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‘They shot everyone but her’: One woman’s story of war in Ukraine

One day, she led a normal life. The next, she was in a basement with six other families. Such stories are the reality of war – we must tell them

Vera Ukrainskaya
12 May 2022, 8.57am

(c) Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Imagine you are 40 years old. You live in a town of around 50,000 people, in a country that has not been involved in conflict in your lifetime.

All your life you have been working, saving, bringing up your children, helping your parents. You build your house, you slowly pay off loans, you plan your old age.

One morning, you wake up to explosions. You don’t understand what is happening, where you need to run or what you should do. The explosions and automatic gunfire do not stop, pieces of wall start flying at you.

Outside, your car – which you’re still paying off – is on fire from a direct hit. And there is a large hole in the ground where your neighbours’ house used to be. You try to gather your children, find your documents, your pets, and run to the basement.

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This hell does not end with the bombing. The bombing is only the beginning.

In the basement

You’ve been in the building’s basement for several days now. There are six families from your street in there with you, crammed into a space the size of a kitchen. Someone is wounded and groans in pain, someone prays quietly in the corner, someone silently cries and scratches his face from shock.

You can’t get food anymore – only a bag of dog food is available. (The dogs, torn apart by shrapnel, lie in the courtyard where you used to plant flowers.) This bag of food is for all the people who live and die with you in the basement. All these people are your neighbours: people you used to wave at when you mowed the grass, the parents of your children’s classmates or people you resent for playing loud music out their windows. You’ve all been in the same basement the size of a kitchen for days.

Nobody has cancelled a human’s physical needs, but there are many of you, and only one bucket. Everyone tries to keep from defecating and chooses, instead, to only urinate. It’s a stuffy room, after all. But one’s physical needs remain and, after several days, it feels like your rectum is simply breaking apart from the inside.

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5 May: Bomb shelter in Saltivka, Kharkiv

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(c) ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Then, one day, you see a neighbour your own age cutting her 11-year-old daughter’s hair, as short as it can go. With huge garden shears, she chops off the girl’s hair, which had flowed down to the middle of her back. She thought soldiers would think that her daughter was a boy and wouldn’t rape her. She already knows that even two-year-old children are being raped, because a few minutes earlier, a woman from a neighbouring street had crawled into the basement. For several days, soldiers had raped both the woman and her two-year-old daughter, who died. Your neighbour cuts her daughter’s hair. She does not yet know that boys are also being raped.

You don’t know whether it’s day or night outside. You are afraid of losing your mind. At first, you hug your children, soothe them, hug them, quietly sing them the songs that your mother sang to you as a child. Your mom and dad were killed on the first day of bombing, burned alive in a car on a street a few blocks from you.

Finally, you break down and start yelling at everyone: at the people who are with you in the basement, at your children. You are hysterical. You don’t know what to do, you want it all to end, but you don’t know what to do. You remember that this is your house, your basement and all these people are strangers to you. You start trying to kick them out of the basement, but they just stand and silently look at you. They have nowhere to go, their houses are no more, and there is fighting all the time on the street.

And so you shut up abruptly. And you apologise for something that is absolutely not your fault.

Men in uniform

In the morning, armed men in uniform open the door to the basement. They speak to you in a language you understand and you just can’t believe that they are murderers. They take you all out into the courtyard outside your home. It’s raining. The water coming from the sky is the first you’ve seen in many days. People fall to their knees and try to drink dirty water from a puddle. Someone begins to rub their body with it, smearing dirt onto their face.

Everyone from the basement is put on their knees and shot. Everyone except you. And not because the army that came to your land, to your courtyard, wishes to spare you. No. They will tell you straight to your face: you are supposed to stay alive in order to tell others how strong this army is.

Then the streets of your town are freed. And the town is liberated as a result of fighting. And people rejoice and tell you: you are lucky that you were not shot, lucky that you survived... You listen to all this and know that you are not lucky, that you no longer know how to live with all of this.

How are you supposed to live if two of your children are buried near the front of your house? When you dug their grave with the frying pan you used to make omelettes for them?

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"We all understand that even when this war stops, we, Ukrainian women, will continue to live with all of this"

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(c) Oleksii Sergieiev / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

What you just read is not a movie script. This is just one real experience of the war in Ukraine, told to me by the woman who lived it.

Since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014, I have been part of a group of activists, which we have chosen not to name, who help women affected by the war – via humanitarian aid, evacuation to a safe area, legal, psychological and medical assistance.

Since Russia began its full-scale invasion on 24 February, the geographical spread of our work has expanded. Women from Kherson, Zaporizhzhya, Kharkiv and Mykolaiv regions have joined. The conflict has stretched across almost the entire country, but we have focused on these areas in the south and east, as many women activists found themselves in territory outside of Ukrainian government control.

To find women who need help, we use our connections. Over long years of work in Ukraine’s voluntary sector, we have gained a reputation that makes it possible to receive information from the occupied territories – and to work there.

We all understand that even when this war stops, we, Ukrainian women, will continue to live with all of this.

Unfinished stories

As we distribute humanitarian aid in villages and small towns, we hear tragic, true stories from women who are in trouble.

We first met the woman whose story is told above when a team of activists from our group brought aid to a small town. A resident approached us and asked for painkillers for a severe headache for a distant relative, who she was sheltering.

The relative had come from a town that had, until recently, experienced heavy fighting and occupation. This woman was silent all the time and could not sleep due to a severe headache. We visited their home, and the women fell asleep after taking some painkillers.

As it turned out, we had to stay in their home: there was fighting along the route out, and then curfew began. It was because of this that we learned the woman’s story and were able to provide further assistance, such as an evacuation and psychological help, correctly and quickly.

This woman woke up a few hours later. We’re used to asking women the same first question: do you have children? (In wartime, you get used to asking questions quickly and to the point.) She told us her story.

She was the first person I saw that a psychologist could not help, and after evacuation she was immediately put on medication. She could not finish the course of treatment in Ukraine. As the fighting continued, she had to go from one city to the next on her evacuation route, before our group of Ukrainian activists helped her leave for a neighbouring country.

There are hundreds of stories like hers, and each of them is not finished yet.

A Mariupol resident walks past burnt-out buses in front of a heavily shelled apartment block

Since invasion, Russia’s war aims have changed to focus on taking as much control of Donbas as possible

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Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo

People not numbers

Like any conflict, the war in Ukraine is viewed by most from afar – through numbers, reports on territory lost or gained, and results, both temporary or relatively secure. Nobody talks about civilian losses as people. It’s always numbers.

Instead, war is often about comparison: between state apparatuses, defence spending, military technology and the ability to negotiate with world leaders. The stronger side is always right. In this view, territories, resources and prospects come before people. It is not acceptable to talk about the population. Civilian losses are nameless. They have neither emotions, nor their own story.

But what is the human experience of the war?

If you look into the eyes of civilians, and not the soldiers on either side, then the question ‘do we need war?’ would never be asked. But you need to look not with pity, but with awareness of the tragedy that every person is living with. Look around you and just imagine that everything that you value simply no longer exists. And that instead of drinking your morning coffee, you need to dig a grave for a neighbour down the street with your own hands.

When towns are liberated, the whole world remembers the military heroes who saved lives, and condemns the crimes of those who attacked. Because war is about more than small victories at the front. Wars are started for the sake of victories, and this taste of future triumph and omnipotence, even at the level of one soldier, gives justification to those who fight.

But war is about something else. And when humanity stops glorifying conflict, we will all think: ‘What is war for?’

You can’t look at war from the outside. You need to look at it through the mirror and ask yourself the question: do I want this to happen to me?

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