Russia-Ukraine war: Heartbreak and strength as millions of Ukrainians forced from homes
Oleksii Kvitkovskyi, his wife Tetiana and their children Matvii and Makar in Lviv, Ukraine. The family fled the conflict in the east and have been displaced several times since. Photo / Iryna Rohovyk
During a week in Ukraine, Weekend Herald reporter Nicholas Jones spoke to some of the millions of people forced from their homes because of indiscriminate Russian attacks. Here are two stories of heartbreak and strength.
In darkness and without power, heating or running water, Oleksii Kvitkovskyi and his family huddled to the boom of explosions.
It was March, a few weeks after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of its neighbour, and Severodonetsk in the east of Ukraine was under near-constant bombardment.
That included civilian apartment blocks like the one where Oleksii, 47, lived with his wife, Tetiana, 39, and two boys, Matvii, 7, and Makar, 3.
“There were no sirens indicating incoming attacks, because the attacks were literally all the time – sirens would ring constantly,” he says.
“I lived on the eighth floor, and could see cluster bombs exploding everywhere.
“The explosion waves broke our windows. The temperature was around eight or nine degrees, so the kids slept in their beanies, coats and gloves. There was an electricity blackout, and no candles left in any shops.”
Ukrainian armoured vehicles and tanks patrolled outside. Nearby housing blocks were smashed. The sound of people crying filled the spaces between explosions.
On March 8, Oleksii hurried to a nearby supermarket. At the checkout, a missile strike flung him to the floor. He lay there for 40 minutes until the attack ended.
When he stumbled outside, glass covered the ground and bodies were scattered among the debris – many killed, others badly injured.
Back home he prepared to escape but the family car was damaged by shrapnel and undriveable.
Eventually, his eldest son, from a previous relationship and living in another part of the country, secured the family exorbitantly priced tickets for a small evacuation bus.
Every spare space was filled. They could take only two bags between them – packing clothes and some favourite toys for the kids – “they cannot survive without toys”.
Oleksii was reluctant to board.
“We had everything in Severodonetsk – it was a small but cosy city, we had schools, kindergarten, friends, everything was comfortable for us.
“Inside, I was very resistant – I just didn’t want to leave. But my older son, Valentine, said, ‘Look, Dad, you can always come back but if you won’t come now, it might be too late.’
The cramped, cold bus trip covered 1600km and ended in Lviv, a city near the Polish border in Ukraine’s west that has been relatively untouched by Russian attacks.
A few days after they fled a neighbour sent back word from Severodonetsk:that their apartment had been destroyed by a direct missile strike.
“We had been hiding behind the concrete wall in the corridor, which was hit by the rocket – we would have been in the epicentre of the explosion,” Oleksii says.
“All the things we couldn’t take with us were burned.”
Russian forces fully captured Severodonetsk in June. Lviv, at the other end of the country, saw its population swell by an estimated 200,000 new residents at one point of the war, as Ukrainians in the east and the south of the country fled the fighting.
It is where I meet Oleksii and his family, in a city centre that still bustles with people shopping, working and dining in trendy cafes and rooftop bars.
We talk over dinner at a restaurant named after a local family who established the world’s first vodka brand in 1782, and known for its homemade liqueurs. White-shirted waiters attend to a nearby couple celebrating with champagne.
However, the city’s apparent normality is undercut by daily air raid sirens, military checkpoints on major roads and a night-time curfew. Anti-tank obstacles and sandbags surround Unesco World Heritage-listed buildings that date back centuries.
The freezing conditions of winter are rapidly approaching and accommodation is difficult and expensive to find, with thousands of people in unsuitable and crowded conditions, often without working utilities, including heating.
Oleksii found lodging with a friend of his eldest son, but the threat of missile strikes even in Lviv meant his wife and youngest boys travelled on to Lithuania.
A wartime decree has banned most men aged 18 to 60 from leaving Ukraine, in anticipation that they may be called to fight.
Oleksii wants to stay anyway, to continue his work helping some of the most vulnerable members of Ukrainian society.
He founded the Volna Donbas Resource Centre of the All-Ukrainian Association of People with Drug Addiction, a non-governmental organisation working with people who inject drugs.
They provide opioid substitution therapy, which replaces illicit drug use with medically prescribed, orally administered opiates such as methadone – cutting the risk of harms like HIV, hepatitis and overdose.
Food, water and other support are also given.
An estimated 350,000 people inject drugs in Ukraine, with more than one-in-five living with HIV and more than half living with hepatitis C.
The majority live in the country’s southeast, and Oleksii, a former drug user himself who quit with the help of substitutes, says a large number have and will die as a result of the war.
That happened after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Opioid substitution therapy stopped overnight, and scores of patients died in the following months and years, mostly from suicide or overdose.
Even in Ukrainian-held territories, the conflict has interrupted supplies of medicines, and there are thousands of drug users caught near the frontline, without the support or means to leave.
That unfolding crisis is why he decided to move to Zaporizhzhia, a city on the Dnieper River in southeastern Ukraine.
There Oleksii has continued to drop off medicine and aid. This can be dangerous – before leaving Severodonetsk he was detained by Russian forces while on a drop-off, and his vehicle was pierced by shrapnel from a missile attack.
Zaporizhzhia has become a hub for people fleeing the fighting. Each day two or three columns of evacuees arrive, and there isn’t nearly enough housing.
This week Oleksii visited a group living in the surrounding forest, in an unfinished house with no windows or doors, and cardboard on the ground. He paid for one of the men, who had no money or documents, to be hospitalised for a life-threatening infection.
The frontline runs through the wider region. Russia seized a nuclear power plant in the nearby city of Enerhodar at the start of the invasion. The UN has warned fighting around the station – Europe’s largest – could lead to a nuclear disaster.
An engineer at the plant told ABC News this week that shelling was getting closer and closer to spent fuel storage, risking “another Chernobyl”.
Oleksii wanted his wife and sons to stay abroad, but Tetiana wouldn’t have the family split up any longer.
The move to Zaporizhzhia has been yet more upheaval.
Oleksii and Tetiana had lived in Luhansk, a city near the Russian border which fell under the control of Moscow-backed separatists after the outbreak of conflict in 2014.
He at that time spoke mostly Russian, like many others in the region, and had a relative who became a prominent leader in the separatist movement.
Around 30 per cent of the wider population were pro-Russian and supported the separatists, he estimates, and the same proportion were pro-Ukrainian, including himself. The rest, “just cared about security and having something in their stomachs”.
During 2013, separatists became brazen enough to set up checkpoints on key roads.
Many people refused to stop, but the separatists soon secured Kalashnikov rifles and fired on such cars. Oleksii knew a family killed in such an incident.
“That was the beginning of everything. For me, it was a period of unreality,” he says.
Not long afterwards, he and Tetiana had friends over to celebrate her birthday, when they heard what sounded like fireworks. Separatists had destroyed the electricity network, plunging the neighbourhood into darkness.
People perceived as a threat or pro-Ukrainian were being snatched off the street. One of his activist friends was rescued after a month and a half of captivity and ill-treatment.
“He was resilient and strong … but after his rescue, he said, ‘No, I give up, I’m going to leave this area – and you should do the same.'”
Oleksii and Tetiana, who was seven months pregnant, fled to a town near the Sea of Azov, hoping the situation would soon improve.
However, separatists seized swathes of territory and in April 2014 declared “people’s republics”, including in and around Luhansk. Soon afterwards Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula.
In July that year, a Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was hit by a Russian-made missile while flying over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people, including one New Zealand citizen and one New Zealand resident.
An international team of investigators later concluded the missile was brought in from Russian territory and fired from an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
About 14,000 people were killed in the Russia-Ukraine conflict from 2014 until January this year, the UN says, more than 3000 of whom were civilians.
That toll has massively increased since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, days after it officially recognised the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic. Moscow claims the war is a “special military operation” to “deNazify” Ukraine.
“Everything began in 2013. They started with Kalashnikovs. Now it’s Iskanders [missiles] and bombs,” Oleksii says.
“I saw it from the beginning. It’s getting madder and madder.”
Ukraine will prevail, “100 per cent”, he insists – but needs the help of the international community, including to rebuild the war-shattered economy.
“People in Ukraine did incredible things even during peaceful times, but now with the war, they are doing impossible things.
“The invasion is like a kind of illness or a cancer … but we will stop this at our border.”
‘We just need to know we are not alone’
Life was golden for Iryna Artomova and Roman Dubinin before the invasion.
The couple lived in the eastern Ukraine town of Kramatorsk and owned a business that was also a passion – running an aquarium with thousands of exotic fish and marine animals, which wowed visitors, especially children on school excursions.
The doors shut after Kramatorsk came under heavy attack from Russian forces when the invasion began.
Roman joined the territorial defence unit and learned how to “cook” Molotov cocktails.
A missile strike on the local railway station killed dozens of people, including children, who were waiting for evacuation trains. The hundreds injured included an 11-year-old whose legs were amputated after being shredded by the blast.
Around town, building windows were covered with plywood, traffic lights and elevators stopped working, and a curfew began at 7pm.
Pharmacies ran out of medicine, food was hard to find and news reports warned the city was close to being encircled. Air raid sirens cut through the gloom of winter for hours on end.
“Sometimes when the siren was off you could still hear it in your ears, it was just devastating and intimidating,” Iryna says.
A missile landed just 150m from their flat, and a relative in a nearby city died after the electrical substation he worked at was struck by the Russians. He was alive in the rubble but wasn’t rescued in time.
Iryna sent her aunt, who lives across the border in Russia, videos and news of the destruction but was told, “No, it’s your bombs, it’s not Russian bombs” – a denial of reality informed by the propaganda of Russian State TV and news services.
“I answered, ‘What are your military doing here?’ She could never answer in a rational way. Our contact deteriorated and we don’t speak anymore.”
On April 24, Iryna and the couple’s 14-year-old daughter, Mariia, fled to Lviv, a city far from the fighting in Ukraine’s west.
Huge numbers were leaving Kramatorsk, and many dropped off their pets to Roman – the aquarium population grew by 250 fish, a newt and a turtle.
He spent his days looking after the aquarium – securing a generator that proved critical when power was cut for two days, wrangling supplies of fish food – and at night worked for the defence unit.
Often he’d get just a couple of hours’ sleep and one meal a day, and in the following weeks he became exhausted and lost 10kg.
Finally, he reluctantly agreed to leave for Lviv and escaped last month, after training others on how to maintain the aquarium in his absence. He also picked up Iryna’s 66-year-old diabetic father from his home near the Russian border.
Keeping the aquarium running isn’t cheap, and while Iryna has found work as an accountant with an NGO in Lviv, Smart Medical Aid, the family rely on supporters making donations and buying tickets to be used whenever possible in the future.
Kramatorsk remains in Ukrainian control but is near the front, and civilians are regularly killed by Russian shelling. Much of the town is in ruins.
Roman’s 23-year-old son, a police officer, has stayed in the east and survived close calls including being hunted by a Russian drone.
The immense stress and sadness of the war is written on the couple’s faces and in their body language. They’re desperate to go home but know that could be years from now.
“There are millions of broken lives,” Roman says of Russia’s invasion that’s now approaching its seventh month.
“People have lost their lives, others have lost their relatives and their homes. And all for no reason.
“We are strong and we do our best to protect ourselves. Every Ukrainian does a little bit to contribute to it.
“We just need to know we are not alone in this.”