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"I won't leave my husband. If we die, we'll die together." The road from Chernihiv.

Olga K. (name changed) left Ukrainian Chernihiv a few days ago. She had to leave everything behind - her home, her possessions, her favorite job, her childhood memories.

Two days by car along the new "road of life" and here she is in another part of Ukraine, but is she safe? At the moment no one can give an answer to this question.

We talked to Olga about what she went through in the besieged city and how she managed to get out of it.

- Olga, let's start from the beginning. When February 24th came, did you suspect anything at all?

I sounded the alarm long before February 24th. I knew something terrible was coming, I felt it was coming. I tried to persuade my husband to leave, at least for a while. Or at least begin to prepare somehow but everyone around me thought I was nuts and suggested that I would better distract myself or make myself useful. No one believed me. No one was preparing. I felt like Cassandra.

On February 24, we woke up to a call from my sister around 5 a.m. She said it had started.  And then we heard the sounds of explosions. It wasn't our neighborhood that was being bombed, but at that point we hadn't learned to tell the difference yet.

- When it became clear that [the "special operation"] was happening here, how did the people react?

I was running around the apartment in tears, frantically trying to pack some of my things. My husband was just in shock. The only thing we had decided before was that if it started we would go to my sister's house. She still had a toilet in the garden and we could use it without the water.

Most people didn't understand anything at first. Only those who went through the ATO in Donbas and IDPs (internally displaced persons) understood it right away. People like us were confused at first and everyone hoped that the enemies would be quickly stopped and kicked back. 

We went to my sister's house with our belongings. Then my husband brought my parents. We decided it would be easier to survive the nightmare together in one house. We didn't know about the shelter at that time. Then my sister's neighbor came and told us about it. The sirens started howling, and we decided to run over to the shelter and sit through the alarm at the same time.

Photo from Chaus's Telegram

- Tell us about life in the shelter.

We started living in the shelter from the first day of the "special operation." We realized after our first visit that it wasn't as scary to experience bombings there as it was in the house. My sister and my parents, on the contrary, felt better at home and refused to go to the shelter.

We brought a couple of simple office chairs, an old stool, some plaids and a small pillow. And a bag with documents.

For the first 10 days we slept sitting on those chairs, leaning on each other forming a "house".

The stool served as our table when we were going to eat. The first days we ate normal food only in the mornings, when we ran to my sister's house after the end of the curfew. The rest of the time we spent in the shelter, eating crackers with tea and canned goods with bread for dinner. That was while we could buy bread.

An old thermos was very helpful. I can't imagine how we would have survived without it in a cold, damp basement.

My husband is an engineer. Out of boredom and in order to distract himself he started adapting a shelter for life. He found and screwed in light bulbs, because before there was only one light bulb in the huge room, and we were sitting in darkness. He wired up the fuse box with extension cords to plug in the outlets for the kettle and the phone chargers. There were pipes under the ceiling for ventilation, but the ventilation didn't work. You had to manually turn a huge knob to let the air in. My husband figured it out and fixed the electric motor. After that, the ventilation began to work with the button.

The bombshelter actually consisted of several rooms. There were about 100 people in it. Many with small children. There were 5 kids in our room from 2 to 4 years old, a few teenagers and one 10-month-old baby.

We organized couches for moms with babies from improvised materials. We just took the doors off the wardrobes in the building where the shelter was located.

Two rooms, one of which we were in, was actually a bomb shelter with two exits, ventilation, heavy metal doors and even a cistern for water and a basic toilet that did not work. The total area was about 120 m2. But besides it, there was also a basement, which is called "simple shelter." It was not as deep and would not protect from almost anything. It was much bigger, but people were afraid to hide there and were trying to join us in the protected shelter with all their might.

There was no heating in the shelter. We warmed ourselves with tea and plaids. We sat in our outerwear and warm shoes over several pairs of socks. But it was still very cold on frosty nights.

- What about food? Were there any supplies? How did the stores work, if they did?

The stores were still working on the first day, but by lunchtime they had sold out almost everything. Only the expensive delicacies were left.

And then the stores began to report to the city council on a daily basis whether they would open or not. And so did the drugstores. It started around day 3 or 4, when people started to run out of supplies but not all the stores were opening. And there were huge lines to get in. It took about 2 hours just to enter the store.

The supply of the city with food and products collapsed almost immediately due to the geographical location of the city. The enemy had cut the only supply highway.

For the same reason, those who did not leave in the first two days were trapped.

And more about the food. When it became dangerous and too far to go to the stores because of the shelling, we were saved by the street vendors. They simply emptied their stores, loaded them into a van and brought them to the yard of the building where the shelter was. And they sold it to us. After all, standing in line next to the shelter was not so scary. But every day the assortment was shrinking, stocks were thinning, it was getting harder and harder to buy something. And when the water supply was damaged, bread was no longer baked and delivered.

Some of the food was brought by my sister. Her neighbor volunteered for the Ukrainian army and brought some of the food and gave it to other neighbors.

For the first 10 days everyone hoped it would all be over soon. 

Photo from Chaus's Telegram

- When it became clear that it would last longer?

When they started bombing residential houses and civilian infrastructure. The situation worsened every day, the shelling became more chaotic, the shells and missiles got closer and closer.

Families with children began to disappear from the shelter. Information was withheld until those who left were safe.

It was difficult and dangerous to leave. Cars were under fire. People were being killed. Sometimes the military would not allow cars to exit because there were battles on the highway.

One large family with several children tried to get out for three days, but they were turned back. It was not until the fourth time that they managed to get out.

All that time I tried to talk my husband into leaving, but he flatly refused.

And then my sister's neighbor was going to take the family out, and he had an empty seat in the car. He offered my sister to take her. And she agreed. Just by that time her son, a student, had left Kharkov for another city. And she went to see him.

Only after that my husband began to think about leaving. But by this point the city had run out of fuel. In addition, a few days before, the enemy had bombed two oil depots in the city.

- How did you manage to leave?

We were frantically looking for gasoline. There were only a few gas stations working. But they didn't serve fuel to civilians. Only military, city services and ambulances.

We subscribed to channels about the evacuation from Chernihiv. There we discussed routes, looked for companions, and fuel. For a couple of days we couldn't find gas anywhere. And then a relative of my sister (my husband's brother) offered to take his wife and daughter out in exchange for gasoline. He couldn't leave on his own. He works as an anesthesiologist in our maternity hospital, and the Hippocratic oath is not an empty word for him. He gave us gas, we loaded up the passengers and left the city.

- How quickly did the bombing of civilian targets begin? Was there a period when the townspeople thought, "It's OK, we are civilians, they only shoot at military targets"?

In the first days they were indeed shooting at military units, then at administration buildings. But by the end of the first week, they were already shelling schools and apartment buildings.

Several suburbs were razed to the ground. These are all cottage communities just outside the city limits. They razed Kiyenka to the ground. One family miraculously got away in a car that had been damaged by shrapnel and came to stay with relatives in our shelter. We saw them only on the day of arrival. After that, they didn't come out of the shelter to the surface at all. Imagine what they had to go through!

- In Mariupol now there is a blockade or, as the press put it mildly, a "humanitarian disaster". Is it the same in Chernihiv?

Not yet, but it is moving in the same direction. There is practically no water, electricity, heat, gas, or communications. But by some miracle, we managed to bring humanitarian aid. Keep in mind that we have a smaller city. If the enemies set their minds to it, they will turn Chernihiv into Mariupol in a matter of days.

Kindergarten in Chernihiv, photo from Telegram Pravda_Gerashchenko

- Do people stay there because there is no road? Or are they just afraid to leave?

Someone doesn't have a car. Someone is afraid of being shot on the road, some people don't have gas, some people hope that they can wait it out. Many don't have the resources to survive in a new place, abandoning everything they've had. Some have infirm relatives. Or civic duty, like the doctor whose family we drove out.

- How scary was the trip, by the way?

Very scary! We traveled at our own risk. There was no organized evacuation. We didn't go along the highway, but along unpaved roads. We saw cars on the side of the road that were burned and shot. From every forest we could be shot, because the area is flat and can be seen for many kilometers.

I saw one of the most terrible pictures of my life.

We were driving on a dirt road in a field. The sky above us was blue and the sun was shining brightly. And in that sky were dozens of rockets. Silent, but so scary. They flew in some strange spiraling trajectories. It was early morning and the whole sky was covered in white spiral trails, with a rocket at the end of each one.

It was one of the most terrifying things I had ever seen.

We learned later that on the day we were traveling, at the same exit from Kyiv, through which we left, a car was shot at about the same time, and a girl was killed.

We only relaxed near Vinnitsa. That was the second day of our trip. We drove for two days, because we didn't have time on the first day because of the curfew. And the road had greatly lengthened due to the detours through the villages and unpaved roads because of the "special operation".

My husband spent a total of 24 hours driving. And I was beside him in the car. He drove, and I was a navigator. The first part of the road, the most dangerous one, I kept my eyes on the sides in order not to miss it in case any enemies appeared.

Fortunately, I managed to persuade my daughter to stay with friends in Europe. At least I have peace of mind for her.

- Aren't you thinking of going away yourself?

I won't leave my husband. They won't let him out. He's 57. They only let men out who are over 60. He's not much of a soldier. He has terrible eyesight, a compression fracture of the spine in his youth, asthma on hormones. But nobody cares about that now. I'm not leaving him here alone. If we die, we die together.

Olga and her husband have lived and worked in Chernigov all their lives. He is a head of a land surveying firm, she is a specialist in the implementation of a software for public utilities. Not only memories have remained in Chernigov, but Olga's parents are without light, heat and electricity, with whom she has not been in touch for several days. All her life remained there, which is also gone.

We have just received information that the only bridge over the Desna river, which was used to bring humanitarian aid and evacuation flights to Chernihiv, was destroyed on the night of March 23.

Interview by: Irina Iakovleva


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