‘... I sang in the basement to calm my daughter down’
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 on 10 and 11 of March 2022. Why did it drag for so long? This was due to the fact that we were not just in different cities, but in different countries, we also were busy with various matters. There were 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 job, family and 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 and various activities. We were living well, we could afford vacations and bought a house last year, we were still renovating it because financially it was a bit difficult. However, we had our home which, by the way, I photographed when we were leaving it. Because what if we cannot return there anymore? However, I believe that we will! We had a dog which we had to betray and leave in Poltava. At first, when we were leaving Kharkiv, I took it with me but, for objective reasons - two children, one of them is a baby, it was very difficult for me to take the dog across the border by myself. That is why we had to leave it in good care… oh 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, but of another kind… hmm… they seem so petty now! Anyway, we were very happy.
– Please tell me about the first day of the war, what did you do, how was your family adjusting, 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 for major military action in the country, did you suspect or maybe listened to the news and prepared a bag, perhaps planned what to do: made plan A, B, C?
– I have a post on this topic, I can send it to you, maybe you will find some important information there. On the day befor 24 of 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 was inconvenient for me to take the older daughter to the kindergarden on my own, the effort is too much. Then 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 country (Russia – note) to be 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, that 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 me: “Yes, okay, I hope that you are right, but please, pack a travel bag”. We were not in a 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 kept discussing the same topic all the time, we discussed various scenarios… Moreover, the day before we watched a movie about the Great Patriotic War because my grandfather fought in it, he is a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, he is a hero, he has many medals… and I said that I feel ashamed because the “liberator country” turned into an aggressor country. The aggressor as of February 23, that is, I already understood that their intentions were not good, but I could not have believed in such an outcome.
On February 24 we went to bed after midnight. We have a “ritual of going to bed”, because we have to have a laugh, have fun, discuss something: I speak monotonously all the time while my husband falls asleep and I tease him like: “Damn, let's talk some more!”. He likes that I lull him to sleep, so nothing changed that time either. I’m sad remembering it now , because if I knew that this would be the last day when we fell asleep next to each other, I probably wouldn’t have fun, but just clang to him tightly and ... that’s it. So… In the morning we were awoken by the explosions: We heard the “Grads” not very close, but not very far, either. We woke up because of a telephone call: my husband was not allowed to have his phone in silent mode, so we woke up very quickly. It was his (husband’s - note) father, he said that Saltovka was bombarded. Saltovka is a residential district, there are no [military] objects there that the other side would have to destroy, it is only a residential district. It is a huge district divided into subdistricts and his relatives live there, his father called and said, that Saltovka was bombarded. We jumped up, I ran to the older daughter’s room, woke her up and told her: “Lerochka, come on, wake up, get dressed”. My husband said: “Dress up, pack your things!”. Well, it was not really a panic, more like a mini-hysteria, because one doesn’t know what to do. My husband haven’t received a call from his work yet, and we packed our things. I 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 and I remained alone with little ones.
My mother-in-law called and we agreed that she would come with her sister to us so that we would not be so scared. Also, 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. That’s it, we were waiting for my mother-in-law and she arrived. Only everything became very difficult. Kharkiv always sustained everything in terms of food and so on, but for some reason bread immediately began to cost 100 hryvnias. Well... it discouraged me and I baked my own bread!
When my mother-in-law arrived, 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”, but by the end of the day we stopped hiding in the basement. Everyone just sat “on the lookout” at the ready, my daughter was always wearing sneakers and had a jacket nearby, because it was very cold in the basement - colder than on the street, it was svery damp. I repeat, in principle, it was unsuitable for hiding there. However for some reason we thought that it was safer there. Thus the first day passed, the first day was more or less calm. That is, on the first day one expected that this all will last for a day or two, that everything will be decided quickly, there will be negotiations and this is not a war, but ... Yes, it was an attack by another country, but it could be solved ... it could be solved! 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 that later, because beginning the next day the windows trembled so much that it was scary to sleep in the bedrooms and we were all together in the living room in which, fortunately, there were 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?
– I basically realizedthat it was not safe to stay home, but we did not have any other choice, I didn't want to go to the subway with two little children, I believed going there would not be reasonable, especially when my mother-in-law came to us with her sister, also my friends came who, by the way, returned to Ukraine from Budapest, because they could not abandon their relatives. Later my godparents joined us and it became more fun, if this word can be applied to our 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, myself and 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 that number as we already had nothing left. 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!!!”. We heard that for the first time, that's how we got 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 tightly leaving marks on each other arms, because we clung to each other so much. When 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 of time in the basement. After hearing the sirens, we received an SMS from my 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 was 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 quickly and by heart. Thanking God for the fact that we still managed to get out of there, I realized that it was impossible to be there. By the way, my mother-in-law did not support me. She thought it was a 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 did I decide that it was time to leave the city? On the seventh day, I can check in the Instagram what 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. When I heared that terrible sound, I understood that if I didn’t get out now, I would simply lose my ability to survive. For myself and for my 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. I thought that there was at least some probability and opportunity to be saved, it was simply a decision in the moment. I got out of the basement and began finding from my friends who could help. Fortunately, I have a very large social circle: people helped me a lot on the way from Ukraine and to the end point. If it was not for the human factor, I think that everything could have turned out quite differently. However, they helped me everywhere, I got in touch with a girl from Poltava, with whom we studied together 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 and everything will be fine”. Well, OK!
Then I called my friend who helped my husband in Territorial Defence, he volunteered and bought them thermal imagers at his own expense, equipped them with clothes, and so on. He agreed to take us. He was not involved in transportation, I think there was just respect for my husband, and we agreed on 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. 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, then 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 streets as if something returned me to a normal life. But traversing the city was like moving through the trash, 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 far away.
How did we get to Poltava? It is a separate story. Because instead of regular two hours it took us 15 hours to get there. It turned out, we left at 2 pm and by 10 pm we were in the gridlock going to Poltava: we made about 30 kilometers, there were and just two children, my friend, her mother another 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 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 [Ukranian dialect] which we didn’t, yet no one hit each other in the face. That was 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 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, but I was not allowed to speak about it. However, their headquarters, which I knew was located there before, was declassified. They were found and, therefore, they had to move urgently. When it became known that <...> had been blown up, there was no information from my husband, he stopped getting in touch with me, I just understood everything. Everybody around told me: “No way, you are agitating yourself!”. But no: I knew right away that he was there. 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 looking 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 trying other ways, but the calls were always dismissed. It look like he dismisses them, although, of course, he did not do it. Still, he was last online in Telegram on 21.53, and we texted there last time … 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, at 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 he message 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: “Please, write to me if you can!”. However, that 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 and his friend is in the same ward with him, then he started telling me what happened, but he did not remember it all! Later we collected his story by parts, but I will tell you right away how it was. There were four missile strikes, he was on the third floor and the fourth floor was hit. He immediately ran ... It turned out that he was sleeping at that time because his shift was in an hour and when all this happened, he ran down to where everyone was hiding, as expected, he ran completely barefoot over fragments, over concrete. Because of this, he had stab wounds, multiple wounds all over his body. He ran to where people were sitting (he said there were ten people, or twelve) into the <...> corridor where they always hid from shelling. But before reaching it, he said, five steps or five meters, the ceiling collapsed on those people and they all died. It also collapsed on him, but due to the fact that it was an incomplete wall, just the “debries”, he was hit by debries and he passed out. He came to when he was called and pulled out by a friend. They brought him to a hospital and I started looking for a new phone for him because his phone and the documents – everything was left there. I looked for a phone that can be delivered to him, 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 used all of my contacts, the whole Instagram, we already found a phone, found a SIM card, but unfortunately, we didn’t have time to deliver it. Upon arrival to another city – I don’t know if you can name it or not, so I will call it “city N”, as in books, he got in touch with me. Good thing there were acquaintances, and so they brought him a phone. Ah!... No, it was in the third city, there he was in touch with me through his acquaintances. Anyway, he is relatively safe now, he is in the Western Ukraine, but it is not the end point because many wounded guys are brought there. As far as his health we have concerns there: 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 against concrete and glass. And they didn’t get half of it: they said that if they tried, it would cause more damage to the body. That is, they will not go deeper into the head, 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: blueand swollen, bruised eyes... Well, it's all from a shell shock, the consequences of the ear-nose-throat inguries, let's say so. There was also a problem with his jaw: he was dragging out his speech and yesterday he was at the dentist, I don’t know what they did to him there, I have no details. But in general, we keep in touch, because his friends brought him a phone, we even call each other by video call and everything is in order as much as possible. In few days he will be transferred somewhere again for more treatment, they said, it will take around two months. After that - 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, just talk for now.
– Lena, I want to add that I am amazed by how you are holding up and that you agreed to be interviewed upon arrival to Germany and told your story, I believe that it will help us punish those guilty of the enormous tragedies. Tell me in more details: Are you in Germany now? How did you get there and where are you now?
– If it really helps and it reaches the relevant place, I am ready to tell it in every detail and provide some proofs in the form of screenshots or something else. Because I really want everyone deserving it to be punished. Therefore, I did not have even 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 contacts is very important, also our people so united, it turns out that we are all united! I never considered us, Ukrainians, such a nation, but I saw the light when I realized how much we all help each other. If it wasn't for all those people, I would not even have been here. I have a good acquaintance with whom we 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 personally. 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 to get abroad, to Hungary.
I should probably tell you how I got to the border. The people who let me stay at their house, they looked at me and at Lera, my daughter, listened to what Lera told their younger daughter about the war, about the tanks… Later it was decided that we should go. They organized a convoy of cars, of people who also wanted to leave the country, and we drove with that group. We traveled for four days. They gave us a driver - this pleasure cost us12 thousand hryvnias. It was difficult - four days on the road. Checkpoints, with all these people with 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. Later the 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. However, the person from Munich - she even organized transportation for me, the car was already standing and waiting at the border, at the Hungarian side. 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 the car was standing and I took my travel bag, my pack and two little ones and went on foot to cross the border. I crossed the Ukrainian side and on the Hungarian side they also let me cross. There was a big line, but since I had a baby, the people let me through. We were photographed because my passport has a different surname then Sonya's, the younger one, only Lera has the same name. They took a picture of us all, and that’s it, we got throug and were met by a boy who took us to Germany. We drove for ten hours, Olya (note - a friend who lives in Munich) organized a car, people transferred money to us for gasoline and food at gas stations, and so we arrived to Munich.
In Munich, we stayed with the same people - we lived for two days under the care of Olya, my friend. And then, too, through acquaintances of acquaintances of acquaintances, I do not know the specific person who helped me get to where I am now. 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 a headquarter, offered me and my daughters to stay there. We arrived and now we live here. The owner of the clinic even offered me a completely free treatment for my problematic teeth. I haven’t agreed yet because I am afraid, but in general there was such proposal. Everyone helps a lot here: volunteers, not even volunteers, just people! Ukrainians, Russians, many Russians help: they donate money. They collected big amount for me, I think it will be enough for me to last 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 dressed and shod, yesterday they donated money so that we could buy shoes for our eldest daughter. We went to the store, bought things and thanked everyone for everything. Well, now we are completely safe and fine. The goal to which I was going now reached a conclusion. In truth, the story just started, 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, thank you for that.. Here, probably, is the last question: You said, you had many friends, relatives and acquaintances in Ukraine. Tell me for whom and in which regions do you worry the most ? Perhaps this is 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 and according to your feelings. Perhaps there are elderly relatives who can't take care of themselves.
– I have my 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 behind and escaping with the dog ... The dog is a Samoyed, big, naughty, and my mother is just worried about how she will travel with him. Therefore, she said: "Well, whatever will be,will be". She won’t leave dad, either and he does not want to go. I am anticipating the question “Why doesn’t dad want to?” - it is because people of “that” character somehow feel differently, they are afraid, but somehow they have grown more attached to the place where they live. Perhaps, due to the 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 would calm down and pass on in a relative calm if you can call it like that. I think that people who are over 50, not all but most of them, adhere to such a plan. I also have elderly neighbors, they are over 60 and they often invited us for tea. They said: "What can we fix?" I worry about Kharkiv, because Kharkiv is, in principle, my family, right? That is, the city itself, but also my mother-in-law is there, my friends are there. I am worried about two regions (note - Mykolayiv and Kharkiv) the most. But, of course, I'm worried about our entire country. I really believe all the news sources predicting recovery after the war with 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, somehow or other.
– 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 entire family.