Portrait of blonde woman with short hair looking worried to the camera
Bohdan Yemets

Ukraine: "I did not know how to put my whole life into one suitcase"

At 1 a.m. Natalia, 41, does not wake up from the explosions, but from a phone call this time. Her husband's excited voice informs her that she is leaving the city in the morning. He says he has found a car. ”You will be taken to Dnipro. Later you won't have a chance to get out,” her husband tells her. "I packed my bag and cried while my family was still sleeping. I did not know how to put my whole life into one suitcase”, Natalia recalls. ”I was scared, the unknown was frightening. I don't even remember what I packed."

I packed my bag and cried while my family was still sleeping. I did not know how to put my whole life into one suitcase.

The fighting in Lysychansk, in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, has been going on for four months. Despite the constant anxiety, danger, and explosions, Natalia decides to stay at home until the last minute. Natalia takes care of her 8-year-old son Timofey and her husband's sick parents. She refuses to leave because she thinks the fighting will only last a few weeks at most. She doesn’t want to run away when the explosion destroys her husband's parents’ house, because she hopes they can rebuild everything.

Getting bread is dangerous

“We heard shots and explosions constantly. My son Tymofiy even learned to distinguish by the sounds what type of projectile was flying and from which direction", says Natalia. "It helps him to understand where to run and where to hide." One day, when Natalia and Timofiy join a line to get some bread they have to run to safety because of explosions. "Tymofiy and I had to lie in a ditch or under a fence several times. One of our neighbors was killed by shrapnel while going to the spring to fetch water," Natalia says.

Damaged fence and gate in front of white house with green windows

The entrance to Natalia's yard and her house in Lysychansk, after an explosion occurred nearby.

In mid-March, an air strike destroys the gymnasium of Tymofiy’s school. "It was one of the loudest shellings. The gymnasium was on the next street and we were very scared," Natalia says. A few days later, an explosion damages her in-laws' house. "The missile exploded seven meters from our house," recalls Victor, 71, Natalia’s father-in-law. "I was thrown in the air and the next thing I saw were cracked walls, broken windows and a twisted roof. The blast wave was so strong that all the slate nails came out. After that, we moved to Natalia's house." The very next day, Viktor began to clean up his yard. He fills in the hole caused by the strike. He glues the broken windows. He piles up the scattered firewood.

Life in Lysychansk is becoming increasingly difficult. Food is almost never delivered to the city. The only working pharmacy no longer has any special medicines for the diabetes of Natalia’s mother-in-law, Nelly, 71.

Elderly couple sitting on a bed

Natalia's in-laws, Nelly (71) and Viktor (71), who she helps to support now.

The morning after her husband’s call, Natalia tells her family about leaving. Her eight-year-old son Timofey is trying his best to find his five kittens. Around 10 a.m., a car pulls up at the gate of the house and the family. "I didn't remember what I packed. It was only in Lviv that I realized I didn't even have a hairbrush," Natalia recalls. "Nelly didn't even take her dentures."

They take the car to Dnipro. The road is extremely dangerous. The terrible sounds of explosions and shelling accompany them all the way. "At the exit from Lysychansk we saw a rocket explode 20 meters away from us. Fortunately, our driver was very professional", remembers Natalia.

Little boy sitting on bed touching his chin with his two fingers

Natalia's 8-years-old son, Tymofiy.

Now she and her younger son and her husband's sick parents share a small room in a shelter organized in Lviv with the assistance of CARE. The NGO Women's Perspectives, supported by CARE, found an abandoned building on the outskirts of the city. They rented it, renovated it and bought the furniture. They provide psychosocial support and organize a children's playroom. Tymofiy is friends with the other children in the shelter but his biggest dream now is "Just to go to school with my friends." For now, he can only attend lessons online. He really likes horse riding, which his therapist advised him to sign up for. And he also knows that somewhere in Lysychansk, his five cats are waiting for him, which, unfortunately, did not fit in his suitcase.

Blonde woman with short hair with little boy in front and elderly couple behind

Natalia's family, 41, in a temporary shelter in Lviv. Her Son Tymofiy (8), mother-in-law Nelly (71), father-in-law Viktor (71).