Under the Grads and through 5 Russian checkpoints. The story of Olena Okhrimenko.

The story of Olena Okhrimenko, an ordinary woman from the town Polohy, Zaporizhzhia region, where Russian troops entered on March 3, from the direction from Tokmak. Olena spent 15 days under the occupation and was forced to seek shelter in the west of Ukraine, fleeing the horrors of war in the midst of the Russian invasion.

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– Olena, tell us please a little about yourself. Who are you and where were you working before the war?

My name is Olena. I’m from the town of Polohy, Zaporizhzhia region. I am 36 years old. I am mother of 3 children. Before the war I worked as a shop assistant.

I have three kids: Victoria — 12 years old, Tymur — 7 years old and Margaryta — 5 years old. And now I’m pregnant for the fourth time. I feel that I’ll have a daughter. We’re looking forward to her birth this autumn. 

My husband works as a railway worker, he’s an assistant of locomotive driver. He’s my second husband. We have been together for 2 years. 

Unfortunately, we couldn’t enjoy our peaceful life together because of the war. However, we’re sure that everything will be okay and we look with optimism to the future.

I thought: «War — we live in a small town — so maybe the War will not affect us»

– Could you remember how it all started — the morning of February 24 — War?

Oh, of course. It was a day off. We woke up at 7 am and started picking up the children for school and kindergarten. My child asked: “Mom, turn on the cartoons” — and when I turned the TV on, I heard that the War had begun. At that time, I took this news quite lightly: “Well, War - we live in a small town - so maybe we won’t be affected by it”. 

My husband and I continued to live and work as usual. The next day we went to work. There, at work, I began to slowly realise how serious the situation was. 

People started coming to us from the city of Volnovakha, Donetsk region. They bought everything: matches, flashlights, and other household items. At the same time they started telling us what had happened to them, and we listened and responded: “Wow!”, “That’s crazy!”. Then, we saw the message that the situation was deteriorating in a working chat in Viber (our head office is in Mariupol). 

Then, a day or two later, the lights were turned off. Usually we’re open until 7 pm, but this time we were forced to finish work at 1 pm. An air raid siren started sounding in the street, all the people hid. We got scared — we’re 2 girls in the store responsible for the money and the cash register.  

In the following days, we were forced to close the store more frequently. We began to be afraid to go to work. 

On March 2 the lights were turned off again. It was my turn to work in the store that day. On the way to work, I saw people standing near the mall. But the mall didn’t open that day. We already heard the first explosions on the outskirts. I was standing and thinking: to open or not to open. We decided: if the lights turn on — we will open the store. But this was not to happen. Next time the lights were turned on only in 15 days.

On March 5, I went to the hospital after I had learned about my pregnancy. While I was sitting in the queue, an air alarm sounded. Then, everything happened very fast: the bridge got destroyed, the explosions began, panic broke out, and tanks appeared on the streets. Very fast! I ran home and hid with the children in the cellar. 

That’s how it all started.

I was blaming myself: «Why didn’t you realise that you had to leave earlier!»

– Do you remember the day of the evacuation? When did you finally decide: “Well, that’s it, we have to flee”?

Actually, I realised that we have to leave the city on March 10, because on March 6 and 7 there were very serious battles in the town. 

At that moment we were already in a very strong panic. Day after day, we were sitting without light, without communication, we were sleeping fully dressed in the cellar. We covered all the doors with pillows. The cellar in which we were hiding was quite far from our home. We had to run through the garden, and everything around was blinding, the rockets were flying overhead and it was possible to hear the explosions nearby. We ran to that cellar, even though I knew it was an old and small conservation cellar. We had one candle burning on the floor and we were sitting around it. It was cold. It was damp and very cold. 

The occupiers established their headquarters across the road from us. We heard everything: how they were approaching, what they were talking about, how they were reloading their rifles. All this was very close, very scary!

It was then that I started to blame myself: “Why didn’t you realise that you had to leave earlier!”. But they had already blocked the way! Since there was a road to Mariupol, we were blocked, so we couldn’t flee, and we didn’t have our own transport. 

Everyday the explosions were so loud that our windows were shaking a lot. Everything was so hard and so scary!

At their own risk, the people went to the railway bridge, about three floors high, to try to catch the cellular connection there. We were all clustered together which made us vulnerable. It would be very easy to attack us in a group since there was no way to hide. Since my husband was in the depot at the time, I went to that bridge and called my mother. 

Міст в м. Пологи, Запорізьскої області

Since she has already been evacuated, she found volunteers who were going to our city and could take us out. Since we had no notification, we didn’t know where to look for these volunteers and where their convoys were going. We were sitting in the cellar and didn’t see the sky, didn’t know where and who was going. 

Later, at the depot, where my husband was, I met my friend. She is also a mother of 3 children. I told her: “Maryna, let’s stay together. We’ll find the volunteers - they will rescue us all together”. She replied: “In order to be together, move to my house. It’s closer to the road”. 

My husband and I collected a minimum of things: a backpack for everyone so everyone could take something, and 2 blankets. That’s all. I put the backpacks on and we went all over the city. We saw all “this”! Scorched! Only then the children saw what “it” really looked like.

Міст в м. Пологи, Запорізьскої області
Міст в м. Пологи, Запорізьскої області

We came to my friend’s house and were sleeping in a cellar near it. We just put all 6 kids on the floor and slept like that. 

Later, my mother called a man at the depot to inform them about the arrival of volunteers. My friend and I were going to the villagers for milk to buy at least something to eat for the children. He ran up to me and said: “Call this number — your mother is looking for you”. Now he’s gone — Russians killed him! 

Rockets launched from Russian Grads became more frequent and intense. There was a very terrible rumble. My kids and I ran back to that cellar. Once I entered the cellar, I told my husband: “Go at your own risk, but go to the bridge and call the volunteers. We have to flee”. We were told to be at the local stadium on March 16 at 4 pm. We packed up, all the kids, and went there. 

It was already dark. They started bombing us again. We were standing near that stadium, other people had gathered, and there were still no volunteers. And when they arrived, they said: “Wait, we will now take food and things to the seriously ill and wounded and will come back for you. At that time, the curfew began at 7 pm. We were afraid that they would not have time to come back for us. We have been standing there for several hours. It was so cold that we just didn’t feel our limbs! But we waited for them, and they came back. We got into the car all stuffed together, just, “one on top of another ”, as we could, and fled. We rode in a convoy. We passed 5 Russian checkpoints. 

It was very scary to go, because the day before, men were taken away from another convoy. I was very worried for my husband that we would get there and that the Russian soldiers would take him away. Now there are still many missing people and it’s impossible to find them. I don’t know how lucky we were, but we got out. The next day another convoy was going the same road — it was shot. 

We drove for a very long time. We arrived at the refugee centre in Zaporizhzhia at about 9-10 pm. Then there was a census of us – the migrants – and everyone already had the opportunity to either stay in this centre, or to go somewhere else: to relatives or friends. In this centre we were warmed and fed. The children were very tired and scared. And at about 12 pm we arrived at a relative. Since it was curfew, we were taken to him by the police.

I had never experienced such a thing in my life, such sincere help

– What happened next? How did you meet Mr. Mykhailo and how did you finally get to Chernivtsi?

When we came to a relative in Zaporizhzhia, we understood that we needed to move on. The explosions have already been in Zaporizhzhia, and our emotional state was too serious.

Since we have small children and I am pregnant, we understood that we had to go somewhere so that we would not have to flee far again, that’s why we decided to look for housing in the Chernivtsi region. 

Міст в м. Пологи, Запорізьскої області

I asked my sister. She lived in Kyiv and has been going through it for a long time. She was also looking for various sites where she could get help in finding housing, and she recommended We found Mr. Mykhailo on this site. I told him: “We have three kids, I am pregnant. Will you shelter us, please, with my husband?”. He replied: “Yes, come”. 

I had never experienced such a thing in my life, such sincere help.

– For how long have you been living with Mr. Mykhailo?

2 months.

– What do you do now? What does your life look like?

Ordinary, quiet, family life. In the morning we have distance learning (we are very pleased with the local school). Then we have a lunch together. The children found local friends here — so in the afternoon, they take bicycles and go play. As for us with my husband, we have everyday household problems: Me - cooking, my husband — collecting firewood.

Міст в м. Пологи, Запорізьскої області
– How does your relationship with Mr. Mykhailo look like?

Very friendly. He often comes to us and we come to him just to talk. We go on picnics together — he tells us: “I’ll show you the local scenery” — we haven’t seen that. We are very sociable.

All “this” remains in the children’s subconscious!

– How do your children feel now?

When we were going here, as soon as a truck was driving by, the children said immediately: “Mom, are these bombs? Mom, are these tanks?”. I answer: “No, no. These are not tanks. Everything is good”. 

When the youngest daughter said: “Mom, I want to draw” — I replied: “Please draw here”. She drew: a Russian soldier, a Ukrainian soldier, fire, explosions, and flags. I was shocked! 

Міст в м. Пологи, Запорізьскої області

I see their reaction when a fighter flies by. 

I see their reaction when something heavy passes near the house. 

All “this” remains in the children’s subconscious! It’s just not so evident.

The house is extremely damaged!

– Olena, you are from the town of Polohy. What happens with the city now?

Now our town is occupied. There is no infrastructure at all. The whole city centre is destroyed. Marauding and looting is rife. Many people say that the city is forgotten. I believe that the city is not forgotten — it’s occupied, but it will be liberated. I believe in that. And it will be.

Міст в м. Пологи, Запорізьскої області

There are still a few people left. They survive as they can by coexisting with our enemies. Against their will. 

A lot of houses, cars are occupied and stolen by our enemy. The hospital is mined. 

There are many cases of murders and kinappings. People just disappear. 

Міст в м. Пологи, Запорізьскої області

I know that the windows in my apartment were broken, there is a bullet in the interior doors. Our house is located, let’s say, “in a very convenient” place for the Russian army and it would be too difficult for them not to shoot our storey. The house is extremely damaged!

My only plan — is to give my children a future

– If we’re talking about the future — what are your next plans?

Create a good life for my kids. That’s all. It’s my duty as a mother. I need to know that my children will be educated, will develop as individuals, and will be able to do so. My only plan — is to give them a future. 

– What do you dream about now?


— And it definitely will be.

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