If the Snipers Like You, They’ll Let You Go

2_1_DonbassTwo days prior, they had heard the news: the separatists had taken Sloviansk and Lysychansk, just ten kilometers away. But they continued living their lives. Like every day before, Mila walked to work. She quickened her pace when she realized men in fatigues carrying assault rifles walked through the nearby park. She arrived at the hospital, afraid of what the day would hold, but carried out her nursing duties as she always does.

Later in the day the hospital suggested she go home, and she left along with two colleagues. Before getting far, though, the shooting started. The heart-stopping sound of a fighter-jet flying low overhead filled them with terror and they started running home the quickest route possible: through the park.

It didn’t take long for them to realize their folly. Throughout the park separatist soldiers defended themselves from the oncoming Ukrainian army. The jet came from one side of them, the separatists were on the other, so they dove into the bushes to hide from the war now raging around them. They could see the machine gun of the airplane firing on separatists, and the fire coming from separatists’ guns. Running to a large tree only drew attention to themselves and bullets sprayed around them.

Immediately they dropped to the ground and crawled, crawled, and crawled to safety.

“And from that day the peaceful life in our town was finished,” Mila tells us.

War Memorial

Outside the WWII Memorial in Kiev. Photo credit: Rebecca Ulasich

The bombing, shooting, explosions continued. Overwhelmed by fear, she and her family left their flat and descended into the basement of their apartment building. In that basement with two large rooms they met most of their neighbors, already seeking shelter underground.

“On the second day the bombing was really hard in our part of the city, all the windows were shattered,” she reflects.

For over two weeks they stayed in the basement, only leaving to shower or get some food from their apartment.

Some of the shops were still open, and her son suggested they buy spaghetti – it was easy to cook in the basement, requiring only boiling water. Their walk to the nearby store was interrupted by the sound of shooting on nearby streets. They ran back empty handed, and listened from the basement as the fighting intensified. The walls shook and pieces of the ceiling above them crumbled at the impact of nearby bombs.

Like theirs, many apartments had basements where people hid from the violence in their city. “During the day they would walk around to see where people were hiding and in the evening they would start to shoot there,” Mila explains.

Another night the bombing began afresh. Mila told her son to close the large, metal door of the building. Moments later it was rocked by an explosion. The entire room was covered in dust, and when it finally settled, they saw that the door was gone and only it’s hinges remained. All the windows had become a million pieces on the floor.

“I told my husband,” she remembers, “‘I don’t want anything else, I just want to get away from here.’”

Together, sixteen people left in shock, taking what they could grab and fled.

“We started to go out, on the main street and many cars were driving there. People were taking whatever they could with them. Some had just water, some had some bags of clothes. Then when we were almost out of the city, they started shooting behind us at our backs, Russians behind us started shooting us down.”

They ran from the Russians [or, separatists, depending on whom you ask], and saw a minibus driving toward them from the opposite direction. They turned to run again, when the Ukrainians started shooting at them. Caught in the crossfire, they dropped to the ground and again crawled to safety.

Amidst the crossfire, the bullets and bombs flying in all directions, one man walked through the middle of it all. He tried to walk straight, but could only stumble forward. He kept walking between the warring armies and nothing touched him.

“He was drunk!” she laughs. “He was drunk and totally oblivious of what was happening around him and nothing hit him!”

Apartment Building in Donbass. Photo credit: Sasha Khomych

Apartment Building in Donbass. Photo credit: Sasha Khomych

A few days before, their friends had left the city, leaving them with a key to their home. Crawling away they realized they were on the street of that home, and they ran into the cellar of the building.

“We stayed there a few days and only ate some porridge once a day eating a small amount, dividing it amongst ourselves.”

On July 31 the Ukrainian Army began a large assault on the separatists in their city. The bombing continued from 2pm to 9pm. They sat in a dark room with no electricity, hiding in a room 1 meter by 1.5 meters, with 9 other people, when an explosion rattled their building.

“The basement was built in such a way that you enter the room and turn left, there are two doors – a wooden door and metal door,” she explains the scene. “After the explosion there were ten holes in the wooden door. The reason we were safe is because of having to turn to the left when entering the room.”

The next morning they decided to leave, to reach the safe zone – or die trying. They couldn’t continue living in constant fear. Some people instructed them on where to go, but warned them that snipers sat near the road, ready to kill

“They told us, ‘you can go that way, but don’t take any bags.’ We brought one bottle of water, our documents, and one piece of white cloth. They said, ‘If the snipers like you, they will let you go. If they don’t like you they will kill you.’”

They walked down the street through the town and out past fields. A small line of people with nothing but a bottle of water and a piece of white cloth raised in the air, hoping the snipers will ‘like them.’ They walked that that way for 15 kilometers.

“We got to Ukrainian controlled territory, I was so excited, so overcome by relief, I felt I could walk another 15 kilometers.”

Mila and her family waited in Ukrainian held territory, not far from their city, hoping for peace to come. As Autumn neared, and with nothing but their documents and the clothes on their backs, they decided they couldn’t wait any longer.

“Our friends moved here [a city in Western Ukraine] in June, so we contacted them and decided to come here too. On the 31st of August when we were leaving the city, I turned back and saw half of the city was already destroyed.”

 

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