‘It was like people fleeing a tornado...’
Kyiv volunteer Antonina Dembytska interviews Ukrainians who had to flee the war. To preserve the voices of witnesses for the history and future tribunal of war criminals.
— My name is Antonina, I am 32 years old, I live in Kyiv and during the war I work as a volunteer. Today is the 12th of March. Please tell us briefly about yourself, your family, what information you would like to provide. And describe briefly your life as it was before February 24, 2022.
— My name is Chervynskyi Dmytro Yuriiovych, I was born, raised and lived in Mykolaiev until February 24. On the day the war began, in the evening, I was forced to take my family — my wife, two children, our parents and my grandfather (he is 84) — and move to a safe place, away from Mykolaiev, where shelling had begun. So, I have not been in Mykolaiev until today.
— Dima, have you ever discussed with your relatives, with your family the possibility of a full-scale invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine? Were you at least somehow prepared morally and psychologically for what happened on February 24?
— I followed the media, followed what the foreign representatives say regarding this topic when the whole situation was heating up, and of course I imagined that this could happen. But, unlike in 2014, I was not prepared at all. Neither financially nor in other way. Even on the day the war started I had less than half of a tank filled with petrol in my cars. Although many people kept their tanks full, this is the minimum one should have at time like this. I had to stand in a queu at a petrol station during the first hours (of war) for almost half a day. So I didn’t manage to leave the city in the first half of the day, so I left in the second half. So...
— Did you and your family discuss beforehand what you would do in case of the outbreak of war? That you would pack quickly, leave... Or was it a spontaneous decision?
— After we found out from the news and messages that the Russians troops had passed Nova Kakhovka and started to approach Kherson (the distance from Kherson to Mykolaiev is 70 kilometers), we made a decision to leave.
— How did you even find out that the war had begun? Did someone tell you or did you watch the news, heard explosions, or... How did it happen?
— On February 24, 2022, I was woken up by low-flying planes, I heard something in the city centre... Yes, I heard some explosions there. Then I woke up, checked my Facebook page, and the first news which I saw was: Ukraine under attack. And I understood everything.
— Dima, if you allow me to add something from my side... We have known each other for about 15 years, I will make just a small preface, about the life “before”. As far as I remember and know Dima and his family, it was a prosperous, happy family, Dima had a good renovated flat in the city centre. He could afford to go on holidays abroad, he had a successful business, he had hobbies, and he often competed in tennis tournaments... Anyway, this is a bit about what was “before”. Please describe in as much detail as possible your first actions when you found out that the war had started, and describe us also in detalis the first day of the war, how it was for you.
— The first day of the war began when I was awakened by explosions and planes. I got dressed immediately, left the house, called a taxi, and miraculously the only taxi driver who worked in the city at that time came to me. Because, according to him, he had no cash at all that morning. So he worked that morning just to earn some money. But he said that he only had five litres of petrol in his tank, so he had barely no petrol, and that he was going to drive me to the place I needed, but then he didn’t know how he would get back. And as we drove across the city — on my way to work, because I had to pick up my car there — we saw huge queues at ATMs. It was already seven in the morning, and we heard the first attacks at about five. At seven in the morning there were already huge queues at petrol stations, at ATMs... So he drove me, I picked up my car, drove again, turned off the power at work, in the office and in the building. I took a can of petrol, or rather for petrol, and drove to the city to buy some petrol and groceries. There was no problem to buy groceries, I bought everything I needed, but it took me several hours to get petrol. I got home, went down to the bomb shelter, which was situated right in the apartment house where I live, and examined its condition. In fact, it was suitable for people just to go down there, but not for the whole amount of people who lived in our appartment block — and that means five appartment houses, and plus people from other neighbouring appartment houses were coming in, asking if they could hide here. Geographically, the houses from which people came also related to our shelter. I realised that so many people would definitely not be able to be housed there. And having waited for the information that the occupying forces had passed... and were approaching Kherson — we just packed and left.
— Did you have a clear destination or was it decided somehow on the way? And how long did the road take in total, were there any traffic jams, queues?
— We left Mykolaiev at six in the evening, we planned to drive to Poland. We left with the hope of stopping somewhere along the way, spending the night at some place and then driving on. But when we reached the Kyiv highway — about 250 kilometres from Mykolaiev — we saw the traffic coming towards Western Ukraine. It was like people fleeing a... I don’t know... a tornado, I guess. You know, like they show in American news. There were endless streams of cars rushing at great speed, it was such a scary scene. And there was no way to fill up the car properly, there were long queues at petrol stations. By ten o’clock in the morning we arrived to Vinnitsa Region, it was hard to keep driving — we spent the whole night on the road. So we stayed at our friends’ house in Khmelnik, we rested for several hours and then we realized that they (government) had imposed exit restrictions, so I couldn’t leave the country. We drove then to other relatives in Berdychiv, Zhytomyr Region. We stayed there for seven days, there was no hostilities, nothing exploded, but alerts were heard several times a day. Upon seven days, we decided to go abroad. I decided to transfer my family and then stay in Ukraine all alone. We moved to Lviv, stayed overnight at a friend’s house, and the next day — during the day — they (family) crossed the border. My family — my wife and two our children. Then my friend took them to Wroclaw. He came to pick them up... And that’s how it was.
— Have you heard anything about so called “exit tariffs” (bribes for permission to leave the country) for Ukrainian men? Because since first days of war I received information from different sources... First it was 500 Euro, then two thousand, three, five...
— I have only heard such information once, and not directly, that it was possible to leave at the Moldovan border for three thousand dollars. But I haven’t heard anything else from anyone else, and no one of my acquaintances, who are not entitled to leave, has done so.
— Did your wife and children go to Poland and your parents stay with you?
— We drove to the border by car, got to the beginning of the car queue, parked the car, walked to the border. We reached the first border, where there was a queue, from which we were allowed into the main queue. We joined this queue. Around 50 people were being let in, so people had to get to the Shehyni checkpoint by themselves. That meant three kilometres on foot... And people were walking three kilometres — with children, with belongings, elderly people... This speed march along the road, with cars parked on it which also want to cross the border, was not an easy thing to do. Quite difficult, especially for elderly people. And then we came to a big queue, reached it and stood: there were probably about 1000 people in it. It was not organised in a normal way: the most insolent people try to bypass this queue. And we stood for probably five, maybe six hours. And afterwards, when we crossed the Ukrainian border, everything was fine. They left and I stayed... They came to the Polish border, they were quickly let through, they got on a bus, drove to the nearest settlement — it took maybe half an hour, about 40 minutes. And then they were picked up.
— Were there any volunteers, health care workers who could help in case of emergency, any facilities where you could, I don’t know, get something to eat, go to the toilet?
— I saw toilets and Red Cross tents where you could drink tea and eat a sandwich. I did not see the heating stations, but I saw some pointers to them. That was it... There were no volunteers to help the elderly people to cover those three kilometres with their bags. There were none of them! That was the whole point. If only there were some buses that could help people who could not move, or who had little children... I haven’t seen anything like that. These people got there on their own, they walked by themselves... Many women were on their own, with bags, with children, carrying children in their arms, it was... It was very hard for them.
My family was picked up by my friend and moved to the Wroclaw area. He settled them there with volunteers, apparently they were locals, who took them in, gave them shelter... They are fed there, they don’t pay for anything. People refused to take money, they told us: “We will help, don’t offer us money, if you have a possibility, you can help someone else”. And so far they are still there and surrounded by care, support and everything they need.
— Describe a little more your stay in Western Ukraine, in particular in Lviv Region. How is the situation there, what do you see around you? Maybe you are involved in something, or volunteer somewhere? Do you rent accommodation there or was it provided? Maybe you cooperated with some of your friends there?
— I live in my friend’s appartment. His family — his wife and daughter — have gone to Poland. He is in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and lives in a military barrack. Therefore, I have the opportunity to live in his appartment. I have tried to help here, but I haven’t found anything real to do. I went to the Territorial Defense Forces, asked how I could help, I had a car... I offered my services, they said: “We will call you back”. I also offered something to others, second, third, fourth, because just sitting at home was not an option. I’m already exhausted: I want to do something. But so far I haven’t found any use for myself. I made an attempt to return to Mykolaiv: there were 40 kilometres for me to reach the city, and then an invasion was announced half an hour before I was due to enter. The bridges were raised. They announced an alert, shelling.... I waited for a while and returned back. I made no further attempts to enter Mykolaiv.
— You know, I understand you very well. Because I faced the same problem here in Kyiv. It was very difficult to get somewhere from the very first days. First of all, places in some official volunteer organizations were already taken. Secondly, it was fuelled by some mistrust, by suspicions: saboteurs are regularly found here. Who knows who I am, where I came from and what I want. And it was really hard to sit still, I needed to do something, until I started volunteering on my own, I met people. We somehow got together and organised our own little team. In fact, it was not easy to do, but at least I am on my territory and I know this “area” well.
— Rigth now I don’t do anything, I don’t know... I am waiting for something, maybe something will happen, maybe something will be needed somewhere... I’ve left my telephone number everywhere, maybe... Maybe. According to the situation, it’s hard for me to make predictions because all the information we get is so one-sided, so... Right now I’m waiting. I’m waiting... All day long I’m watching the news, trying to catch some news that will give me an idea that... here... maybe the end of hostilities is close... These are all my aspirations for today. I can’t even relax or try to think about something else, watch a movie. Because it’s all about that, all about searching for this news that will somehow bring the peace closer.
— You have already done at least two important things: you have kept your family safe and have given us an interview, which I hope will help us achieve peace in the future. Thank you for that! For responding so promptly, and we recorded everything in just one day. Glory to Ukraine!
Translation: International Society for Human Rights (German Section)