‘... I sang in the basement to calm my daughter down’

 Antonina Dembytska

Kyiv volunteer Antonina Dembitska interviews Ukrainians who had to flee the war. To preserve the voices of witnesses for the history and future tribunal of war criminals. Read an interview with a Kharkiv woman who was forced to flee shelling and bombing with a baby in her arms and a five-year-old daughter.

– We have recorded this interview within two days 10 and 11 March 2022. Why did it drag for so long? Due to the fact that we are not just in different cities, but in different countries, and are busy with various matters. There are… occasional interruptions with the connections, so the recording was delayed a bit.

– My name is Lena Pashinina, I am 29, I come from the city of Mykolayiv on the south of Ukraine. I have been living in Kharkiv for 15 years already, I graduated from one of the best universities in Ukraine – Kharkiv Karazin National University. Before the war I used to be a happy person, because I had a work, a family, children: two children – Lera and Sonya, the older daughter is 5 years old, the younger is 4 months old. The older daughter used to attend a kindergarten, various sections. We were living well, could afford vacation, bought a house last year: and are still renovating it, because financially it is a bit difficult. However, we have our home, which, by the way, I photographed when we were leaving it. Because what if we cannot return there anymore? But I believe that we will! We had a dog, which we had to betray and leave in Poltava. Because at first, when we were leaving Kharkiv, I took him with me, but for objective reasons, two children, and when one of them is a baby, it is very difficult to take him across the border myself. That is why we had to leave it in good care… well. Anyway, before the war we used to be a happy family. I guess, we simply did not realize it: we had our own problems: not within our family, of another kind… hmm… they seem so petty now! We were very happy. Something like this.

– Please tell me about the first day of the war, what did you do, how did your family orient itself, what were your first steps, how did the first day of the war pass, and how did you learn that the war has begun? Were you ready to major military action in the country, did you suspect, maybe listened to news, prepared a bag, planned: what to do, plan A, B, C?

– I have a post on this topic, I can send it to you, maybe you will find some important information. On the day before– 24 February, my husband and I were discussing the situation, and given that my husband serves on a contract basis in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, he already told me that “tomorrow you are taking the little one to the kindergarten yourself, because I am switching to the barracks regime”. I was indignant, because it is inconvenient for me to take the older daughter to the garden on my own, because it takes too much effort to do this. And we began watching the statement of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. I would say from the outset, I am not one of those people who had an aggressive attitude towards Russian president. I’ve got many relatives there, a lot of friends, and I am ashamed that all those years I believed that that country (Russia – note) is our friend. My worldview just changed in a moment, and it even hurts me to remember that I thought the way I thought before February 24.

As for the statement by the president of Russia: I tried to prove to my husband that it is all nonsense, what we are an alarmist country, that nothing like this will happen, because in the 21st century everything can be solved with words. My husband replied to that: “Yes, okay, I hope that you are right, but please, pack a travel bag”. We did not have mood for anything that day: we usually smoke a hookah when we put the little ones to sleep, we watch TV shows, but something was playing in the background and we just discussed this topic all the time, various scenarios were discussed… Moreover, the day before we watched a film about the Great Patriotic War, because my grandfather fought, he is a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, he is a hero, he has many medals… and I spelled that I am very ashamed, that the “liberator country” is now an aggressor country. The aggressor at the time of the February 23, that is, I already understood that their intentions were not good, but I did not believe in such an outcome.

On February 24 we went to bed after midnight. We have a “cult of going to bed”, because we have to have a laugh in bed, have fun, discuss something: I talk monotonously all the time, my husband falls asleep, and I tease him like: “Damn, let's talk some more!”. And he likes that I lull him to sleep. So, nothing changed that time, either. And now I’m sad to remember it all the time, because if I knew that this would be the last day when we fall asleep next to each other, I probably wouldn’t have fun, but just clung to him tightly and ... that’s it. So… In the morning we were woken up by the explosions: We heard the “Grads” not very close, but not very far, either. And we woke up because of a telephone call: my husband is not allowed to put his phone on silent mode, so we woke up very quick. It was his (husband’s - note) father, he said that Saltovka was bombarded. Saltovka is a residential district, there are no objects there that the other side would have to destroy, there is only a residential district. It is a huge district divided into subdistricts and his relatives live there: so the father called and said, that Saltovka was bombarded. We jumped up, I ran to the older daughter’s room, woke her up, told her: “Lerochka, come on, wake up, get dressed”. My husband said: “Dress up, pack your things!”. Well… hot really a panic, more like a mini-hysteric, because you don’t know what to do. My husband haven’t received a call from his work yet, we have packed our things, I have dressed up my daughter and then said: “Vlad (husband - note), where do we go? Where would we go? What do we do?”. He thought everything through and said: “No panic, I will receive a call from work soon”. It actually happened: there was a call and he was summoned. He left, I remained alone with little ones.

My mother-in-law called, and we agreed that the mother-in-law would come with her sister to us so that we would not be so scared. Plus we have a basement in the house. We live in a private house, but the basement is not suitable for hiding there. It is a cellar for the cans. It is big, but there will probably be a separate voice mail about it. And that’s it: we were waiting for the mother-in-law, she arrived. It was impossible right away for some reason... Kharkiv, how much it now pulls everything in terms of food and so on, but for some reason bread immediately began to cost 100 hryvnias. Well... that is, it discouraged me, and I baked the bread myself!

My mother-in-law arrived, and there were already the first urges to hide in the basement, because the volleys were relatively close. They were loud, but they were only "grads". That is, we were scared at that moment, but when we "got acquainted" with the planes - it was, if I'm not mistaken, the third day of the war, it became much scarier. And so we heard “grads” and even at the end of the day we stopped hiding in the basement. Everyone just sat “on the lookout”, at the ready, the daughter was always wearing sneakers, there was a jacket nearby, because it was very cold in the basement - colder than on the street, it was so damp and, I repeat, unsuitable in principle for hiding there. But for some reason it was safer there - so it seemed to us. Thus the first day passed: the first day was more or less calm. That is, on the first day you expect that all this will last for a day or two, that everything will be decided now, that there will be negotiations, that this is not a war, but ... Yes, an attack by another country, but it can be solved ... But it can be solved! And we fell asleep in our rooms. It was the only day when my daughter went to bed in her room, and I went to sleep in the bedroom. We didn’t do this anymore, because since the next day the windows trembled so much that it was scary to sleep in the rooms and we were all together in the living room, in which, fortunately, there are no windows.  

– Tell me please, how did the events unfold on the next day, and when did you realize that it was dangerous to stay home?

–  In principle, I realized that it was not safe to stay home, but we did not have any other choice, meaning going to subway with two little children – I believed that going there would not be reasonable, and when my mother-in-law came to us with her sister,and then when my friends came, who, by the way, returned to Ukraine from Budapest, because they could not leave their relatives there, my godparents, it became morally more fun. If this word can be applied to this situation… When did I realize that remaining (home - note) is maximally dangerous? It was the sixth day. Well…the exact date could be calculated – I don’t remember the date. The sixth day of the war. That's when I really realized that I might not wake up. Me, my children… Because on that day my husband came to work… oh, home, he just came home for three seconds because the volunteers, together with the Territorial Defense, were delivering diapers to everyone in need, and we got into this number because we already did not have them. We were in the kitchen and I heard… By the way, telling about this is more difficult than I thought. We were in the kitchen and my mother-in-law went to see my husband outside, and I heard the mad cry, “Duck and cover!!!”. And we heard that for the first time: thus we were acquainted with “Su”. Yeah, “Su” is a plane. Like rats, we began running around and hid under the table:it was pointless to run to the basement because it (“Su” - note” was already above our house. I climbed into the “wigwam” with my eldest and youngest daughters, my friends climbed under the table ... And it was such a hell of a rumble, such a terrible, heartbreaking sound of this plane that we hugged, and each one left a mark on each other’s arm, we clung to each other so much. But then we got out, my husband explained what it was, and we already understood that the war would not be the same again, it acquired new colors.

When did we realize that we should flee? When we spend another period in the basement after hearing the sirens, received an SMS from the husband, received “e-alarm” notification… We climbed into the basement and in the basement, as in an organ hall, everything was much more audible than upstairs. And the sound of an approaching plane - it's like nothing else! It corners you and you're like a rat in a tin that's been closed and shaken. And you cannot do anything! It is so horrifying, you are so scared, so miserable! Sitting in the basement, crying, trembling… I sang! I sang to calm my daughter, I read prayers that I never knew in my life, but from somewhere I learned them sharply and by heart. And thanking God for the fact that we still managed to get out of there, I realized that it was impossible to be here. By the way, my mother-in-law did not support me. She thought it was suicide to drive through the city under shelling, because there were already more cases when people died just trying to escape.

– On which day you decided, that it was time to try to get out from the city and how did it go?

–  On which day I decided that it was time to leave the city? On the seventh day, I will check in the Instagram, I wrote… more like sixth or seventh. I will explain, why: because then we were sitting in the basement and a plane was flying very low above us. And when you hear this terrible sound, I understood that if I didn’t get out now, every day I would simply take away my ability to survive. For yourself, for your children... And it's very scary when you realize this not from films, but from your own life. No way back - there just isn't one! I never considered myself a strong, willful person, but here I thought that I had a goal. And in such a way that there was at least some probability and opportunity to go and be saved, there was simply a decision in the moment. I got out of the basement and began to find out from my friends who could help. Fortunately, I have a very large social circle: people helped me a lot on the way from Ukraine to the end point. If not for the human factor, then I think that everything could have turned out quite differently. But they helped me everywhere: so I got in touch with a girl from Poltava, with whom we just studied at the university, she wrote to me on the first day of the war: “Come, Len, we are waiting. The house is big, we will shelter you, everything is fine”. Well, OK!

Then I called my friend who helped my husband in Territorial Defence, volunteered and bought them thermal imagers at his own expense, equipped them with clothes, and so on. And he agreed to take us. He was not involved in transportation, I think there was just respect for my husband, and we agreed the next day. We have packed in a rush, waited for the next day, arranged it for 2 pm, because we could not predict when the shelling will happen, and since the next day the volleys began at random with the intervals of about 30-40 minutes. We sat in the basement with our things, with the dog - we have a Cocker Spaniel, and ran out to the car. Dima (the acquaintance – note) packed the things and we traversed the city that was already ruined. But while we were going, to be honest, I felt safer than at home, because for the first time in… how long? Eight days I saw the street – as if something returned me to a normal life. But traversing the city was a trash, true. Everything broken, ruined. There was the feeling of hatred and sorrow – it overwhelmed me. I am a supporter of the fact that hatred is the worst thing that you can experience, but there was some moment when you realize that it is impossible to suppress this feeling in yourself. At least for the moment… We left Kharkiv rather quickly – we live not far from the suburb district, so to speak. We got to the airport and about ten minutes later a bomb was dropped on the airport, but we couldn’t even hear it anymore, that is, we were, in principle, far away.

How did we get to Poltava? It is a separate story. Because instead of regular two hours we were getting there for around 15 hours. It turns out, we left on 2 pm, on 10 pm we were in the gridlock going to Poltava: it was about 30 kilometers long and just two children, my friend, her mother and my friend, godfather's boyfriend - we are godparents. Dima decided to turn around and go to Chutovo village: there were unknown people – they were not even volunteers, they just sheltered us. I don’t know how Dima came to them, probably, it was someone from the Territorial Defense of the village of Chutovo who helped. They warmed us, fed us, but, of course, we could not eat – I didn’t even eat anything... But the people were so kind: a married couple in their fifties. We were greeted with such warmth and love, my God, and by the way, they spoke Ukrainian, even Surzhik. But we didn’t, and no one hit each other in the face. That same evening, I received news from a telegram channel that the Shevchenko plant, which was five minutes from our house, had been blown up. Well, actually, my husband was based there. Since then, the toughest record of time has begun, because he stopped contacting us.

 – Tell me, what do you know about your husband and what was your source of information since after you left Kharkiv?

– When we drank tea, with these kind people who sheltered us, I saw in the Telegram a notification that <...> had been blown up, as I said earlier. I did not know that Vlad was there, but he hinted at it to me. A couple of days before that, I realized that he was there, I was not allowed to speak, but their headquarters, which was before, which I knew, was declassified, they were found, and therefore they moved urgently. Therefore, when it became known that <...> had been blown up, and there was no information from my husband, he stopped getting in touch... I just understood everything, that is, the people sat there and told me: “No way, you are agitating yourself, starting it again!”. But no: I knew right away that he was there. And all my prayers were directed only to ensure that he would answer me, that he would be alive. I found the phone by geolocation, but as my very good friend, who helped look for Vlad, told me (they also looked for him somehow by phone): “Something is not right with the phone”. That is, I’m calling in Telegram, through regular connection, through Facetime and in any other way, but the call was always dismissed. Like he dismisses it, although, of course, he did not do it. Still, he was last online in Telegram on 21.53. and we texted there last… around 21.40. I went to sleep holding the phone, turned on the vibration because it is usually turned off, so that I would feel if something happened. Those were the hardest two hours, because I was falling asleep and waking up again. I was checking the phone again and again. The constant wait – it was killing me. Finally on 2 am I received a message. I have screenshots, I will provide them, if needed! The message said: “Honey, hello! Do not worry, I am fine! We were… we were bombarded! They are bringing me to the hospital now, they will treat me there”. Well, something like this.I thought that he could have been taken prisoner, but then I took hold of myself and realized that it (the message - note) contained the exact code words and phrases that he only addresses to me, so I dismissed the panic and realized that it was really written at his request. Then I texted that person, like, “Please, write to me if you can!”. But the person stopped getting in touch, it turned out that it was a nurse who volunteered to help Vlad and text me. After that, on the next day, he got in touch (the husband - note), he called me from another number, that he is fine with his fellow, and he started telling me what happened, but he did not remember it all! That is, then we collected this story in parts, I will tell you right away how it was. There were four missile strikes on them, he was on the third floor, and the fourth floor was hit. He immediately ran ... It turns out that he was sleeping, because he had a shift in an hour. And when all this happened, he ran down to where everyone was hiding, as expected, and ran completely barefoot: over fragments, over concrete. Because of this, he has stab wounds, multiple wounds all over his body. He ran to where people were sitting: he said ten people, or twelve, into <...> corridor where they always hid from shelling. And before reaching, he said, five steps, five meters, the ceiling collapsed on those people, that is, they died. It also collapsed on him, but due to the fact that it was like an incomplete wall, just the “debris”, he was simply nailed to the floor and he passed out. He woke up already from the fact that he was called and pulled out by a friend. They brought him to the hospital, and I started looking for his phone so that ... The phone, the documents – everything was left there. I started looking for a phone for him, so that they would deliver it, so that we could have a connection. But he urgently contacted me from some other number - his colleague, and said that they were being transported to another place, to another city, because this hospital would also be shelled. Therefore, it didn’t work out for me: I raised all my connections, the whole Instagram is there, we already found a phone, found a SIM card, but unfortunately, we didn’t have time. Upon arrival in another city – I don’t know if you can name it or not, so I will say “city N”, as in books… he got in touch with me, good thing there were acquaintances, they brought him a phone. Ah!... No. It was in the third city, here he was in touch with me through his acquaintances. Anyway, he is relatively safe now, he is in the Western (Ukraine - note), but it is not the end point, because many wounded guys are brought. What we have concerning the health in the end: As a result, his eardrum burst, due to the fact that there was a contusion. he needs to have surgery on his ear. His nose was broken, a bone on his face was shattered, his elbow joints were fractured, and on one arm, well, as he said, there was a big dent, one that was being cleaned out, it turned out that he was simply pressed very hard with concrete and glass. And they didn’t get half of it: they said that if they tried, they would cause more damage to the body. That is, they will not go deeper into the head there, they have already sewn up the head and said: “People live with this, everything is fine, you will live”. Something with the clavicle: not a fracture, probably a sprain - I don’t remember. Bandaged hands: blue, swollen ... Bruises in the eyes. Well, it's all from a shell shock, and that's from all the consequences of the ear-nose-throat, let's say so. There was also a problem with the jaw: he was dragging out a speech, and yesterday he was at the dentist, I don’t know what they did to him there, without details. But in general, we keep in touch, because his friends brought him a phone, that is, we even call each other by video call, and everything is in order, as much as possible. Well, and in few days he will be transferred somewhere again, to treat again, they said, it will take around two months. And then the rehabilitation. But I want him to undergo rehabilitation here, in Germany. I was told that the clinic where I stayed, the German owners said that they could somehow try to bring him here. But it's all in the air, that is, just talk.  

– Lena, I want to add that I am amazed by how you are holding, and that you agreed to be interviewed barely arriving to Germany, and told your story, I believe that it will help us punish those guilty of those tragedies that are already world-wide. Tell me in more detail: Are you in Germany now? How did you get there and where are you now?

– If it really helps and reaches the relevant place, I am ready to tell it in every detail and provide some proofs in the form of dialogue screens or something else. Because I really want everyone deserving it to be punished. Therefore, I did not even have a shadow of a doubt to refuse the interview.

How did I get here? It turned out I had many good acquaintances. The circle of communication is very important, because people are all so united, it turns out that we are so united! I never considered us, Ukrainians, such a nation, but I just saw the light of how much we all help each other. Because if not for all those people, I would not even have been here. I have a good acquaintance with whom we, of course, are already friends. She lives in Munich, and when she saw all my stories, she wrote to me: “Please, Lena, come, somehow organize yourself and come, and then in Munich I will help you”. In fact, there was no way she could help. She only had her Instagram, she has about 5 thousand subscribers there, and she just reposted information about me. That is, it was she who helped me get abroad, to Hungary.

I should probably tell how I got to the border. The guys who let me stay at their house, they looked at me, at Lera, my daughter, listened what Lera tells their younger daughter about the war, about the tanks… And it was decided to go. They organized a convoy of cars, of people who also wanted to leave the country, and we drove like this. We traveled for four days. They gave us a driver - this pleasure cost 12 thousand hryvnias. We also drove very hard - four days. Checkpoints, all with these ... weapons, checking documents. We spent the night in school – a Hungarian school that gave shelter to refugees going to the border. I can provide the photos: I photographed how we slept. And later that girl, who gave me shelter in Poltava, she was supposed to help me cross the border, because they had acquaintances in the customs service. But, omitting all the details, they could arrive at the border only in the evening. And the girl from Munich - she even organized transportation for me: the car was already standing and waiting at the border - at the Hungarian border, waiting for us. And the boy (note - the driver of the car) wrote that he could not wait long, that they were only waiting until dinner. As a result, the husband of a girl from Poltava took me to the border, where they were standing, and I took my travel bag, my pack and two little ones and went to cross the border. Crossed the Ukrainian side, on the Hungarian side they let me cross. There was a big line there, but since I had a baby, the people let me through. We were photographed because I have a passport for a different surname, and Sonya, the younger one, does not, only Lera has one. They took a picture of us all, and that’s it: we left, we were met by a boy who took us to Germany, we drove for ten hours, that is, Olya (note - a friend who lives in Munich) organized a car, people transferred money, for gasoline to us, for food at gas stations, and so we arrived in Munich.

In Munich, we stayed with the same guys - we lived for two days, under the care of Olya, my friend. And then, too, through acquaintances of acquaintances of acquaintances, that is, I do not know the specific person who helped me get to where I am now. But nevertheless, I am now in the city of Bat-Tölz - it is 40 minutes from Munich. A German family of dentists, they have their own clinic, and this clinic has something like headquarters. And they agreed, offered me and my daughters to stay here. We arrived and now we live here. The owner of the clinic even offered me a completely free treatment of my problematic teeth. I haven’t agreed yet because I am afraid, but in general there was such proposition. Everyone helps a lot here: volunteers, not even volunteers, just people! Ukrainians, Russians, many Russians help: they donate money. They collected an amount for me, I think it will be enough for me for a month, that's for sure. Just thanks to Instagram! Just an ordinary girl who saw our story in stories, came and brought me six packages of food and things. We were just dressed, shod, yesterday they donated money so that we could buy shoes for our eldest daughter. We went to the store, bought the things, reported for everything. Well, now we are completely safe and fine. The thing to which I was going, reached conclusion. In truth, the story just starts, because I have to work with a psychologist: I have a feeling of guilt, of pain, I do not enjoy this city: it is beautiful, but I want home! I want to go to ruined Kharkov. I want to restore all this with my own hands, help the city as much as possible. I don’t understand when I get home, I just listen to my husband who says that “this will all end soon, be patient, it will all end soon, everything will be fine”. But in reality nobody knows when it all ends. I keep in touch with my relatives and friends. And I am only calm for my children. That’s all.

– You are doing enough, I think, more than many Ukrainians who immigrated abroad, and I am grateful to you for that. And, probably, the last question: You said, you had many friends, relatives and acquaintances in Ukraine. Tell me, in which regions and for whom do you worry the most? Perhaps not the best wording of the question - “the most”, but I had in mind some hot spots where it is especially dangerous in your opinion, according to your feelings. Or maybe elderly relatives who can't take care of themselves.

– I have family in Mykolayiv: my mom, dad. I worry about them, because my mother was offered to go to Bucharest through Odessa, but my mother cannot leave the dog, but with the dog ... The dog is a Samoyed, big, naughty, and my mother is just worried about how she will go with him. Therefore, she says: "Well, as it will be, so it will be". She won’t leave dad, either: he does not want to go, looking ahead, to the question “Why doesn’t dad want to?” - because people of “that” temper somehow feel differently, they are afraid, but somehow they have grown more attached to the place where they live. Maybe due to age, I don't know. You know, I compared myself with the “Titanic” movie, when the mother of two children understood that they will not make it. And instead of panicking and looking for any way to escape she read a fairy tale to them, so that they will calm down and pass on in relative calm, if you can call it like that. So I think that people who are over 50, not all, but most of them, adhere to such a plan. I also have elderly neighbors in the yard, they are over 60, and they even invited us for tea. Like, well, what can we fix? And I worry about Kharkiv, because Kharkiv is, in principle, my relatives, right? That is, the city itself, my mother-in-law is there, my friends are there. I am worried for two regions (note - Mykolayiv and Kharkiv) the most. And so, of course, I'm worried about our entire country. I really believe in all these information sources that after the war we will recover right at the speed of light, I really believe in this. Therefore, only time is needed, and from today I began to look for a psychologist for myself, and I have already found one - she should contact me. That's what needs to be worked through: guilt. Something like this. 

– Lena, thank you for the interview, I think you will hear this from your psychologist, but I want to say from myself that you acted like a real heroine mother who did everything to protect her children, who are completely dependent on you, to minimize their trauma from everything they've been through, and I hope that you will soon recover, adapt, and be reunited with the whole family.

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