The Way Out of the Sinkhole
On the morning of February 24, 2022, historian and journalist Alla Bahirova woke up in her home in Vorzel, Kyiv region, just a few kilometers away, Russian troops were landing at the airport in the city of Hostomel. The next day, countless Russian convoys were driving down the streets by their house. The family – Alla, her husband and dog Rick – remained trapped in their home.
Today we are publishing excerpts from the researcher's personal diary, which describes the story of the traumatic experience of war in the first person.
A spring that might not have ever happened
Silence... The sky seems to be peering through the windows with its blue eyes, without a single hint of gloom or anxiety.
Spring has come... With all the troubles and worries. Armed with a rake, I am trying to clear the yard of thick layers of leaves near the house where no one has lived for seven years. This is our shelter in an ordinary Carpathian mountain village.
After several days of wandering around Ukraine, strangers greeted us here as if we were their closest relatives. Some carry a bed linen, others a blanket, cereals, eggs, and even a sack of potatoes. And when they found out what kind of hell we had escaped from, they were even more open to us: it seems they would have taken off their shirts. It's all about people in Ukraine. These are the people whom our northern neighbor called neo-fascists.
We had to put our hands to the old, slightly musty room with an old-fashioned stove and a stone bed (heated sleeping area): clean it, decorate it, wash off dust and cobwebs with well water. It's unusual, but now it's clean and warm. Cleaning is distracting. But, in fact, my head and heart are there - in Vorzel, where our usual life was cut short at one point. Now my home is almost a thousand kilometers away.
Suddenly, my memories are interrupted by the intense ringing of the church bell. This is how the village announces an air raid alert. Such signals occur several times a day, warning that the enemy has launched a missile.
At such moments, you unwittingly return to a reality that still does not fit in your head and has a cruel, bloody, inhuman face. This is WAR!
February 24, 2022, the beginning of the full-scale invasion
That morning forced us to come out of our shell. The sky was torn apart by dozens of helicopters carrying Russian troops over the Vorzel to the Hostomel airfield. The few kilometers separating us were already on fire, and kilometer-long clouds of black smoke were rising up into the sky. The invaders were trying to break through the sky, and the Ukrainian air defense was whipping and sending enemy helicopters down the wind one after another.
It was unbelievable. Although we had been talking about the war for at least six months.
While we were trying to pull our thoughts together, my husband's colleague, who lives with her family in a multi-storey building near the Hostomel airfield, called to say they were under fire and needed to hide somewhere.
An hour later, the family with three children was in our yard.
In the following weeks, we survived together under continuous grad shellings, among fires and explosions.
We had been warned about a possible escalation. We immediately started preparing the basement for the night. It was a dark, damp room no more than seven or eight meters square. And there were seven of us! One meter for each of us. But it didn't matter. We took down everything: old carpets and mattresses were thrown on the floor. We took down all the blankets and pillows. When we finally got ready, it turned out that, having created more or less suitable places for children to sleep, adults had to crawl into the corners, half sitting.
It was the first night when we were shelled non-stop. It felt like the explosions were right above our heads, making our bodies press into the ground and our brains nervously recall all the prayers we knew or heard.
We spent the next 10 days in that basement.
Children suffer the most from these ordeals, sitting motionless by candlelight in a semi-dark room, curled up into a ball when the whistle of another volley seems to hit the back of their heads.
In the morning, when we came out of the hiding place, we saw a building burning ten meters away. We rushed to the phones to call the firefighters, but there was no connection. We just had to keep watching the fire... On the same day, the electricity went out, followed by the water supply. But it was snowing. We collected and melted the snow and filled the tanks. In the short periods between shelling, we managed to warm tea and cook some soup to feed the children.
The morning inspection of the estate revealed broken windows and shell fragments. We collected them. I can imagine how much a whole shell weighs if the fragments are too heavy to lift.
After a few days of fear, a certain adaptation comes. Our dog Rick, at first, did not realize what was happening around, but in a day or two he got used to it, he did not even hide from the frantic sound of shells. Over time, he began to give signals of approaching shelling. At least, it seemed so to us. Even before we could hear the echo, the dog would look into the dungeon as if to warn us: "Air raid alert. Close all the openings".
On the sixth day of the war, we felt like prisoners, as all communication with the outside world was cut off. The Internet was down, and with the remaining battery life of the phone, we could only send a short message and at best get a response. The dialogues consisted mostly of two phrases: "We are alive," and in response: "Thank God". It is very scary when you don't know what to expect and what is happening outside your small space.
You know that you are under constant shelling. You know that a convoy of tanks is passing down your street, shaking the ground, buildings, and your heart. You know that there is a battle going on in the field nearby. And when it stops, your heart is torn by the bellowing of unmilked cows at an experimental livestock farm. Since the communication with Kyiv was interrupted, no one has been delivering milk. The poor animals, which were purchased with the support of the Netherlands, are in pain, and you can't approach them because everything is burning and exploding.
Sometimes I felt so depressed that I wanted to lament so that the whole world could finally feel this pain. And then to myself: "This is not the time or the situation to give in. We are a nerve. Tense as a launched boomerang: wherever it came from, it will come back."
Watching the children fade away before our eyes, we had to look for salvation. We thought about leaving. But we knew that the Russian military was shooting evacuation convoys with women and children at close range.
On the morning of March 11, someone knocked on the gate. Everyone was quiet. A neighbor's voice came from outside.
- "You have 15 minutes to get ready. They opened the last "green corridor" for evacuation.
Those were the fifteen minutes I will remember for the rest of my life. Turn off all communications, turn off the taps, throw the contents of the freezer in the trash, take some things and clothes... You try to do everything in a focused manner, but it doesn't work: your head can't cope with the thoughts that are piling up.
The house seems to be saying: don't leave me. The yard looks into your eyes and reinforces: you're heading into the unknown. However, the constant explosions coming from everywhere insist: the home is for the living, not the dead... And you are already throwing your few belongings into the trunk, hanging a white cloth over the car, opening the gate and taking the first step into your future as a refugee who will seek shelter among kind people in the foreseeable future.
In all the commotion, our dog Rick, who was sitting as still as the Sphinx and with a look full of understanding, was waiting for the verdict: was he with us or not? We realized this when we took a farewell look at the estate and headed out.
Rick sat down at the gate, without leaving the yard, and cried. Truly, like a man looking for answers, whether he had been betrayed or not. One word: "Get in the car!" and he jumped in, shouting with joy.
So we set off on a long journey. At first, under fire and past enemy checkpoints, in a fifteen-kilometer-long line of cars of those who tried to leave the city, and then across Ukraine in search of a shelter, but alive and together.
After the victory, we will definitely return to our land, which was ravaged by the enemy, rebuild our homes, and nurture new forests, parks, and groves. It will definitely happen!