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They mourned loss of their apartment. Then, Russia destroyed their whole city

by Daria Shulzhenko February 29, 2024 9:39 PM 8 min read
A recently bombed residential area is seen amid artillery shelling on Dec. 31, 2023, in Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast. The remaining residents living in basements of residential buildings rely on humanitarian aid. The city is facing attacks on three sides from Russian forces, including continuous bombings. (Pierre Crom/Getty Images)
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Olha Pankova, 39, had hoped to spend the rest of her life in Avdiivka.

She had built a lovely home for herself and her children and wanted to grow old in the small Donetsk Oblast town, once home to almost 30,000 residents.

But that was before Russia turned her dreams into ashes and her hometown into a smoldering pile of rubble.

"I know our home is gone now," Pankova told the Kyiv Independent.

Single mother Pankova and her three kids – Roman, 7, Serhii, 15, and 19-year-old Nadiia – were finally forced to flee Avdiivka in late October, just as Russia intensified the offensive it had launched to capture the city.

Although the children had begged her not to leave their home, staying in the damaged apartment, its windows shattered due to Russian attacks, was no longer possible, says Pankova.

They rented a small house in the village of Novoselivka Persha, about 15 kilometers to the west of Avdiivka, still hoping to return to their home one day. But their hopes were shattered in January, when Pankova discovered that their apartment building in Avdiivka had been completely razed to the ground.

"All the memories, photographs… They were all burnt to ashes, together with our apartment," she says.

As brutal attacks by Russian forces were only increasing in the district, the local authorities then declared a mandatory evacuation of children from Novoselivka Persha, and the family had to flee again.

The destroyed buildings in the area where Olha lived with her kids in Novoselivka Persha. (National Police)

In early February, the police took Pankova, her kids, and their multiple pets from the village and helped them relocate to Zhytomyr Oblast. Soon after, ammunition-starved Ukrainian forces withdrew from Avdiivka and several other villages nearby, while Russia intensified its offensive efforts across several sectors of Ukraine's front line.

Pankova’s family is now one of many that have lost their home to Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Donbas, a region comprising Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, which started in 2014, has displaced over a million Ukrainians, while Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country that started in early 2022 drastically worsened the situation. Although some areas have since been liberated, 3.7 million people were still internally displaced within Ukraine as of February 2024, according to the International Organization for Migration, while nearly 6.5 million are refugees abroad.

Pankova says she had never even thought that at 39, she would have to start her life from scratch in another city. But the Russian invasion gave her no choice.

"We have nowhere to return…" she says.

Home lost, again

Pankova genuinely loved everything about her hometown: Its narrow streets, quietness, the people, and even the grimy heart of the city's life – the coke plant, once one of the largest coke producers in Europe and the town’s major employer.

Russian forces destroyed the plant in fighting to capture the town in February.

It is not the first time the town has fallen under Russian occupation. Located just kilometers away from Russian-occupied Donetsk, Avdiivka was first captured in the spring of 2014 by Kremlin-backed militants.

Back then, Pankova and her two oldest children had to flee their hometown to escape the fighting. They found safe haven at her mother's summer house near Pokrovsk, a small town in Donetsk Oblast about 50 kilometers west of Avdiivka.

The Avdiivka Coke Plant is seen behind a sunflower field in Avdiivka, Ukraine on July 28, 2015. (Oleksii Furman/Getty Images)

With no job and almost no money, they sustained themselves by growing vegetables and fishing at a local pond, Pankova recalls.

Even though Ukraine regained control over Avdiivka in the summer of 2014, Pankova feared for her kids' safety, and the family only returned home in early 2016.

"(Upon returning home) (the children) told me:

'Mom, we are not going anywhere ever again,'" she recalls.

Pankova, who has a disability, committed herself to raising the children and establishing a comfortable household for them. Because her children love animals, they acquired several cats and dogs, all residing in a three-bedroom apartment near the city center.

"We had a normal, comfortable life," recalls Pankova's daughter Nadiia. "I loved it (Avdiivka). I often walked in the parks after school."

The full-scale invasion ended this relatively peaceful life. While Russian-occupied areas started just beyond the town’s southeastern edge, the front line did not move for years after the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine.

That was until Pankova's family, like millions across Ukraine, woke up in fear to explosions on Feb. 24, 2022. But for them, that fear came together with a strong feeling of déjà vu.

This time they decided to stay. Nadiia started volunteering, delivering humanitarian aid across Avdiivka, with Pankova assisting her whenever possible. They got used to living under constant attacks, and without gas or electricity.

"My brother helped me set up a stove outside the building so that I could prepare food for the kids," Pankova says.

In the early fall of 2023, amidst aggressive Russian assaults on the city, their apartment building suffered damage, leading to the windows of their home being shattered.

"In some rooms, the plastic window frames had completely come off," Pankova says. "We covered the windows with an oilcloth and slept together in one room."

Despite all these struggles and horrors, her children fiercely resisted leaving their home.

Nadiia recalls their pets bringing them lots of joy: The family's fourth dog, a tiny Chihuahua, was rescued by them after its owners were killed in one of the Russian attacks on Avdiivka.

"Lots of cats and dogs were abandoned or lost their owners in our city," Nadiia says.

Pankova says she did all she could to convince her oldest children to leave Avdiivka in October. With Russian attacks intensifying and the weather turning colder, living in an apartment with broken windows became increasingly unbearable.

"Serhii agreed to relocate only to Novoselivka (Persha) as it was close to our home," says Pankova.

Starting from scratch

The family spent only three months living in the village of Novoselivka Persha.

Pankova says she and her children got used to living amid brutal Russian attacks in the area. Even when there were power cuts and explosions, her children could attend classes online, and Nadiia continued volunteering.

Pankova revisited her apartment in Avdiivka several times to retrieve belongings. But one day in January, she discovered that their apartment – and the entire building – no longer existed.

Seeing only ruins where once her home had stood broke her heart. But it also made it easier for her to let go. She knew that the safety of her kids came before the memories and love for her hometown.

As Russian attacks continued to intensify in the area, the family was ordered to flee the village. They did so reluctantly.  

A local resident walks in front of a mural on a heavily damaged residential building in the frontline town of Avdiivka, Donetsk region on April 25, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Anatolii Stepanov / AFP via Getty Images)

"(During attacks) I sit in the hall. It’s safe. There are no windows," little Roman told the police officers on video shot during the family’s evacuation from Novoselivka Persha in February.

But it was far from safe where they were: A video published by National Police on Feb. 8 shows the heavy damage done to the village, with large craters in people's yards and houses smashed to ruins.

With their four cats and four dogs, the family took a train to the safer region, Zhytomyr Oblast – hundreds of kilometers away from the front line – where they are now starting their lives again from scratch.

Although they are currently living in a small room at a hospital while looking for a house to rent, Nadiia says they feel happy there. The boys now go to school, and she hopes to get a job soon to help provide for the family.

Pankova has come to terms with the fact that her life in Avdiivka is probably over for good.

"My children told me there is no hope of returning to Avdiivka. So we will try to build a home here," she says.

Note from the author:

Hi! Daria Shulzhenko here. I wrote this piece for you. Since the first day of Russia's all-out war, I have been working almost non-stop to tell the stories of those affected by Russia’s brutal aggression. By telling all those painful stories, we are helping to keep the world informed about the reality of Russia’s war against Ukraine. By becoming the Kyiv Independent's member, you can help us continue telling the world the truth about this war.

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Russia’s now-10-year war against Ukraine has affected every inch of the country, but no other region has taken the brunt of Russian aggression like Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, comprised of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. While the initial eight years of Russia’s invasion only affected a handful o…
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