Nine days after the war began in Ukraine, Viktoria Kovalenko and her husband Petro decided to leave Chernihiv to keep their children safe: 12-year-old Veronika and one-year-old Varvara.
Victoria told BBC reporters how this attempt to escape civilians’ systematic and relentless shelling turned out.
…When the family drove their car to the city’s outskirts, rocks blocked the road near the village of Yahidne. The man stopped to remove the obstacle. And at that time, the shooting started.
The wreckage wounded Victoria in the head, causing heavy bleeding. Veronica’s eldest daughter started screaming in the most substantial fear, her hands were shaking very much.
– She got out of the car, AND I followed her. Then I saw her fall down. When I came closer, her head was gone,” recalls Viktoria.
A Russian shell hit the car, and a fire broke out. Trying to stay calm as much as possible, Victoria attempted to find a relatively safe place with her little daughter in her arms.
She never saw her husband again. His silence suggested that he, too, was dead.
Victoria and her baby tried to hide from the shelling in a parked car, but the shooting started again. Then she ran to the small building, where Russian patrols found them the next day and took them to Yahidne. There they were thrown into the basement of the local school.
According to Victoria, there were about 40 people in the room. There was no light, so they used candles and lighters. There was not enough air; it was difficult to breathe. Going to the toilet was almost not allowed, so people were forced to use buckets.
Due to the lack of movement, people were ill; THEY sat on chairs AND slept on chairs. We saw their veins, which began to bleed, we tried to make bandages – recalls Victoria.
She had to mentally go through the terrible loss of her husband and eldest daughter. She held on as long as she could, focusing on saving the life of her youngest child.
Victoria asked the Russians to bring Peter and Veronica’s bodies to school so she could bury them. But what was left of them was barely recognizable.
There was nothing left of the burnt car: pieces of Veronica’s burnt clothes, a small bracelet with a heart-shaped pendant, two-car license plates bleached from the fire.
On March 12, unknown persons called her and said she could see the place where the remains of her husband and daughter’s bodies were buried. It turned out that they had been buried in the woods, in two graves marked by crosses with plaques.
…Now Victoria and Varvara are relatively safe in Lviv. Here the woman visited a psychologist for the first time. She admits that she manages to forget about what happened when people surrounded her. But when she is alone, the terrible memories come flooding back.
In memory of her eldest daughter, she left her gift: a keychain in the form of a cute little cow. Attached to it is a small gold ring with engraved letters. Attached to it is a small gold ring with engraved letters.
The woman is convinced that this thing became an amulet for her, which saved her on that terrible day of the ruthless massacre on the outskirts of Chernihiv.