“It was so scary I couldnʼt feel my arms and legs”. Luhansk Oblast resident about the occupation, FSB and the escape. “Napalm” podcast, Ep.9. Text version

Yevhen Spirin
“It was so scary I couldnʼt feel my arms and legs”. Luhansk Oblast resident about the occupation, FSB and the escape. “Napalm” podcast, Ep.9. Text version


“Napalm” is a series of podcasts about photographers, journalists, cooks, pharmacists, servicemen, doctors, saleswomen, and programmers. In short, this is a series of podcasts about Ukrainians experiencing war, about the everyday life of our country, heroically resisting the Russian invasion. We want to hear the voices of our citizens, their stories about everyday and not-so-everyday life, and we want our listeners to hear those voices as well. The war caught Nastya, a resident of Starobilsk town in the northeastern part of Luhansk Oblast, in her hometown. She saw the occupiers' tanks with the Z letters going across the border, how Ukrainian flags were removed in the city and hryvnias were exchanged for rubles in banks. Then Russian soldiers started going from house to house looking for those who fought for Ukraine, and confiscated the phones from civilians. Nastya decided to get out of there, but the way to Ukraine was already blocked: heavy fighting continued in Luhansk Oblast. So despaired Nastya left for Russia, and after two FSB interrogations she reached Europe. Nastya told us about the occupation, her way and the war in the ninth episode of "Napalm".

Hello, friends. This is new issue of our Napalm podcast. Listen to it on all platforms from Apple to Megogo. Today we are talking to Nastya, who left the occupied city of Starobilsk in the north of Luhansk Oblast. Nastya has a difficult story, her path has been very long. But letʼs start with the fact that Iʼm very glad to see and hear you, Iʼm glad youʼre safe.

What was your zero day of the war? I mean February 23?

I remember the last day before the war well: my friend and I went for a walk and had a beer. It was the first warm day, nothing foretold the trouble. The only sign that something is wrong we found a dead bird that I photographed. But as for the rest… It was a beautiful sunset. We have a network of stationery stores that are very politically active. And my last photo from peaceful times is a photo of this store with a huge sign: "The green gang has to go away!". That was the day.

And what was it like at night when the war started?

It was very calm, but around four or five in the morning we woke up to the explosions. They were in an area near our house. We heard two explosions, 6-8 three-story buildings and a construction materials warehouse were smashed. Thatʼs how it was that morning. I received a message from my friend, who ran away from the "LPR" and lived in Starobilsk. She wrote: "Nastya, Iʼm very scared, can I now live with you?" I said, "Okay, of course, come, weʼre waiting for you."

If you saw a photps from Kyiv, the Zhytomyr highway was filled with people ― they were fleeing the war. Did you have that as well? And why didnʼt you leave the town?

On the first day I just couldnʼt accept the new reality. I didnʼt understand what was happening at all. I woke up, decided to drink some coffee. I went to the store, came in and said: "Can I have some coffee?" I saw several dozen people there buying flour, canned food and more. And I didnʼt understand whatʼs so wrong here. As for other people, of course, the traffic was heavier, but we donʼt have the unity [in the settlement], so whoever had a car left. It wasnʼt like, "Iʼm leaving, neighbor, maybe you want to come with me?" Just everyone ran away like rats. That was in the night and morning. But in the afternoon there was a calm atmosphere already.

When did the Russian troops enter Starobilsk?

On the third or fourth day of the war. They did it gradually. I remember vividly that first car with the Z letter. It was very scary, I couldnʼt feel my arms and legs, I felt myself in some kind of surreal film, anti-utopian one. And I remember the first tanks coming into town. At the same time, people tried to buy everything they had, that is, there were huge queues at pharmacies and ATMs ― and the tanks. Some people tried to sell their place in the queue. I met a few guys who were very militant [and against the occupation], but unfortunately they were a minority. They were waiting for these tanks to come and piss on them.

How did the occupiers behave, what did they do first?

On the first day of the war, PrivatBank was still operating and it was possible to withdraw about 3,000 hryvnias, so there were queues for hundreds of people. Then the “LPR” came very quickly, in contrast to 2014 ― flags, equipment, signs for administrative buildings were delivered in just a couple of days. You wake up the next morning, and they are already setting up their "LPR", "Peopleʼs Republic“” signs on all administrative buildings.

We were in Bucha and saw all these horrors with our own eyes. How were you? Didnʼt they touch people? Or they did?

There were explosions on the first day of the war, but many in Starobilsk believe that Ukraine is [bombing] itself. I and other residents of Starobilsk havenʼt seen any dead bodies, but the situation when you are in North Korea is very strange to withstand morally. You can go buy a beer, sit down and look at the sun, but at the same time you never know when your cell phone will be taken away for inspection, when doors or windows will be knocked out to check who is involved [to some pro-Ukrainian activities]. It is clear that all the people who were connected with the military structures were checked and taken to the basements. And some of them are still there. We didnʼt have an organized Territorial Defense, so we donʼt even know the names of these [detained] people.

Do you mean the lists of the missing?

Yes. Someone knows that his or her neighbors are absent for a long time, but this is rather rumors. No one is tracking the fate of these people, there is no database [of missing locals]. But in the first days of the war our military registration and enlistment office was burned down, for which I am very grateful.

Because all personal data burned down.

Yes. All employees of the military registration and enlistment office left the city at once, and the papers, the lists remained. Some good men burned it all down.

We spoke with Serhiy Haidai, who heads the oblast, and he said it was a strategic step. If they fought for [close to the Russian border] Stanytsia Luhanska and Svatove, for example, or for Starobilsk, they would lose a lot of people and couldnʼt hold the front line. How did the police behave? Did everyone just leave?

They all disappeared on the first day of the war. I didnʼt see any law enforcement officials. It all was very strange. Because you look at Instagram, you see the Territorial Defense Forces, the police, everyone else there. Dut you go outside ― and itʼs empty, thereʼs no resistance.

It was very strange to me: Aidar military unit was located in Starobilst for 8 years. Starobilsk was considered a town that wasnʼt captured [by pro-Russian separatists] in 2014, and we thought that everything would be fine there.

I think that Aidar moved to Sievierodonetsk, because their forces are concentrated there. Though Iʼm not sure about that information.

Tell me, in how many days did you leave?

I left [Starobilsk] very late, after all the waves [of migration] passed and everyone left. Someone has already arrived in Berlin at that time. And I was at home, could follow all the events. I left after almost three weeks [after the invasion started]. Their so-called power was established before my eyes. People from Rubizhne and Sievierodonetsk came [as IDPs] before my eyes.

Itʼs interesting about Rubizhne. Tell us about the refugees, because that city is under heavy fire. People write to us that it is impossible to go to Ukraine from Rubizhne, so they are fleeing to Starobilsk, right?

Itʼs hard to tell. My acquaintances told me that it was possible to leave Rubizhne for Ukraine. Of course, it is dangerous, but it is also dangerous to go to Starobilsk. Though most decided to go to Starobilsk, "LPR" was actively involved in this process. They took people out on trucks. They did their best to transport them to Starobilsk.

Just to take them to the occupied territory?


Were they moved to Russia by force or not?

I donʼt know about that. I know only about the evacuation to [the occupied part of the] Luhansk Oblast. This was obviously a planned action, because when you literally donʼt have a home, you are ready to go anywhere.

Maybe you saw how the people of Starobilsk treated those who left Rubizhne? Did they help them or not?

We helped, but we do not have such unity as, for example, people in Kyiv or in the western regions [of Ukraine]. Humanitarian aid centers are rare to find, there is no single coordination center. And "LPR" offered its help, they made tents with tea and instant noodles. People go [around the town], try to get into any yard and ask if they can spend the night there. This is how it happens.

Just by word of mouth.

Yes, as we didnʼt have mobile connection, we had almost no internet, so people were isolated. And there were a lot of cases where people just get lost. Because they are taken out, they have no contact with relatives, they donʼt know the territory. Iʼve seen a lot of messages about lost people.

How did you use the [cellular] connection? How did locals communicate with the outside world?

First, they [Russians] captured the TV tower and immediately turned on Russian channels. Secondly, they turned off all ATMs, terminals, mobile communications, internet. Well, the internet worked a bit ― I donʼt know all the technical aspects, but I needed VPN to get online. People gathered near some points in the middle of the city, 20-30 people, trying to call their relatives. People who got working internet access sometimes put in the windows of their houses a paper with network name and password written on it, and refugees gathered around the windows and tried to contact their relatives.

What happened to the food, was there any in shops?

In the first days of the war, everyone panicked and bought flour and basic necessities. But I didnʼt feel a severe crisis in my and my familyʼs lives. Maybe weʼre calmer, I donʼt know. Then little by little they [the occupants] began to import random goods from Russia, not of decent quality. The sausage was in short supply, I even remember the first time the sausage was imported from Russia and there were queues of several dozen people. A kilo of this sausage cost about 400 hryvnias. Everything was very expensive. There werenʼt many goods, the supermarkets were closed, but I was a little happy as my tastes differ to the ones most locals have. Everyone was very active in buying sausages, some cheeses, vodka, and I enjoyed food for athletes and protein [that didnʼt interest most of the people]. Thatʼs why it all was bearable for me.

You know, one day we went to Silpo [in Kyiv]. And there was no milk at all, except for the…

Oat milk?

Yes, and everything else that is classy cafes use.

I was the queen of oat milk for a few weeks. There also was some good IPA was still good, so I was generally satisfied. They [the occupants] brought Belarusian beer, they say itʼs not very good. There was beer from Minsk in two-liter canisters, which was sold out on the first day. And my IPA was waiting for me every day [as it barely interested someone else].

What did your day in the occupation look like? You can omit personal details.

Because there was no internet, I couldnʼt work. The only thing I saved myself with wandering around the city all day. I watched what was happening, how many soldiers there are, which bases they occupied. How people feel about it, what goods there are in shops. I tried to invent some quests for myself. For example, to buy something and bring home to people who are less mobile.

In the first few weeks [of war]it was hard for me to walk around Kyiv, because all the trenches were dug here and it was not very cool to look at it. Did you have a feeling that this is not your town anymore?

For the first few days after the occupation, I cried a lot and ran around the house shouting that my home had been taken away from me. But then I got used to this situation. My friends and I felt like aliens because we saw these soldiers several times a day. The whole town is full of machinery with Z letters. We were very terrified of this and understood that other people in Starobilsk talk about everything thatʼs happening rather calmly. There was a total derealization, surrealism. There was a feeling that something was wrong with us. Everything seemed strange, wrong, incomprehensible to us, and we couldnʼt understand why it was okay for others.

You and I lived in Luhansk and have seen all this [the occupation] once before. And we didnʼt have the moral strength to understand that this could happen a second time.


You decided to go. How did this happen and what preceded it?

Everyone left, and so did I. I was worried about the escalation of all events around, "referendums" have already been announced. And I decided to go. There was an option to go via the Dnipro city, but it was dangerous. Another option ― through the "mordor". Unfortunately, the people of Starobilsk leave very quietly and do not share information.

They donʼt share how it would be easier to escape?

Yes. And you have to find this information by small pieces, itʼs quite a difficult process. None of the acquaintances even said things like "I left this way and that," "Come with me," or "I have a free seat in the car." There are no publications or announcements at all. You can rely only on yourself.

You went by car ― do I understand correctly?

I had to rent a car because I donʼt have my own.

Yes, I understand. And how much did it cost? Approximately.

Two or three thousand hryvnias. Then you go for about an hour and a half.

Did you go towards the border and then stand in line for the crossing?

Yes. You stand in line, the queue takes 7 to 12 hours.

And they interrogate you when you cross?

Yes, if you are unlucky. Itʼs a selective process.

Did they check your phone and laptop?

They tried to check the laptop, but itʼs the least important gadget to be checked. Therefore, unless you are particularly suspicious, your laptop is not checked. They pay the most attention to the smartphone, to personal data.

I heard that they may search for traces of the machine guns on the body, for example. You have to undress people for that.

They partially undressed them if there were any suspicions.

How did Russians react when you went to the border with the EU?

Familiar Russians said they didnʼt understand how can I go to Europe at this time. And that if we stayed in Russia, they would reimburse us part of the cost of travel, and would provide housing for us. But since we decided to go to Europe, we have been treated negatively.

That is, they could not understand why you didnʼt stay in Russia?

Right. Because "itʼs cool here, everything is ready for you".

Like bombs, Grads, and planes.


You crossed the border, then came to the EU, and what happened next?

We had an additional interrogation [by Russians] on the way out. The calmness came only when we crossed the border. I have no negative stories about Europe after I crossed the border.

This is a feeling I forgot and would like to feel again.

Calmness? But I still think I have spy programs on my phone, posters with my face hanging everywhere. Somewhere out there [on the occupied territories].

Itʼs just PTSD, it will pass and everything will be fine. What are you doing now?

We quickly went through some of the bureaucratic processes. Now I am trying to continue working, but I understand that I will be fired soon.

And what is your status? This is not a refuge.

Itʼs temporary protection.

Have you been provided with documents that you can stay there temporarily?

Yes, and Iʼm still waiting for other documents. In my experience, everything is very organized and accessible.

Is there a humanitarian center nearby?

There are many humanitarian centers. You can help there, you can also get any necessities. You can not buy anything from the basic goods ― toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, clothes, food. For example, yesterday we received humanitarian aid from a grocery store, and it covers a week of food costs in general.

I know that you sing Ukrainian songs on the street. How do people react to this?

I donʼt really like singing, I finished it many years ago. But since the work is not very active now, I decided to give it a try. People react differently, there is no hatred, many elderly people respect me, they stop my song to tell how they feel about us.

Did you meet many of our people who left? If you remember Kyiv in 2014, when everyone came here, it felt like you were on the central square in Luhansk.

There is no such thing here. Because people emigrate to different cities.

I see. Thank you for the conversation, glad to hear from you.

Thank you.

I hope that everything will be ok.

Welcome here. Someday.

Someday, yes.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.