Ukraine, Kharkiv | Two years of total war at home: – We have no long-term plans

Ukraine, Kharkiv |  Two years of total war at home: – We have no long-term plans

-At first we didn't know how we would manage. The children witnessed seeing their father die. Lilya, 42, from the small town of Izyum in the Kharkiv region in eastern Ukraine, has come to Netavysyn to take in what actually happened.

5.9 million fugitives

On February 24, the Ukrainians enter their third year of total war. 5.9 million people have been displaced somewhere in Europe. 10,378 civilians have been confirmed killed since the invasion, while 19,632 people have been injured, according to a United Nations report.Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) from February 7.

Lilija and her two teenage children, Matvej (15) and Polina (13), are one of the families mentioned in the statistics. She lost her husband in a bombing that destroyed their home six weeks into the war, when the fighting in the Kharkiv region was at its worst. The daughter was seriously injured and had to go to the hospital for surgery. The operation took place in Russia. The family then ended up in a camp awaiting settlement. Lilia saw no future for herself and her children as refugees in the occupied land. I got help getting out. Today they live as refugees in Zurich, Switzerland.

The video interview with Lilija was conducted with the help of the Ukrainian volunteer organization PR Army. They help foreign media contact eyewitnesses. A volunteer translates Nettavisen's questions and Lilija's answers.

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I got a grave with a name

The mother of two children says that she recently learned that her husband's remains had been exhumed again from the unknown grave in which the Russian occupation forces placed him. The husband's sister recognized him in Kharkiv. The two women spoke just two days ago. Now the pair finally have a grave with a name.

– Now in April it has been two years. We try not to think too much about it. “We try not to be overwhelmed by negative emotions, but remember all the good things about him, and try to live life,” she says.

– How will you remember him?

– He was a happy person, and he was strong. He had speech difficulties and stuttered. She says this is why he was not drafted into the army at the time, even though there was nothing wrong with his physical fitness.

When the Russians launched their large-scale invasion, he and Lilia's cousin went to volunteer for the local defence, but were told there was no need for it at the time. Lilja says it was terrifying for her to be alone at home with her children when the area they lived in was occupied.

I dreamed of a vacation abroad

Lilija says her husband was a good father and a practical man. He was doing repair work at home. When the power went out in March 2022, he repaired the battery. In the evening, they charged their cell phones. There was no internet, but they were listening to Ukrainian radio. The gas supply was gone, and the pair rearranged the stove so they could use other fuel, anything flammable, including shoes and old clothes, to cook. The marriage also faced some challenges along the way, but at some point the couple decided to put their differences aside and focus on the children and the life they had together.

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-We were happy together when the invasion came. Unfortunately, fate did not want it to continue, she says.

One of the things they talked about before the invasion was going on vacation abroad, all of them.

Lilia was born and raised in Isium. The city is located about 120 kilometers southeast of Kharkiv. Here she and her husband got married, and here they bought a house. When the invasion began, she had a job in an optical store. The husband was only home for periods due to work in Kiev. He was in the capital on February 24th.

– It was a miracle that he was able to return to Iziom the next day, she says. The Russians were already in place when he passed Kharkiv.

Graphs: Civilian deaths and injuries in Ukraine since February 2022

He chose to stay

The family remained in the city until the tragedy occurred on April 5. Lilia explains that they didn't see any other possibilities. She describes a feeling of fatalism when the neighborhood filled with Russian soldiers.

While Ukrainian forces recaptured large areas northwest and east of Kiev, Russian forces were launching an offensive in the Izyum-Slovjansk axis in April 2022. On April 1, they captured Izyum, after three weeks of fighting. The US Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported at this time that the Russians may be trying to advance to the southeast.

In early March, Lilia heard that buses were being prepared for evacuation from the city centre. But by this time the bridge had been destroyed, and soon after the first air strikes began. Electricity, gas, telephone and Internet quickly disappeared.

The air raids became more intense, and where Lilia and her family lived there was nowhere else to take refuge but in the basements, which could fill with knee-deep groundwater. Lilia felt that they had no safe places to hide. She remembers the sound of whistling when the missiles were in the air. “When the bomb goes off, you lie there and try to imagine where it's going to hit, and pray it doesn't hit you,” she said. Previous interview.

Among other things, the Russians fired using the “Grad” and “Smersh” missile launch systems, developed in the Soviet era. The missiles eventually hit the Iseum center, and complete panic ensued.

The family only went out to get food and other necessities. There was hoarding and looting of shops. “No one had any large supplies of supplies at home, because the store was usually there, and everything was available. So, there were 400 people in line for bread. We stood in line, despite the curfew, from four or five in the morning, and when We finally got in line and it was evening.”

Lilja's aunt, her mother's sister, who lived alone, moved in with them at some point. On April 5, the family was on their way out to get new supplies, but were forced to return due to heavy shelling that occurred not far from the house. This was the first time that missiles had reached this close.

Mom, I'm here!

As Lilia remembers on this day, there were a number of strikes in their neighborhood. The husband looked from time to time to see where the missiles were landing. When things had calmed down a bit, Lilia started dinner. They put out a bowl of pasta and got ready to eat. Then it started to rain again, this time directly. Laila felt bad and left the kitchen. I entered the room they were using as a bedroom, a room with two solid walls. She wanted to gather her strength and pray to higher powers.

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Then I heard a roaring sound nearby, and then everything went black.

The house was in ruins, and Lilia felt that everything was over. Then she heard her daughter screaming and started moving in her direction. The ceiling collapsed, but she was able to reach the kitchen. I followed the sound of voices. And she heard her son's voice. “Mom, I'm here!” He was outside. She found her daughter, and on the way she also found her aunt.

Lilja was able to extract her daughter who was burned from head to toe and had a large gash running along the entire length of her forearm. Neighbors came and helped her get the girl out. Then they brought the aunt back to consciousness.

When they went out into the street, she saw her husband there dead. She wanted to throw herself at him, but the neighbors stopped her. “It's over, Lilija, he's gone,” they said. They had already proven that he was dead. Now they told her to focus on the children. Soldiers arrived at the scene, and Lilia, her aunt, and the two children were transferred to a car. They had to leave the husband behind.

Lilia recalls that there were many civilians from their neighborhood receiving treatment at the field hospital that day. So did her daughter and aunt, but Lilija was told that she had to take her daughter to a hospital in Russia if she wanted to be saved. Parts of the forearm were torn off, there were fractures in the arm and hand, and a deep wound to the face. In addition, she was severely burned. The ceiling caught fire, and tar fell on the girl. Her legs were also injured when the heavy dining table fell on top of her.

A night to meditate

There was only one option for Lilija. He had to accept the offer from the Russians. Lilja remembers the night they spent in fear. They were sleeping in the school building and heard the sound of bombing all the time. It was a night of reflection. She thought about the way they lived, without caring much about tomorrow. Now everything has changed. “One moment, and then you find yourself in some kind of new and distant reality,” she thought to herself.

The next morning, Lilia, the children and the aunt were flown by helicopter to Valojiki, a town in Russia's Belgorod region, where the daughter underwent surgery the same day. Then she was sent to the Regional Children's Hospital in Belgorod.

During the spring and summer, while hostilities continued in Ukraine, the four spent the night in Russia, where they moved to a tent camp. The refugees were constantly offered to be sent into the country to settle in one city or another. It was a “show” that many tried to avoid. People were helpful and sympathetic to the family's situation, Lilia Nettavisen told of her stay here, but she describes the ambivalence in this hospitality that, for her part, led to growing anxiety.

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– One moment they could talk about us being brothers, and the next there was talk about Russia having this or that type of missile, and that “everything” would eventually become Russian, she says.

I felt weak

It also speaks to the vulnerability they felt in Russia as Ukrainian refugees. They were not asked to attend and were not on the notes when the Russians talked about “liberating” Ukraine. They envisioned a future in which they were dependent on the help of the authorities and at the mercy of Russian goodwill. Lilia got a job, but the money didn't go beyond providing food for the family.

-If you make a mistake in Russia, there could be serious consequences. We were refugees without documents. If something happened to us, no one would look for us,” she told Netavicin.

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Ask for help to get away

Lilia made a decision. Through an acquaintance, she obtained two addresses for volunteers helping Ukrainians leave Russia. I wrote to both organizations and told them in detail about the family's situation. One organization, Helping to Leave, offered to help. She says it was both gratifying and scary to get an answer. With gallows humour, she joked about the possibility that the whole thing was a trap, and that the Acolytes were looking for their organs. The family was told that a car was on its way and they had to get out and get in.

The fear was there, but the fear of staying in Russia was greater, she said.

But they were in good hands and were able to get out of Russia safely after a long journey. Since autumn 2022, the family has been living in Switzerland, where the children now go to school and all attend language courses.

– If I had not contacted Helping to Leage, I would not have had the opportunity to leave Russia. I had some friends there who might have been able to contribute financially, but it would have been a large amount of money,” Lilia says.

– We are approaching two years of full-scale war in Ukraine. What do you wish for you and your family in the future?

– I hope that the invasion will end soon with Ukraine's victory. We hope that Ukraine can return to how it was before the invasion, and that people can return to their hopes and dreams. I understand that the war will not end tomorrow. In the short term, I want to be able to support myself here in Switzerland. My son, who is about to finish school, needs to get a job. Eventually, my daughter will also have to get a job. The children have become very mature because of what they have been through. They say they want to return to Ukraine, but I don't know. Our plans depend on how quickly the war ends and how things develop for us here in Switzerland. Therefore, we have no long-term plans.

Jabori Obasanjo

Jabori Obasanjo

"Coffee trailblazer. Certified pop culture lover. Infuriatingly humble gamer."

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