At 1am, Natalia, 41, is not woken by explosions, but by a phone call. Her husband tells her he has found a car and she will leave the city in the morning. ”You will be taken to Dnipro. Later you won't have a chance to get out,” he says.
“I packed my bag and cried while my family was still sleeping. I did not know how to put my whole life into one suitcase,” Natalia recalls.
I was scared, the unknown was frightening. I don't even remember what I packed."
The fighting in Lysychansk, in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, had been going on for four months. Despite the constant anxiety, danger, and explosions, Natalia had decided to stay at home until the last minute. Natalia takes care of her 8-year-old son Tymofiy and her parents-in-law, who are unwell. She refused to leave because she thought the fighting would only last a few weeks at most.
Getting bread is dangerous
We heard shots and explosions constantly."
"My son Tymofiy even learned to distinguish by the sounds what type of projectile was flying and from which direction", says Natalia. "It helps him to understand where to run and where to hide."
One day, when Natalia and Timofiy joined a line to get some bread they had to run to safety because of explosions. "Tymofiy and I had to lie in a ditch or under a fence several times. One of our neighbours was killed by shrapnel while going to the spring to fetch water," Natalia says.
Life becomes increasingly difficult
In mid-March, an air strike destroys the gymnasium of Tymofiy’s school. "It was one of the loudest shelling. The gymnasium was on the next street and we were very scared," Natalia says.
A few days later, an explosion damaged the house of her parents-in-law.
The missile exploded seven meters from our house."
Victor, 71, Natalia’s father-in-law recalls, "I was thrown in the air and the next thing I saw were cracked walls, broken windows and a twisted roof. The blast wave was so strong that all the slate nails came out. After that, we moved to Natalia's house."
The very next day, Viktor began to clean up his yard. He filled in the hole caused by the hit. He glued the broken windows. He piled up the scattered firewood.
Life in Lysychansk became increasingly difficult. Food was almost never delivered to the city. The only working pharmacy no longer had any special medicines for the diabetes of Natalia’s mother-in-law, Nelly, 71.
The morning after her husband’s call, Natalia tells her family about leaving. Tymofiy is trying his best to find his five kittens. Around 10 a.m., a car pulls up at the gate. "I didn't remember what I packed. It was only in Lviv that I realized I didn't even have a hairbrush," Natalia recalls. "Nelly didn't even take her dentures."
They take the car to Dnipro. The road is extremely dangerous. The terrible sounds of explosions and shelling accompany them all the way. "At the exit from Lysychansk we saw a rocket explode 20 meters away from us. Fortunately, our driver was very professional", remembers Natalia.
Finding shelter, with support from CARE
Now she and her younger son and her parents-in-law share a small room in a shelter organised in Lviv with the assistance of CARE International. The NGO Women's Perspectives, supported by CARE, found an abandoned building on the outskirts of the city. They rented it, renovated it and bought furniture. They provide psychosocial support and organise a children`s playroom.
Tymofiy (pictured) has made friends with the other children in the shelter. His biggest dream now is "Just to go to school with my friends." He attends lessons online. He really likes horse riding, which his therapist advised him to sign up for. And he also knows that somewhere back in Lysychansk, his five cats are waiting for him.