“We left, and they stayed to die. And knew about it.” Two stories of survival under shelling — in Bucha and Vorzel.

Oksana Kovalenko
Dmytro Rayevskyi
“We left, and they stayed to die. And knew about it.” Two stories of survival under shelling — in Bucha and Vorzel.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

Itʼs been a month since February 24, when Russia started a full-scale invasion of the territory of Ukraine. The possibility of war was discussed in advance, various variants of events were mentioned, and many Ukrainians developed plans for how to act in its case. Some Kyiv residents decided to leave the capital for the suburbs, where they had summer houses and apartments. So did two of our heroes. Ruslan Zhuk planned to sit out the war in Hostomel in his own house but ended up in Bucha. Natalia Horbatenko — in her apartment in Vorzel. But on the first day, these small settlements found themselves at the epicenter of hostilities. Babel journalist Oksana Kovalenko recorded the stories of both Kyiv residents who survived the fighting. Ruslan and Natalia fell into traps: they were without light, gas, under fire. Ruslanʼs wife took a course on surviving the war a few days before it started. They acted according to the plan, and Ruslan shares how this knowledge helped him stay alive. Natalia has not taken such courses and shares her story of how they learned to survive in practice.

Our advantage was that we were in the private sector

Ruslan Zhuk, lives in Kyiv. Teaches in the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute and is an assistant at the Department of Laser Engineering and Physical and Technical Technologies. He has three children.

Right before the war I got another job, and on the morning of February 24, I had to go on the shift. I woke up at 5:30 am but received a message from my new job that there was no need to come. After that, I received a call from my colleague from the Department, who lives in Vasylkiv. He told me that there were missile strikes on his city.

In case of war, we had a plan — to go to our dacha (summer house) in Gostomel. My wife works for a large Korean company that conducted a four-hour training session on martial law right before the war. We acted according to that plan. We have a basement in our summer house, we bought a ladder and bicycles in case there is no gasoline, and there is no way to drive a car. We drove from Kyiv to Gostomel for about six hours. For three of them, we stood in a jam in Irpin. While we were standing in a jam, we saw smoke above Hostomel. And around 1 pm, we were approaching the jail in Bucha and saw helicopters launching missiles towards the Gostomel airport. The helicopter missed and hit a house in Balanivka, one of the Gostomel districts. We realized that we were no longer going to that town.

Locals cross a road in Gostomel as smoke rises over Antonov Airport.

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We decided to go to parents — they have a house in Bucha. There we arranged the basement and the house: taped and covered with blankets all the windows, brought candles to the basement, as well as plenty of water, cereals, canned food, instant noodles, long-storage cheese, and hams which can also be stored for a long time. We filled a bathtub with water — later we drank it for four days. We also had a tub with technical water.

We have prepared first aid kits, and parents have stocked up on medication they need to take daily. We had a lot of batteries — during the whole time we were hiding, we discharged four of them. We collected a lot of cell phones and hid SIM cards. The children had papers in their pockets with their names and surnames and my and my wifeʼs names and telephone numbers.

Our advantage was that we were in the private sector. We removed the internal fences with our neighbors so that we could move without going outside. Some had a well, someone needed flour, someone made bread because everything in the shops was out very quickly.

For the first three days, we lived like in Godʼs backyard. We heard the explosions, but a little further. We had gas, light, internet, and communication with the world. After 7 pm, we turned off the lights around the house for safety. At night we hid in the basement, turned on the movie theater for children. During the day, we went upstairs to the house. It was a rule that we did not move around the house fully standing.

After 4 days, the electricity was gone, and the heating was gone with it, but we still had water and gas. Then the electricity came back, after 2 days it was gone again. Then we noticed that the gas pressure was decreasing, and in a day it was gone. We made coffee over the candlelight — I learned to grind it in a pepper mill. And we were saved by the fact that the neighbors had a stove — we carried pots of water, cooked buckwheat in a large cauldron for several days.

Meanwhile, fighting continued outside our house. Russian helicopters flew from Ivankiv every day, we saw about 6 helicopters dropping something on Gostomel. And then, when active hostilities broke out in Borodianka, the convoys started to come from Vorzelʼs side. There are many childrenʼs camps in Bucha. The Russians settled in the " Promenystyi " camp of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and began to dig trenches there. They stole our uniform, two armored personnel carriers, but they were smashed 400 meters from us. However, later they started to come again.

Hostomel. The first day a full-scale war

Our district is arranged in this way: there is a central street, and many streets with garden plots go perpendicularly from it. So they set up a checkpoint and armored personnel carrier on almost every street, checked the menʼs documents, and also looked for traces of weapons on their shoulders. To cross the checkpoint, people were required to wear white armbands. The Russians went from house to house, checking who was in the houses, probably looking for weapons. They didnʼt come to us. What saved us was that one of the shellings cut off the power lines, they fell on the gate, so they were probably afraid that they might get electrocuted.

In those days, our neighborsʼ grandmother died. The Russians did not allow her to be buried in the cemetery, the church and the priest were out of the question. Grandmother laid in the greenhouse for three days, and then the neighbors put together a coffin and buried her right next to the house. Russians didnʼt explain why they hadnʼt allowed it. At the same time, they said they had come to protect us and told us not to be afraid because they had come not to kill us but to go further to Kyiv.

When a mine hit a house near us, the neighborʼs gate was completely destroyed, and the headlight of our car broke. We realized that this was a signal — it was time for us to leave. But since I have children, it was impossible to go without "green corridors" and at least some security guarantees. In addition, the bridges were blown up, and the Zhytomyr highway was closed. We lurked and waited.

Russian military vehicles smashed by Ukrainian army in Bucha near Kyiv

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We had neither electricity, nor internet or mobile connection at that point. We had an old momʼs cell phone that had a radio. It worked without the internet. Thatʼs how we learned the latest news to understand what is going on. So one day, we heard that the "green corridors" were agreed upon. On the first day, we decided to see how it works. The next day, March 10, we heard that the corridor was open, packed in half an hour, and left. An acquaintance from the Territorial Defense unit explained that we had to stay 20 meters away from the next car and provide full access to the trunk. With lipstick, we wrote the word "children" on all the car doors, hung the white rags (I asked my mother for a white sheet) on the mirrors and door handles. We went to the Bucha City Council, and from there, we drove in a column through Vorzel, Zabuchchya, passed three Russian checkpoints, and left for the Zhytomyr highway. The journey from Bucha to home in Kyiv lasted 9 hours. We spent the night in the apartment and went abroad.

We left in whatever we were wearing, and I took the cat instead of everything

Natalia Horbatenko — lives in Kyiv, works as a project preparation manager at an international clinical research company. Has a son.

We were in Kyiv. We woke up in the morning when the explosions started. Until recently, we did not believe that this war was possible. I called my parents, and we all went by car to Vorzel — itʼs a small resort town with no military infrastructure. We have an apartment there that we use as a dacha, and we thought that it would be safe there. On the way, we saw that there were explosions in Gostomel. But it is pretty far from us, not less than 10 kilometers. We thought it wouldnʼt get us. The first night we even slept at home. And the next day, the explosions were everywhere. We had to hide.

We live in one of the two houses built in the shape of a letter "n”, and there is no basement in our house. In the second house — there is a basement with the storerooms of apartment owners. Our storage room is tiny, only baby sleds can fit there. We were lucky that a family with a girl the same age as my son, both 11 years old, came into the basement with us. They had a bigger storeroom, they let us in, and two more people "There were nine of us in total. We brought air mattresses, blankets, some food. When all nine of us lay in line, we occupied two-thirds of that cell. Cells nearby were also full of people and, most importantly, many children.

On the third day, the electricity was cut off. We sat by candlelight. Along with electricity, there was no water or heating. There was still gas, though. People had leaking refrigerators, they had to cook the meat they had left. This was a problem because you needed to go to the kitchen, to the apartment, and the explosions did not stop. So we waited until it got a little quieter and ran home to cook or to the toilet because it was also difficult with this. Usually, there was a short calm period in the early morning. When possible, we went out of the basement into the street, standing at the entrance to breathe a little. The children in our cell had many different games: monopoly and so on, they played them all day long.

When the water supply stopped, we were saved by a house of prayer across the street from our house. They had a generator, and from 8 to 10 oʼclock in the morning they turned on the water. It was scary to run to them because there was constant shelling. We actually went for water risking our lives.

There was a small shop in front of us. The Russians smashed shop windows in it, took alcohol and left. So people took food from there, for example, expired cakes, because you need to eat something. The bread ran out in the first days and then it was given only to children.

The gas ran out on the fifth day. Since Vorzel is a resort town, and the forests are around it, almost everyone had barbecues. So we cooked. In fact, we ate once a day, because we only managed to cook once: until you wait for the shelling to subside, then the fire will be lit, then food will be prepared for at least 9 people. The Skipper SPA hotel was next to our house. Their guard was killed. But their staff prepared and brought us hot meals when they could. I do not know how they entered and how they managed to cook.

Vorzel after the Russian shelling

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It was constantly exploding. Once it seemed that something fell right above our house, we fell to the floor in the basement. And our neighbor has a paralyzed husband, so she was actually in the apartment with him all the time. She saw a military plane flying straight at her. She just froze on the spot. Sparks flew from the plane and it somehow turned around and flew in the other direction.

The air defense sirens in Vorzel did not work, so people hid either when they heard explosions or when there were rumors that tanks were moving nearby. There was no mobile connection, the phones did not work. Those who had cars sometimes recharged their phones from them. I also succeeded once, I used the phone as a flashlight. We had a small battery-powered transistor, it caught one wave. We listened to it to understand what was happening. We lived in such conditions for two weeks.

One day a man was injured near our house. He either went out for water or looked for a place with a mobile connection. The wounded man was dragged to the entrance, they tried to give first aid, but there was a lot of blood. There was a maternity hospital in Vorzel with doctors still there, so the neighbors took him there by car and returned. I still do not know what happened with that man later.

There is a lake and a small park near our house and this Skipper hotel, the park was made recently. One day Russian vehicles drove there, probably thinking of passing through, but there is a dead end. So they turned around and deliberately ran into the childrenʼs playground — destroyed all the new structures, although they could pass the path.

All this time I had two emotions. The first is a constant fear. You just canʼt get rid of it. The feeling of something inside you shrinking and not expanding. And the second emotion is the guilt before the children that they found themselves in such a situation. Nothing more.

One day, we heard that there started the evacuation from 10:40 to 11 am from the train station in Vorzel. It takes us at least 15 minutes to get there. And there they were shelling. We all, especially those with children, began to think about what to do. The chances of dying were equal either on the way to the station or if you stay in the basement.

One man ran to the station to find out. He returned with the news that the evacuation had been canceled. Honestly, we even breathed a sigh of relief because it was scary to go with the kids under the bullets.

Some people decided to go on their own by cars. They formed a column, pasted “children” signs on the cars, and hung sheets. Some escaped, some are said to have been fired upon. Itʼs awful, there are childrenʼs toys sticking out of all the windows, people go and they shoot at them!

Evacuation of civilians from Ukraineʼs Irpin and Bucha towns continue

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We stayed, were afraid to leave. I went to the basement and here my son shouts: “Mom, evacuation!” I run out of the basement and look: there is an ambulance, several cars with a red cross, right on the playground between our houses. And from there they shout at us: “Quick, quick, whoever is leaving, come in!”. Thatʼs how we ran. As I was dressed in the warmest and oldest thing I had – in torn ski pants, my mother in tracksuits, Vitya was also in something like that. Only my grandfather was prepared – he was wearing sweatpants, normal jeans, and four sweaters! Mom managed to take the computer from home. And I got a backpack with documents, money, my sonʼs night lenses, glasses, and canned food. There was nothing else in the backpack. Instead of things and a computer, I took our cat. I couldnʼt leave him. So many animals were thrown there. There was a cage with a rabbit right on the road — people did not take it.

We ran to this bus and left quickly. Most of the people from our yard stayed. Some were afraid, others did not want to leave their husbands, and some could not because they had old lying parents. As we were leaving, I saw a woman my age crying. She was hysterical. She could not leave because she had a sick mother who could not be taken away. These people stayed there to die and they knew it.

On the way, we stopped at the maternity hospital. And we had women on the bus, one in the 42nd week of pregnancy, the other in the 39th. They sat on the bus and prayed the labor wouldnʼt start now. There was another girl who gave birth yesterday. That is, she was holding the day baby in her arms.

We drove through Russian checkpoints. Well, they just stood on their tanks — this kind of checkpoints. Like in cartoons: such a sleepy snout, swollen and red. And he is standing on this tank, in a bulletproof vest with a weapon, and on his feet, he has Soviet, outstretched, narrow tracksuits. They didnʼt touch us.

And then there were our checkpoints, we were really happy to see them. We were brought to Bilohorodka. And there I formed a plan: I had to take our whole family abroad. From Bilohorodka we got to Rivne, we were sheltered in the church and fed. They have such a large room there, mattresses with clean beds on the floor, they gave everyone such a place. You know, after the basement it was just extra-VIP apartments. They gave me and my mother a sweater because everything was dirty, then they took us to wash. And then we went to Chernivtsi, where we were also sheltered. My employers were ready to take over our transfer and the first weeks of residence as soon as we crossed the border with Romania. We did so. There were many volunteers at the border, we crossed the border quickly and were taken away. We are now in Romania. I havenʼt yet decided how to move on. Iʼm afraid that Putin will not stop in Ukraine alone.

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Vorzel, Irpin, and Bucha are young small towns with many new buildings. Many young families collected their last money and invested in these apartments, furnished them. They have just arrived and they have nothing left: no housing, no money, nothing. A few days ago I was sent a video: a missile hit the house where we were hiding. I donʼt even know what happened to our house.

Translated from Ukrainian by Yulia Pryimak.