"We would have stayed until the end if my husband hadn't said that we were interfering with the war": the story of the acting principal of Rubizhne gymnasium No. 4

Tetiana Petrova
"We would have stayed until the end if my husband hadn't said that we were interfering with the war": the story of the acting principal of Rubizhne gymnasium No. 4

"We would have stayed until the end if my husband hadn't said that we were interfering with the war": the story of the acting principal of Rubizhne gymnasium No. 4

Natalia Zhytlova lived in Kreminna, where she was born and grew up. In Rubizhne, she has worked for the last two years as a gymnasium principal on Yuzhna, the city's southern outskirts.

The morning of the first day of the full-scale war in Kreminna was quiet, and Natalia learned about the outbreak of war through the television - on the bus on her way to work, she told students and teachers not to come to class. She immediately scanned the staff's work records at the gymnasium but left the originals in the safe because she did not believe the war would reach Rubizhne.

The residents of Yuzhna had different opinions. Throughout the day, residents came to the gymnasium from the surrounding buildings and asked to open the bomb shelter in the basement. The IDPs from Luhansk, who had already experienced life during the hostilities, were particularly active. They brought mattresses, chairs, and even a baby carriage to the shelter. However, no one stayed overnight that day. 

Natalia stayed at the gymnasium overnight to keep things in order. Her deputy replaced her the following day, and teachers regularly came to the gymnasium.

From 4 March, Natalia could no longer come to work in Rubizhne. The Russian military occupied Nova Krasnyanka and started shooting at the area of the First Mine in Kreminna. That was the first time two civilians were killed in the city. A few days later, they started shelling the area where Natalia lived.

"All the hits were on civilian infrastructure," she emphasises, "There is no non-civilian infrastructure in Kreminna, there were no military facilities in Kreminna... The shelling was constantly coming from the territory of Nova Krasnianka, and artillery fired at Kreminna from there. When we were there, it was artillery".

On March 6, not far away - across the garden from Natalia's house - Russian artillery destroyed the neighbours' house and another house on the outskirts of the town. The same day, Natalia and her sons packed an emergency bag, took the carpet and blankets to the basement, and stockpiled supplies. They were not going to leave, as their sons were already adults, her husband served in a border guard detachment, and Natalia's sister, nephews, and mother were blocked in neighbouring Rubizhne, where the shelling continued unabated.

In addition, Natalia and her sons tried to be helpful to the city. Every evening, they went to the city humanitarian headquarters in the Olimp sports complex to unload humanitarian aid. Natalia also started working as a volunteer at the hospital.

"The first time Grad hit Partyzanska was around March 16-17," Natalia recalls, "I got on my bike and went to look, and the whole house was swept away, all the trees, all the grass, and the sheds... And there were no casualties. Anyway, my uncle was in the house, but he was just scared out of his wits, stunned, and the dog died. I was just working in the hospital and saw this man being brought in."

Although Kreminna suffered from shelling almost daily, Natalia observed that the situation here was not as dire as in neighbouring Rubizhne, where the Russian military wiped out street after street.

"While such horrors were happening in Rubizhne, we were quite safe," Natalia notes, "The territory was under the control of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. It was Ukraine; there was humanitarian aid, and my sons went around unloading this humanitarian aid all the time. We made lists of the people from street to street and brought them this aid. Of course, there was shelling, it was scary, but it was only when it exploded near you that you were scared... We would have stayed until the end if my husband hadn't said we interfered with military operations."

It was early April, and by then, Natalia's mother, sister, and nephews had been taken out of Rubizhne by volunteers, so Natalia and her sons signed up for evacuation. On April 4, they left for Sloviansk, where they were to board an evacuation train. 

They left with two cats and a dog: a German shepherd puppy, frightened by the explosions; they had picked up on the street in early March. Natalia and her sons could not board the first train because it was too crowded. The next train arrived at 4 am. Natalia's family was not allowed to board it either. Natalia burst into tears, and they were allowed to travel in the vestibule.

Natalia now lives in the Lviv region. Here, she found out that the humanitarian headquarters at Olymp had been completely burnt down by shelling. In addition, the Russians destroyed large stocks of food essential for the residents of Kreminna and the surrounding towns.

Natalia also spoke about the fate of the gymnasium. Initially, it was a bomb shelter for civilians, but when street fighting broke out in Rubizhne, the Ukrainian military came to the gymnasium. The people in the shelter were asked to evacuate to Sloviansk, and most of them went by evacuation buses. Later, the military occupied the building, which is why it was hit several times.

"In the TSN newscast when, remember, the orange nitrate wagon exploded at Zoria [April 9, 2022 - author's note]..." Natalia recalls, "our school was in the same story, and it was still flying a yellow and blue flag. We saw that the school was broken, there were no windows in the assembly hall, everything was destroyed... And after the occupation, we didn't take pictures of the school for a long time because the military forbade us to go there. And now I have only a few photos of the destroyed school...".

Despite the loss of the building, the gymnasium managed to resume distance learning and retained most of its students, although it could not teach the first grade. 

The children dream of returning to their native Rubizhne, and they constantly ask in class: "When will we return to Yuzhna?" Natalia always answers: "Soon, pack your bags." They believe in the liberation of the occupied Luhansk region and hope to meet and live in a restored building after the war.