I asked, “Are you going to kill me?” He replied: “We’ll see.”
Nick Fedirko is Advertising Photographer, Shutterstock Contributor. Nick, whose hometown is Bucha, was in his parents house in Kiyv’s suburb on 24th February when the Russians arrived, here is his testimony.
On February 24th my phone rang at 5:30 am. I saw my neighbor’s name on the screen and couldn’t understand why he is calling me so early. I picked up the phone and heard these words: “Kolya, the war has started!” At first, I couldn’t understand what was happening because I went to bed at 4 am and hadn’t slept much. Just a few minutes later, I received a second call from my sister in the United States, who only said: “Take your wife and son, go to our parents, and then send them to Poland by car. There is an apartment waiting for them there.”
An hour later, everyone was ready. I decided to stay and take care of my parents’ house and pets. I made this decision long before the war, hoping that it would not be that serious or long. It was impossible for me to believe that yesterday we went for a walk in our favorite park and today we saw the Russian helicopters in the sky and heard the air strikes.
After sending my family away, I went to my apartment. There, after meeting with my neighbors, I helped with setting up the basement for a bomb shelter. I took all necessary things for a short stay (that’s what it seemed to me at the time) to my parents’ house. There was no panic, but there were a lot of cars on the streets and on the highway. A lot of people understood the seriousness of the situation and tried to leave with their families as soon as possible.
When I returned to my parents’ house in Vorzel, Kyiv region, I started calling my friends and offering them to come to stay with me because the house had solid walls and a large basement. Four families with three children responded to my offer. On the first night, we heard shots and explosions. At that time, the enemy troops tried to capture the airport in Gostomel, but our fighters skillfully deflected the attacks.
On the second day, my friends who had children decided to go to Western Ukraine. This was the right decision, because it was becoming more and more dangerous to stay in Vorzel. I thought that everything would be over soon, so I was in no hurry to leave. But I was not left alone. My friend Ivan and his wife Anna stayed with me, for what I am grateful to them for life. The first two days were spent in comfort. We had everything including water and electricity, and a pretty good supply of food. We only had issues with the Internet, but the phones were still working and we were able to use them to read the news.
Fierce fighting was already going on in the suburbs, but Ivan and I decided to take a risk and went to our homes to pick up important things, food, and medicine. Even then, shells and pieces of torn military vehicles could be seen on the roads. Despite that, some shops were still open so we were able to buy some products.
Everything changed dramatically the next day. Artillery shots and explosions were heard very close by. Enemy forces used “HRAD” (HAIL bombs) in residential areas including ours. We hid in the basement and just waited. Several houses on our street burned down, many had their windows smashed, and all power lines were destroyed, which meant no light, no water and no heat.
We were lucky that one of our neighbors had a generator. He shared generated electricity us by a cable thrown over the fence. We were also lucky that my father left some gasoline, which I gave to the neighbor to use for his generator. This way we could charge our phones and turn on the water pump for 30-40 minutes every morning and evening.
Neighbors in the nearby apartment building did not have a generator as they were not prepared for the war. We were helping everyone by charging 20 to 30 phones a day and collecting water for everyone. We also tried to help with distributing children’s clothes and medicine.
Although it was very dangerous, Ivan and I decided to drive to the outskirts of the city to find out if anyone needed help. There were enemy tanks everywhere shooting at everyone. However, we took the risk. We met old people who almost ran out of water and food. One of the men said he worked at a small meat factory, we can get food there. We agreed to go with him.
When we arrived at the factory, we saw that the building was partially destroyed and there was a big fire nearby. We decided to go inside anyway. We were able to load a car full of sausages, hot dogs and various frozen meats. Then we distributed the food to those who needed it most—the Maternity Hospital and the orphanage. Along the way we met people whose supplies were running out and, of course, we also tried to help them as well. Everyone was trying to help one another and to be useful.
Even though we were eager to help, things did not go as planned. It became very dangerous to go outside. Tanks were on our street and, of course, those were the occupiers’ tanks. I will never forget the moment when I saw a soldier in a tank aiming at our house. At that time the cell phone connection was very bad, but we managed to call the hotline of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and in response we heard: “Your region is occupied, hold on, at this time there is nothing we can do.” There were a lot of tanks and other military vehicles, and they were cruising our streets every day and night for four days. However, even during those days, we helped to distribute water, medication, food, and my son’s clothes and toys.
One day we heard a lot of military vehicles passing by. Then there was a shot right next door that shattered the windows in our house. My friends and I immediately ran to the basement. In the basement we lay down under a blanket and just waited for what would happen next. We can hear more and more enemy soldiers coming. And then the tanks stopped. I heard metal breaking, something big crashing through and into our frontyard, screams, the sound of broken glass, steps inside the house, voices and laughter. Then, the steps and someone saying: ʼʼLook, there is construction going on here! No one is in the basement.” We heard steps coming down the stairs, the opening of the door and someone taking off the safety of an automatic gun. I glanced at my friends. Vanya covered himself with a blanket over his head. Anya was near him hiding her face in her hands. At that moment, I thought it’s the end of my life and I couldn’t stop crying. These few seconds lasted an eternity.
Two soldiers got in. Through the tears, I started repeating: “We are peaceful people, we are unarmed; We are peaceful people, we are unarmed; We are peaceful people, we are unarmed.” One of the soldiers said to take our necessary things and go outside. We went outside. There were many soldiers from 50 different nationalities, all armed, very dirty and smelly. One of the intelligence officers came up and said: ʼʼWe came to rescue you! We are not barbarians or thieves. We are looking for Bandera and fascists.” At the same time, they were turning over the entire house, our backpacks, and going through our valuables.
Ivan and I were ordered to undress to our underwear with a machine gun pointed at us. They took our phones, immediately broke them, rummaged through the backpacks, took all our money. At my own risk, I gave away one phone, and left the other one hidden so that I can let my family and friends know what was going on with us. They found my camera. I begged them not to break it because it’s my only tool with which I earn money for the family. They left the camera but took all the memory cards. We also were lucky that they didn’t touch our cars in the garage.
Later standing on the street, I looked at the yard and see it is all broken. There is no fence, and in the yard there is a tank and two more armored vehicles. And here I understand that I do not see my dog, the German Shepherd Luna. I asked the soldiers what happened to her. One of them said, “Sorry, we had to kill her.” I understand that there is nothing to equate with human life, but Luna was a member of the family for eight years and it was a terrible loss for me.
The soldiers were turning the house upside down. In the meantime, they brought 15 more people including three children and told them all to go in the basement of my house. As I was going upstairs to get some warm clothes and blankets, one of the soldiers shouts at me, “Quick or I’ll shoot your legs now.” We settled in the basement. The soldiers brought us water and two Russian Army rations and ordered us to use a bucket instead of the toilet.
Due to the large number of people in the basement it became very wet and hot.
It was the hardest night of my life. I was under a lot of stress. I had a panic attack. It seemed they would just open the door and throw a grenade into the basement. It was not clear how much time we would spend there. I was terrified and didn’t know if I can stand this anymore.
That night one of my neighbors, Yuriy, helped me a lot. Yura was also treated very vilely and disgustingly. During the search, he was taken to the battlefield with a sack over his head, where the Russian army fired their artillery, as he had a passport with the Glory to Ukraine cover and military-like shoes. Psychologically, they tried to break him by shooting over his head. But nevertheless they let him go. Yura was very supportive of me all night, and I supported him, too. We reassured each other with words and hugs.
In the morning, a soldier went to the basement and told me to come out since I was the owner of the house. I was taken outside and ordered to follow the officer. We went to the dump about 50 to 70 meters from the house. There was a little shack. The officer ordered me to go inside. I asked, “Are you going to kill me?” He replied: “We’ll see.” There were three dead bodies inside the shack—the commander asked if I knew any of them. I recognized one of them. It was one of my neighbors. I realized that if I say that I know him, I would be dead lying beside him. I said that I don’t know them. The officer asked louder, whether I know him since he is my neighbor. I replied that I might have seen him, but don’t know him. I was ordered to go to the basement. But before I turned to go, I had to ask whether we could bury the bodies. The officer said that they don’t bury even their own people and would shoot us if we did. I went back to the basement.
In fact, I knew that neighbor and one day I walked the streets with him offering help. He often traveled by car and brought humanitarian aid to the residents. This neighbor was a soldier in our army, but did not have time to join his division, so he stayed home with his wife. He went through the war in Luhansk and moved closer to Kyiv to start a new life, but the war caught up with him here and now he is dead…
One of the soldiers came to the basement and told us that he doesn’t want to fight, he would gladly go home. However, he cannot do that because he considers himself a defender of our people and wants to free Ukraine from the Nazis. Another soldier asked why we did not leave since we were told 72 hours in advance about the attack. But no one really warned us—these pimps just attacked early in the morning, and the Russian authorities on the 22nd said that Ukrainians should not worry and go for a walk. There will be no war, the Russians said. I tried to explain to the soldier that there are no fascists here and since 1992 I have lived here in peace and prosperity, and now I do not know what will happen to me in the next minute. The soldier was silent and left.
So we sat in the basement for up to four hours in fear and ignorance of what will happen. And then one of the soldiers came downstairs and said they were going to leave, and as soon as they left, we could get up and disperse.
But for some reason, they did not leave for a long time. I could not stand it and went to see what was the matter. Looking carefully out the window, I realized that they could not start one combat vehicle, they were trying to get it going with a cable. After fixing it as best they could, they dragged the vehicle behind the column. Just think, the Russian army is considered to be the second best in the world!
When they left, I found courage to go upstairs. I saw what happened to the house— most of my parents’ things were thrown on the floor. All valuables, jewelry, money. electronics, even batteries stolen. My wedding ring stolen. They even took my dirty underwear. They stole everything valuable, even tools. The whole house was very dirty, remnants of our food supply were all over the floor. There was a bad stench in the air. Outside, there was a lot of garbage on the street. The yard was like a hurricane hit it—fallen trees, everything was broken. In my dog’s enclosure, a bed of clothes and hay was piled up, and porridge gone from my dog’s bowl, some remnants of a soldier’s pate remained in the bowl. Imagine, a Russian soldier didn’t have enough rations and had to eat my dog’s food—and this was only at the beginning of the war.
It was getting dark outside, so I asked my neighbor if we could move in with him. He was more fortunate as he had officers staying at his house and there was less mess and damage there. The neighbor also took in 14 more adults and three children. We gathered the food Russian solders didn’t find and just stayed together spending evenings talking about life or listening to the radio. It felt like we were one big family helping one another and supporting one another in every way.
A few days later, more enemy soldiers stopped by. We tried to talk to them with raised arms, saying that there is nothing left, your soldiers have already been here and took everything. Five soldiers still came in and combed the house but quickly saw that it had already been looted, only women and children were in the house. It looked like a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean—all of the soldiers had multiple expensive watches on every wrist, some of them were wearing new sneakers or had several nonmilitary knifes hanging from their necks—all stolen. And this is the second largest army in the world that came to save us from who the fuck knows whom.
We got back to our life trying to survive, under fire, with fear, but at least it’s life and the soldiers were gone. After crawling through a hole in the fence, I went home to collect family photographs and my mother’s art. As I was trying to bury our dog in the yard, I was almost killed by a sniper. I heard a bullet fly past me.
One day we heard rumors about evacuation from our region. I didn’t believe it until I heard it on the radio. I did not want to leave, but my friends insisted that it was time for us to go. We had 15 to 20 minutes to gather what was left and went to the meeting point. There were a lot of people at the station, there was anxiety in the atmosphere. The whole city was in ruins.
After almost 2 hours of waiting, a column of buses with a red cross and the Ukrainian flag arrived. It was very important that these were our Red Cross buses, because there were many cases when Russians came and took people to use them as a human shield in front of their military vehicles or evacuated them to Russia. We were extremely happy to see our—Ukrainian—buses.
My neighbor and I were in our own cars. We followed the buses through the enemy checkpoints that were already all over the region. It was a difficult road, very scary as the Russians repeatedly shot down the columns of civilians.
What usually takes only 30 minutes took us eight hours to get to Kyiv due to a huge traffic jam at the entrance to the capital. No words could describe my joy and happiness at seeing our army checkpoint at night.
My friends and I went to my cousin who lives on the outskirts of Kyiv. We also took two women with three children from Vorzel. The next day, we bought them everything they needed and put them on a train to Poland, where their relatives were already waiting for them. The next day we moved to the West of Ukraine, to a safer place.
Now, looking back, it seems like my story is not as scary and tragic compared to others. I think we were lucky that it all happened at the beginning of the war and that we stayed alive. What we went through showed how many amazing friends and neighbors I have. Ukraine is a fantastic nation whose people will always help in a time of need.
I am incredibly grateful to my friends Ivan and Anna for being with me in such a difficult situation. Their support and positive outlook on life helped me a lot. I don’t know what would have happened to me if it wasn’t for them.
This story taught me that the main thing in the world is peace. And a person does not need so much for happiness, just to be close to loved ones under a peaceful sky. Everything else will be. …
Right now, I am in a safe place and only have nightmares of what happened to us. I hope that I could come back home soon, get my family, friends and neighbors together and celebrate the victory of our nation against the “Russian world.” Then, I will work on rebuilding our independent and beautiful country!
Glory to Ukraine!
Photo: Nick and his friends