Ukraine: “Everything is Destroyed”4

Alena Hermanovich


Refugees continues to flock westwards, with more than two million crossing into Poland.

Tatyana, 75, has never travelled outside of her home region of Kharkiv in north-eastern Ukraine before.

Now she finds herself in Poland, in the border town of Przemysl, en route to Croatia. Tatyana was forced to leave her city of Izyum when it came under fire following the Russian invasion that began on February 24.

“They were shooting at us, shelling bombs and Grad rockets,” she recalled. “It was non-stop, day and night. On the third day of the war, a real hell began. The volunteers helped me to get out.”

Wringing her hands, she lists the cities that have been attacked.

“Kharkiv, Chuhuiv, Balakliya, Syeverodonetsk - everything is destroyed, ruined. It's terrible, just terrible. I don't want to go back. Because I have nowhere to go. Bridges to our city are destroyed. The city no longer exits. I will live in Croatia. I need a cup of tea, a piece of bread and no shooting,” she said.

According to the UN, over three million Ukrainians have fled their country since the war began, with more than two million having crossed the border into Poland.

Przemysl, near the border with Ukraine, has become a hub for those in transit.  A humanitarian aid point distributes food, clothes and legal assistance and directs people to the free-of-charge buses departing to Germany, Spain, Italy and other European countries.

“We could not expect such cruelty from Russians."

Yana, 29, is a Belarussian volunteer who has been has been working at the checkpoint for the past two weeks.

“Our first task is to provide information about the buses, their destination, because when people arrive here, they are in a state of shock and cannot concentrate,” she explained. “Only on the bus, on the way to the city of Przemysl, they come to their senses. We tell them that they are safe here and try to cheer them up. We also tell them where to seek help if needed. The volunteers have created a coordination system, we are in touch with different countries that want to receive refugees.”

She said that some of her fellow Belarussian refugees in Poland had faced discrimination due to the fact that Russia had used Belarus as a vantage point to launch its invasion. Other foreign nationals fleeing Ukraine had also experienced trouble from Polish military and police at the border.  

“In front of my eyes, a Nigerian citizen was simply thrown out of the bus,” she recalled. “The man was in a panic, he was crying.”


Many of those in Przemysl have travelled from the northeast of Ukraine, hard hit in the Russian invasion. Boris fled Konotop, in the Sumy region, with his wife and five children aged between two and 15.

“Konotop is besieged,” he said. “What is going on there can be called hell. When we were leaving, we saw burning tanks and vehicles being shelled. We were given a ‘green corridor,’ but before that, when the Russians broke into our city, we the civilians, stopped their tanks with our bodies.”

Boris recalls how he and his fellow locals told Russian soldiers that half the women in town were witches who would curse them. This scared them, he continued.

“And now, our defence forces are there. All the villages near Konotop are destroyed. The Russians deliberately hit the power lines to cut us off from the world.”

Boris said that the brutality of the invasion had come as no surprise.

“We expected war. If Putin seized Crimea and said that the Russians, were friendly and peaceful, what else could you expect from him?”

But for Natalia, 49, who arrived in Przemysl from Kharkiv with her 11-year-old daughter Arina, the war had been a shock.

“We did not take the news about possible invasion seriously, we thought until the last moment that there would be no attack, that it was just scaremongering,” she said. “We could not expect such cruelty from Russians. On February 23, it was reported that our airport in Kharkiv had canceled night flights. I got very nervous. And in the morning, I woke up to the sounds of bombing.”

Natalia, an accountant, said that she was lucky to get out on March 6.

“In the first days, when people were fleeing massively, there was such panic, the cluster bombs were fired at us ... There were up to 15 people in each compartment of the Kharkiv train, children were sitting under the tables, people were sitting on the floor. We were lucky - there were only eight of us in the compartment. It took us 21 hours to get to Lviv.”

After a week in a hostel there, Natalia said that she could not deal with the air raids and fear of attack. She had originally planned to return to Karkhiv, but decided to leave the country.  Croatia is her next destination.

“Some neighbourhoods in Kharkiv simply do not exist,” she continued. “I can’t talk about it now, I’ll cry. We have relatives there - they do not want to leave. My friends live in basements and subways. They come out for an hour to see whether their homes are intact or not, they just take some things and go back to the basements.”

Karkhiv is only 50 kilometres from Russia, and historically had strong ties to its neighbouring country. But Natalia said that most inhabitants were choosing to flee to Europe, rather than to Russia.

“I have a friend, she has a Russian husband, and because of that she left for Russia,” she continued. “I had a very unpleasant conversation with her. Everyone else around me is for Ukraine, they go to Poltava, Lviv and Uzhgorod. I have cut myself off from Russia and everything connected with it since 2014, when Donbas was captured. But, this time, the Russians, have crossed all the lines. Our relatives from Russia say, ‘Be patient, it’s okay, you are being liberated.’”   

Nadezhda, 87, an ethnic Russian from Kyiv, had also chosen to leave for Europe rather than Russia. She and her 63-year-old daughter Marina are now refugees.

“I am Russian, my husband is Ukrainian. I could never imagine that Russia would attack Ukraine. This is a brotherly nation for Russia. Not any longer, of course,” Nadezhda said, explaining that they had left their home in the Obolon neighbourhood of Kyiv on March 5.

“The real hostilities started from the second day of the war, a Russian tank appeared in the street and ran over a man in a car, fortunately he survived,” she said. “Missiles were flying, we were hiding… It was scary to stay, so we left. We really did not want to leave.”

Marina said that the Russian people themselves needed to bear some responsibility for the war.

“According to Russian polls, 71 per cent of Russians support Putin and the war,” she continued. “The Russian people created Putin, and not the other way around – 71 per cent hate Ukrainians. What kind of brotherly people do that? It's crazy that in the 21st century people fight and divide lands. I just cannot get it. You can divide markets, fight with economies - but you don’t throw bombs! It is completely insane.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.