Vira Yakivna, a retired teacher, managed to survive in war-torn Sievierodonetsk. She managed to escape when much of the town had already been destroyed and the shelling continued from dawn to dusk.
Her daughter had no hope to see Vera Yakivna alive because there was no news from her for over a month.
The retired teacher lived in her apartment without gas, electricity, water or communication. She learned to distinguish between different types of weapons, and once a shell fragment almost killed her.
Now Vera Yakivna is in the occupied Starobilsk. So, we do not call her by her real name.
The woman talked to The Ukrainian Pravda about what was going on in Sievierodonetsk, how people were surviving there and what is left of the once tidy and well-groomed town.
In an almost empty building
The town was relatively calm in the first days of the war. Vera Yakivna says that the airstrikes were infrequent and so, people were just leaving their buildings and waiting outside. Every 10 days, humanitarian aid was supplied to the town, and there were electricity and gas in residential homes.
In early March, the Russians began to break into Sievierodonetsk and fire on it. One of those day, 9 high-rise buildings became engulfed in flames.
The Russians also hit the center for humanitarian aid, and the wounded were reported.
The shelling became more frequent and stronger, and one by one, the shops in the town began to close. Only small ones remained open, and long queues began to line up near them.
“It was possible to stand in line for 2 hours. And it was dangerous. There were cases when people died in the line to the store. I know that two people were also killed while they were standing behind the humanitarian aid,” says Vira Yakivna.
Electricity, gas and water disappeared in the apartments of Sievierodonetsk residents. There was no phone coverage either.
“One of the local businessmen had a well, he brought gasoline for operating a water pump. The queues to his building were huge. They stood under fire for 2-3 hours to collect water,” the retired teacher recalls.
“People used bricks to set up something like a wood stove in the yard. They felled trees to do this.
I lived in the old town that was quieter than the new neighborhoods that had been already destroyed. At first, people who did not have the time to evacuate moved to relatives or acquaintances in the old town. But then the firing began to aim at us too” – Vira Yakivna says.
People left the town en masse. A neighbor recommended that Vera Yakivna joined him in Poland, but she could not go because she fell ill. She had a fever, a bad cough and weakness for about a month because, during the heavy shelling, the woman went to a bomb shelter several times, where her legs were very cold.
At last, at the end of March, Vira Yakivna was the only resident of her building section, while only 6 people lived in the whole high-rise building.
The apartments of fleeing residents taken by Luhansk separatists
One day, the woman heard a loud bang. She thought that someone was destroying the iron garage door in the yard. Then she realized that someone was knocking on her building entrance door with a boot.
She opened the door and saw five people with weapons. These were the Luhansk separatists. They told her that they’d live in the ground-floor apartment.
“At first, my neighbors and I didn’t understand who they were. My female neighbor approached the military and said, ‘Don’t come in our building! I’ll complain about you! I’ll read out loud the official announcement.” And she began to read the Ukrainian side’s warning to the Russians: “Russian soldiers, save your life, get out of here!” recalled Vera Yakivna.
Well, the Luhansk separatists turned out to be drafted into the army by the Luhansk separatist commanders and they did not look very presentable, according to Vira Yakivna.
“They are reluctant fighters. They say, ‘we are the same as you are,’ the only thing we were given the automatic rifles,” the woman said.
So, the Luhansk separatists settled in the empty apartments of the building. They were leaving in the morning and returned in the evening.
In late May, the situation began to deteriorate, especially when the Russians entered the outskirts of the town, and fierce street fighting began.
The shelling duels were already from both sides. They began at 5 or 6 am and lasted till 9 pm.
The civilians were leaving the bomb shelters and basements only to prepare food from their food stocks. They were very tired and communicated only very little with each other.
“They hit the roof of our house twice. The outside storages were destroyed. I am not even mentioning the windows. There is not a single house where the windows are intact.
I saw houses burning after the strikes. There was no one to extinguish the fires,” the woman recalls.
A man stepped out to get cigarettes. His leg got torn off and he died without help…
Initially, the bodies of the dead were taken from the street by Pantheon, a local rituals bureau. It was difficult to get to the cemetery. So, the dead were buried nearby, in a cemetery that was closed for new burials. If the deceased had documents, the names were written on the cross. Unidentified bodies lay in the morgue when there was still electricity. Vera Yakivna does not know where they were taken later.
At one point, people began to bury in their yards.
“A neighbor was buried in our yard. There was a funnel from an explosion that was 5 meters deep. They put the body there,” said the retired teacher.
The woman remembers how a resident of a neighboring house died. The man was happy, cheerful and active individual. He loved to communicate with everyone and rode a bicycle even during the war.
One day he went for cigarettes and a shell tore off his leg. No one was able to provide medical treatment. He just died.
A 74-year-old man, a former builder who was building in Sievierodonetsk, also lived in the same neighborhood as Vira Yakivna. This senior ran to the bomb shelter wearing a light jacket in the cold season, and when he came out, he saw that the roof of his house had been demolished and the apartment completely collapsed.
“He couldn’t even go there. First, he wore rags and slept in an empty apartment . People took care of him, fed him. It’s then that he said: “I want to hang myself,” Vira Yakivna recalls.
I saw a projectile, and then I saw cobblestones rise in the air behind it
One day Vira Yakivna herself woke up thinking that she did not want to live. She did not go down to the bomb shelter, and instead, she stood in the corridor of her apartment. She covered the windows with blankets and cardboard. Everything was constantly falling out from the shelling. Even nails flew out. But the woman kept protecting the windows again and again.
“The attacks start suddenly. Often I don’t have the time to reach the shelter. And I couldn’t just remain in the shelter all the time. When the shelling started, I was always afraid of fire. I had a bag with documents at the door for running out of the house,” – the retired teacher says.
One day, during the shelling, the woman was standing in the hallway wearing shoes. She heard the cracking of unbroken window glass. When it became quieter, she returned to the room and noticed that the shard had pierced the interior glass door and the mirror in the corridor where she was standing.
“The fragment flew about 10 centimeters away from me. I found it on the floor,” the woman said.
Vera Yakivna saw a projectile flying, and behind it, cobblestones rose from the ground into the air, and when it flew by, the stones fell in the rain.
Yet according to her, the worst was when the “Grad” multiple rocket launcher fired a pile of shells loudly, and they exploded over the houses.
Finally, in mid-June, when Ukrainian troops controlled only the industrial zone of the town and were on the “Azot” plant while the Russians tried to encircle them, the woman decided to evacuate to Starobilsk where her daughter lived.
“I went to see friends and get hot water for the tea. They cooked and shared the meal with me. The woman who helped me said that they can’t take any longer and will be leaving and that I should come along. I got scared because these people were helpful to me,” says Vira Yakivna.
She got a ride to Starobilsk on a Ural heavy truck that drove at a very high speed slipping through and not coming under fire.
The smell of burning pine needles everywhere
Before the Ukrainian military left Sievierodonetsk and retreated to fortified positions, the woman left the town.
Vera Yakivna has not yet recovered from what she had to go through.
“I wake up at night and my daughter is sitting in the kitchen with the lights on. And we had no light, we moved only in the dark, and when I saw it, I thought it was a phosphorus bomb exploded. Because when they exploded, my window was getting bright.
A lot of small stars appeared high in the sky, then they fell and stopped burning,” said the retired teacher.
Vera Yakivna recalls that before the war her hometown was “as smooth as an egg:” there were nice roads, a beautiful park, works on the park lake began, planted plants and open volleyball courts.
“It was nice to see it. Schools were being repaired, playgrounds were being built near them, and there was a plan to build a state-of-the-art hospital complex,” the woman said.
Now the town has a horrible appearance. In fact, it no longer exists.
“There is so much destruction that it is difficult to imagine how it can be restored. Literally, everything is destroyed: the shops, the restaurants, the hospitals.
The community center just got renovated. It evaded shells for a long time but got destroyed too. The townhall was still intact. But the pits near it are deep. It was obviously a target. The smell of burning pine needles is everywhere,” says Vira Yakivna.
However, about 8,000 people still remain in the town, while the Russians are settling in the abandoned houses.
Sievierodonetsk is 90% destroyed, according to the head of the Luhansk Region Military Governor Serhiy Haidai.
From The Ukrainian Pravda