The winds of war picked up the Pinayev family Wednesday, sending three generations spinning in different directions as the Russian army continued its terrifying push through the towns and villages of southern Ukraine.
By the end of the day, 41-year-old Tatiana and three of her four children were on their way west to join the more than three million Ukrainians who have fled their country since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade. Her 49-year-old husband, Sergey, was in the frontline city of Mykolaiv, facing the possibility that he would be drafted into the Ukrainian military, while his oldest daughter, 23-year-old Karina, refused to leave his side.
Meanwhile, the children’s immobile grandparents remained behind in their tiny village of Mykhailo-Laryne, which has already been badly hit by Russian airstrikes and artillery fire. Their fate was uncertain, as travellers warned the family early Wednesday that Russian troops would soon occupy the area, 30 kilometres northeast of downtown Mykolaiv.
The Black Sea port of Mykolaiv and the surrounding region have been lionized for holding off the Russian army for the past two weeks, forestalling an expected assault on the strategic port of Odesa, just 130 kilometres west of here. But Mykolaiv, which had a prewar population of almost 500,000, is suffering for its heroism – and the civilians who arrive here every hour on evacuation buses from the surrounding countryside tell of even worse horrors in the smaller urban centres.
Andrii Skorokhod, head of the local Red Cross branch, said that in some towns and villages, there were “hundreds” of bodies lying uncollected in the streets. The problem, he said, was particularly severe in areas that had fallen under Russian control, because the Ukrainian branch of the Red Cross did not have a mandate to do humanitarian work there.
In Mykolaiv itself, he said, there were widespread shortages – and only one remaining bridge connecting the city to the rest of Ukraine. “The biggest problem is that it’s impossible to buy food in shops because products are simply not being delivered here. We have the same problem with medications,” he said.
The Pinayevs are just one among millions of families who have been split and shattered by this war. Their 24 hours of fear and loss are a snapshot of how ordinary people in this country are suffering because of Mr. Putin’s desire to restore what he sees as Russia’s historic place in the world – and cement his own legacy.
It was somewhere between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning that Tatiana finally snapped. Sitting in the basement, listening to artillery fire and airstrikes hitting too close to their modest home – after Russian soldiers had looted most of the local shops – she decided she couldn’t let her children live in Mykhailo-Laryne any longer.
In the morning, she walked out onto the street and flagged down the first passing car. Soon the entire family was crammed into a sedan, driving as fast as possible toward the relative safety of Mykolaiv.
“I insisted we leave. It was my decision. My husband wanted to stay,” Tatiana said. “I could see that my youngest daughter was stressed, so I asked myself: ‘Why should she have to cry at night?’”
In Mykolaiv, the family approached a volunteer they met near the main train station, who in turn directed them to a hostel that the local Red Cross is using as a transit centre for internally displaced persons. They were given a room with three beds – but no respite from the war. Within an hour, they were being asked where they wanted to be evacuated to next, since Mykolaiv – where booms of artillery are a regular occurrence, even in the middle of the afternoon – is anything but a safe place to stop.
“Do you want to go to Odesa? Or to Vinnitsya?” asked a woman in a Red Cross uniform. “We want to go to Germany,” Sergey replied. “OK, you need to go to Odesa, then to Lviv first,” the woman replied.
“My desire is to leave from here and go far away so we can’t hear anything. But that’s not possible,” said Anastasia, the Pinayevs’ 13-year-old daughter. She said most of her school friends had already left the country, though she had lost track of them in recent days after shelling knocked out the electricity and cellphone service in Mykhailo-Laryne.
Another shock arrived even as the family recounted their terrifying morning to The Globe and Mail. Sergey, the woman from the Red Cross said, could not leave with his family. Instead, the former gas station attendant would have to go to the local war office, as he was a male of fighting age. His three daughters began to sob. “No! We’re not going without Papa!” Anastasia said softy between tears, as six-year-old Veronika clutched her father and cried.
The war is particularly baffling for Sergey, who was born in Russia and still has many relatives there. He says he no longer speaks to them.
Despite the family’s protests, Tatiana, Anastasia, Veronika and 14-year-old Yuriy were soon on a bus to Odesa, as Sergey and Karina walked to the war office.
As the Pinayevs parted ways, Dmytro Yakhshyboyev and two friends were parked outside the same Red Cross hostel. The three of them were trying to tape up the back of their green Zhiguli, a Soviet-made car that had its rear window blown out Tuesday when a Russian airstrike destroyed the only school in their town, Posad-Pokrovska, in the neighbouring Kherson region. Moscow this week claimed that the entire Kherson region, which abuts the Crimean Peninsula that Russia seized and annexed in 2014, was under its military control.
Mr. Yakhshyboyev, a 29-year-old salesman, said he and six others had been hiding in the basement of the school when it was hit. “They just destroyed everything. They don’t care,” he said. “They know that ordinary people are living here and that it has nothing to do with the army.”
He said he had remained in Posad-Pokrovska as long as he had only because his Zhiguli had no gas in it. But after the school was demolished – and with it the town’s only bomb shelter – he and his friends knew it was time to go. The owner of the shop where Mr. Yakhshyboyev works split his last 20-litre canister of gasoline with them, and the two cars headed for Mykolaiv. There were seven people, including Mr. Yakhshyboyev’s two-month-old son, in the Zhiguli. “We were under shelling as we drove. We had two choices: stay and die or to try and survive.”
As he spoke, a yellow school bus pulled up to the hostel, unloading two dozen more people – all of them elderly – who had fled Posad-Pokrovska Wednesday morning. Konstantin Hakimov, an unarmed Ukrainian soldier, said he was driving the rescue bus into Russian-held territory at his own risk.
“If I don’t do this, who will?” he asked as he embraced one of the elderly women he had just dropped off at the hostel. The woman asked him to return to Posad-Pokrovska to rescue her husband. Private Hakimov nodded, climbed back into the bus and started the return drive toward the frontline.
Despite the city’s grim situation, local governor Vitaly Kim – who has become a national celebrity by following President Volodymyr Zelensky’s lead and giving frequent video addresses – emphasized that Mykolaiv is still standing. In fact, he said, Ukrainian forces were on the offensive in several areas around the city.
“I can’t do anything about the Russian bombs, because we have open sky. If the sky was closed, it would be much better for the civilian people,” he said, repeating Mr. Zelensky’s key message to Western governments. Mr. Kim said about 80 per cent of the city’s dead and wounded were the result of airstrikes or long-range rockets. “My mood is good because I am thinking about our victory and what I need to do in the future. … It wouldn’t help our victory if I would be in a sad mood.”
Mr. Kim insisted he was telling residents the truth, not just trying to lift morale. But it was clear that he and his staff – like the rest of this city – were exhausted by Mr. Putin’s war.
“We had no bombs last night. Or did we? Elena, were there any bombs last night?” Mr. Kim asked his media relations assistant.
“I don’t know, I slept,” she replied.
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