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“Mum, it’s me, Sonya. I am alive, Mum!” Yulia from Monaco returned to Ukraine to find and rescue her daughters.

25.05.2022

Before February 24, 2022, there was a lot of speculation about a possible Russian invasion, but most Ukrainians did not believe it would actually happen.

Amongst these, Yulia Kivenko from the village of Novotroitskoye in the Donetsk region. Whilst she had her reservations about a possible attack, she did not believe that after the 2014 war, she would once again be affected by the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Before the New Year, Yulia left to work as a nanny in Monaco, with her two daughters remaining in Ukraine: 17-year-old Alyona lived alone in their apartment in Novotroitsk and studied online at Kiev’s National Aviation University, and 12-year-old Sonya lived with her grandmother in Olginska, Donetsk Oblast.

Both settlements lie upon the line of demarcation, and as such, when the shelling began both daughters once again came face to face with war.


Sonya and Alyona

When Communication Was Lost

Yulia: I woke up to phone calls and immediately saw messages from the children about the shelling. I was shocked and didn’t know what to do nor how to deal with the situation. I worked as a nanny and couldn't talk to my daughters. In the afternoon my mother-in-law called me to tell me she was going to take Sonya from Olginka to Volnovakha.

That day I realized three things: the war had started, Sonya had been taken away, and Alyona was alone at home in Novotroitsk; scared, alone, and in an area being bombed.

Alyona: I was awakened at 4:30 from the noise of the explosions. I jumped out of bed and the sounds were getting louder and louder. I looked on Telegram to read the news and realized that all of Ukraine was being shelled. My classmates wrote about explosions in their cities. I was very scared. At that moment I was alone at home. I had hoped that the hostilities were over in 2015, and I didn't think it would ever continue. The first thing I did was pack an emergency suitcase, put my documents and essentials in it, and hid in the basement. Later I called my friends and family, letting them know I was safe. My boyfriend invited me to his parents' house where I could stay in their basement which was more equipped and secure than ours.

We stayed in the village for nine days. At first there was no water, then the gas was cut off, and then there was no communication. I couldn't contact my sister, my mother, I couldn’t say that we were okay, that we were alive.

We thought for a long time about what to do next, with no option being safe or easy to choose. In the village, we were constantly being shelled and planes made regular fly-overs. Indeed, the idea of leaving also made us afraid of being caught in gunfire on the road. Whilst it wasn’t an easy decision, we decided to leave. 

Sonya: At 4:30am I heard explosions that sounded as if they came from afar but didn’t wake me up completely. But very soon my grandmother woke me up with the words: “Wake up, the war has started”. I was in shock. I wrote to my friends who had also heard the gunfire and shelling. One of the girls heard from her family that Volnovakha was going to be shelled. We were planning to go there and deciding what to do next, what to take with us.

At that time we had no idea that the war would last for a long time. We thought we would be back in 2-3 days so we only took with us the essentials. We were lucky to have brought warm clothes which helped us to survive the cold.

We spent our first night in Volnovakha in an apartment. We were told that at 4:30am shelling was likely to start again, and with this thought I couldn’t sleep for a long time. The shooting started a little later, and so our first night saw us running into our neighbour’s basement: it was dry, spacious and there was light. We had planned to wait there for a few hours but ended up staying throughout the night. Luckily, there was a fold-out sofa.

February 26

Sonya: We didn't sleep well; and soon there would be no electricity. It seemed to us that everything calmed down, so we decided to sleep at home. At 8 pm we went to the apartment and I was able to go to bed, however by 11 p.m. I was being woken up to my grandmother pulling me off the bed.

The shelling had started and we all ran to the bathroom, away from the windows. One of the neighbours told us to hide in the basement. We ran in what we were wearing at the time. I managed to put on my boots, and someone took our jackets.

We were stuck in the basement for three days. We did not come out. Next, the connection was lost...


Volnovaha, March 2022

February 27

Yulia: I talked to my mother-in-law and after that there was no communication with her or Sonya. The next day Alena also stopped getting in touch. Fortunately, in a few days she appeared, but I still hadn’t heard from my younger daughter. I found out from a friend in Volnovakha that there was a "slaughter" in the area of the city where Sonya might be.

Alena: I tried to call my grandmother Ala, but I couldn't talk to her.

I got a message from her: "Don't call me, we're in the basement, we're being shelled. The connection will be lost as the power is being cut off”

Sonya wrote to me about the shelling, about them going to the basement. She couldn't talk to me to save her phone battery.

I was shocked when I saw a military plane in the sky - there hadn't been one since 2014. At that moment I also thought, how is it flying if flights are banned in Ukraine? That's when I realized that the plane was not a civilian. I remember the whistling noise it made as the bomb descended... 

Then there was a huge explosion, and we ran to the basement. From this moment forward, we had no gas or heating.

At the end of February, the temperature was below zero, sometimes dropping to -10 degrees. It was very cold. We slept in jackets and put on a lot of pairs of socks. We cooked our food in the yard over a campfire. It was scary to go outside, but we had to eat something.

March 4

Sonya: We didn't leave the basement for a few days, maybe a week. But then we started going out for a few minutes in the evening or in the morning to get some air. The lack of sun made the skin on our hands and face turn a yellowy-gray shade.

Our neighbours, who had left town just after the war began, left us a gas tank so we could cook food. It was cold in the basement and we kept our jackets on.

We had enough food. We had our own supplies, one family brought a lot of meat. Other people who were hiding in the basement also helped us. Once they asked us for water and we shared it with them. They decided to thank us and brought us food all the time.

Sometimes the shelling was so strong that we were afraid to go to the toilet, which we had set up in one of the empty rooms. In time we learnt to calculate where a shell had landed.

Later they brought us a stove from another basement, and it became warmer. At first we had a string of lights, and when the electricity was cut off, we made a candle of oil, using gauze for the wick.

During the time we spent in the basement, we did what we could and had as much fun as we could: we played word games and discussed every possible topic.

Alena: We left and when I finally got signal, I texted everyone that I was okay, but I didn't know how Sonya was, I still had no contact with her.

It was very risky to leave at that time, the village was heavily bombed. We passed an unexploded shell and almost ran over it.

It was very scary to move around, there was a plane circling right above our heads. It could have dropped a shell on us, anyone could have opened fire on us - we were easy targets. There were six of us in the car. All praying, all crying…

We managed to get to the Zaporizhzhya region, it was calmer there. One of our acquaintances suggested we go further, to the Ternopil region, and we agreed. There were traffic jams on the roads, people were leaving in droves, we were traveling for two days. When we arrived, we saw that there was water, light and gas. After so many days without such conditions, it seemed posh to us despite it being just an ordinary student dormitory.

March 5

Yulia: I came from Monaco and was staying with friends in Uzhgorod. We monitored social networking groups, checked all the evacuation lists, but neither Sonya nor other relatives were on them, all of my efforts were in vain. I understood: if there was no sign of her, she must be in the basement. One thing I was afraid of however, was that if a shell hit the house, they might get stuck. I didn't worry much about water and food, I was sure they had some supplies.

I knew my daughter was alive, my heart was calm, I could feel something.

However, the constant silence was killing me, I couldn't figure out where they were. Before that Sonya was sick, she had bronchitis, and I was afraid of health issues.

In this basement Sonya was hiding

March 21

Sonya: When it became calmer in the city, the men began to go out. When they came back, they told me there were many bodies lying in the streets. They were men and women, some were missing arms and some were missing heads. At first, the bodies were not even collected.

One time the military from the DPR came and said that they needed a car to transport some children. We didn't believe it, but we had no other choice, so my grandmother had to give them her car.

Seventeen days later my grandmother and I came out of the basement. We went up to the apartment, all the windows were broken. My eyes hurt a lot from the daylight.

A few days later we found out that my grandmother's house and garden in Olginka had been damaged by a shell: the window and part of the wall were destroyed, there were holes in the roof from shrapnel, and some radiators had been broken. In addition, the house was robbed and both the TV and computer had been stolen.

March 24

Yulia: I didn't stop looking for Sonya, and at one point I found her. They sent me a video, and I saw one of the men who was with her. I found out later that Sonya was hiding two meters away from the shooting. The video was shot by a man who supported the DPR in 2014 and joined the militia.

At that time, the Russian military broke through to Volnovakha, seized it, and filmed a video of them ‘liberating people’.

I watched the video about 30 times, trying to find Sonya or my mother-in-law, trying to see something in the darkness of the basement, to see something moving. But then I realized where they were.

March 26.

Yulia: I got a call from an unknown number of a cellular operator that operates in the occupied territories.

I picked up the phone and heard: "Mom, hi. It's Sonya." I jumped for joy, I was shaking, I shouted into the phone, "Sonya!" And then I promised to get her out of there.


Yulia and her daughters after meeting each other

A ONE-WAY TRIP

March 29

Sonya: We moved into my grandmother's neighbor's house in Olginka: she died, and her daughter allowed us to live there, since our house was partially destroyed. The building had a stove, gas, it was better and warmer than other places before.

Yulia: I found a group called "The Road Home" created by people from the Donetsk region. They went to Zaporizhzhya and Dnipro during the heavy shelling, and when it would get calmer, they planned to go back to their homes. I came to get Sonya with them.

I was told that it was a one-way trip, no one had ever gone back. But I was sure I was going anyway. If I couldn't find a car, I would take Sonya by the hand and walk through all the checkpoints.

When I got to Novotroitskoye, I found myself in an information black hole: there was no electricity, gas, water, heating, communications, or public transportation. Nothing. Seeing bombed-out high-rise buildings, sullen and unhappy people, torn-up, blown-up roads, and fallen trees was very difficult.

I didn't like the fact that some people had already changed their mind, saying that they were doing well, that there weren't any shootings here anymore. They were either afraid or didn't want to move out, because I couldn't see happiness in their eyes - there was only hopelessness; they had just accepted the situation.

Then I realized that I needed to find and get my daughter out as soon as possible.

Since Sonia was not in Novotroitskoye, she had to be in Olginka. An acquaintance drove me to my mother-in-law's house, I went into the yard and saw her. During my absence she grew to almost the same height as me, matured. And she grew older, became shrunken, a little like a hedgehog, a little something - let out spikes.

I began to look for a carrier who would agree to take us out of the occupied territory. I ran from settlement to settlement under shelling and asked everyone, offering any amount. It was frightening, but I had a goal, I could not delay or wait until things calmed down.

One man agreed to drive us for 400 euros per person to the last checkpoint, from there we had to walk another 18 kilometers. While I was searching, two women joined me, who also wanted to leave. Finally I found a man and explained to him that I needed to get my child out of there. He had some idea how to do it, but he had no such experience.

April 7

Yulia: The carrier called in the morning and told me to get ready. He arrived around 1 PM, we loaded our things and drove off. In order to pass the checkpoints, we put the DNR license plates on the car, and then they changed them to Ukrainian plates. In Berdyansk we joined a convoy from Mariupol that was leaving through a humanitarian corridor, but they wouldn't let us in. We stayed overnight, and in the morning our driver was put at the head of the column.

The checks at the checkpoints were thorough, they looked through our suitcases, phones, passports, and asked where we were going. We had been warned before that it would be better if everyone told their own story. We said we were going to a friend's house in Zaporizhzhya.

The soldier at the roadblock warned us that it was dangerous there, saying “we will find all the neo-nazis and kill them,” while watching our reactions.

Finally, we passed all the checkpoints and reached Ukrainian-controlled territory. We were all overwhelmed, crying, grabbing the hands of the Ukrainian soldiers, asking for permission to just hold them, wanting to hug them all.

I thought to myself at the time that I had done it - I had taken my daughter out.

We came to Zaporozhye and paid 2 thousand hryvnias per person for this arduous journey. This is a ridiculous amount for such an ordeal, the man obviously just wanted to help. One woman who was traveling with us managed to smuggle a Ukrainian flag. She hid it in a package of feminine hygiene products and put it in a small pocket in her jeans.

From Zaporizhzhya we took the evacuation train to Lviv. There was a family reunion there - finally both my daughters were close to each other.

Alyona: While we were searching for Sonya on all the evacuation lists, we began to wonder what to do next. Mom came up with a plan to move in and out of the occupied territory, but we didn't know if anything would work out or not.

Mom then said if she couldn't get out of there, for me to make my own decision and think what's better - to go abroad or stay in Ukraine. I had no doubt that my mom would be able to get out, she is strong-willed, she will achieve everything.

On the website Ukraine Take Shelter I began to look for possible housing options. I spent four days looking for options in many European countries. I often got rejected because they were occupied. Several people answered me. One of them was an American artist Sarah Leddick, who offered her home in France. My mother agreed it was the best option. We met all three of us in Lvov, and from there we went to Poland and then on to France.

P. S.

Alena stayed in her hometown, which was engulfed in war, for 9 days.

Sonya spent 17 days in the basement.

For 27 days Yulia did not know if her youngest daughter was alive. 

Yulia spent 13 days preparing and executing a plan to free Sonia from the occupied territory.

“I feel ashamed, hurt and scared”. Russian-speaking emigrants in Europe
Emigrants

“I feel ashamed, hurt and scared”. Russian-speaking emigrants in Europe