- Sarah Rainsford
- BBC Eastern Europe correspondent
There is no bombing in the city where I am writing this article. Russian missiles do not hit homes, air strikes do not sound sirens. I wish Ukrainians could say the same thing. A month after the news from Ukraine, I left behind a country in the midst of a never-ending horrific attack.
I did not know what Russian President Vladimir Putin could do.
I have also worked as a journalist in Russia for several years, watching the poisoning and killing of dissidents, the war in Chechnya and Georgia, the catastrophic school attack in the city of Beslan, and the expulsion of me last summer for posing a “security threat.”
However, when I visited Kiev last month, I did not think Putin would declare war on Ukraine. The idea of war seemed irrational and catastrophic. Everyone I spoke to in Russia and Ukraine agreed.
But on February 24 I woke up with an explosion that showed us all that we were wrong.
When the fight started, Nika was so frightened that she sat on her piano, hitting the keys as hard as she could and screaming. The 15-year-old girl could not stand the sound of the bomb.
Nika comes from Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city, but we met her in a small town, full of families in a dark motel who fled in fear of Russian warplanes.
When we arrived at the motel, the receptionist took us to the canteen and told the staff to take a quick bite before leaving for home before the ban began. Those who came out in the dark are in danger of being shot.
“Don’t light the lamp, don’t use too hot water,” he said. When we wanted to know where the nearest bunker was, he showed us a place at the back of the kitchen.
Nika had been up for a few days, but she wasn’t getting much sleep. He said the first thought that came to his mind every morning was “thank God I’m alive”.
“We were terrified because we thought our lives were in danger. It was cold and small. We didn’t have much food. It was a very traumatic time,” said Nika, who spent the first week of the war in her aunt’s basement. “Now I’m scared at the slightest word. If someone claps, I can cry. I start to tremble.”
Nika shows the pictures on her phone in the light of her flashlight. These are pictures taken in the park or at home, laughing with friends before the war.
“We have no choice but to return,” he said. “We want to know that our families will survive tomorrow. We want peace.”
Kharkov is only 40 kilometers from the Russian border. Most of the city’s inhabitants are Russian, not Ukrainian, but their mother tongue and their relatives across the border. Maybe that’s why Putin thought he could easily get inside Kharkov and take it away. It’s to Mariupol, Sumi or Kherson. But he was wrong about the mood around here.
In 2014, the war in eastern Ukraine transformed the country and created a strong national identity even among Russian speakers. But now that the occupation is at risk, their relationship has been shattered by ‘brotherhood’. Those whom Putin claims to protect are dying.
Traveling through checkpoints and trenches dug in wheat fields, we saw huge billboards telling Russia or Putin to “get out.”
Some street signs address Russian troops directly. “Think of your family. Surrender and survive,” said one.
For most of the first three weeks of the war, we were in the town of Dinipro, 200 kilometers south of Kharkov.
Dinipro was a relatively safe place when Russia bombed other cities. However, on March 11, we woke up to the news that the sound of a siren had hit the city center.
In a short time, we arrived at the shoe factory, which was the target of Russian missiles. A pensioner working as a security guard at the factory was killed in the attack.
Sweeping a piece of glass on the stairs to the next apartment, Natasha fainted as she described how frightened her son was. She covered her face with her hands and cried.
Speaking in Russian, Natasha questioned why Russia was doing this, saying, “We didn’t want to live.”
This is a phrase I hear often.
At that point, the public began to leave Dinipro. Immigration began after the bombing of a university in the center of Kharkiv. Although they were far from the front line, no one felt safe.
Everyone rushed to the train to pick it up. There were women screaming, crushed pets and men trying to hide their tears from their families. I saw a man putting his hand on the window of a train carrying his wife and children and repeatedly saying to himself, “Everything will be alright.”
Like other men, he was waiting to be called to battle.
I learned that leaving Kharkiv was even harder when I got a phone call from a little girl named Polina.
Three-year-old Paulina had cancer and ran out of medicine. His family had to leave Kharkov immediately to continue treatment, but the city was under heavy bombardment and they could not get out of the gates.
I also saw the little girl in our first video phone conversation with her mother Cassinia. He was playing in the bathtub, which his mother had filled with pillows because she thought it would be safe to bomb the building.
The gunfire did not subside, but one day, Paulina’s family risked everything and ran to the train station on the other side of town. A few days later, Kesnia sent me a video of a little girl jumping on a trampoline in their home garden in Poland.
She broke down in tears when volunteers came to pick them up at the border, she said. “After four days of escaping, we stopped abruptly. I was very upset. I was relieved that the kids were safe, but we kept our whole lives in Kharkiv,” he said.
“Paulina keeps asking about her father. I don’t know what to say.”
After a while we set off for Kharkov. Driving north, we crossed a 6 km line coming from the opposite direction. Most of the car windows had ‘Children’ written on them in the hope of safety.
We heard explosions at checkpoints around Kharkiv and soon saw destruction.
Next to the rubble of a half-blown apartment building and shopping mall, people were waiting for the bus that would take them to another town where the ice had melted. There was no bus schedule, just a rumor that it was coming.
Sports coach Svitlana said a missile landed within 50 meters of her home and she did not want to risk her life for another minute.
“We haven’t slept in a week, they’re blowing up our house,” he said, hugging his little dog wrapped in his coat. As we spoke we could hear the sound of explosions.
Thousands of people took refuge in the metro station a short distance away. The family was on the steps of the station, on the platform and inside the train. Volunteers brought soup and bread. Many people, young and old, even children, have spent their days lying on the floor under blankets.
They survived, but the fighting left nothing but normal.
On the way back, on the plane, I sat next to a couple on their way from Kyiv to London. They said they traveled by road across Ukraine and then went to Moldova and Romania and they got tired.
They are also angry. Their mother tongue, Russian, they explain that their relatives in Russia do not believe what happened to them.
Nikolai said he had sent pictures of Kiev’s apartment destroyed by Russian missiles and Mariupol in the siege, but his cousin blamed the “Nazi” government of Kiev for the fake photos.
I know that many brave Russians were arrested for protesting the war, and some escaped.
But just hours before I left Ukraine, I saw a video of Vladimir Putin addressing a crowd in a Moscow stadium wearing the war-symbol Z badge on their chests.
Putin was saluting the troops he had sent to save the Russian-speaking people from “genocide.”
I thought of Nika, Natasha, Paulina and what I had seen since February 24, when I woke up to an explosion in Ukraine, and I fell ill in my stomach.