two of network signal, but at the end of May it went away completely, so people couldn’t call the emergency lines anymore.
Now they have brought in some kind of satellite from Crimea and there are only Russian sim cards available. So you can only make calls via VPN.
N.M.: Do you have relatives there?
M.P.: Only friends. We have relatives in Nova Kakhovka, which is not far away. Their situation is worse than the one we had in Kherson. In the beginning, it was calm, but it got worse in the middle of June.
N.M.: When did you decide to leave?
M.P.: Psychologically, it is difficult to see and hear all these things, to have your windows shake all the time. Because of the hormones I was taking, I was in a bad way, I had mood swings. My husband refused to leave. But I understood we had to leave while there were still some corridors, while we had the opportunity. The schools were closed, we had no job, no money. I knew that one day they would bomb the Antonivka Bridge and we’d have no way out of the city. My husband’s mother had stress-induced high blood pressure. She called the ambulance, but the Russians wouldn’t let it pass. Two hours later, they managed to get to her and gave her an injection, but that too was risky. This also influenced our decision. We decided to leave on the 30th of April.
Leaving Ukraine was forbidden and there was also the front line, so we couldn’t go through Ukraine. The only way to escape was through Crimea, as it was already occupied, but we had to drive through enemy territory, and we didn’t know what could happen. We could lose the car—they could just take it, or they could take our documents. We had also heard stories of cars heading to Ukraine that were simply shot at. There were long queues, people were waiting in those queues for 3-4 days. So it was dangerous.
We left early in the morning, after curfew had ended. We passed about 30 checkpoints on our way to Crimea. There was one every 3-4 kilometres and they stopped us at every one of them. They asked a lot of questions, where are you going, what are you doing there, show us your documents.
N.M.: What did you tell them?
M.P.: We said we were going to Crimea to see some friends and they let us go. My husband really has friends in Crimea who support Ukraine, so it was true. There was a serious check at the border between Crimea and Kherson. They checked our phones, suitcases, bags. We deleted everything on our phones related to the war, we just cleared them. We didn’t read the news for 3 days so we wouldn’t have anything in the phone cache.
N.M.: Did they look at your search history?
M.P.: Yes. If you deleted it, they forced you to download it and then they would be able to see the history. And if they found anything… You understand.
They asked us whether we had taken pictures of the military forces that were on the move at the time. We answered: we don’t care, we don’t need such things.
We were also forced to write down the correct address of our friends.
J: Were your friends aware that you gave their address?
M.P.: Yes. It was a difficult procedure and a tough checkup for those who declared they were in transit. They were given only three days in Crimea, and it is difficult to cross Crimea in three days. It is a long way through Crimean and Russian territory to get to Georgia, for example.
In Crimea we stayed at our friend’s house for several days.
J: Where exactly?
M.P.: In Kerch. It was quite difficult. I was scared of every man I met on the street, we took down our car’s license plates. When I saw a shop fully stocked with food, I was shocked. In the evening, it was difficult to walk the streets. Our friends offered to accommodate us for a while, maybe until we would be able to return home. Our friend is a sailor, he supports Ukraine, but he watches the news from all over the world.
But for us, it was difficult to see Z posters everywhere. All that Russian propaganda made it really painful.
In Kerch, they have a lookout point with a nice view of the sea. There is a big stela with huge V and Z letters, and a lot of St. George’s stripes, and everybody takes pictures in front of it. You understand how it felt for us.
A lot of Russians come to Crimea and it was disgusting to hear them have the same speech we had heard from Russian soldiers in Kherson.
J: I have a friend who is pregnant, she lives in Antalya now. Her husband has a freediving school, she was also teaching freediving. I asked her: are you going to teach Russians as well? She said they don’t work in hotels where there are Russians.
M.P.: We drove across the Crimean bridge. Our friends were driving ahead of us, as they had Crimean numbers. We were driving close behind so we wouldn’t attract too much attention, but it didn’t help. They stopped us at the checkpoint and checked everything again like they had done at customs.
N.M.: Did they ask you where you were going and why?
M.P.: Yes. They made a call using my husband’s phone and asked where he was allowed to leave Crimea. That was also really scary because we didn’t know what would happen if they said no. Afterwards, we drove across Russia by ourselves using a navigator app, trying to avoid the police. On the first day, we drove across most of Russia and stayed in Pyatigorsk. When we booked the hotel, we didn’t say we were from Ukraine, only that we had a dog.
When we arrived at the hotel at about 11 p.m., the manager asked us for our passports, and I thought she wouldn’t let us stay there when she saw that we were Ukrainian. I told her we would leave at 5 a.m.
Next, we passed through Southern Ossetia. There were some more checkpoints, as it’s a territory disputed between Russia and Georgia, and there is a war going on there too.
N.M.: Is it also occupied?
M.P.: No, it’s like Donbas or Crimea, a territory not recognized by anyone. It’s a common story with the Russians. There were military checkpoints where you had to go into a separate room, have an interview with the soldiers, tell them where you were going and why. They also checked everything, our documents, the car. They tried to get us to bribe them, but we were lucky to get away.
N.M.: What did they ask you?
M.P.: Where we were going and why, whether my husband had done any military service, what the purpose of our trip was. A lot of questions. They were also questioning our daughter.
The meeting itself was really disgusting. One man was asking questions and the other one was scanning my face for reactions.
N.M.: What did you tell them?
M.P.: We said we had lost our jobs and were going to Georgia to find a place to work. We tried to avoid military topics. Afterwards, the rest of the trip was more or less uneventful—Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria. We didn’t sleep for two days, we wanted to get to some place safe as soon as possible.
J: Why did you come here?
M.P.: My husband’s sister had come here at the beginning of March, and there was an apartment where we could stay for a while, as one family had left.
N.M.: Did your mother escape by the same route?
M.P.: My mother stayed in Kherson until August.
N.M.: Did you stay at the dacha?
Tamara Leliuk (T.L.): Yes, two days at the dacha and two days in the city, where I went to buy supplies. But the dacha became unsafe when the Russians understood that people were living there, and they started patrolling the place. I saw them one day. They were using drones to search for people and going into empty houses. When I went to the boat, I met about 15 of them. They were armed, but they didn’t touch me. I was scared to stay there alone, as they were drinking and firing shots in the air at night. It was really scary.
M.P.: A friend of mine who has been there all this time is now trying to leave, but the Antonivka Bridge has been damaged and there is only a ponton bridge and cars are not allowed on it. So people try to escape through Vasylivka. They stay there for 3-10 days, then most of them go back.
J: Now all of us are waiting for the Ukrainian army to free that territory. This means more fights, and people are trying to leave now in order to stay safe.
Translation: Evghenia Jane Rozbitska
Proofreading: Cristina Chira, Alexandra Palconi-Sitov
Photo credit: Mircea Sorin Albuțiu