‘For some reason we were convinced that our house would not be hit by a rocket’
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. Here is her conversation with Oksana Lopatiuk from Kyiv. When a rocket hit her apartment block, it was not her belongings that had to be rescued, but her “petting zoo”.
— Tell us a little about yourself. Just a few words about your life before the full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation into Ukraine.
— My name is Ksiusha, I am 41 years old, I worked for the last two years as a rehabilitator in an animal rehabilitation centre, I studied but I didn’t finish my studies because of the war. I studied to be a professional veterinarian. I was a happy person.
— Like most of us. Well, if at least we didn’t think so before, now we understand it quite well. How did you find out that the war had started?
— I was (told) at 9 am — it was after my work, usually I sleep for probably twenty-four hours: my work is physically hard. At 9 am my friend called me and said: “Wake up, the war has started”. Well, I told her to get off me, I said: “Are you crazy or what? Leave me alone, damn it!” And when I hung up the phone, I saw that I had a million missed calls on my phone, all from my close people. I mean there were calls from my brother, my mother, my father-in-law, my mother-in-law, and I realised that something was wrong, I told my husband, we turned on the TV and... We couldn’t believe it! I mean, we understood it, we saw it! But we couldn’t believe that it could be so.
— So it was unexpectadly for you?
— Yes, because I’m a totally non-political person, I’ve never been interested in politics. Well, I didn’t even, roughly speaking, watch the news! I always watch veterinary channels on TV... So, for me it was... well... it was a shock! And my brain refused to perceive it at all.
— So tell me more about the 24th of February — how was it for you, what were your first actions after you realised what was really going on?
— I kept getting calls from my friend, my brother, my mother, and for some reason they all convinced me that I had to pack up and leave. But where? Just leave! And my husband and I were discussing it at some point, i.e. we really thought that we should have probably run away, leave. Because it was scary. But literally by the evening, when we had more or less calmed down, we... We tried at least to live like we used to! But of course at first day it wasn’t yet so loud. I mean, territorially we live in a place where it was loud, in fact, but the first day was more or less quiet — at least for us. We went and checked our basement in the appartment block, decided not to go down there, again it was impulsively at first. Because it was completely unsuitable as a bomb shelter. So we stayed at home, decided that we would sleep in the corridor at night. Because it was more or less our safest place, the corridor! The bathroom was not an option at all. Our bathroom is very small, and the corridor has three walls! Well, we figured that out later... I mean, when the war began, we read the news, monitored everything, realized that really the best option — is the corridor. So we spent all our time in the corridor. So when we heard the alarm outside, we went to the corridor. We probably lived there for a week, and then we just slept there, because we were very afraid of nights.
— When did it get really scary and very loud?
— For the first week or so, I think it was still bearable. Well, we heard some explosions, some shooting, something, well... scary noises were heard, but they were relatively bearable, I mean, you heard them “somewhere”. I think, yeah, it lasted a week or so, and then it became quite loud. We have a glazed balcony and window panes. I closed everything tightly and it was still heard through the two double glazed windows. It was very loud...
— And despite that you decided to stay at home?
— We had an option to go to my husband’s parents. But they live in Zhytomyr region. In general, we already could not take that road. It was near Irpin, Bucha. To go somewhere else? Well, I have a lot of pets, because I’m a veterinarian, I love animals, I always have loved them. At that time I had squirrels, four cats, a dog, guinea pigs: well, it’s kind of a “large farm” to hang around with them “one day — there, one day — somewhere else”. We didn’t consider that option at all. For some reason we were firmly convinced that our house would not be hit by a rocket. For some reason we were sacredly sure that it would never get into our house. I mean, I don’t know why we were so convinced. We looked at our house many times, we understood where the shooting was coming from, where the “bangs” were coming from, we went and checked. We listened... And for some reason we decided that our house was a safe enough place, and for the first time in my life I was glad we lived on the first floor. Well, do you understand? It was a low floor!
— And yet, you had to leave for a while. Tell us, why did you leave after all?
— All that time we slept in the corridor, but it was very uncomfortable there, because all our pets were with us, of course. I mean, roughly speaking, you lied on your side and you could’t move. Because you were surrounded by the pets, and next to you there was one more human being — my husband. And he was somehow able to fall asleep, which was a big problem for me. And every morning I used to run to my room just to sleep.
At some point we just got tired of it. We got extremely tired, we adapted to the explosions, to the gunshots, to the constant bombing, the constant rumbling. And our house is located in a place where there is forest, through which the Russian troops were constantly trying to break through. Apart from “Grads”, apart from all those loud noises, we constantly heard shootings as well... We and even our pets, that are actually scared of loud noises, adapted to the situation so that we let ourselves to relax... I mean, once we got tired and went to sleep in the room, on the sofa. And on the night of March 14th to 15th, I woke up because the appartment block was shaking. And through the window I saw the fireworks, like the sparks of the fireworks were falling from the sky, and water was pouring down. Outside the window. So, nothing has happened in our appartment itself yet. And half-awake and in panic I started to shout to my husband: “Corridor! Corridor!”. Because at that time we knew for sure that two walls are cool. They can really save: one wall takes the hit, the other one stops it. “Corridor! Corridor!” My husband grabbed the mattress, ran to the corridor, I gathered the pets around the room. At that time the neighbours called and said we had to run out because the appartment block was on fire. This is, in fact, what happened. Thank God my husband’s car was in the parking lot, because all the cars that were near our appartment block were damaged. My husband ran to get our car. Meanwhile I was gathering the pets around the appartment... And when he arrived, the military wouldn’t let him in: there was a threat of a gas explosion, because our pipe had probably burst. But now the Local Public Utilities Office can’t say for sure, could it be a gas explosion or not. As they say, it might have been a broken gas burner. But there is still no gas in the appartment by the way. They wouldn’t let my husband in because of the explosion threat, but he ran in. We grabbed the pets, ran out, put them into the car. The firemen came actually — thank them very much! — very quickly. Really very quickly!
— I can’t imagine how to gather such a number of pets in such a tough situation?
— Well, that’s probably my main, you know, sore subject. That’s why I haven’t had as much worry about myself as I had about all my pets. Because I understand everything, I realize everyting, but they don’t, they are more afraid. I didn’t have a single carrier, by the way! I gave them away. Three carriers... Our last run away from the appartment, when my husband wasn’t allowed in: he ran out, then ran in a second time, said to the military: “There’s my family in there, everybody get off, please!” And I had three cats under my arms, the dog in hand, my husband ran out with the cage, the dog got off, the cats tried to escape. All in all, well... it was madness! I even thought that I would hurt my cat — I squeezed him so hard! I thought: “Oh my God! I would break it´s bones, but it would be alive, safe and sound, with me, I knew how to cure it”. Thank God, the dog then came to us, it was very scared of the military, it started running, it ran into the appartment block, the military was shouting, there was a rush, firemen, people were in a panic. But, thank God, we gathered the pets, thrown them into the car, and we were waiting a long time for the fire to be put out. Now I know why it took so long to put the fire out. Because our appartment block was hit by the fuel part of the rocket, and the rocket core fell on Chornobylska. So they put the fire out from four until seven (in the morning).
— Chornobylska — you mean Chornobylska street, don’t you?
— Yes. That’s where the rocket core fell at four in the morning. There were casualties. 10 people, if I’m not mistaken. And they couldn’t put the fire out for a long time, the top of our appartment block has burned out. Roughly speaking, we have a nine-storey appartment block, and from the fifth floor and upwards everything is damaged. There is a sixteen-storey building over there. Then the military allowed us into the appartment block: when they put the fire out, it was seven in the morning. They said to pack personal belongings... At four in the morning it started, they arrived ten minutes later, maybe even faster. Very fast! And the whole time they were putting it out. Some neighbours were putting the fire out themselves, from their appartments.
— Were there any casualties in your appartment block?
— There were no casualties! We had a lot of people who had left the appartment block, so thank God, there were no people in the appartments that were completely burnt out. Now people just call — they want to know if they can send us the keys, so that we could at least come into their apaprtment in order to see what is left there. To call, so to speak. I mean, there’s a hole in the pipe itself, the radiator burst out, water was leaking. And on the eighth floor too. When they let us in (our appartment), water was just pouring everywhere. You just had to put a hood on. My husband and I were both wearing hoods to walk through the appartment. It was scary, in the sense that you know what was going on, and all that time they were bombing. I haven’t heard such a frequency of explosions and blows for a long time. It was like, you know, as they say, like, as luck would have it! I mean you’re trying to collect your thoughts, but they keep shelling. At 11 o’clock we were able to leave Kyiv altogether, and they were still shelling!
— Where did you drive when you had left Kyiv?
— We went to the village, to the parents’ house in Zhytomyr region. But we didn’t drive along the Zhytomyr highway. We took the Zhytomyr highway, but bypassed it. We drove through Bila Tserkva (a town in Kyiv Region). We were probably driving for six hours. Ususally when we went to visit our parents, the road took two hours maximum. But that time we drove for about six hours. Twice we drove into a ditch because (when the appartment block was on fire) we went to bed late, about three o’clock in the morning. We fell asleep that night at three, at four it happened. We did not sleep. It’s hard to sleep, even though we’re used to it, but you still hear sounds through your sleep, you wake up, don’t you? And all the time, you know, this fear that I don’t know something, that I’m about to miss something, something extremely important, something will happen without my knowledge. This fear is always with me. We almost got off the road twice... We didn’t talk on the way, not even a sound neither from us nor from the pets — everything was silent, there was no music, there was silence. From fatigue, from stress, from fear, twice we almost drove off into a ditch. But, thank God, though it took a long time, but we made it. We made it, and we stayed there...
— Was the road really full?
— No, it was clear. Relatively clear. It was just a long trip...
— I’ve often seen terrible traffic jams on the way out here.
— We drove out the city really without problems. But we drove in the town of destination quite hard. I mean we were standing in a queue for a very long time. And you know, even taking into account the checkpoints, the road was fine. I mean it was just a long trip because of our bypass, and probably because of our moral condition.
— You reached your parents in Zhytomyr region, was it a village there?
— Yes, it was a village. The village is located in such a place that even if, God forbid, they had somehow managed to break through Zhytomyr into Kyiv — I mean the Russian troops, they would not have made it through this village. It is located in such a distant place. It is located so far that in general the first few days — probably two or three — I had a terrible headache because of the silence around. A panic fear that “it would be shelling soon”, the silence. Such an oppressive silence... I bought a soothing tea in a pharmacy, and all sorts of herbs... I drank probably liters of it! I don’t know, it dulls emotions somehow, it’s like as if I want to sleep. Like “wild hysteria” happens inside you, but it’s like it doesn’t show itself, it’s just inside. And the silence is creepy, you just feel an ache, a headache from the silence, from having such an unpleasant sensation in my ears. And if the door slams, stomps, a small child jumps off the bed, then everyone jumps in fear: me, my husband, the pets! Everyone just jumps in fear!
— So you came there on about...
— On the 15th (of March), in the afternoon, maybe towards evening.
— How long did you stay there?
— 3 weeks. We called those who stayed in Kyiv and our neighbours whose telephone numbers we had. We asked how things were going with the appartment block, because we really wanted to go back. It was scary. It was the scary refugee syndrome: you didn´t care at all what had happened to your house. Let there was no light, no gas, nothing, but I wanted to go home. We found out that there was electricity and gas in our appartment block, so we quickly packed up and came back to Kyiv. And you know what? Every appartment got electricity and gas, but not our appartment! Not our riser. It’s our riser that was damaged because the rocket fell there. No cold water, no gas. But there was electricity and hot water later on.
— Weren’t you scared to go back in view of the rocket hit?
— Actually, you know: I left my home and cried all the time for home, I repeated “I want to go home”. Now I saw my house again and started crying again: “My poor wounded house”. But there was no fear or uncertainty or anything like that at all. I felt very good emotionally. Despite the fact that it was 9 degrees in the appartment, despite the fact that we got fungus there, the smell, the cold. It was filthy when we came in, because we were driving out of here in a wild state. In spite of all this, we are at home.
— Let’s summarize, what are the main destructions? Broken pipe and flooded appartment?
— There is no damage to our appartment, apart from one window glass. I don’t even take that into account at all. On the ceiling, you know, like when the neighbours flood, you can see it a little bit. But we dry the appartment all the time, we turn on two heaters, we open windows for a day, we blow the air. Directly in our flat, you could say, there is no damage. I can say that there is no direct damage to our appartment.
— So the main thing that you were flooded...
— Flooded... We don’t know if we should take the ceiling off, because we were saved by the stretch ceiling. It absorbed all the water, we punched a hole and just poured the water out. The parquet is not damaged. The linoleum is not okay. When the wallpaper was flooded, water collected under it, my husband punched holes in it. But there was no direct damage. But I think later we will see the scale of damage better than now. We’ve been home for a week and we’ve seen that there’s nothing as supernatural as our neighbours have across the floor. Thank God, we are fine.
— What about the neighbours across the floor?
— Everything is burnt out there. They called Vasia, my husband, and asked whether they could send the keys to us so we could come inside their appartment and had a look. Four floors on our side of the appartment block are burnt out!
— Well, in general we can say: you got away with small losses, and as I see it, you are at home now. And now I’m sure there’s no danger here...
— No, nothing threatens! No fear at all! There is only anger, hatred... Not long ago I had a kind of emptiness, a kind of fear. And now it’s gone! At least by now. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but today I just feel anger, hatred, resentment, I guess. These are the kind of feelings I have. I’m not sure it won’t happen again, God forbid. But you understand the situation now, that to be honest, there are no safe places anywhere in Ukraine right now. And speaking about home, as people use to say: east or west, home is best. You feel more confident somehow!
— There is now an active message being promoted by Russians that there are good and bad Russians. That is, it’s basically like Putin’s war and there are a lot of Russians who are against the war, and narratives like “well, what can they do”... How do you feel about that?
— Absolutely not, I don’t believe it! I realise that maybe one person won’t do anything. Probably. Most likely!!! If one person there decides to come to a rally, he will be captured and taken to prison. But silence means consent. “Can’t do anything” is fear, cowardness, oppression, I don’t know what else to call it. I can’t find the right word for it. I don’t accept it.
— So you agree with the statement that every Russian who has a Russian passport and lives in Russia is responsible for what is now happening in Ukraine?
— And don’t you feel sorry for those people who are affected by sanctions and are supposedly against the war?
— Actually, I don’t feel sorry. No. Not a single pity.
— I would end our interview on that life-affirming note. We will hope that the sanctions through the joint efforts of our partners and our successful defensive work of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Territorial Defense Forces, perhaps in the long term a counter-offensive will happen — heavy weapons will come to us for this, it will all work together and we will overcome everything and win this war. And we will live even better than we did.
— I’m a million percent sure of it. I wait every day, I know, I’m sure, and I’m waiting for people to say: “That’s it! We won!” The main thing is not to loose my mind with happiness on that day.
Translation: International Society for Human Rights (German Section)