Editor's Note: The village of Vysokopillia, Kherson Oblast, was reported to have been liberated on Sept. 4. Most of Ukraine's southern Kherson Oblast was occupied by Russia in the early days of the all-out war.
KRYVYI RIH, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast – Olena Butiaeva could never have imagined the only wish she would have on her 41st birthday would be for freedom.
Butiaeva rang in her birthday on April 23 in the basement of her apartment building in Vysokopillia, a temporarily occupied village in Kherson Oblast, where she had been sheltering from Russian shelling and airstrikes for two months.
Her birthday wish appeared to have been granted when rumors circulated that Russian forces had started to allow civilians to evacuate the village on foot – no cars or bikes allowed.
Butiaeva helped her bedridden mother into a wheelbarrow and, with her 18-year-old daughter Lia in tow, set off towards the contact line.
But just as they were about to reach the last Russian checkpoint, Butiaeva’s will gave way to the pain in her arms and she was unable to continue.
Butiaeva told her daughter to keep going. “I watched her yellow backpack moving for a while but then I stopped looking,” she said.
“I thought I would never see my daughter again,” she continued.
Butiaeva turned around and pushed the wheelbarrow carrying her mother back to Vysokopillia.
Survival under occupation
When Butiaeva returned from her attempted escape, her home of Vysokopillia had already been under Russian occupation for a month and a half.
Her neighbor with whom she barely spoke before the war wished her a happy birthday upon her arrival.
“I feel dead,” Butiaeva responded.
According to her, Russian troops would kill people on the street as they were talking on the phone. They would kidnap and torture male residents.
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Russian troops forbade residents from burying people in local cemeteries, forcing them to bury their loved ones in their own yards, Butiaeva said.
She recounted how she and her family had to boil and consume wastewater, as there was no drinking water available. They would eat potato and onion seedlings to stave off hunger.
“We were starving,” Butiaeva said, crying.
She noted that Russian soldiers once entered the basement where she had been sheltering and asked her daughter to write up a list of groceries that they needed. While they did bring the items her daughter had requested, Butiaeva did not take kindly to the gesture.
“The thing is, prior to that, they took away everything we had. Everything,” she said.
When Butiaeva returned to Vysokopillia that day, her neighbor informed her that she had hidden her car away. Should Russian forces refuse to let them evacuate by bicycle through the “green corridor” the next day, Butiaeva and her neighbors would get in the car and flee through Russian-occupied territory.
While the plan was undoubtedly dangerous, remaining in Vysokopillia was an unbearable prospect.
Escape at all costs
The next morning, Butiaeva, her mother, and her neighbors, Olena and Vitalii, scrambled to pack their belongings.
Butiaeva managed only to take her documents, some underwear, and three photographs. The car was already filled to the brim with her neighbors’ possessions.
While she knew very little of her neighbors before the war, Butiaeva said they “became family” while sheltering in the basement.
The plan was to reach Ukrainian-controlled territory, all the while lying to Russian troops by saying that they were going to temporarily occupied Kherson Oblast. Instead of continuing towards Kherson Oblast, they made a detour close to the village of Davydiv Brid, near Mykolaiv Oblast.
“We would stop to let Russian military equipment pass by. There were explosions all around in the fields… One shell hit a warehouse and set it on fire,” Butiaeva said. She said they also had to maneuver around a mined tunnel.
Their car was one of many fleeing Russian occupation that day.
“There was a car driving in front of us and a loaf of bread was visible in its rear window. I saw it and started crying,” Butiava said of her immense hunger. “I wanted bread so badly – I can’t describe it with words.”
The group arrived in Kryvyi Rih, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, after a journey that took 14 hours instead of the usual two. Butiaeva reunited with her daughter Lia, who had been staying with a relative, and settled into a dormitory for internally displaced people with her mother.
One of many
Like Butiaeva and her family, the other residents at the dormitory fled to Kryvyi Rih to escape Russian aggression.
Among them is Lidiia Karpenko, 72, from the temporarily occupied village of Lyubimivka, Kherson Oblast.
When Russian troops first invaded Lyubimivka, she took shelter from heavy shelling in a basement. “It was an ordinary basement where we stored potatoes and now we stored ourselves as well,” Karpenko said.
She recounts the fear that the children sheltering in the basement felt at the sound of artillery fire as Russian forces advanced towards Butiaeva’s hometown of Vysokopillia.
“They were such good kids, (they) knew so many poems – but the thing is that they started to stutter,” Karpenko said.
“We were numb with fear,” she continued, “I spent just a week there, I couldn’t bear more.”
Karpenko left Lyubimivka for another temporarily occupied village in March, after which she fled to Kryvyi Rih on April 22 using the same route as Butiaeva.
While she has everything she needs to survive at the dormitory in Kryvyi Rih, Karpenko says she doesn’t feel at home.
“I have nothing of my own, it’s all someone else’s. My belongings remained at home,” she said.
Karpenko’s nephew, who stayed in Lyubimivka, told her that Russian troops looted her home when she left.
Once displaced, now volunteers
Many of the volunteers working at the dormitory are internally displaced people themselves. While some fled Russian aggression over the past few months, others arrived at the dormitory nearly a decade ago when Russia invaded eastern Ukraine.
Stas Adasko, 20, reached Kryvyi Rih in mid-April from Snihurivka, the only temporarily occupied village in Mykolaiv Oblast.
He walked with his mother, his four sisters, and his dog for kilometers on foot until they made it to Ukrainian-controlled territory. His sisters and mother left Ukraine while Adasko remained in Kryvyi Rih where he works as a volunteer at a help center.
Nadiia Aleksandrova, one of the center’s coordinators, arrived at the center in Kryvyi Rih with her children in 2014 from a Russian-occupied part of Luhansk Oblast. When Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine broke out on Feb. 24, she knew she had to help.
According to Aleksandrova, “nothing should be done for internally displaced people without internally displaced people.”
“I realized that I had to be there because there would be a huge number of people arriving who would not know what to do with their lives,” said Aleksandrova.
Kryvyi Rih has welcomed 60,000 people fleeing Russia’s all-out war since Feb. 24, according to the city council. Those arriving from neighboring Kherson Oblast are given free accommodation and food, while those coming from other oblasts are provided with free public transport.
The volunteer hub, which is set up on the premises of a local culture center, is consistently crowded as evacuation buses arrive from afflicted areas around the clock.
“Daily, we lift from 60 to 80 tons of humanitarian aid,” said Aleksandrova.
Stations to help displaced people receive legal, banking, and employment counseling are installed in one corner of the hall. In another, areas with shoes and clothing up for grabs.
“We really want to celebrate (Ukraine’s) victory on Independence Day,” Aleksandrova said, referring to Aug. 24.
“We dream about it – to close the center, to give away everything we have and mind our own business,” she continued. “But as a native of Luhansk, I understand like no one else that it could take a while for this war to end. We are ready for anything.”