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From a war zone to safety, for now

Irina, 31, was a nurse who lived in a village in the Donetsk region in Ukraine when the war started. She and her two children are now living in this shelter with 12 other people. Photo: Fekete Dániel/Ökumenikus Segélyszervezet

April 20, 2022

By Tamás Kelemen

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Tamás Kelemen is with Hungarian Interchurch Aid.

Irina, 31, is a nurse, who with her two children lives with 90 other refugees in the Batiovo refugee shelter in Transcarpathia, near the Hungarian/Ukrainian border. The shelter is heated and equipped with hot and cold running water, as well as mattresses and blankets. It is one of more than 120 refugee centres and shelters that Hungarian Interchurch Aid supplies with food, water, hygiene products and household appliances with support of PWRDF and other fellow members of the ACT Alliance. In Transcarpathia alone, HIA volunteers were able to help thousands of people.

Irina and her children arrived here late in the evening on March 13 after a long and exhausting journey. Their home used to be Novohryhorivka, near Volnovakha in the Donetsk region. The intense fighting continues there.

Their story is not unique among Ukrainian refugees. The family was torn apart by war, with Irina’s husband – a history teacher – joining the territorial defence in the first days of the conflict. In the beginning Irina and her children moved in with her parents. As the house lacked a basement, they built a makeshift shelter out of sofas and furniture. This gave them a sense of security – which would soon prove to be an illusion. They realized they needed to go when a couple of days later a bomb exploded in the neighbourhood.

“During the first days [of the war] we tried to tell the children it was thunder. But when the active bombing started and the missiles fell near the house, the children started screaming. They didn’t want to leave the shelter [of furniture] so they ate there, they went to the toilet there. They were really very, very scared. That is why I realized that there was no time to wait and it was time to evacuate somewhere.”

Her parents did not want to leave. Her father being born there, Irina believes he would have had to be forcibly removed to abandon the house. Ultimately Irina and the children left them there, and started walking to the evacuation point near the hospital on March 1. Halfway there they were forced to take cover as Russian forces started shelling the settlement.

“We saw a tank at the end of the street and we hoped that they [the army] would cover us while we got to the place from where the evacuation would start. Then we saw a convoy of cars with white flags passing. In one car we found three places so we decided to go in that car without knowing where it was going because there was no time to decide, so we just got in the car.”

It ran out of gas so only took them as far as a nearby town. When five days later that village was about to be taken by the Russians, they needed to leave again. This time they went to an acquaintance’s home, but were forced to relocate to the local kindergarten once relatives of the hosts arrived. War had caught up with them again, with the sound of shelling coming nearer and nearer every day. After consulting with Irina’s husband, they finally decided to move to the western border regions of Ukraine.

Finally, they were able to catch a train to western Lviv – the train journey lasted 20 hours. According to Irina, there were 12 people for every seat. Her son Mathou, 5, was sleeping on the feet of another woman, while daughter Tapolina, 8, slept in her lap. In Lviv they contacted shelters, and were assured that there was space for them in Batiovo, Transcarpathia. They arrived to the village after another exhausting five-hour train ride.

Irina lost contact with her sister and parents, and even posted their picture on Facebook hoping that someone had information on their wellbeing. Fortunately, a few days ago they managed to contact Irina. Her family, left behind in occupied Ukraine, was alive and well – even their house was still intact. But she continues to worry about them. “My sister and her 9-year-old moved to my parents’ house because her apartment was destroyed. My parents’ house is still standing – they have a roof above their heads, but they might not be so lucky next time. The Russian army was advancing east to west but now they are in retreat. I can’t really understand why they don’t leave – they have a car. I understand that all the people who can leave are now trying to.”

Back at the community shelter volunteers are doing what they can for life to continue as normal as possible. Irina’s daughter is in grade three, but now all her classes are online as elementary schools have switched to distance learning due to the war. Her son will start school in the fall. However, life in the shelter is not without problems.

 “We receive meals three times a day – it’s not the same food as home. When we ask for something, people try to give us what we need. I understand that it is difficult to feed 100 people, so we try to buy fruit, yoghurt, some dairy products with our own money, our savings. In general, we need more diversity in the children’s food. “

Irina has registered her family as internally displaced, but has not yet received monetary aid. Crossing the border into Hungary as a refugee is not an option for Irina’s family. Her husband, sister and parents all stayed in Ukraine and she doesn’t want to leave them behind. Nevertheless, this might be their only option if war catches up with them here in Transcarpathia as well. Longing for the home left behind, she wants to return, but doesn’t expect this to be possible in the short term.

“If, in five minutes, someone calls and tells me that the Ukrainian flag is flying in the cities, I will be at the train station in half an hour. But now, we can’t go there because, firstly, those cities are under another flag for now. We don’t want to live there. Secondly, we were not even allowed back into the city to get our clothes, because we have a family member who is fighting. If we go back now, we will be dragged into basements.”

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