Tatiana Kirova: I’ll never forget the smell of the bomb shelter

Inside Parafia Ewangelicko-Augsburkska, which is a church in the town of Ustroń, Poland, intO’s Researcher in Residence, Tatiana Kirova, begins to speak about what her life has been like over the last few weeks. In the background single beds are visible in the large, basic room, with only a few possessions dotted around. The atmosphere is calm. 

Tatiana’s sons occasionally flick into view during the interview. The youngest is nine and on the autistic spectrum. He seeks reassurance from his mother’s reactions to things. If she’s ok, then he’s ok. 

The eldest is 15, not yet a man, but old enough to feel the new weight of responsibility for his mother and brother. He didn’t want to leave his home and is struggling with feelings of frustration and anger.

“The family is the first and main reason why I decided to move, go on, even if I’m afraid … I have to.”

Right up until Russia invaded Ukraine, Tatiana was working as an English teacher in a primary school in the country’s capital city, Kyiv, as well as providing support to people as a psychologist. Both her boys were in private school, and although Tatiana is divorced, her ex-husband was very involved with their sons. They lived near Akademmistechko in the Svyatoshinskiy region; an urban district located in the western part of Kyiv. It is not far from the boundary to the neighbouring city of Irpin, which was one of the first places to be attacked as Russian Armed Forces attempted to encircle the capital. Bombs had started landing frequently around them, but Tatiana still couldn’t really believe that they’d need to flee the country where they were so settled. 

It was through Facebook a few days before, that Tatiana came to be in touch with a woman who was part of a volunteer group in Poland. The woman contacted Tatiana after reading her posts in a group chat. Over a short space of time, they started writing more and more, until the woman told her that she had found a way to help. 

When Tatiana received the phone call, telling her they had transport to get out of Kyiv, she phoned her scared friend and neighbour, convincing her to pack up her child so they might all leave together. With bombs now falling all over their destroyed city, Tatiana gathered up her elderly aunt, two sons and their dog, and all travelled by taxi to a shelter where they waited for the volunteer-organised bus that would take them to the west side of Ukraine. 

I left my cat at home. That feeling was awful. But she’s okay. My ex husband’s over there. He sent me pictures and he said she’s fine; she’s alive. But at that time the feeling was so hard. I took my dog but I left my cat.

After travelling in shock to this new city, trying to grasp their new reality, Tatiana and her family spent the night in a tiny room in a dirty hostel, crammed with six of them sleeping in bunk beds, without hot water or anywhere to wash. The next day, Tatiana decided they had to keep moving and get to Poland.

I wasn’t planning to go to Poland first. It was like, let’s go to the west side and just stay there for a while, but then we were faced with such a problem because we just didn’t have a place to stay.

 Eventually, after another exhausting couple of days of travelling, they arrived at Hrushiv-Budomezh, a checkpoint on the border between Ukraine and Poland that’s some 60kms from the Ukrainian city of Lviv. The woman from Poland who had helped them was waiting. The woman was crying and hugged Tatiana. There were six people in Tatiana’s party and the woman only had one car, but she’d recruited another volunteer during her journey. She didn’t know him; he was just a man on Facebook who had agreed to come and help. Soon, they arrived at the Polish woman’s home, in Kielce.

We could take a warm shower and eat well because they’d bought so much food…It was so warm. They talked to us, even though we cannot speak their language. She could speak a bit of English and we used Google translator. They were speaking slowly to understand words. Really I felt, ‘I’m accepted here, they want me to be here, it’s not like they are just giving me shelter for a time. So it was really nice. And I wish all refugees could find this kind of people.

Tatiana was helped with getting paperwork and advice from the Help Centre, but after two nights with the Polish woman, they felt the house was too small for them to continue staying there. There were no beds – just one mattress and a sleeping bag between six people – and they also felt uncomfortable not paying their way. 

The man who had driven half their party from the border said he had somewhere they could go and he took them to some cabins in a forest, which initially looked great. But it was soon very clear that the cabins were cold, very damp and completely uninhabitable. It felt like the owner was trying to benefit from the government money being given out in return for helping Ukrainian refugees, even though he didn’t have suitable accommodation for them.

When a volunteer from the Help Centre came to visit Tatiana and her family, she was horrified by their living conditions and immediately insisted that they pack up their things. It was thanks to her that Tatiana, her family and neighbours are now safely based at the church near the town of Ustroń. There are other refugees staying at the church, too, but they have their own rooms and it’s warm and clean. They can wash themselves and cook their own food. 

People who visit the church already know about us, so they bring clothes sometimes. Today they brought some food like pasta, some cheese, some vegetables and some sweets for the children. It’s very pleasant to know that people care.

On the second evening of being at the church, which is surrounded by nature, Tatiana went out for a run. She started to think back over the previous few days and everything they had gone through – the smell of the bomb shelter, the sound of constant bombing, the very real human fear that was unlike anything she’d previously experienced. As she ran, Tatiana realised that she felt safe, and the fact that she had got her family and neighbours out of Ukraine hit home. For the first time since the war began, she could let herself cry and ‘breathe out’. 

Tatiana’s memories of the kindness people have shown to her are as strong as those of the bomb shelter. She keeps a special book with a list of everyone’s names in it, entitled ‘My People’, so that she won’t forget a single one of them. 

Tatiana tries not to think about it, but the idea that she might not be able to return to Ukraine has started to arrive in her mind. She asks herself what she will do there if the economy is destroyed. 

This is all showing me that you can never know really. If you make long term plans, you cannot know…. It shows me that really everything can happen… So we’ll see if we’re going to go back.

Voices Ukraine

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