"The house seemed to be flying off into space: everything was crackling. Then we saw a shell hit the neighbouring house": the story of a methodology teacher from Sievierodonetsk

"The house seemed to be flying off into space: everything was crackling. Then we saw a shell hit the neighbouring house": the story of a methodology teacher from Sievierodonetsk

Iryna Kostiuchenko (name changed for security reasons) worked as a teacher in Sievierodonetsk, the Luhansk region. On the afternoon of February 24, 2022, the street where she lived and the school where she worked shook when a rocket exploded nearby. There were no students in the school, and the teachers waited out the danger in a shelter and went home. 

Iryna and her husband lived on Kurchatova Street, on the city's outskirts. On March 5, the Russian military fired mortars at the area around their house, although there were no Ukrainian soldiers nearby and, accordingly, no fighting was taking place.

"We were sitting in the bathroom, and our house seemed to fly off into space: everything was crackling... I thought our house was falling apart," Iryna recalls. "Then we saw that a shell had hit the neighbouring house... There were smashed cars in the yard; glass was flying... After the shelling, about 15 minutes later, rescuers arrived and entered the apartment where the mine had hit with a stretcher. That is, there is a person there".

After this shelling, the Kostiuchenko family decided to move to the apartment of their children, who had already left Sievierodonetsk by that time. The apartment was located in a building in the city centre near the Ice Palace. However, it was still not safe there, which is why Iryna and her husband stayed in the basement of the house almost all the time.

On March 8, Russian troops shelled almost all of Sievierodonetsk with grenade launchers, and the city was in smoke. Iryna says that the shelling was chaotic, there were hits to houses and other buildings, and the impact zone was large. This time, there were no Ukrainian soldiers on the streets. 

Then everything in Iryna's mother-in-law's house on Gagarina Street shattered — the blast wave smashed the windows, interior doors, TV, and furniture. The mother-in-law hid in the bathroom then so she was not injured. Iryna's husband could pick up her mother only the next day - frightened and cold - when the shelling subsided. They packed in a hurry and did not take the older woman's dentures, which are essential now. 

On March 13, the Kostiuchenko family left for Starobilsk, already occupied by the Russian army. Many of their relatives were in Starobilsk, it was quiet, and they had a place to stay. 

"We went there, but we went back 50 years," says Iryna, "I saw what was happening in Starobilsk on the streets. There were a lot of people, and they were from Sievierodonetsk. There was a constant patrol, probably from the Luhansk People’s Republic. They were not Russian soldiers because their uniforms were two or three sizes bigger, they had belts and boots like the ones worn by the Soviet army, and they wore white armbands. They walked around the city and kept order. I didn't see them making comments or saying anything to anyone."

In Starobilsk, Iryna saw many buses bringing  Rubizhne residents. But she did not know if it was a forced transfer or if people were going of their own free will. People spent the night in a Starobilsk school and were taken somewhere further east, probably to Russia.

In early April, Iryna learned that her father had died in Sievierodonetsk. He was 80 years old and had poor mobility, and Iryna's mother stayed with him all the time. That is why they did not leave the city, shelled daily. However, her father was not killed; he died of anxiety and living in difficult conditions. He was buried at the "Forest Dacha", and the funeral home employees placed the last cross they had left.

On April 13, the Kostiuchenko family left the occupied territory. As it turned out, it was the last day they could safely go.

"We were travelling in extreme conditions," says Iryna. "We left Svatove, there were a lot of people standing around, and we could hear explosions somewhere nearby. Suddenly, 20 cars started moving, and we joined this column. While driving, I couldn't even list the villages we passed because the signs were broken... Then, we saw a Russian army mortar firing somewhere on a hill. I saw this fire directly; the mines were flying...Some of the cars turned back; probably seven of us left; we did not want to go back...It was April 13, and on April 14, a [civilian] convoy was already shot on this road; people were killed and wounded." 

The Kostiuchenko family moved to the Kyiv region, and after her father's funeral, Iryna's mother came to visit them. It is difficult for Iryna and her husband to start life anew, make plans, and dream about something. Iryna got a job in a supermarket as a cleaner because every penny counts in her family's situation.

In the Kyiv region, Iryna learned about the fate of the school where she worked. First, as the building had a large basement, civilians from nearby houses hid there, and later, when street fighting broke out in Sievierodonetsk, so did the Ukrainian military. 

"The shells hit the schoolyard; there was a fire, and half of the school burned down," Iryna describes the situation in April and May. "The military aimed at the schoolyard directly, so the school was damaged. The residents spent the night in the basement and cooked... I know that Vostok SOS evacuated people from there at the last instant. There were also parents with children from my class."

Iryna keeps in touch with her students, some of whom remained in the occupation. All of them are worried; they wish things were different and there was no war. They wish everything were the way it used to be.

"This generation of children was raised on Ukrainian values and culture. They know and sing the anthem. These are children who are already in Ukraine with their hearts, and I can imagine what is going on in their minds right now..." says Iryna, "They fail to understand everything; they are hurt, they are scared. And their parents are also confused; they don't know what to do and how to live their lives."