War. Stories from Ukraine

Ukrainians tell stories about their life during the war

“They saw a better life here and it seemed like they were taking revenge for it. They were mad about it”, Olha Simonova, 31, Dymer, Kyiv Region

by | 2 May 2022 | Kyiv region, War. Stories from Ukraine

Illustrated by Schulga Nataliia

“I was in two states at first—I was either crying or numb. Now the main emotion that keeps me going is anger, I want revenge, an eye for an eye,” Olha Simonova says.

She is a psychologist by occupation and she works in the social area. She is from Dymer, a village in northern Kyiv Region which was in the enemy’s rear almost from the very beginning of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine. Olha and her family spent 35 days in occupation.

In late 2014, a children’s camp for social and psychological rehabilitation named the Forest Fort was opened in Dymer for the children who had suffered from the war in the east of Ukraine. Olha was working and helping kids there for many years.

“I used to listen to their stories of being bombed. And I felt terrible guilt. I couldn’t even imagine what they went through. My life was safe and comfortable. But then during every bombing or shelling, during gunfights, when the bombs landed, while we stayed in the cellar, I thought: now I know exactly what it was like,” Olha says.

Even though she believed till the very end that Dymer, which is located 80 kilometers from the border with Belarus, would stay safe in any scenario.

“We thought that if something started, it would be from Russia’s side, again in the east of Ukraine. We even planned to welcome children from Donetsk and Luhansk Regions. And when I said to my husband (he is originally from Donetsk Region and he had fled from war before) that we had been bombed, it sounded so absurd. How is it possible?” Olga wonders.

On the first day of the invasion, already hearing the sounds of explosions, her husband and she managed to find gas for their car, they also ran to the shop and bought some supplies. Some fresh meat, frozen foods, stuffed dumplings. It was a very irrational choice because all that food depended on the fridge and electric power which was cut off very soon. “What was I thinking? I would buy some canned food today. But how could I know,” she says.

After they returned home, they packed documents, medicines and an emergency suitcase in case they had to flee. They were ready to leave Dymer. But Russian military columns showed up already the next day.

“It was like we were living on a groundhog day. Russian troops stayed at our village. Then they moved to Hostomel and got beaten by our troops. They would leave Dymer, regroup, get new equipment and go back to Hostomel. They got beaten there again. They returned again. It was non-stop. It felt like they were using WWII maps and paths. Because they were constantly referring to Lutiz Beachhead (it was taken by Soviet forces in 1943 as they fought the German army group South, and it was used to win Kyiv back. Ed.). It was like their target. But they couldn’t even cross the river Irpin. Because it flooded 3 kilometers of land due to a damaged dam. On the one hand, Irpin saved us, but on the other hand, it locked us in and separated us from the mainland,” says Olha.

A new strange world reigned in Dymer. No electricity, no shops or pharmacies, no connection. No understanding how to survive in occupation. On top of that, the Russian military appointed their own mayor in the village and put up a Russian flag. The locals asked them, “You came here, chose a new mayor for us, we have a new government now. Who are we to you? Are we Russia? Are we your slaves now or what?” “We don’t know. Let the politicians decide.”

“Such zombo-thinking was scary. There were all kinds of forces here: Kadyrov’s people, people from Buryatia, Russian National Guard, Special Police Forces. The military lived in our street, and they were more or less normal. They didn’t enter our building. But in the other part of the village it was different: local guys were undressed, the Russians were looking for tattoos, they could make them lie face down and shoot around their body. It was their way of demonstrating their power,” Olha says.

The lack of internet or cell connection was depressing and disorienting. 

The only people Olha could keep in touch with were her brother in Uzhgorod and a friend. To get the signal, Olha had to stand on a stool reaching to the ceiling to make a call, and soon she could grasp what was going on on the “mainland” just from the tone of the first “Hello.”

“Another complicated issue: how do you get the things you need? It was like being in prison. Money wasn’t worth anything. It was practically impossible to buy anything. So you had to exchange things. For instance, you take a jar of jam from your cellar and exchange it for a kilo of your neighbor’s potatoes. But the best currency was cigarettes, of course. When we ran out of them, the guys who smoked had to smoke tea after adding some mint to it. They made cigarettes from receipts. Smoking was a habit from a previous life, the only comforting connection to it. How could they give it up?” Olha explains.

Her dream was coffee with milk. She could never think that she would crave such a trivial thing so much, a thing that she had in abundance in her life before. She also craved to hear the usual “Good morning! We are from Ukraine!” (this is a greeting that has become famous thanks to the Governor of Mykolaiv Region Vitaliy Kim). And she dreamt of finally seeing Ukrainian soldiers.

Almost immediately Olha and her mother, who was a doctor, an ultrasound specialist, started helping the local hospital. “We wanted to do something,” Olha says. The hospital was understaffed. Basically it lacked everything: medicines, surgical materials. It was a small hospital where no surgeries were conducted and no babies were delivered for years. And suddenly it became very important. It was practically the only place where the locals could get medical help.

“When I was asked which departments we had, I answered: one big corridor department. We had to place all the patients in a corridor, because it would be difficult to move them to the shelter from the second floor during bombings,” Olha says.

During the occupation, five baby boys were delivered there. And then wounded people started to arrive. They had gunshot wounds, and some people died from them. Many people were brought in with their feet shot through.

“It was one thing when the Russian military just entered the village. But then they started to dig in the yards and around houses. There were so many of them. They put checkpoints everywhere. We realized that contacts with them were inevitable. But we didn’t know how to behave. No-one expected occupation here. It was pure rejection. People were rude to them, tried to spite them somehow, if not with Molotov cocktails, then just with words. But the Russians had automatic guns and aggression,” Olya explains.

She could also hardly restrain herself. When the first green corridors were arranged, Olha tried to receive some humanitarian cargo with medicine for the hospital. The volunteers who were sending medicine wanted to make sure that the request was indeed for a hospital.

“I took pictures of the hospital and the Chief of Medicine’s request, and for two days I was trying to send those pictures through the text message app. When I succeeded at last, I was running around the hospital and shouting happily, ‘I sent it!’ One of the locals heard it and told the Russians that I was helping our army to aim their guns. I was interrogated by one of their bosses. ‘Why do you keep coming here all the time?’ ‘Because I’m a doctor.’ ‘Prove it, show me your diploma,’” she retells the interrogation.

That diploma saved her life. The encounter only cost her her phone which they took away.

“I will probably remember that conversation for the rest of my life, and a phrase he dropped: ‘I am smiling not because I want a smile in return, but because I am a kind person in general. Get it?’ And while saying that he was toying with the safety trigger of his gun. I am not very good at self-preservation. I have to do something about it. If our village faced the kind of troops that were in Bucha or Irpin, my story would have a different ending. We had a humanitarian disaster, now everything is mine-infested, there are people missing. But there was no cruelty at the scale of Bucha or Irpin,” Olha says.

All the way through the occupation she helped at the hospital. They stayed at home only during the last days when the Russians were leaving. Because as they retreated, they robbed the houses.

“There was a house close by, with rather well-off owners. They had left on time. And when the Russians got inside, you should have seen their reaction. Like a cat in a catnip field. They went in so many times… At first they took out some small valuables. But the last time they took even the carpets and chandeliers. The things they had stolen didn’t fit in their armored vehicle, so they just secured the goods outside and sat on top of it like on a horse-drawn cart,” says Olha.

Dymer was liberated after more than a month of occupation. “We realized how many people stayed in the village only when the Ukrainian military came back. Everybody left their hiding places to greet them. Everyone tried to give them some tea at least, or to hug them,” Olha smiles.

Almost immediately she started contacting her volunteer friends and passing on requests from the locals to them. And in a few days she was already driving humanitarian aid to the smallest villages in her area and to the neighboring Ivankiv area.

“It scares me that I can’t cry. I am afraid that anger will eat me up from the inside. To avoid that, we started doing things as soon as possible. Sending this powerful feeling in a normal direction,” she says.

Her friends confronted her: “You are a psychologist, take care of yourself first.” They asked about her needs. The first thing she ordered was some dog food for her husky Antey. “That was the priority,” Olha jokes. She couldn’t think of anything for herself until she finally asked for some socks.

“My husband and I, we love funny and bright socks. The ones we had got worn out in a month. And here they were, my new socks, a huge batch. It’s so heartwarming. You run around in military shoes in the fields. Then you look down at your feet, and there they are, ponies and pink doughnuts. The mood is there! And you keep running,” she says.

Now Olha also helps children with disabilities whom she used to work with back in February at a camp, part of the Territory of Unlimited Opportunities project. She is even planning a summer camp already. “I realize that I have my work cut out for me. And I see it as a resource for myself,” she says.

She isn’t planning to leave yet. Even though she is now living with the thought that the things she went through can happen again any time.

“My  grandmother is from Katyuzhanka, which was also occupied. In a school close to her house, the Russiand left a note on the blackboard to our children. It went like this: ‘We wish you success in your studies! The war will be over and you will be restoring your Motherland… We hope to be friends… Peace to you, brothers and sisters.’ It is so cynical. They made that school their base and dug it up. Then they took away everything they could from that school, even stoves from the kitchen. It’s hard to comprehend who we are dealing with.

“When we were talking to Russian soldiers, it seemed like they absorbed some kind of a drug with their mother’s milk. How can a person think that way in the 21st century? They were saying this in unison: ‘Victory, May 9 on Khreschatyk, we came here to get you up from your knees.’ What knees? Look at the way we live! They were amazed by thin-screen TVs, cars, even bathrooms inside the houses! And the fact that we have digital documents just blew their minds.

“They saw a better life here and it seemed like they were taking revenge for it. They were mad about it. It was like a huge swarm of wasps that tried to sting us. There was one Russian soldier at a checkpoint close to us who tried to justify himself: ‘I didn’t  kill anyone.’ At first I felt sorry for him. But I got myself back to reality right away. Whatever he says, he came to my land. He talks to me with a gun in his hands. He is an invader. There is always a choice of who to be and what to do,” says Olha.

Translated by Oksana Mekheda

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