"I tell my brother that if we don't leave now, we will die here because there is no going back": the story of the deputy director of Rubizhne school No. 3

Mariia Biliakova (Vostok SOS)
"I tell my brother that if we don't leave now, we will die here because there is no going back": the story of the deputy director of Rubizhne school No. 3

Mykhailo Katralieiev lived in Rubizhne with his brother, worked as a geography teacher, and became a vice-principal at school No. 3.

Mykhailo had a gut feeling of trouble since the press conference where Russia recognised the self-proclaimed L/DPR". Then, at around 6 am on February 24, the first explosions were heard in Rubizhne. The principal informed the staff and students that they did not need to come to school, but she and the vice-principals still went to have a meeting. Afterwards, they decided they would be on duty at the school, monitor the situation, stock up on food and water, and arrange safe places in their apartments. The school also had a basement welcoming everyone from the first day.

"Every day it was getting worse and worse," Mykhailo recalls. "On March 6, they cut off the electricity and water, but the gas was still on. There is no centralised heating in the city at all, and I had an electric one. It was cold, so we warmed up with a gas stove and oven. I arranged a place in the corridor but slept in a bed."

On March 9, the principal and her sister moved to the school's basement. She and her family lived in residential district 8, one of the first to be hit. From there, Russians advanced on Rubizhne. 

On that day, Mykhailo's younger brother moved in with him and managed to evacuate his family. Later, it proved impossible, as the battle line gradually moved from the north and west of the town to the south. From that day on, the shelling intensified, and Mykhailo and his brother spent the night in the corridor. 

"There was a furniture store next to our house. A shell hit it on March 13 at about 9 pm. The shockwave and shrapnel destroyed the window and furniture in my room. "The house was shaking so much that I thought the ceiling was going to fall," the teacher describes. "My brother and I decided it was dangerous here; we had to do something, run somewhere. So we quickly dressed, took my two dogs and tried to run out of the entrance, but we couldn't because the blast wave threw us back. We waited for about half an hour for a quiet moment to run to school."

More than a thousand people were in the school's basement, and it could not accommodate everyone, so people slept in the corridors on the first floor. There were no windows left in the school because the building had already been hit by artillery. 

It was also cold in the basement, so we slept with our clothes on and lit fires to keep warm. We cooked on them with food from the school canteen; there was no water, so we had to melt the snow. 

When there was silence, Mykhailo would run home and boil a kettle because there was still gas in the apartment and then bring it to the school so that people could drink hot water. 

Occasionally, the rescuers brought technical water and food: convenience food, pasta, and flour. But on March 16, they could not come. The next day, the first Russian soldiers began to appear in the school area. They entered the school and checked documents and school records. A few days later, a grenade launcher was placed near the school fence and fired at the industrial area.

"The occupiers claimed that 'Nazis' lived in the area of the former Krasitel plant, and they were constantly shooting there," says Mykhailo. "In peacetime, I used to walk my dogs in that area and never saw anyone there. There was nowhere to hide. There is a boiler house opposite our school. A tank drove up there and fired toward Lysychansk, Novodruzhevsk, Pryvillia."

From March 16, the military spent the night in the basement of the school, and during the day, they roamed the first floor, in the primary school wing, where there were laptops, interactive whiteboards and projectors. Later, they stole all the equipment.

On March 22, all school shelter residents were ordered to disperse because it would be "hot" in the area. Mykhailo and his brother had considered leaving the city before, but the buses were leaving from Yuzhna, seven kilometres away, under constant shelling. The only way out was to go to the occupied territory. 

On March 23, Mykhailo's friend ran to the school and took them and other people to school No. 2, where people were being evacuated. Waiting for the evacuation, Mykhailo and his brother stood there from eight in the morning until four in the evening, as they were refused because they had a dog. Their second dog had died under shelling the day before. While the brothers were standing in line, a tank with the letter "Z" arrived, stopped 150 metres from the evacuation point, shot off and drove away. After a while, a return shell hit a nine-storey building near where the people were hiding. Then another one exploded in the schoolyard. 

Around four o'clock in the evening, Mykhailo and his brother realised there was no point in waiting any longer and that they would not be leaving that day. However, as soon as the men moved away from the nine-storey building, the shelling started again, and they fell to the ground. Mykhailo covered his dog, shaking with terror and trying to escape.

After the shelling, we saw evacuation KAMAZ trucks coming. It was the last chance: "I told my brother that if we don't leave now, we will die here. There was no turning back." The crowd rushed to the vehicles because the military said those were the last vehicles and they would not be driving anymore. Clashes broke out; people were pushing each other. 

"I push my younger brother into the van, throw the dog to him, and try to get onto it myself, but an LPR soldier holds my backpack and won't let me in," Mykhailo recalls. But somehow, we managed to hide and were taken away." 

The people were brought to Novoastrakhan, Luhansk region, and left to wait for evacuation buses to take them to Starobilsk for "distribution". But the brothers saw their friends renting a minibus and asked to go with them. 

"We stayed in the village for a month," says Mykhailo. "During this time, we wanted to recover so that we could at least not hear the explosions. But even 110 kilometres away from our hometown, we could hear it being bombed and see fighters and bombers flying from the territory of Russia."

All this time, the village had no internet, so the brothers could not contact their relatives. Finally, when they did manage to do so, their brother's wife found a driver who was ready to take them from the Russian to the Latvian border. 

At the Russian border, the men were filtered, checked, asked tricky questions, searched for contacts with the Armed Forces or police, checked their phones and laptops, and accessed their social media. 

Mykhailo's brother had served in the army, so he was fingerprinted and interrogated by the FSS. But they let him through. At two in the morning, the brothers drove to Moscow, from there to the Latvian border, and then moved to Poland. 

For a while, Mykhailo settled in Warsaw, worked at a meat processing plant and taught online at a school. Later he returned to Ukraine, where he still teaches: "After all, home is home, and it's still better at home."