‘The enemy was just under our windows…’ – Anastasia from Irpin
Kyiv-based volunteer Antonina Dembytska interviews Ukrainians whose lives have been engulfed in war. To preserve the voices of witnesses for the history and the future war crime tribunal. Here is her conversation with Anastasia Pochernyaeva, a resident of Irpin.
– Please, introduce yourself and say if you give consent for the processing of personal data, and tell briefly about yourself, about your life before the war.
– Very well. Hello, my name is Anastasia Pochernyayeva, I was born in 1987. Before the war I used to live in the city of Irpin in Kyiv region. For 13 years I was my own boss, I work as a hairdresser… used to work … I was in a constant creative search, and for the last several months I streamed as a host. It was a remote work, I combined it. My life was comfortable, I used to spend a lot of time at home, as a housewife. Our flat was given to my husband and me as inheritance from the parents, and we equipped it. I was equipping the house and working part-time. My husband used to work in Bucha at a TV channel. 10 minutes of driving to the workplace. In general, life was very comfortable. It was very sad to leave it. Irpin is a good city, the flat was good, in a new building. It was all good.
– Tell me, Nastya, did you suppose, did you have any worries about the possibility of the full-scale invasion of the Russian troops to the territory of Ukraine?
– When I saw the news that Russia was gathering the troops near the territory of Ukraine – 170 thousand units along the entire border with Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, of course, it scared me. But… I am not deeply into politics. Something like a brief report, something have been always interesting for me... In general, I am a bit far from it. Not like on another planet, but I wasn’t getting into it too much, did not want to argue. I did not want to get into politics, it is a difficult process. All the political stuff is dfirty, there are no good politicians. It was hard for me. But! As for the intuition, when they discussed whether Putin was going to invade Ukraine, I had a feeling inside that yes, such scenario was possible. That is, I was afraid, I thought that he would do it. That is why it was very scary. Because Irpin it is very close to the border with Belarus. Well, and Chornobyl… When it all started, the entire American intelligence was saying that February 16 is the foreseen date of the invasion. It was very scary. Then we passed that date, seemingly nothing happened, it became calmer a bit, and then, when it happened on February 24, I could not believe it.
– Have you packed the emergency bag, discussed with the family, with the relatives the options, what to do if the war starts. Have you prepared?
– Emergency bag – of course. I packed it in my head. I started packing it for real when they attacked. When they attacked, and when it became noisy near us. Gostomel... When they came so close, I packed it. I packed all documents, some valuables, a few pairs of spare clothes, haven’s packed the hairdresser’s tools, very expensive. Prepared my cats, there are two cats with me now.
– Tell me, how did you learn that the war has begun. How did your first day pass – February 24, 2022?
– My husband’s sister’s husband woke us up. He was in the neighboring house with his children, my husband’s sister was away, in Israel. And Sasha (note – husband’s sister’s husband) phoned my husband on 5 am: “Pack your things, a war has begun!”. Well, he was not calm when he said this, it was like: “Ooooh!” My husband, sleepy, “What?”. Tried to stop him somehow. Stop the panic, the madness. He said, “Sasha, nobody will go anywhere now. On 5 am? Let’s calm down”. And I took my phone, I’ve seen that my best friend has sent me a message. She texted “Scary” and “Have you heard it?”. To be honest, I haven’t heard anything. Naturally, we have awakened, started to listen, and, of course, heard something, because it wasn’t far from us. It was very early and we decided that war is bad. But when you haven’t slept well and don’t understand, it is worse, so we went back to bed.
We woke up and began to clarify it all, but of course, we… lost it. For a rather long time I was in some kind of denial. That it will all end soon, that it is a kind of provocation. I did not believe that it was a full-scale invasion, I thought it was a provocation, a matter of several days, that everything will stop, that it is impossible, unreal, how? How is this possible – a war? How can that be, that Russia can attack… Well, I don’t get it.
– So, on the first day you did not take any particular action? Simply observed the unfolding of the events, was in touch with relatives and friends?
– Yes, my husband went to work that day, here…to the TV channel – he works… he worked as the head of the art department on the TV channel “Poglyad”. And he went to work. Instead of ten minutes on the way to work, he spent two hours in traffic. Several kilometers in total… People started to leave in panic. Well, no… they started... it was a line to the gas station… At that time… No, it was when he was going back… he went to work, in several… some time – half an hour, hour at best, they were sent home. Suggested to take their devices, so that they could work from home. Here... He (note – husband) did not take anything, because he had the devices to work from home, and, anyway, he began returning home. It was very creepy. Well, I … I think, that was when I started to pack the bag. Because the planes were flying over us. I did not know what it was, but I realized it was something serious, like some fighters, because it was very… loud. Not the regular planes, not helicopters. I phoned when I heard two planes coming, I called my husband – He was already in traffic going back home.
– So, it all happened on February 24, right?
– My husband says: “I left my car – two just flew over us…”. He named, I think, the Russian fighter jets, I don’t remember. Something like a “swan” or a “stork” (note - perhaps those were “rooks” C-25), can’t recall ... It was very scary, creepy. It became calmer when he finally returned home.
– Tell me how the events unfolded afterwards, when did you understand that it was not safe to remain home?
– Since the beginning of the war we were at home, and my husband continued to work, remotely, for another five days, I probably do not remember - I need to look at the calendar. And even in the photos, because I can no longer navigate… stress erases memory. In general, we were sitting for around five more days. I distracted myself as much as I could: I tidied up the house, cooked, tried to distract my husband somehow. Tried to maintain my life. We decided that we would not leave.
– You didn’t go to the shelter during the air raid alerts?
– We just have a basement and a new building. Well ... we didn't run to the shelter, we sat in the bathroom. Because the basement is below ground level, the monolith, a concrete monolith, and the house is inside the yard, in general, my husband has already decided that it is safe there. Well, I decided to trust my husband in this regard. That is, I might have gone there… to the basement to spend the night, but in general I still felt safe for a while. Relatively, of course. But we decided not to go anywhere.
First, there was no gasoline. We couldn’t understand what was going on with the gas stations. We had a quarter of the tank of gas left on the first day. Kyiv was bombarded, we did not know where to go. That is, Troieschyna, where Maxim's grandmother lived, was bombed. It was unclear. To go to my grandmother – to the Poltava region, to sit in the cellar: also somehow… it was possible, but the situation with gasoline was not clear. A quarter of the tank: we would have traveled a hundred kilometers, and then what? It was also unclear. It seemed that there was no gasoline anywhere. Some people said that there was no gas anywhere, almost in the entire country, while others said that one could go to Kyiv for a refill. There was no accurate information, so we decided to stay. Plus... Maxim continued to work. It was… an aware decision – to continue to work, because the TV channel reformatted itself fully to the information purposes, the video continued to be uploaded to Youtube, he had to help to make the news.
I was taking antidepressants. Before the war. Venlafaxin. I ran out of pills suddenly. We could not go to Kyiv to buy pills. I started to feel abstinence, I was very ill for two or three days, I could barely get out of bed. Then, when I felt a bit better, the bridges were blown up. Everywhere! That is Romanivka, Stoyanka, somehow, well, that is… we didn't know the situation there - at checkpoints. I felt very ill, my husband wanted to join the Territorial Defence, I begged him not to do that because I was very sick, I had abstinence (note – after Anastasia stopped taking antidepressants). If you Google Venlafaxin – it is the medicine that ... It has the abstinence syndrome. It is a serious medicine. After three days passed I felt a bit better. We still did not dare to go to Kyiv, but my husband thought that he… My husband said that he should go to the military recruitment office and register, and we thought , how to do that, when to do that, and nothing was clarified yet.
On the fifth day they began to shoot our residential building from the mortars. We were left without light and Internet… And connection.
– Did you have communication and mobile signal disappeared as well?
– We woke up in the morning – I felt a bit better, we had a good night’s sleep – 10 am, and I wanted to get up and make some coffee when we heard the explosions: how the mortar shells explode. It hit a building across the road – the bricks were raining, hit somewhere else, hit right before our windows!
– In general, the building across the road was damaged (Anastasia Pochernyayeva: - yes, it was hit twice), at that moment yours was not hit yet?
– It all happened at that moment. 5 minutes… No, they were shelling us for several minutes: it hit a building across the road, a neighboring building somewhere... Anyway, we were in the bathroom – we couldn’t understand. Then we looked outside and saw the building across the road, there the fifth floor – the second floor. In different sections. In the first and second section. And a mine exploded a meter away from our windows. There was that big hole. The windows were smashed in our kitchen.
– In general, it was a decisive point to move, wasn’t it? Have you remained?
– The decisive point was when we realized that the situation is not improving. It was getting worse. Two days later, on March 7, I woke up and realized I cannot remain here. On march 5 we did not leave home, for a convoy came in near our houses, and they hid in our courtyards all night. We sat secretly where we were: someone in our section, someone elsewhere... We sat in the bathroom, hid. We took a sofa out of our apartment for people in the section. And we sat for almost a day, quietly, because the enemy was just under our windows. Two… armored personnel carriers. We saw one or two APCs from our window, then we learned that there were much more of them: they were standing between the second and tenth buildings, and between the tenth and … can’t remember what building. When they left, on March 6, we went outside and I tried to find a connection. Because on March 5, when it all started, I could still find the signal. I phoned my mom, said: “Mom, everything’s fine”, like, we don’t have electricity. On March 6 I could not find the signal anywhere around. We went searching for it: I only wanted to call my mom, grandma, and say that everything is fine, we are alive. And on the next day – March 7, or maybe 8… Well, we left. If I could notify my grandma that we are alive, maybe, we would even remain there. Well... Well, we believed in our AFU, we believed that they would quickly kick their asses, like, clear them out, like… We did not want to leave our home. But… but the car… On March 5 there was no car anymore.
– What happened to your car?
– When the APCs arrived, they ran over one of the cars. A new Nissan, of a nice color, an electric car. A day before I had noticed that car, such a fine one! Well… they ran over it completely.
– There are the records they post in the publics, that they do it deliberately. There is enough space to pass, but they simply…
– Yes, they did it! They did it deliberately. There was enough space to pass. And our car was hit deliberately: it stood... Well, they entered, and the cannon looks up, they could not shoot down. But over our car there was an old one, well, such a pancake, sorry, I know it was someone’s car... “Tavria”, I think. And there were three empty shells: they shot that car three times to hit ours. We had “Audi 2”. Quite a rare car, beautiful, made of aluminum. And they shot that car, Tavria, there are shells, probably, deliberately, to hit ours with the debris. We were so sad, we barely began investing in it: began to change the interior...
– So, yours car was hit with the debris…
– Well, it was hit hard. It hurt to look at the car, because it's like a... colander, they made a colander out of it! It wasn’t hit slightly, just…wham!
– So, if I understood you correctly, on March 8 you decided to leave? Yes? And the car… Was your car functioning? Or how did you leave?
– Our car did not function. It's a wonder they did not hit the neighbor’s old “Dodge”. We had still parked the car elsewhere, and we drove from an open outcropping to a closed outcropping. We even began to wonder: what if we left it there? Maybe ours would also survive? But we would have left it on Romanivsky Bridge in any case when we left. The neighbor’s "Dodge" survived. He said, "We're leaving… We are most likely leaving”. We have wandered and asked, there were guys who talked to the soldiers, asked “What to do?”. They were like “Leave! You are obstructing the AFU, get out!”. They were like “Damn, ok”… . I left, and … well, I don’t know, maybe I would remain there for some time. If I could notify my relatives that we are, like, fine. I left simply to call my grandma, say that, like, I’m alive. Here… I remember, I was so glad when I saw that there is the border. On the bridge. There, in Romanivka. We went very fast, went by… in central Irpin, across from Central park… And there was the enemy’s APC with the huge letter “V”. I did not see them, I only saw them when we were passing by, but I saw the driver – Slava, he raised his hands like this (note – Anastasia raises her hands) and slowed down. Then he seemingly took the wheel again and said that… well, the gunmen aimed at him with submachine gun. We were without the white flag. My husband said it was really scary then. I haven’t seen it, I only saw it when... I looked when we were getting farther from them, looked so that they would not shoot us. They looked as we were passing by, it was such a weird feeling, like, that’s it, the moment has come.
– And where were you headed? Did you arrange in advance, where to go, or just left it to fate?
– Simply to leave. Just to leave to a place where there is the signal. I agreed to go anywhere: to spend the night in subway, fine! I will spend the nights in subway.
… I remembered the moment of March 5. When they first… well, at 10 am, there was the first stage when they were bombing, then everything stopped… They bombed for a few minutes, then everything stopped, my husband went to see how the car was. And it started bombing again. And I remember such feeling… I did not have fear then, like, a direct panic, well, adrenaline – certainly, the self-preservation instinct did not allow me to follow my husband. In fact, I now understand this terrible feeling. I understand that he left and it was bombing there. I thought: why the hell did he leave, why the hell did he need that car, why the hell did he need to look at it now! I didn't know that. Here he came out, the bombing was coming, and I didn’t know if I had a husband or I didn’t. Well, it was very scary. And I put on my jacket, went out into the hallway, sitting at the door – I didn’t know what to do! Like, to go out and shout, shout “Where are you? Get back!”. I realize that it is dangerous, that I can be blown up as well. He returned. Then I saw that the jacket was ripped. From behind, hard to notice. He says, there was an explosion not far from him. My husband covered a woman with his body, everyone ran somewhere. Of course, not like Mariupol where people still go through it, but still scary.
– When were you able to leave Irpin, where did you go from there?
– When did we leave? When we began to move we phoned the grandmas, we went to Troieschina. Evacuation buses took us from Kotsyubinsjy, and brought us to the railway station. We called the taxi from the railway station – Uber was working. We went to Maxim’s grandma, she lives in Troieschina. She is still there. We have spent some time there.
– She did not want to leave?
– No, she said she was very ill and did not want to go anywhere. Although she has a car. And she says it doesn’t work – this car. It is not clear, in fact, whether it does not work, this car, or it does not work, because she does not want to go anywhere. Grandma… she would not be comfortable to travel, she has digestive problems, and she is directly attached to the house. She explained to me what the problem was, I understand that she would be very uncomfortable to ride the train, something else. She is 85 years old.
– And how did you get to Troieschina? By taxi?
– Yes, by taxi. And we learned from the taxi driver that on that moment – March 8, it had been calm in Troieschina for three days already. Well… Troieschina was not bombed anymore. But we did not know that. When it was all happening – nearby, not even in Irpin, nearby, we understood that… “Where do we go?”. Where to go? I said: “Max, let’s come to the Western Ukraine, we will at least be able to work from there!” Max did not want to go. My husband did not want to leave the house for a long time and it was scary. And… I didn't want to, because people spread terrible rumors! We know where to check… Here are even sources of verified information, some channels, sometimes there was information that civilians were shot somewhere. That is, it was also dangerous to evacuate.
– And it is unclear what is best. To remain…
– Yes, it is unclear what is best. So we chose … well, to remain.
– And how long were you in Troieschina?
– Three or four days. Then we went to board the train. To the West of Ukraine.
– And the house remained intact? It … it wasn’t damaged?
– Yes, the house was intact. It still is now, thankfully.
– And then, how did you decide to move on?
– My brother lives in Uzhgorod, we’ve got the same mother and different fathers. My brother lives there with stepfather. I did not know what flat they have there, in what condition, we decided to take a risk and go there, spend some time there. Well, we thought about transferring me to Germany, and Maxim also wanted to know, he has a “White ticket” (note – “white ticket” dismisses one from serving in the army) and nobody … no accurate information – whether that “white ticket” entitles him to leave Ukraine or not. He served in the army – served for 8 months. And then he was commissioned. It was a long time ago. He spent several months in hospital and was commissioned. And in Transcarpathia we came to the stepfather. The stepfather’s apartment is the most horrible.
– Did you go by evacuation train or by bus? By train?
– At that moment it was even okay to be on that train. There were many of us, but each one got a place, everyone could sleep.
– Meaning, everyone had their own place, right?
– Almost! Little children who were around 10 years old, weren’t so lucky, because they had one place for two, but they held on.
– Have you arrived normally or you had to stop, were there instances of shelling, were you asked to change your seat?
– No! Thank God, there was nothing like that.
– And when did you get to Uzhgorod?
– March 13.
– On March 13 you are in Uzhgorod and you live at your brother’s house…
– No, we could not stay at their house… I phoned my acquaintance – my mom’s friend, and we stayed at his house for three days. He was waiting for his wife from Kryvyi Rih who could not leave with their disabled child, and until she arrived we stayed at their house. At Chris’s. On the night of the 13th to the 14th, the husband's temperature rose below 40 at night. That is, most likely, we picked up covid, despite the fact that we have two vaccines – we did not have time to make a booster. In short, we still have a covid... Well, we stayed there for two days. Two days at Chris’s. I treated my husband a bit, then we have to leave. We went to the Uzhgorod railway station – to the volunteers. We were placed in a bus and sent to Perechin, further away in the village. Placed in a kindergarten. My husband was registered. In Transcarpathia, soldiers are a separate story, horrible… They did not want to give back his military “ticket”, so that he could return with it to Kyiv. They said: “You can go, but then you will come back for the ticket”. Then someday…You will be registered here.
…They never had a right to do this, my husband insisted. They did not want to give it to him, but my husband kept insisting, so... They did not want it again, then my husband showed his documents – the press. Because at that time it was already disassembled, the channel was completely robbed in Bucha, “Poglyad” TV channel. The channel was disbanded, my husband had no job, and… well, his documents remained, he showed them and said: “Guys, I need to go to Kyiv, I will be registered there”. Only then they returned the “ticket” and wrote “departed”. And while well… I was waiting for my husband in military recruitment office, all guys who were ahead of us in line, almost all of them were from Kyiv. There was something I overheard, something I asked about… Nobody received their “ticket” back. They said “You can depart for a month, can depart for a certain term. That’s it, you are registered with us!”. I am so mad at them.
– Well…, your husband received the permit to return to Kyiv, what did you do next?
– We… When he took his “ticket”, on the same day we left that village, I can’t remember how it is called Vorochevo. Transcarpathian region, Perechyn district. We spent two nights in the kindergarten. In short, I will now look back to when my husband received his “ticket” back … March 16, here… And we went to Uzhgorod, to the train station, because from there buses regularly departed to the pedestrian crossing of the border with Slovenia, and the pedestrian crossing of Slovenia – there was also a large group of volunteers. They continued to help people get to other European countries. I had to get to Germany. We arrived at the station, we ate, fed the cats…
– Why exactly Germany? Why such a choice?
– … Because my husband’s uncle is here. With his wife. We decided to go to a place where we have some relatives. Well... Ah! When my husband was registered he knew exactly that his “ticket” does not allow him to leave. Well, he is commissioned in peacetime, the army does not need him, but he is still needed in time of war. He cannot leave, so… We knew already that I would leave alone… We arrived at the train station, ate the volunteer’s food. Volunteers in Transcarpathia are very caring, they fed us well - well, probably, volunteers work very well everywhere. We waited until an evacuation train arrived for a bus to fill to the border with Slovenia. And then my husband heard: a volunteer announced that there was a car to Austria. And, in short, it turned out that the Austrian boys were in two cars: they brought humanitarian aid, and they could take back the settlers. I generally got to such guys, and…
By the way, there were also adventures at the border. There was a man who also asked for place in this car. He had a 22-year expired passport from Bosnia and Herzegovina. He also wanted to leave, he said he was saving a family from Mariupol – other documents were burned. At our Ukrainian border, it turned out that false documents had been confiscated from him in the morning. In short, that man caused us problems, because of him we stood for four hours on the border, he was checked there, searched, they said: we should hope that he is not a Russian spy, because then we will be checked, too, and nobody will let us out. But he wasn’t: they checked his entire computer, his belongings, all his smartphones. In general ... we have left him on the Hungarian border. Because Susanna (the volunteer from Vienna) said: “I will not bring him to Budapest! He was completely dishonest, he wasted our time!”. We arrived to Vienna in the night. Spent the night there: me and another girl, Tanya. We text each other in Facebook now. Checking, how each other is doing: she... Tanya met her sister in Vienna. I spent the night at Susanna’s, a volunteer, and on the next day Susanna brought me to the railway station, there was a great line of the settlers there – for the free tickets. The train system is very complicated in Europe. Some of them malfunction or go late, so it is very hard to get somewhere by a direct train, in general, if one gets lucky. So Susanna bought me a ticket at her expense. For the most comfortable train, a direct one. To Frankfurt. And… For the rest of my life I will be thankful for that, because… If I went alone, I would not have any questions at all. But I felt very sorry for my animals. I have two cats in one carrier . It was very tight, they were stressed, for an entire day they did not relieve themselves. Even more. In general, I felt sorry for the animals. She also took pity on me, on my animals, bought the ticket… and then in Frankfurt I was met by Nina and her father… They have brought us by car to that place where we are now. I live at Nina and her boyfriend John’s place – he is from the US. The contract for the apartment is on his name. Nina is a German, she is a zoo volunteer, she has three cats and three dogs. Here… In general, they accepted me. Good people, good. I am constantly touched the most, I want to cry the most when I am touched by some human kindness. By humane attitude, some actions there…
It is hard to get accommodated with animals in Germany.
– Is it hard to find a flat?
– Yes. It is hard to find people who would let us in. The flat could be found for money. But few people wish to let somebody live for free, with animals. So I was lucky.
– Do you keep in touch with your husband? How, where is he now?
– Yes, of course. He is there, in Kyiv. Registered at military enlistment office.
– Is he still waiting in line or working already?
– Yes, waiting in line…
– Well… I am very glad that you are now safe and I hope everything will end soon, and you will be able to reunite with your family. How are your relatives and friends doing, who remained in Ukraine, for whom you worry the most, maybe there is anyone in hot spots?
– I need to call a friend today, who has lived in Konotop in recent years. I contacted her in Kyiv, somewhere before I went to Transcarpathia. I am very worried about her.
Mostly: my mother is in Kyiv with her husband, everything seems to be fine with her, she is very positive, she helped me a lot. Sometimes only the war shows that mom can be supportive. It is a psychological joke. Because I used to have three cats. Those two (note – whom Anastasia took to Germany) – they are from one litter…And there is one more cat, an old one. And my mother helped: she took the old one by train to grandmother. My grandmother is in Poltava region, it is still quiet there, she started digging in the garden slowly, it's a pity that I won't be able to help her this year, she is already old.
Maxim's grandmother is in Troieschina. Well, she is also… vigorous!
Max is still in Nyvky with his another uncle, they are going to reunite with grandma on Sunday. For now… Well, that’s all! I also have a good friend in Kyiv, on Rusanivka. Well, and I constantly text my friends. One friend went to Romania, than got cross with me, because I went to Germany and not to her. Well… we weren’t even in touch for some time. It was very cruel of her.
– In general, are your friends now more or less fine? With such an attitude, of course, we will soon win and overcome all difficulties.
– It is true now! I wanted to add, I only recently learned what status I am receiving. Because I could not find any formulated information … anywhere. It is not a refugee status, it is the status of a person receiving a temporary asylum. And I am fully entitled to visit Ukraine. When I found out, well… I just stopped being so unhappy at that moment. Because I had no idea how it is not to see my husband for who knows how long! It was the hardest for me. Now I understand that a little more… I prayed a lot. I prayed a lot. And the feeling that everything that is happening to me now in Germany is like God’s blessing. And these people are very beautiful, and yesterday she asked: do I want to volunteer? To translate for ours... And so, I already had a job. I will go to work on Monday. I already have a temporary ID, a paper ID, not yet a plastic one, and a work permit. That is, I will be able to work and be useful from here. Because I have loans to pay, even though the bank gave me a credit vacation. They wrote such a polite letter: “If you can pay the minimum payment – pay, please. If you cannot, of course, we understand everything, but it would be best for the bank system to work”. I sit with the idea that I should be here, work and help my country remotely. Pay loans there, continue. I want to come back later. Although it is so beautiful, clean, I miss my home very much.
– I believe that you will be able to return and we will manage to restore our cities and make them even better than they were.
March 26, 2022.