Svetlana's story – “There’s nothing for me to go back to now”
Svetlana is from the southern part of Ukraine, close to the Black Sea port of Mykolaiv. Three days after the war began, her village was captured.
Svetlana spent several months living under occupation before her home was bombed in July and she fled to the Republic of Moldova. To help her process her experiences, Svetlana has been having mental health consultations with a psychologist.
“I come from a village called Burhnovka, close to Mykolaiv. It’s where I grew up, my father and my siblings are there. My roots are in that place. But I have no reason to go back there. My life there is finished. There is a very big pain deep within my soul.”
Fifty-year-old Svetlana was looking forward to her older years. The mother of 4 had a large home with a beautiful garden. Although she was not rich, her knowledge of the land and traditional skills meant that she could grow flowers, fruit and vegetables, and earn some money selling produce.
Her grown children lived in the city and often visited with the grandchildren. She was able to support her elderly father, bringing him freshly cooked meals 3 times a day. Despite living alone, Svetlana was never lonely; she knew all her neighbours and her 18-year-old dog kept her company.
“On 23 February 2022 I was sitting inside my house feeling satisfied about how nicely I’d managed to decorate and arrange my home. I’d designed the house and garden so that I could see flowers blossoming from every window and it filled my heart with joy to see the beauty surrounding me.
“We’d heard about the rumours of the war, but reasoned that we’d be safe in the village, which was not an important place. My son was visiting me and said that he would stay with me if anything happened. I reasoned that if things got difficult in the city, my children could always come to me. The village was a safe place, and besides, I was able to grow my own food so I knew we’d have enough to eat.
“Everything changed on 24 February. My beautiful home was damaged by shrapnel from a bomb. My daughter contacted me and told me to leave straight away, and that I would not be able to endure the pain of seeing the home I loved so much being destroyed.
“The soldiers arrived on 27 February. Our village is so small, not many people live there. There were so many soldiers that we felt like we had been overrun.
“From that moment, everything changed in the village. The soldiers would threaten us, we weren’t able to speak to one another on the telephone. We did everything we could to avoid attracting any attention – we would crawl on our hands and knees through our yards so that they wouldn’t see us. Sometimes they would come into our yards looking for cows and livestock that they could steal. We had to hide any signs of loyalty to our country – any flags or signs of national pride had to be hidden or destroyed in case they were found by the soldiers.
“I was determined that I wouldn’t accept anything from the soldiers. They kept trying to supply us with food packages. One time a soldier told me I should accept the food package because I might starve. I politely told him that I had enough food and I didn’t want to accept the package. He said that if I didn’t accept the package, he would shoot me in the head.
“We didn’t have electricity or working phones so it was difficult to contact my relatives to let them know that I was OK. I knew my daughters were worried about me and their other relations in the village, but I just didn’t feel that I could leave my father.
“Every night we took our things to the bomb shelter to sleep, but it was very hard to get any proper rest down there. We’d go back home in the early morning to try to get some more sleep. On the morning of 25 July my son and I returned to my house. We were meant to sleep in a room which had no windows, but I was so exhausted from not sleeping properly that I just wanted my own comfortable bed.
“Suddenly I awoke and saw that the sky was falling on top of me. All the windows were smashed, my beautiful home and furniture were destroyed. My dog, my faithful companion for 18 years, had died. I feel like she took the heat of the bomb to save me and my son. I still don’t understand how I survived.
“From that moment, everything changed. I couldn’t be inside the grounds or the wreckage of my house. If I entered the area, I immediately felt like I had no air in my lungs and I couldn’t breathe properly. I knew that I had to leave and join my daughters.
“I went to my father’s home and begged him to leave with me. I even got down on my knees. But he was determined to stay. He told me that I needed to leave in order to save myself, but he wanted to die in his motherland. I don’t know whether I’ll ever see him again. I feel like I’ve been forced to choose between my father and my children. It’s not a choice anyone should have to make.
“The journey to Moldova was extremely complicated. My son and I had to travel through around 100 checkpoints manned by the occupying forces. We didn’t have enough money to get to Mykolaiv on the bus. Finally, I reached my younger daughter, who had arranged transport to get to Moldova.
“I’ve been reunited with my daughters and my grandchildren. I am so thankful to know that they are safe and I don’t need to worry about them any longer. About 2 months ago, my village was liberated and we got news that my father is still alive. That’s a huge relief for me.
“I have cried every single day since the war started. But here in Moldova, I’m starting to feel calmer. I’ve been having consultations with the psychologist, but I still cry every day.
“I’ve found a cleaning job now. I have the necessities here in Moldova. People are kind. I’d like to stay here. Eventually I know that my daughters will return home to Ukraine. I want to stay here, though. There’s nothing for me to go back to now. My life has changed forever.”