24 hours of Ukrainian mother

On April 8, the head of the Sumy military administration, Dmytro Zhyvytskyi, announced that the territory of the region had been liberated from ruscist invaders. Ten days earlier, the Ukrainian administration returned to the village of Boromlya, which had experienced significant destruction. Now it is coming back to life, however, the memory of the days of occupation will forever remain in the villagers’ memory. 

– In the afternoon, we went looking for them again. By the cafe opposite the village council, we saw a GAZelle with the commandant at the wheel. His nickname is Medved (Bear). I asked him: “Where are my boys?” He says nothing. I ask again. He says nothing. There were two people on the doorstep, and the younger one pointed “ta-ta-ta-ta” with a machine-gun… I asked Medved: where? What basement or forest belt should I search? Where did you leave them? Not a word…

– I already understood what I was in for. And while we lay tied up all night, I had only one thought: if only mom wouldn’t look for us…

We met when Boromlya was liberated and Nina came to Sumy with her husband and son. She had to restore bank cards, buy new mobiles instead of the stolen ones.

– Well, not only mobiles were stolen… We were about to leave today when Andriy asked where I had put his sneakers. They’re in their usual place, I said. We searched everything but found nothing. When they had rummaged around the house, they also took the sneakers… 

Ruscists entered Boromlya on the first day of the war. But – in transit. Then there were three days of violent shelling and bombing. They barraged the village center, destroyed a pharmacy, a kindergarten, a municipal enterprise, hit houses… People hid in basements and cellars. Nina’s family was also hiding. They also took their grandchildren, who lived in the shelled area.

Then the occupiers entered thoroughly and set up a commandant’s office.

– But we didn’t see them here until March 18, as our street is remote. And then they appeared. They drove past the yard to the end of the street, 150 meters from our house. They put six SAUs there. And from there they shot in the direction of Trostianets, Buimer… Once after 15 minutes of shooting – people counted later – there were 50 shells left…

In the first days of that cannonade, the villagers tried to hide, but then they realized that the shooting was conducted from them, and they hid only when they heard a plane. At night, they went out to listen to what was happening – machinery was humming, some generators were humming from the center. But on the 23rd, the ruscists were hit too. 

There was no light in the houses then. Mobiles were charged from a generator (luckily, the occupiers didn’t find it), from car batteries. People switched on the mobiles only to make a call: they tried to extend their phones’ battery life and the connection was bad.

– I found some connection near the barn, started dialing, and then there came a blast! Andriy was standing opposite – close to the kitchen, and he says, the roof of the shed began swaying.

Indeed, large slate nails stuck out to their full height. The boys had hammered them in the morning. In the meantime, my husband went to his cousin, who lives nearby: people said that her windows had been blown out. And the brothers, Andriy and Serhiy, having finished their work, went to make a call. They said that they found a spot where they could get a connection, and went up to the pond. Nina was working in the yard, and here runs my husband, shouting: where are the boys? She looked outside the yard – there was a car with a direction finder spinning. She came out: who are you? Men in uniform, of all ages, said they were from the DNR. “I’m looking for my boys,” she explained. “We’ve already taken them,” they said.

Nina still remembers almost every word of the conversations that took place then – the tension seems to have recorded everything on a memory tape.

The leader of the group, nicknamed Major, not a young man, said he was from Donetsk and went to fight as soon as mobilization was announced: “You’ve been shooting at us for eight years, you know.”

“I don’t know who is shooting at you. We didn’t ask you to come here,” she answered.

Later she found out that the boys’ phones had been taken away. They were forced to undress in order to see if they had tattoos, bruises – maybe from body armor. Nina and her husband were also made to give their mobiles: “We’ll give them to our Russian brothers to check.”

Then the “brothers” approached.

– … They were in neat uniforms, with patches – a white frame embroidered on a black square and the letter Z in white. Not something painted or stuck on, it was done thoroughly. They had prepared, you could tell…

The first thing they asked was if we knew Bandera. “Yes,” I say, “this is a person who fought for Ukraine’s independence.” “Do you know that he fought against the Soviet Union?” “He did,” I say, “both against the Germans and against the Soviets. And you know that he was in a Nazi camp?” They stopped asking.

The DNR militants brought our sons and gave them over to the Russians. Then they began snooping around the household. They found a backpack with laptops in the cellar, hidden from the blasts, and took it away – “for inspection”. Andriy tried to explain that the laptops were turned off, not charged, because there was no light. No, “for inspection”!

The boys were also taken away – for inspection. I say: where will you take them? What’s there to check? One called his girlfriend, another called a friend and an aunt.

– We’ll check, and if we don’t find anything, we’ll let them go in a couple of days.

– And if you do, what?

– They’ll do time.

– Where will they do time? Where will you jail them here?

– In Russia.

– But on what grounds will the citizens of Ukraine do time in Russia?

There is no clear answer.

Then they put the boys into their Kamaz or Typhoon. But I had their documents, all their passports in my pocket, I kept them with me. I ask: you’ve taken them, now you’ll drive them somewhere to Belgorod, they have no documents, how will they return? “You can give them to us,” the senior suggested. No, I say, let me go with you and give them myself. “No!” So I won’t give you the passports either.

There were already two cars with direction finders near the yard. The senior officer ordered the DNR men: everyone, go to the dam! They left, carrying something. As we understood later, they carried mines.

– And while they were mining there, that senior started to talk to me. That he’d been fighting since 2014, that “in Donetsk, your soldiers put people in front of them so that we wouldn’t shoot at them.”

And I say: I won’t go far; my colleagues are in Trostianets, close from here. In the middle of winter, your soldiers drove people out of their houses, put them and their children in front of your tanks, and hid in their houses. He fell silent.

And then: “Do you know that Donetsk is being shelled?” And, I ask, who fired at Kharkiv? He: “We. But only the outskirts.” No, I say, while there was light and TV was on, we saw – the center was fired at, a missile flew into the administration building – are these outskirts? He keeps silent again.

Then he started about the freedom of speech. And, I say, what freedom do you mean? No one forbids me anything: here’s a satellite dish, I can watch you, I can watch Ukrainian channels, whatever I want! And I watch YouTube, too.

Here, I say, look, there is a granny walking in the garden, my mother-in-law, 86 years old. A granny like this, who came out with a poster against the war, was handcuffed by your riot police. If it happened here, people would handcuff those riot policemen and overturn the police van. And this was shown on your channel. “Which?” – “Dozhd”. – “It’s banned, it’s oppositional.” – “But it isn’t banned here.” It’s all propaganda, he says. “And you know, we’ve come here from Trostianets, there is a grove, and there are Negroes, Arabs, all stoned and they’re creeping and creeping at us, we are shooting, and they are creeping, they are on your side.”

I think: what bunkum is he talking? I don’t know, I say, about Arabs or Negroes, but I do know that you invited Syrian mercenaries to fight on your side. Again: “That’s propaganda.” I don’t know, I say, your dear Skabeeva reported it, First Channel, Russia…

A pause again, then: “Can you say whatever you like?” Yes, I say, I can say anything! “Well, you oppress Donetsk.” Same old song and dance, like on their TV…

“Why don’t you have Russian in your schools?” Why should we, I ask? What is the official language in Russia? – “The Russian language.” And why should Ukraine need Russian? It’s Ukraine here, so there must be the Ukrainian language.

“You have “1939-1945” written on your monuments to soldiers.” Yes, I say, the war began in 1939. “But the Soviet Union was at war since 1941.” My dear, I say, forget about the Soviet Union. You will not return it! He says nothing…

Where did he see such an inscription? Later, I saw the inscription on our school: “The Great Patriotic War, 1941-1945”. No one has changed it yet. Where did he see it?

In total, there were five or six of them. One was very aggressive, with reddish hair, maybe a Chechen. He looked all nervous and twitchy. When the boys’ phones were taken, he started to check their contents, and found the ruble to dollar exchange rate in a search history on one of the phones: “Why do you need it? Do you have dollars?” – No, I don’t. It’s nothing like that. I was just curious – my son replies.

I say: what are the problems? I also use it, you may check. The war is going on, and I want to know what the Buratino, and self-propelled artillery are, and how the Grad fires. Is it a crime to use the Internet? 

Clearly, they returned neither phones, nor laptops to us. Later, on my Telegram, we saw a photo of the DNR militant who was near our yard. He didn’t even change the SIM card…

They took the boys in the afternoon. Nina did not know what to do. She first took the kids to her former daughter-in-law, because she decided to go look for her sons. Natalka was also worried: despite the divorce, her kids love their father very much and like to spend whole days at their granny’s. So Nina and Natalka agreed to go searching together. But that day they didn’t risk it: they would hardly find the commandant, and it was scary to walk in the dark.

At seven the next morning, as soon as the curfew was over, they got on their bikes.

Nina had an idea how to explain why they urgently needed the boys. She’d say that the car keys were in Andriy’s pocket, so she had to take them and drive her grandchildren out of the shelling. But she was told at the commandant’s office that Commandant Medved was not there. His deputy, a DNR militant nicknamed Pianist, said he knew nothing about the boys. While the women were waiting for the commandant, they again heard a rehearsed story about how our military in Donbas had insulted them for eight years. Then they were advised to go look for guys at the Russians’, who were stationed at the former PMK. 

There, two soldiers, one of Slavic and the other of Asian appearance, reported that no one had been brought to them and sent the women back to the DNR militants. They went. Pianist asked his friends if they knew about the boys. A young man of Nina’s sons’ age said that they had been taken and handed over to the Russians.

– He asks: “Do you remember me?” I remembered him standing near our yard; he asked for some water. He says: “our intelligence has taken them, they are not here.”

We went to the PMK again to ask the intelligence. The already familiar Asian said that the intelligence would be back late in the afternoon. Not knowing what to do next, the women decided to return in the afternoon. But after two p.m., there was no one at the PMK. People said that everyone had left an hour before and warned: do not go into the yard, there may be tripwires.

– In the morning, we saw the DNR militants pulling their bags, agreeing where to put what, who to give it to. But my thoughts kept me from getting into the details. It turned out that our military began to chase the enemies out Trostianets … We went to the commandant again – he was gone! A man in his late 50s was standing nearby, wearing his crossbelts, like commissars wore in the movies; there was a painted GAZelle next to him with the inscription “Maruska” on it. He asks: “What do you want?” We told him again, for the umpteenth time.

He went to Pianist, came back: “Go home, your boys have already left.” But where to? We would meet them because there is only one way! Then he points to the Administrative Service Centre: “Go there, to the Russian commandant’s office.” 

By the cafe opposite the village council, we saw a GAZelle with the commandant at the wheel. A man jumped out of the cafe, shouted: “girls, come here,” and ran back. I approached the car and asked the commandant: “Where are my boys?” He said nothing. I asked again. Nothing. Two men stood at the door of the cafe, and the younger one pointed his weapon at us “ta-ta-ta-ta”. “What are you doing? Do you think I don’t understand what you are showing?” I say. And then to Medved: “Where are they? In which basement or forest belt should I search? Where did you leave them?” He doesn’t say a word. And then that man from the cafe jumps out with a full box of meat, big pieces of meat. “Girls, take it!” What the devil do I need your meat for! Give me my sons back.” He says nothing…

We went on to the Administrative Service Centre: “Who’s in charge here?” I told them everything again. The Russian explained that they had four units in Boromlya, but they don’t keep in touch with each other. So…

Where else should I go? Where to look? We returned to the PMK. My daughter-in-law remembered a large basement in the dormitory; maybe they were lying beaten there… Nina was exhausted, but they continued to search. They didn’t go straight to the basement. They stopped at a small window and saw a stick and a stretched thread through that little window: maybe a tripwire? They began to shout in their might: “Seryoga, Andriy!”

People who were passing by heard them and said: “We’ve just met your boys, they went there.”

– Natasha ran forward, but my legs wouldn’t move. I could hardly make my way … I hugged them – they were alive… Andriy later said that he had been afraid that I would run to look for them. And if I didn’t?..

They spent the night in a metal box: either a container or a car shelter. There were some old things scattered around, and the boys were lying on them. Disgusting macaroni were given to them in the evening. The boys gave them to a dog, but even the dog refused to eat those macaroni. However there was another man of about 60, who had been captured and kept with them in the box, and he said he would eat, because he had not eaten for three days.

Andriy knew what to expect. Before that, they were asked if they had families, kids.

– We answered that Serhiy has and I don’t. They say to Serhiy, – we’ll let you go, and to me – you’re fucked … I had only one thought: if only mom wouldn’t look for us… Then I remembered: the keys are in my pocket, I must give them to Serhiy. I wanted them to kill me right away rather than torture me… Serhiy was sleeping next to me, and I, as the most violent one, was tied up with my hands behind my back. My hands went numb after those eight hours. They were untied only once, when they took me to the toilet. They lift me up, but I say I can’t go. The Russian said calmly, without yanking me: “Wait a minute and you’ll recover.” Then they tied me up again…

In the morning, they opened the box, asked where we were from and promised to free us in a couple of hours. Half a day passed. Through a slit we saw the occupiers actively loading their trucks: some packages, boxes from ATB, children’s bicycles…

Someone came, opened the box, opened the door a little, and said, “I’ll leave the door open. When it gets dark, leave.”  We waited. Then we heard an order outside: “Come on, let’s get out of here!” And then silence. We sat for a while – what are we waiting for? We slowly left, climbed over the fence, across the road – to Natalka’s yard … Alive.

* * *

– They really didn’t like the way we live, – says Nina. – They enter our house: “look, they have a bath and a toilet in the house!” As if it’s a miracle. Our whole street is like this – someone was building, someone was repairing… They came to our godfather, who lives in another part of the village… They also took their mobiles, his wife’s gold, a laptop… And the godfather has a mini-tractor, a mini-harvester in the yard – he is a man of the soil. He has an Audi, and recently has bought a Jeep. It shocked them. One of the occupiers jumped into his yard: “You have a pretty good life here, Bandera, don’t you?” He shot into the Audi windshield and then went into the garage – 15 shots into the Jeep. Get ready, he says, we’ll be back in two days.

In the morning, I ran to look for the boys, and then my godfather’s wife told me: “I saw you and thought, if you don’t find the boys, I’ve already prepared a rope, I’d rather hang myself than they’ll come again and abuse me”…

But I believe – they will not return. Let them go to Russia…

Alla Fedoryna, Sumy

The material was created under the joint project of Ukraine Crisis Media Center and the Estonian Center for International Development with the financial support of the US Embassy in Kyiv and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia.