Author of the article: Anna Argirova
For eight years, Oleh has been growing up with the war. His village was one of the first to experience the horror of a full-scale offensive. On February 24, Oleh’s family tried to flee to the west of Ukraine via Mariupol. They managed to return to Ukraine only after almost three months.
For Oleh, Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine began several hours earlier than for the most of Ukrainians. In the village of Gnutovo near the Russian border, it was late at night when the Russians began shelling the street where the boy lived. With the first shot, the light disappeared in the house. Nevertheless, it was not dark inside, the sky was burning, it seemed to be the daytime.
It was 2:18 on the clock
During the eight years of the war, Oleh learned to distinguish clearly the sounds of gunshots. The silence seemed something exotic, not typical for his native village. The boy is 15 years old, and the most of his life is marked by the war.
Oleh and his cousin Yaroslav often played war. Sometimes they put a rug in front of the open basement door and tried to use the game to make sense of what was happening to them. The youngest in their gang is Glib, Oleh’s cousin. He is only 7. He is a year younger than the Russian-Ukrainian war. “Glib was born in the basement, because we were constantly staying there in 2014,” the boys’ grandmother Oleksandra Ryabichkina says.
They got used to the shelling and did not pay attention to it. It became part of the life in a small village, the only peculiarity of which was its proximity to the Russian border.
But this time everything was different. Intense shelling lasted several hours. The night passed slowly into the daytime, while everything around burned and cracked. “It was a real hell, a horror that cannot be described in words,” Oleksandra Mykolayivna recalls.
At five o’clock in the morning, the whole family of six was finally able to get to their feet. They spent the first hours of the war on the floor without raising their heads. “We thought we were done,” the woman says.
Everyone was scared, but little Glib was literally paralyzed by fear. When it became a little quieter, the boy fell asleep. A few hours later he woke up, and his grandmother noticed that he was staring at one point. Oleksandra Mykolayivna tried to speak to him, but Hlib could not say a word in response. Within a few hours, a lively movement began in the village, people went to Mariupol in search of rescue. Among them there was Oleh’s family as well.
Life in the city plunged into darkness
Oleh was wearing a light jacket, he didn’t take many things with him, everyone hoped to return home in a few days. After 2014, Mariupol became a fortress for them. They were convinced that the city would not be touched. Only later they realized that this war differed greatly from the one they had got accustomed to for the recent years.
They arrived in Mariupol with tickets for the Kyiv train, dated February 24, but never used them. Mariupol plunged into darkness too quickly. “Probably, it’s good that we couldn’t get on that train, it never reached Kyiv, it stopped in Zaporizhia,” Oleksandra Mykolayivna says.
On February 25, the city was closed, there was no opportunity to even return to the native village. The family moved in with relatives. Eight people crowded in the one-room apartment, there was a lack of personal space, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone. The cold floor where all of them slept was not frightening either.
“I tried not to get deeply involved into it all this before, I’ve heard gunfire, but I didn’t understand what was happening. After the 24th, I realized that Russia is attacking us on purpose. The worst thing was that it was impossible to get out of the city. What did people have to do? Survive! It scared me a lot,” the 15-year-old guy says.
Until March 10, the whole family mostly stayed in the apartment. Within only two weeks, the city plunged into chaos. There was no electricity, gas, water or even communication. The shelling continued around the clock. Day and night.
The children took it the hardest, because they did not understand what was happening. Excited, they didn’t know where to go, instead of playing games they thought about where to escape. “It was like hysteria,” Oleksandra Mykolayivna recalls.
It was impossible to stay in the apartment after March 10. Due to continuous heavy shelling, windows in the nearby houses began to break out. The decision was made instantly: the whole family moved to the basement. It used to be closed, but then someone broke down the door. Approximately 60 people were accommodated in the dark, cold, dirty room.
The basement was quite safe, although the walls shook from time to time from the explosions. “It was very dark and scary there,” Oleg recalls.
The boy’s “brightest” memories of that period in Mariupol, when he and his aunt went for water and food under shelling and air bombs. Each such raid could be the last, but without water the family would not have survived.
First, the water was drained from the heating system, boiled and then drunk. When this water ran out, there was the only option left – a well, which was one hour to go. There were already burials around the well. People stood in line for several hours, eager to fill their empty vessels.
Oleh remembers one of such trips for water especially well. Then he thought he would die. When he and Aunt Aliona climbed a low hill, they suddenly heard a shrill whistle. They immediately fell to the ground, diving into the dust that rose around. Oleh tried to get to his feet, but heard a whistle again. Two shells landed nearby. The boy and his aunt have survived only because they were on the hill at that moment. “I was sure that we would be killed,” Oleg recalls. Because of fear, he began to run, not thinking about the direction. Just straight ahead. Aliona barely caught up with him.
“After that, I only stayed in the basement and played with the boys, just not to think about everything that was happening around. When they started shelling, I couldn’t find a place for myself: then sitting, then lying. I panicked: what if the shell falls on us? It was a pity for little Glib, I wanted to cheer him up somehow, but we had no mood the fun,” Oleh recalls.
The children recognized the sound of the plane from afar. Then they started shouting. “A raven flies, a raven flies,” they cried in a deaf basement room. These shouts only thickened the tension that prevailed among the adults. None of them knew why the children called the plane a crow.
Oleh’s family did not have their own car, and the territory controlled by Ukraine could only be reached by personal transport under shelling. Someone drove up for money, but the family did not have such amounts either. It was possible to get on the Russian so-called evacuation buses, but none of them even thought to go in that direction. Sometimes people offered help, but there were usually one or two places and they didn’t want to part. “A lot of people got lost in this war,” Oleksandra Mykolayivna explains.
Therefore, the family remained in Mariupol.
Rules of survival in war
There was not enough food, although people in the basement shared. Apparently, it saved. Whenever it seemed like the food was about to run out, someone magically found a potato or an onion. Lean soup was made of this. They ate a lot of garlic, at the very beginning someone brought a full net of it to the basement, as well as expired products. “We ate it all, and nothing, we survived,” Oleksandra Mykolayivna recalls.
Oleh lacked bread the most.
“Sometimes I could wake up in the middle of the night because of feeling hungry. I really wanted bread,” the guy tells.
The longer they stayed in Mariupol, the more difficult it was to get food. We often had to walk the broken streets, which were flooded with rubbish from destroyed houses. “These memories will be in front of my eyes for the rest of my life,” Oleksandra Mykolayivna says.
More fearful than air strikes were only the dead bodies, there were more and more with every passing day. They were everywhere, people just stepped over them, nobody touched them and or dared to bury.
“I saw dead bodies, but I couldn’t believe it. How could this even be possible? I do not understand this death. Here the people are lying, you walk, and they lie dead. You don’t have to remember that, except as a nightmare,” the teenager says.
There was one unspoken rule, the only one that really helped: not to look at a dead person’s face. “Otherwise, it will then appear before our eyes for a long time,” Oleksandra Mykolayivna explains.
In such circumstances, a person returns to the basic settings – to survive.
“We seemed to be conserved, we had no feelings at all, there was just a terrible indifference. The only thing we thought about was not become a cripple, even to be killed seemed not so bad,” the woman recalls.
Oleg’s family was able to leave Mariupol almost two months after the blockade of the city began on April 19. But not to the territory controlled by Ukraine, but back to their native village. The road to the occupied Gnutovo was finally opened.
The house where strangers lived
At first, Oleh was happy to return to his native village. But then he realized that it had changed. The people he had known all his life behaved differently. Mostly they were silent, and if they talked, then riddles. They seemed angry, incredulous, sometimes even suspicious. The boy didn’t understand what was going on. Shortly after arriving, he went to school, wanted to know how his classmates were doing, and whether many people stayed in the village. But the school has also changed. The most unusual, perhaps, was to see russian textbooks on desks.
After many weeks of living in the basement, he hoped to feel the warmth of his home, but someone’s presence was felt there. Russian soldiers have already moved out of the house. On the floor lay scraps of the poster of the documentary “The Distant Barking of Dogs”, in which Oleh was filmed a few years earlier. The sheets were dirty, apparently the soldiers were sleeping in shoes, around a pile of rubbish.
‘I was crying, I couldn’t get used to my house, there was rubbish, somebody lived there, it was just horror. I’ve never felt like I’m in an abandoned house. I wanted to leave, it was very scary,” recalls Oleh.
The village itself was paralyzed, the infrastructure had not yet been established, the house was left without water. Food prices have increased significantly. The village is further removed from civilization. There was no transport connection with the neighboring towns, where there is a hospital and post office. I could only get there by foot.
Oleh’s family for the first time since the beginning of the war made a conscious decision to leave their home.
The only way to leave the village is to go through a russian filtration camp.
The way home
From the very phrase “filtration camp” becomes awkward. “We tried not to think about why these camps exist and why we should go through them. They just wanted this horror to end as soon as possible,” says Oleksandra Mykolayivna.
When they arrived at such a camp, all were distributed in different tents. Separately women, men and teenagers. Theoretically, they would have to answer a few questions to get a pass to cross the border. In reality, it was more like an interrogation.
Do you have any acquaintances among the army?
Did you help the army?
Do you have tattoos? Show us.
Why did you delete your social networks?
Who is this person in the photo on your phone?
In the end, all six family members received a pass. They could finally go abroad. Ahead of them there were a few days ahead through russia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to return to Ukraine.
“We survived because we stayed together,” Oleksandra Mykolayivna is convinced. “When we are together, we are not scared,” adds Oleg. After all the experience, he admits that he has become kinder, I want to help people more. “I know what it feels like when the situation is complicated, and you have nothing,” the 15-year-old says.
In the silence of the new house, he tries not to mention the events of recent months. “But for some reason I want to play in war,” Oleh admits.
According to the grandmother, the behavior of the children has changed a lot. Despite conditional safety, the mental state has not yet returned to normal. Sometimes they are secretive, annoyed and aggressive. Oleksandra Mykolayivna herself constantly wants to sleep: “I can’t enjoy the silence that is here. Yes, it wasn’t around, but we heard explosions, and now I can’t believe I’m sleeping in silence.”
Now the family is recovering. They live in a village in the territory controlled by Ukraine. To native Hnutove they will return only if there are Ukrainian authorities. And until this moment, they are not going to keep their lives on hold. Like many Ukrainians, they are ready to rebuild it from scratch in a new place.
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