Participants: Iryna Pruhlo (I.P.), Nadiia Pruhlo (N.P.), Nicoleta Mușat (N.M.), Evghenia Jane Rozbytska (J)
Location & date: FITT Timișoara, Romania / August 2022
I.P.: We are from Zaporiggia. Me, my husband, our daughter and a dog. My mother lived 100 kilometres from Zaporiggia, in the town of Pology.
On the 24th of February, when it all started, I was at home, because Dasha was ill, so I was staying home with her. My husband’s sister called and said the war had started. The Russians had started bombing Ukraine. We turned on the TV, turned on the news and started to call our friends who were in Melitopol. We called those cities of which they had spoken on the news, Kharkiv, Melitopol. We had friends, relatives there. That evening people from Melitopol told us they were already sitting in basements, because all the state institutions, police, security services, administration had already been occupied by Russians. Then we asked ourselves: what was our family going to do? I called my mother and father and we started to look for a car to get out of the city. As soon as we found a car, we filled the tank with gas. This was difficult, we waited in a queue for 3 hours.
J: On the 24th of February, buying gas was a problem, because everyone was buying a lot of gas to leave. We also queued for gas for a couple of hours. So you had to wait 3 hours or more in a queue to fill a car tank.
I.P.: By morning, there was no more gas in Zaporiggia.
J: Yes, I had forgotten about that. You came to the gas station and you saw 00.00.
N.M.: How was the atmosphere? Did people panic or were they organized?
J: Mostly it was panic, but not like you see in films when everybody is running. We were leaving with our car and our luggage, and we asked everybody we knew: are you leaving? And people said yes.
I.P.: I called my mother and I said: we are coming to pick you up. And then we realized that it was getting late, there was no gas, and we had no idea where to fill the tank or if we would be able to find gas. And it took 2 hours to get to her city and 2 hours coming back and there were a lot of traffic jams everywhere. But I said to myself: I am also a mother and I have a small child. I need to save her. Also, my mother was afraid to leave at night, because there was already some shooting, and she was scared.
J: At that moment there were no checkpoint, they appeared a bit later.
I.P.: We decided to leave at 8 p.m., we called our friends from Melitopol, they said: we’ve left the city, but there are a lot of traffic jams everywhere, so you need to hurry up.
J: Where exactly were the traffic jams?
I.P.: Near Dnepr, Kryviy Rih, Kirovograd, a lot of traffic jams.
J: In Kyiv there were huge traffic jams on the way out of the city. You understand, people were afraid as no one knew where the next bomb would fall, everyone tried to get out of the city as quickly as possible.
I.P.: We packed one backpack with documents, one backpack with clothes for Dasha, and my husband said: you have to pack the suitcase with two outfits for winter, two outfits for autumn and two outfits for summer. So we packed, took our dog and left. And we drove for 25 hours without stopping.
N.M.: Was Ira driving?
J: No, her husband was driving. In what direction?
I.P.: We wanted to stop to sleep somewhere. We have a flat in Vinnitsya, but we were told they the Russians would bomb the city he next day. We reached Western Ukraine, and my husband was falling asleep while driving, so we understood that we had to stop and sleep somewhere.
J: Yes, but on the third day, thousands of people arrived in the Western part of Ukraine.
I.P.: We had friends there and we hoped we could stay with them.
J: Where exactly?
I.P.: Yaremche. It’s in the Carpathian Mountains.
J: It’s nice touristic spot in the Carpathian Mountains.
I.P.: It was really difficult to find a place to stay. We found a place for one night, but only because we had a child.
J: Didn’t you stay with your friends?
I.P.: No, they didn’t have room for us, unfortunately.
N.M.: How long did you stay there?
I.P.: Just one day. The next morning we found a different accommodation, but my husband insisted for us to leave the country. He is a masseur and had a trainer here, in Timișoara. His wife called us, she speaks Russian, and she invited us to come and stay in Timișoara until things get better. We didn’t want to leave, we wanted to stay together as a family, but my husband said he was going to defend Zaporiggia, because since 2014 he has been a volunteer in the army. But he said he would feel better if me and Dasha had left the country by that time.
N.M.: So the two of you crossed the border?
I.P.: Yes. By that time men were not allowed to cross the border anymore.
J: It was difficult. They didn’t want to leave. There was a lot of crying.
I.P.: We got near the border and we wanted to check if he could possibly cross the border with us, but he said: I am not going anywhere, you go abroad, and I will go back home with the dog. He drove to Chernivtsy to leave the car with some friends.
J: Iryna doesn’t drive.
N.M.: How did you cross the border? By foot?
I.P.: His trainer organized everything. They waited for us in Solotvino. We waited in the queue to cross the border for three hours. I was told that if I had a car, it would take 4 days, but if we crossed by foot, three hours.
J: What day was this?
I.P.: The 26th of February.
J: Yes, on the 26th there were huge queues everywhere, at all the borders. On the 24th it was more or less ok, as people were probably not yet thinking of leaving the country. But in next days it got crowded everywhere.
I.P.: We managed to cross quicker because my husband had a document from 2014 that he was volunteer in the army. After crossing the border, we were met by a car, and they brought us to Timișoara. My husband went back to Zaporiggia. My mother and farther stayed in Pology. As soon as we arrived, we called them and told them we had arrived safely. On the 3rd of March my mother called and told us there were Russian troops in the city.
J: Do your mother and farther live together?
I.P.: No, they live separately. On the 8th of March we lost connection. Before that, I had been asking them to leave the city, but at the time there were no corridors, nothing. If you had a car, you could leave, maybe.
N.M.: Why was the connection lost?
I.P.: They have cars with special equipment, which go around the city and prevent any connection.
N.M.: So no internet, no phones?
I.P.: There was no connection for two weeks. Those were the longest two weeks of my life. (she smiles)
N.M.: Was there no connection with your husband either?
I.P.: No, he had connection. He drove from the border to Zaporiggia. It took 4 days.
N.M.: So there was no connection with the parents, but there was connection with the husband, right?
I.P.: Yes. From time to time, I received messages from friends: I saw your mom, she is ok. I also saw that they received my messages. But for them to send messages, it was too risky as you had to go to certain places where it was more or less quiet, no shooting. My mother lived with friends, and they were the ones sending messages from time to time. It was dangerous, of course. Then there was a period of several weeks when there was some connection, and I asked my mother to get out of there. But by that time, they were all living in shelters and were afraid to leave, as it was too dangerous.
N.M.: Did they make these shelters, or were they built by the city?
J: No, we have high-rise buildings and they have basements. So they equipped these basements, brought there some things in order to be able to stay there not for longer. But it was winter, it was cold—you understand.
I.P.: I asked my husband why none of his volunteer friends went to help people escape from those regions. He said: we sent people to help, but they didn’t come back. And then on the 20th of March my mother called and said: we managed to leave the city, I will call you later. And I understood I couldn’t call while they were passing through the Russians checkpoints. Because there the Russians could do anything, shoot, make you turn back, whatever they wanted. And when she called and said: I am near Zaporiggia in a traffic jam, then I relaxed a bit, as she could go to my flat to stay there for a night. But anyway, I asked her to leave that area as soon as she could. And I only fully relaxed when my mother arrived in Bucharest.
After that I turned my attention to my farther, who was still in Ukraine. But on the 7th of April my farther called and said he had managed to escape as well. It was the most wonderful news in a long time. He said he was in Zaporiggia. By that time it was more or less quiet. So the only news I was still waiting for was from my husband’s family. By the end of April, they managed to get my husband’s mother out of the country. She went to Lviv, where she got to the hospital with a heart attack, just in time to receive assistance. That’s our story. My mother will tell you how she survived during those days.
N.M.: How was it under the Russian occupation?
Nadiia Pruhlo (N.P.): At the beginning of the war, I was still working. I am retired, but I still work as a chief of laboratory at a big plant that produces oil. So in the beginning we were going to work, the plant was working. Then work at the plant stopped, and only the directors of the infrastructure departments were going to the office every morning, as they had to plan. Then one day (I don’t remember the date) we were told to stay home, not to go anywhere and listen for the air raid sirens.
N.M.: Did you also have those air raid sirens?
N.P.: Yes, we have a huge railway station, and I could hear the sound of trains. On the 3rd of March, they came into our city. There were some fights between Russians and local people, many of them were killed, but the Russians won because of their number. They needed the city because Mariupol, Berdiansk have seaports, and they [the Russians] were bringing military equipment, and all this equipment was passing through our city.
N.M.: Did they have checkpoints in the city?
N.P.: There were 4 checkpoints in the city, but around city, there were 8 Russian checkpoints on a radius of 40 kilometres, and when I was leaving the city, I had to pass through all of them on the way to Zaporiggia.
N.M.: And what was the procedure? What did you have to do when passing a checkpoint? Show some documents? What did they ask?
N.P.: Everything began with shootings with automatic weapons. Our local forces were fighting them. The first explosions were there, where they were located. And pieces of the first bombs flew in different directions, they hit shops and other buildings, a fire started, this was right in the city centre. So the most damage was done there: the bus station, the central market, the school, the headquarter of the local force. The only thing that remained undamaged was the railway station because they needed it.
There is the town of Pology and the village of Pology. They made their headquarter there. I live on the 5th floor of a block of flats and my friends live in the same building on the 4th floor. We watched from the windows when the Russians started shooting. I stayed home the entire day, but at night we went to the basement because it was too scary to stay home. Rockets were flying every hour. At night we could hear explosions and see the fire, which was higher than a 5-storey building. In the morning we would check where the fire was and what was burning.
When a missile is flying, the windows start shaking, and it’s so scary, it seems like that rocket is flying directly into your window. For two weeks we lived without electricity and without water. It was really cold. The thing which saved us were the wells, as we have a lot of them. So we took water from there, but it was so scary. The Russians were moving around in tanks, you never knew when you would run into them. There was no connection, no phone signal, nothing. The only place where you could get a connection was the railway bridge, so we went there and tried to send messages to relatives. But this was also dangerous, as there were some shootings and you never knew if the target was you or someone else.
N.M.: What about food?
N.P.: There was no problem with food. We all have fridges and freezers. When electricity was cut, we had to recycle even frozen fruit and berries, as they would go bad after defrosting. We started making compotes, jams. The Russians have what to eat now. (she smiles) We also cooked the meat. The only problem was with bread. But then small private bakeries opened and started selling bread. But the Russians started driving away people, not letting them buy bread. Also, some people were bringing milk and milk products from villages.
Personally, I didn’t have any problem with food. To be honest, we didn’t have time to eat. Air raid sirens were going off almost all time. You ran to the shelter, when you got back home to the 4th floor, you stayed there for 30-40 minutes, then another air raid siren started, and you had to run to the shelter again. So we didn’t have time to eat. (she smiles) Once, after an explosion, all the windows were shattered, and we ran on shards of broken glass and we thought there were no stairs anymore. That’s how big and how close the explosion was.
When they fully occupied the city, they started bringing in the equipment. We saw it through the window. There were columns of 500 units of military equipment. And during the day, there were 2-3 columns of tanks and other military equipment passing through our city.
They broke into the shops and took what they needed. They tied ropes from doors, tied them to cars, the cars would drive away, and the doors would break. When we later went to the city centre, there was nothing: no pharmacies, no shops, no bus station. Everything was destroyed. Broken glass and shards everywhere.
They also occupied the hospital. First, they were shooting until there was no more glass left in the windows, then they occupied it.
I stayed a couple of nights with my friends. There was a doctor-anaesthetist living at their house, so we asked him how it was. He said there were a lot of injured people, but they were also treating Russian soldiers, they didn’t refuse them treatment. They mended broken windows with plastic (as it was still cold in March). But when the Russians fully occupied the city, all the doctors left the hospital.
After the full occupation, there was an order issued by Russians: if you wanted to go to the city centre, you had to wear a white bandage. If you wanted to go by car, your windows had to be untinted. If your windows were tinted, they had to be open. In any other situation they would shooting immediately. If you were moving after curfew, especially by car, they would shoot immediately.
A lot of people tried to escape through the steppe to the villages in order to avoid their checkpoints. A lot of them were shot in their cars.
N.M.: How did they announce these things? Was it on the radio? How did they let people know?
I.P.: People from villages would bring milk, there would be a queue, or people went to buy bread, there was also a queue, so…
N.M.: So people talked and exchanged news.
N.P.: In the morning, when you wet to get water from the well, you ask everyone what the news were. People were exchanging news every day. When the connection was restored, Iryna asked me to leave the city. I was staying with my friend, and her two sons were in Romania, in Bucharest. Both had left Kyiv. And they were also begging their mother to leave, so all the children were begging us to leave.
N.M.: Why didn’t you want to leave?
I.P.: They were afraid of being shot, or of exploding mines. It was really dangerous. Also, there was only one driver, a man my mother’s age, quite old, so you understand, it was quite risky.
N.P.: The other thing was that you couldn’t leave if you were only one car. You had to be in a column.
N.P.: People were scared. If there was just one car, alone, it was more likely to be shot at. Every day we saw people leaving the city and one day we decided to leave as well. There was some information on Telegram about a meeting point in Pology. You went there if you wanted to leave.
N.M.: Weren’t they afraid Russians would find out about this meeting point?
J: I think they knew, I guess.
N.P.: It was allowed to leave the city. After we decided to leave, we had 20 minutes to gather our things. I had a suitcase and some luggage in the basement, in case my flat was hit by a rocket. So I was kind of prepared. There were 8 cars in the column, all with white stripes. On Telegram people also said that you shouldn’t go off road as there were mines on the side of the road.
N.M.: You had to follow these instructions, right?
N.P.: Yes. As for the checkpoint, they didn’t touch us, maybe because of the age. But the cars with younger people, they were searching them, unpacking their bags and suitcases, searching the cars. Our luggage, no one touched it. We hid our phones, we only showed our documents, the passports, the driver showed the car documents, and that was it. At the last checkpoint there was a young man who checked our documents and said: if you come across shooting, don’t go further, come back immediately. As soon as we left the checkpoint, we had driven for 10 minutes and suddenly there was shooting: rockets, explosions, fire in the field. As this was the battle line, the line between Ukrainian territory and occupied territory. We decided to go straight to the Ukrainian side anyway. We managed to get to Zaporiggia, where we wanted to stay at Ira’s flat, to have a shower, to sleep a bit. Pasha, Ira’s husband, met us with tea and said: you have to hurry up, as there will be traffic jam and you might not be able to leave after this. Also, there is a curfew, and it is dangerous to stay in Zaporiggia. We wanted to stay with some friends in Dnipro and sleep there, but we managed to get to Kropivnitskyi. That is where we slept.
N.M.: Did you have enough fuel?
N.P.: By that time, there was no longer a problem with fuel. The car had a full tank, and we also had some cannisters with us. The driver was an entrepreneur and he travelled by car a lot, so he was prepared. In Kropivnitskiy we stayed in the hotel. In the morning we had to go into a shelter. The next stop was Kamianets-Podilskyi. There wasn’t a traffic jam anymore. We could also get gas without any problems. We were in a hurry, we could have stayed in Vinnitsia, as I have an apartment there, but we decided not to. We spent a night in Kamianets-Podilskyi and the next morning we went to Chernivtsi and to Romania. My friend’s sons met us, and we went to Bucharest.
N.M.: Did you have to wait long at the border?
N.P.: No, it was fast. So, I stayed one night in Bucharest, then I took the train to Timișoara, where Ira met me. Here it is ok: calm, quiet, no shootings. (she smiles)
I want to go home, but the city is occupied. At home, when my windows got broken, I had to call a man to repair them. When Russians see broken windows, they think no one is living there, it is empty, so they enter the flat.
I.P.: First they occupied the 1st and 2nd floors, but now they have also occupied the 4th and 5th floors, because they are afraid of grenades.
N.P.: The plant where I work was completely destroyed. The elevator was bombed and destroyed. It was a nice plant, with a lot of green trees inside. The Russians occupied it fully, they brought a lot of technical equipment inside, they were making a barbecue in our offices, they slaughtered a cow in there. Also, when they saw plastic windows, they were asking: what is this? It seems they had never seen plastic windows. In the beginning those who came were from Buriatia, there were also some from Chechnya.
N.M.: Do you still have friends there, neighbours?
Nadiia: It is small city, everybody knows everybody. I can’t get in touch with some of my friends, as there is no connection.
I.P.: The problem was that there was no centralized evacuation, everybody just got into their cars and tried to escape. There were some heavy rains which made roads impossible to drive on. The only village through which you can escape is called Vasilievka, and there are long queues there, people are queuing for days trying to escape. Already 11 people died in those queues. That’s why old people don’t want to go there, they are afraid they will die there.
N.M.: How is your apartment? Is everything ok?
J: For now, it’s more or less ok. She has left keys with neighbours, and they are checking it.
N.P.: What they do [the Russian soldiers], they wait near the house and when you come closer they say: give us the keys from that flat. If you don’t give them the keys, they threaten they will break the door and enter.
J: Ira’s farther was lucky about his apartment, as they entered, but there was some defrosted meat which had been there for couple of days, so the smell was horrible, and they refused to stay.
I.P.: We were joking with the neighbours regarding my mom’s apartment: they should put rotten eggs everywhere, so the Russians won’t be able to go in because of the smell. (she smiles)
N.M.: I have read in the news that some people call them orks.
J: Everybody call them orks, because they are orks, they behave like them, if you know what I mean.
N.M.: Do you feel anger?
I.P.: At first I did. But when my parents managed to escape, I became calmer.
N.P.: I am angry. I am 67 years old, I worked my whole life, I was earning enough money, I refurbished the apartment, I was receiving a pension from the state, I felt ok. I even wanted to retire for good, but my director asked me to work a little bit longer. And now everything is uncertain because of these bastards.
I have worked on that plant for 43 years. I graduated in 1974, in Vinnitsya, then I went to Pology and started work at that plant. It was just being built. So I was there from the very beginning.
I: I just want the Russians to leave and my parents to get their apartment back. I am also worried for my husband. I rent a flat, so I am not that worried about my apartment. But for my parents’, yes.
N.P.: I am angry with them. They were mocking people. While we were sitting in the basement, they were running on the floor above us, shooting with their automatic weapons. I don’t know if they were shooting at someone, it just looked like they wanted to scare us. In a near-by house, the daughter of a colleague of mine, she was 17 years old, she vacuumed and when she came out of the house, they shot her.
N.M.: So they are targeting civilians?
J: Of course.
N.M.: How old are they, the Russians? I have seen pictures and they look like teenagers.
N.P.: At checkpoints all of them looked ugly. Most of them were young, but there were also old ones, maybe my age. Maybe they just looked old. Some of them looked really scary when you approached them. Many cars that were in the columns disappeared. We just heard the news: a car disappeared, another car disappeared. A lot of people are disappearing now.
I.P.: One of our friends got to a checkpoint and they kept him there for 4 or 5 days. After they let him go, he took a bicycle and rode for 100 kilometres just to escape. Zaporiggia is now a hot spot because of Energodar, where there is nuclear plant.
N.M.: Iryna, what about your husband? Where is he?
I.P.: For now, he is not in the regular army. But he has completed some training. At the same time, a lot of his friends are in the army and they have offered him work as a paramedic, as he is masseur.
N.M.: Do you talk every day?
I: Sometimes there is no connection, but in general yes. But he is not telling me everything. In 2014 when he was in Donetsk, I called him, and he said there was bad connection and he would call me later. Later I found out they had gone to Debalceve to bring food to the army there. It was a hot spot at the time. His usual answer is everything is ok. He never tells me anything. (she smiles) When I ask him: where are you now? The answer is: you don’t need to know.
N.M.: Does he stay in a flat?
I.P.: Yes, for now he is at home. My farther escaped to Zaporiggia and he stayed there. We tell him to go to Vinnitsya as there is a flat where he can live, but he doesn’t want to.
We were told Zaporiggia will not be occupied, but what will happen, with the nuclear station and all… nobody knows.
N.M.: Everybody is following the news because everyone is worried.
Can I take a photo of you? This is very nice: three generations side by side. Thank you very much for the interview!
Translation: Evghenia Jane Rozbitska
Proofreading: Cristina Chira, Alexandra Palconi-Sitov
Photo credit: Mircea Sorin Albuțiu