Against all odds: one woman’s journey into Ukraine’s ‘second Mariupol’
Izyum, in eastern Ukraine, fell to Russian forces in March. This is the story of one family’s evacuation from a besieged and broken city.
“We didn’t see any bread for a month.” This is how Lyudmila, 73, describes life in the eastern Ukrainian city of Izyum under Russian occupation.
Together with her 12-year-old great-grandson, Lyudmila, who is battling cancer, sat through weeks of the Russian seizure of her hometown - with little access to food, electricity and heat.
That was, until her granddaughter Yulia, a restaurant manager in Kyiv, decided to rescue her from a town that locals have come to call Ukraine’s “second Mariupol”.
Once home to several artistic murals, including one of John Lennon calling for peace, Izyum, like Mariupol, now lies virtually in ruin. According to a representative of the city council, 80% of the buildings in Izyum have been destroyed. Three months into the Russian occupation, the city does not have regular access to essential services such as water and gas and the phone lines are down most of the time.
A weekly summary of our latest stories about the post-Soviet world.
For the Russian occupying forces, Izyum is important as a gateway to Donbas, the Ukrainian territory over which Russian forces desperately want to establish full control. And to get her grandmother and son out, Yulia ended up travelling 400 miles through remote villages in a desperate journey through Ukraine.
No bread, no hope
Izyum had started to be shelled four days after the Russian invasion. On 7 March, Russian forces occupied the part of the city where Yulia’s family lived, and she lost contact with them. When Yulia heard from some residents of villages around Izyum that two columns of Russian vehicles were on their way to the city, she started to search for a car and driver to evacuate her loved ones.
Meanwhile, Izyum itself came under constant shelling and aircraft raids, Lyudmila recalled. She had limited access to food: she had not built up significant food supplies prior to the invasion. She never expected the war.
Russian units parked their vehicles between apartment blocks, in order to hide from Ukrainian attacks. As a result, she spent days with her grandson in the basement of her building.
“My grandmother refused to leave the house on two occasions. She thought that the journey would be even more dangerous than living in the city”
Russian forces also looted and stole food from civilians, says Lyudmila. When her daughter-in-law returned from a night spent in a relative’s basement to avoid the shelling, “10 Russians were already living in her apartment. They ate her food, took her things, blankets.”
But that was the least of their problems. “I am now 73 years old and my city is gone,” says Lyudmila. “I don’t have a home either, because Russian soldiers live there now.”
Yulia continued to look for transport to bring Lyudmila and Yulia’s young son out of Izyum.
She managed to find a way to get several people from Izyum to nearby Kramatorsk, but her own family remained in the besieged city.
“My grandmother refused to leave the house on two occasions,” Yulia explained. “She thought that the journey would be even more dangerous than living in the city.”
In desperation, Yulia decided it was best for her to get as close as possible to Izyum. In Dnipro, halfway to Izyum, she joined up with a group of volunteers delivering humanitarian aid to villages around her hometown.
“The locals told us about a lot of horrible stuff, everything had been destroyed by bombs,” Yulia recalls. “The day before our arrival they had had to collect the remains of children whose house had been hit by a bomb.”
Along with the horrible stuff came a nugget of information. Village residents told Yulia about a secret route to Izyum, via a forest, which was, however, occupied by Russian forces.
Yulia says there are three basic rules for getting family out of an occupied city.
Given that Russian soldiers can seize cars at checkpoints, it’s wise to use the worst-looking car possible, and one that runs on petrol. Russian military vehicles use diesel, which is always in short supply.
Wear a white bandage on the arm while travelling to signal civilian status, although this is not obligatory.
Do not take a smartphone, but an old one without a camera.
Yulia’s initial plans to enter Izyum fell apart after the driver failed to materialise. But then, a few hours later, a local resident called and told Yulia to watch for a car with her grandmother and son. They were on their way out the city, the caller said. It turned out that the driver with whom Yulia had arranged to travel to Izyum, decided to evacuate her family on his own, finding their house and persuading Grandmother Lyudmila to leave.
“At that time, I had not eaten for five days and thought it was a hallucination,” said Yulia. “I ran up and hugged my grandmother, we cried and [I] saw my child in the car. His first words were: ‘I always knew you would save me.’”
But leaving the outskirts of Izyum proved almost as difficult as getting there. Lyudmila said everywhere there were explosions going off and a gas station exploded near their car. However, they managed to get through the Russian checkpoints without significant difficulties. The family’s last step was to get to territory under Ukrainian control.
They successfully made it back to Dnipro but plans to return to Kyiv fell through when Yulia realised she didn’t have the money for the train tickets. She remembers crying in the centre of the train station. “I made this hard journey and now I can’t get home just because of 200 hryvnas [£5]. Suddenly a man appeared: he asked why I was crying and then gave me the money. He just asked me not to cry,” she says with a smile.
Today, the family is safe in Kyiv and Yulia volunteers, sending parcels of food and medicine to Izyum and hosting people from her home city when they manage to make it out. But the Russian occupation interrupted her grandmother’s treatment and the cancer is spreading quickly. Yulia’s son still wakes up in the middle of the night due to anxiety.
“The relationships in our family have changed a lot,” Yulia admits. “My grandmother finally began to respect my decisions. My son and I now hug 10 times per day. I used to think there was no time for hugs. I was wrong.”
Get our weekly email