“We thought those were our last minutes. It was extremely scary but we were lucky.”
Elena is recalling the moment Russian troops started shelling, after she and a group of escapees passed through one of their checkpoints.
After two months living in the basement of a kindergarten in the Russian-occupied town of Izyum in Ukraine, Elena spent two nerve-shredding days on the road to safety. She and her daughter were among 20 people in a convoy of vehicles heading away from Russian-controlled territory. They fled last Friday using a route organised by volunteers.
“All that time we were praying,” said Elena, 52, recounting how they passed through numerous Russian checkpoints. When troops asked them where they were going, the group convinced the soldiers they were headed for Russia. At one checkpoint, Elena said, Russians looked through her daughter’s phone, and became angry when they saw messages to her friends about the situation in Izyum.
Finally the pair reached safety in Poltava, a city in central Ukraine. But she said she felt as though she’d lost everything and couldn’t forget the horror of what she went through in her home city after the start of the war.
Hiding from soldiers
“Bodies were lying for weeks in the streets. We tried not to watch them in order to save our minds. We couldn’t bury dead people because it equalled being killed as well. The shelling was non-stop,” she said.
Elena and others in the basement had cooked food on a fire and lived off vegetables collected from their gardens.
“Everyone brought everything they had. We all shared food,” she said. “It helped us not to lose hope.”
She adds that Russian troops were looting everything, including people’s underwear. Soldiers drove around the city in stolen cars with “Z” signs painted on them, she recalled. “They were armed and often very drunk. It was very scary when an armoured personnel carrier was driving on your street and soldiers with machine guns were sitting in it. We tried to hide.”
Situated south-east of Kharkiv, the city of Izyum is known as the gateway to the Donbas – Ukraine’s old coal and steel-producing region, more than a third of which was seized by Moscow-backed separatists in 2014. It is surrounded by forests and rivers, which make it a natural fortress. And within the city boundaries is the Kremenets mountain, which is 218m (715ft) above sea level.