"When the occupiers came to Popasna, we decided that we did not want to live under occupation": the story of a teacher from Komyshuvakha Lyceum in the Luhansk region

Mariia Biliakova (Vostok SOS)
"When the occupiers came to Popasna, we decided that we did not want to live under occupation": the story of a teacher from Komyshuvakha Lyceum in the Luhansk region

Before the full-scale invasion, Mariia Bozhenko (name changed for security reasons) lived in Komyshuvakha and worked as a biology teacher and extracurricular activities organiser. She had her first feeling that something bad was about to happen about a week before the full-scale war started. On February 17, the so-called "LPR" militants used Grad multiple rocket launchers to shell a school in Vrubivka, located near Komyshuvakha. Even though only the buildings were damaged by the shelling, Mariia was anxious. At the same time, the teaching staff received their employment record books — everyone was waiting for something but didn't know what exactly.

On the morning of February 24, Mariia was getting ready for work and, as usual, opened the news. She saw a post by Serhii Haidai (Luhansk Governor until March 2023) about the urgent evacuation.

"It was a shock because it hadn't sunk in yet that the war was starting," says Maria. "The first thing I did was call our principal and ask her, 'What should we do? Should we go to work or evacuate?' She replied, 'We are not going to work. It's up to everyone to decide on evacuation.'"

The first two days in Komyshuvakha were relatively calm, but on February 26, Mariia heard the first explosions. Her husband was working shifts in Sievierodonetsk at the time. Mariia had already packed an emergency suitcase with money, documents, and warm clothes. She grabbed her son and ran to her mother, who lived on the first floor of the house. And as soon as everyone ran into the basement, the walls started to tremble. When the shelling stopped, Mariia looked out of the basement and heard her neighbour shouting: "The house next door is on fire."

That day, the village and the railway line were shelled from the occupied territory. Due to the shelling, the train to Kyiv did not leave Popasna. And the next day, public transport stopped working — Mariia's husband could not return to Komyshuvakha from Sievierodonetsk. He was given a lift to Loskutivka and then went home on foot (the distance between Loskutivka and Komyshuvakha is 17 km).

The last relatively quiet day was February 28. On this day, Mariia and her husband cleaned the basement of their house, stocked up on water, arranged sleeping places, and brought warm clothes. They even went to Popasna to withdraw money because they had just received their salary.

Since March 1, Komyshuvakha has been under fire. The shelling came from the occupied territory every day, several times a day. They shelled the streets, the infrastructure, the outpatient clinic, and the kindergarten.

Mariia's family stayed in the basement almost all the time, but they also had to run out to the house to get food and water between shelling. From time to time, the electricity went out. Sometimes there was no gas, so they had to use the fireplace to keep warm. One time Mariia heard that they were giving out bread at the school. When it got quiet, Mariia ran to the school and did not recognise the village.

"I was running fast and saw the destroyed clinic, the mine craters on the road, and everything in the school was damaged," says Mariia. "We started thinking about fleeing because the shelling was constant, every day... When we heard that the occupiers had entered Popasna, we decided we did not want to live under occupation. Even if we are captured quickly, without destruction, we do not want to live under occupation."

Mariia and her family left on March 20. The day before, there was heavy shelling with Grad. It started unexpectedly, no one had time to run to the basement — everyone fell to the floor in the hallway. Explosions were heard very close by, and it seemed that the next shell would hit their house. The first thing Mariia and her son said as soon as the shelling ended was, "Why haven't we left yet?"

The Bozhenko family settled in a village in the Dnipro region, and in April, they tried to evacuate their parents, who had refused to leave in March. Mariia's mother was still in Komyshuvakha at the time, the shelling did not stop, and she did not leave the basement. They managed to get her out.

Her husband's father, who lived in the village of Pidlisne, still refused to evacuate. Earlier, he had come under shelling and was left deaf as a result of post-concussion syndrome. Since May 10, there was no contact with him, and on May 17, they found out he had died. The man came under shelling, but because he was shell-shocked, he did not hear it and did not have time to hide. He was buried in the garden near the house.

After Komyshuvata was occupied, the residents of the house where the Bozhenko family lived were deported to other occupied territories by the Russian military. They were mostly elderly people who did not want to leave their homes even under fire. They were forced to walk three kilometres to Oleksandropillia at gunpoint, take turns carrying a paralysed woman, and then be taken by Kamaz trucks to Pervomaisk.

They were not allowed to take any of her belongings and were not even allowed to unleash their dog. The paralysed woman later died in Pervomaisk. A fellow villager told the Bozhenkos about it.

Currently, Komyshuvakha is under occupation and can only be accessed with passes. Those who were able to enter the village say that only a few houses, a school, and a railway station have survived. All property has been taken out of the buildings, and even the linoleum and sockets have been removed. The Russian military stayed at the school, the sports and assembly halls were shelled twice.

However, the Komyshuvakha Lyceum continued to work remotely.

"We gathered all the children who contacted us. We even had an online graduation," says Mariia. "Our pupils received their school graduation certificate. And we have already enrolled 6 students in the 10th grade. We hope that the school will continue to operate. At least remotely, but it will."