"In Severodonetsk, I started building my life anew. I started dreaming, but everything went back to zero": the story of a teacher at a Severodonetsk school

Mariia Biliakova
"In Severodonetsk, I started building my life anew. I started dreaming, but everything went back to zero": the story of a teacher at a Severodonetsk school

Olena Petrenko (name changed for security reasons) moved to Severodonetsk in 2015 when she lost hope of a quick liberation of her native Pervomaisk. At first, she stayed with a friend, then the whole family saved up money for a one-room apartment, but it was finally their own. Olena lived with her elderly mother while her son and daughter-in-law rented a separate apartment.

On February 24, at four a.m., Olena received a phone call from a colleague who told her that a full-scale war had broken out. Olena rushed to her school, where the children began to arrive. That day, the teachers called the parents, warned them that there would be no classes, calmed the children down, and sent them home.

After that, the school staff gathered for a meeting — they decided to hand out employment record books, and as soon as they had sorted out the documents, a powerful explosion rang out in the city not far from the school. After that, the teachers were sent home — it was the last day at the school for Olena.

Both the school and the house where Olena lived were located in the Novyi district of Severodonetsk, on the eastern outskirts of the city. It was the first to be hit by Russian artillery.

At home, Olena began preparing for a possible departure from the city and packed bags with spring and summer clothes. Olena and her family also stocked up on food, drinking water, and service water because they had the experience of surviving in the city during hostilities. On the second or third day, Olena's friends from Shchastia, which had already been almost destroyed, came to visit her.

"My friends from Shchastia came to visit me, they evacuated from there with their small children," Olena recalls the beginning of the war. "We tried to put them on an evacuation train on February 27 or 28. But on that day, there were hits on the railway tracks near Komyshuvakha, and the train did not leave."

Almost until the beginning of March, Severodonetsk had electricity, gas, and water. From time to time, explosions were heard but at first somewhere in the suburbs, where the Ukrainian military was stationed. Nevertheless, Olena and her son cleaned the basement of the house and brought a few beds in. They hoped the fighting would not reach Severodonetsk but they were prepared for different scenarios. Those days were nerve-wracking for everyone — both adults and children. Olena constantly kept in touch with the students of her class, trying to cheer everyone up.

On the morning of March 5, the house where Olena lived came under fire. At that time, she was in the apartment, the family had just had breakfast. The explosion smashed the windows, and shards pierced the apartment. After March 5, such shelling took place every day, sometimes several times a day. Olena and her family moved to live in the basement.

They covered the windows of the apartment with tape but realised that it was useless — the tape flew out with every explosion. However, in between shelling, they would run to the apartment to eat and go to the toilet. Olena also had a generator, and they switched it on briefly to charge their phones. There was even a little gas in the pipes, so they could heat up a mug of water if they had time to wait for it to boil.

"We didn't go further than the building entrance because it was scary," Olena describes life under shelling. "You come out of the basement, stand at the entrance, and then the shelling starts, and you don't know where it will hit. Once we saw a shell-shocked person lying near our house after a shelling, we tried to call an ambulance, but by that time, they had stopped going to new districts."

Between March 5 and 11, the shelling of the district became more intense. At that time, Ukrainian troops were stationed there, so Olena decided to leave the city before the situation got even worse. Similarly, other residents of the building gradually moved to other districts, as it became unsafe to stay at home, even in the basement. On March 11, Olena and her family left the city.

After leaving, Olena and her colleagues looked for photos of the school on social media and saw that the building was badly damaged — there was a direct hit near the maths classroom, followed by a fire. Despite the destruction of the building, the school continued to operate. The majority of the school staff moved to the territories controlled by the Ukrainian government and resumed their work online. Olena's students successfully passed their exams and even had a graduation party.

"In Severodonetsk, I started to build my life anew," says Olena, "I lifted my wings and started dreaming about something, but suddenly everything went back to zero. But now I have only one inner emotion — everything will be Ukraine!"