For Tania from Kyiv, the war started, not in February 2022 but eight years earlier, when her native Luhansk was taken over. All her nearest and dearest stayed there, on the other side of the imaginary border that was so crudely established.
In occupied Luhansk, her mom, her brother’s family, and her husband’s elderly mother struggled every day. For eight years, Tania was cut off from them, connected only by a daily phone call with the question: «How are you?»
Last year, her mom’s heart gave out and, for the first time in all those years, Tania plucked up the courage to visit her hometown. She couldn’t not say a last goodbye to her mother. Crossing the checkpoints wasn’t easy. She had to call up her former classmates and friends to help, and on the way back she caught Covid on top of everything.
As soon as she heard the first explosions on February 24, she grabbed her cell phone and called her brother out of habit. His first advice was to save the kids and get them out of Kyiv ASAP because it the enemy’s main target. He recalled that when they were still in Luhansk, in the first days after the invasion, there were also long lines at grocery stores and pharmacies, but people were soon greeted by empty shelves, broken windows, and abandoned stores. Then, people also expected it to only last a couple of days, then maybe a few weeks, but the entire nightmare went on for years.
For three months, sitting on the cold floor of a deep, damp cellar, Tania and her kids ate whatever they had managed to get at the shops in the first days of the war, and anything that they could grab or quickly dig up in their vegetable garden between explosions. They ate everything raw: there was no way to cook or fry. Their nearest neighbors, with whom they talked and exchanged food through a small window, became like family. They all had a single goal—to survive.
From the windows of her apartment building, Tania could see Hostomel in flames. This was supposedly on the outskirts of Kyiv, but the constant explosions, fiery glow and smoky haze offered no rest, day or night. She kept reminding herself that their apartment building was the first after Hostomel, after the woods, and would be the first to get hit once the enemy broke through.
Remembering her mother and her brother, Tania rushed to stock up on food, although she never used to buy a lot before. Her wise brother told her to buy at least a sack of pasta or cereals, and stay in the basement, because he had lost a lot of friends over the years when they dared to stroll in the streets. That was his eight-year experience of war conditions.
As usual, the kids got sick, so Tania also hurried from one drug store to another. Back on the 17th floor, Hostomel was in plain view and air raid sirens could be heard coming from Kyiv, where parts had already been shelled into ruin. Taking the elevator was risky, but walking the stairs from the 17th floor to the basement and back every time the siren went off was just too much. Two weeks of sleepless nights in the chilly underground parking lot with feverish kids, too weak to even move, constantly afraid that they might not make it to the shelter, unable to take off their outer clothes…
Tania decided to listen to her brother and save the children while she still could, while her apartment was still standing, while people weren’t starving and everyone was still alive, while there was still a chance. Bare essentials only, as the evacuation trains barely had enough room for people and pets, let alone luggage. On foot from Novobilychi to Nyvky with their things and the kids, she took shortcuts through side streets and unpeopled yards. Later, some helpful young men from the Territorial Defense, to whom she will be eternally grateful, found a car and 10 minutes later they were at the train station.
Today, thanks to volunteers Tania and her children live in downtown Uzhhorod, in relative safety. But their hearts are with their father, who stayed in Kyiv and is anxious that his wife and children have a home to return to after the war. Her family in Luhansk is also not safe. Although they’ve been living in a war zone for eight years now, Tania calls them every day anyway, just to make sure they are still alive.
Told to Valentyna Turchyn, Kyiv