When the conflict started in Ukraine, millions of people were forced to flee their home and seek a shelter. It was such a difficult decision for everyone to leave their home town, but the desire to stay alive was stronger. Many people left everything that they have been building for years and fled into the unknown. Most of them dream of returning home. Unfortunately, now it is almost impossible, as plenty of cities are still under occupation, or people simply have nowhere to come back to, as their homes have been completely destroyed.
“I can’t even express how much I want to go home. I had everything in Mariupol, but now there is nothing left there”, said Svitlana, a 61-year-old affected IDP, who lost her home.
I met Svitlana on the stairs of the Collective Center in Sumy, a city located 5 hours far from Kyiv by car. She had just retired, that is why she held her bag and a big folder with documents in her hands. Svitlana kindly invited me to come to her room. She took the key out of her pocket and opened the door. It was a small cozy room with blue wallpaper, four beds, and a table. The room overlooked a quiet street covered with snow. I heard the sounds of cars being stuck in the snow, and drivers pumping the gas. Svitlana put her bags on the table and placed herself on the bed. She nicely offered me to sit on a chair in front of her.
“All my life I had been working as a secretary of a rector of a local institute. When it had been closed, I got a job offer from a pharmacy. It was very convenient for me as that pharmacy was located in the yard of my house. My husband died a long time ago, in 2006. Since then, I’ve been alone,” Svitlana began to tell her story.
I did not ask whether Svitlana has children, because I noticed that it was difficult for the woman to talk about the past and her eyes were full of pain and suffering. Later I would understand that I was not mistaken. What a horror this fragile woman had to experience and how courageously she held on all the time! Her home town has been susceptible to massive attacks since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine. Then it has been occupied.
“There wasn`t electricity from the first day of the conflict, then we lost cellular and internet connection, the water was turned off earlier. As snow was melting, people were scooping water out of the puddles, and collecting snow covering cars which were parked near their houses. At first, we could not even eat anything due to experienced stress. Later we began gathering branches and burning fires near our houses to cook something. Baking pancakes was the best idea, just a few minutes and they were ready for eating”, said Svitlana.
As it was mentioned above, the occupied city has had huge problems with water. When all the snow melted and there was nothing to drink, people had to go to the local river with bottles and take on the water there. “Every time I went to get some water, I could be killed by a missile which could fly anywhere and at any moment. There weren`t any safe places. I even remember the moment when I, being scared, ran home with a bottle of water, and drank a sedative for another two hours to calm down a bit,” Svitlana shared her memories, rubbing her hands and looking out of the window. A few days later, the rocket landed in Svitlana’s kitchen. It was a true miracle which helped her to survive. As the woman was in another room at that moment. Svitlana said that she only had time to throw a wet towel over the firing rocket and close the door, then Svitlana heard the shouts of the military from the street. They warned the residents of the building that they had only 20 minutes to leave their apartments. “Being so scared we ran out with nothing. I remember my paralyzed neighbor screaming, “Help.” The house was on fire, and people in it were burning alive. At least 4 people died in my house. This is the city of the dead. But I still want to go home. I dream of returning home,” said Svitlana. Suddenly, tears came to her eyes, the woman could not hold back and began to cry. I gave her my hand. For a few minutes, we were just silent and looked at each other. A little later, I offered Svitlana to drink water, but she refused. Then the woman found the strength to continue our conversation. After Svitlana’s house was destroyed, she had only one opportunity left to settle down. Her 84-year-old mother-in-law lived in the neighboring area. Even then, Svitlana realized that she could no longer stay in Mariupol and had to take her relative out of it. She promised her late husband that she would never leave his mother alone. Not even a few days passed after Svitlana started living with her mother-in-law, the rocket landed in the apartment, which was close to them. The women had no idea how they could get out of Mariupol, so they lived in the basement of a destroyed building for 2 days. Then Svitlana started asking people about the possibilities of leaving the occupied city. So, she found a couple who tried to take people to the controlled territories every day in their own car. Svitlana and her mother-in-law drove to another place with their help. There were not any cars or buses. “That’s why my 84-year-old relative and I walked 12 kilometers across the field. I kept praying that nothing would happen and that we would reach our destination safely. I had to stop often because my mother-in-law was getting sick, it was difficult for her to walk such a distance at that age,” said Svitlana, wiping away tears. She looked out of the window and continued talking. When the women reached a safe place, Svitlana fell ill. Svitlana says that she never cried in Mariupol, but when she managed to get out of there, she cried so often.
“Anytime my friends from Mariupol call me, I keep crying, especially at nights,” said Svitlana with a break in her voice.
“When I was accommodated in the Collective Center, I felt a little uncomfortable. There was no shower here, only one burner on the stove worked, there was no way to wash things, and no place to store food. But now it’s very good,” the woman continued.
Medair provided shelter rehabilitation in the Collective Center in Sumy. Earlier it was used to as a dormitory for children from Sumy Higher Vocational School of Construction and Design, but now this building is a Collective Center for internally displaced persons. The team installed there a shower cabin, sink, 2 boilers, and purchased a stove, fridge, microwave, and 10 beds with orthopedic mattresses.
“There are good conditions here: hot water, I can cook whatever I want, but I understand that everything here is not mine. I just want to return home”, said Svitlana.
Now Svitlana is trying to arrange her life in Sumy. The woman has applied for a pension and she is also looking for additional part-time work. 61-year-old affected IDP said that home comfort is very important to her and it allows her to calm down. Because she loved her home (which one day she lost forever) more than anything else. Svitlana has no idea what will happen next but she dreams of peace and returning to her home town Mariupol. At the end of our interview, tears appeared in her eyes again. We hugged each other and Svitlana gave me a smile.
Medair services in Sumy, Ukraine are funded by PMU, Swiss Solidarity (CdB), CEDAR, and Tearfund (NZ).
This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organization.