Christian-Zsolt Varga

freier Journalist mit Fokus Ukraine, Ungarn, Osteuropa

2 Abos und 2 Abonnenten

Eesti Päevaleht in Kherson | "They had it all and it was gone in a day." What to do when you lose your home at 80?

English translation: 

The gate of Natalia Gavrylenko’s house in Kherson is covered with splinter holes. But these days, as people in the flooded parts of Kherson and surrounding villages have been evacuated by the Ukrainian military and an informal army of volunteers, the house of the 52-year old woman currently serves as a safe and dry haven. “They had everything in life and it was all destroyed in one day," says Natalia about her two new housemates Aza Shutova (82) and Viktor Perepyolka (81), who just moved in during the last four days, together with their respective dogs.  

Sitting together at the kitchen table, Natalia tries to explain to her older guests that they probably won't be coming home any time soon, if ever. But Viktor hopes for “help from Zelenskiy”. "It will take a long time," Natalia explains very cautiously to the old man, who just arrived yesterday (Thursday) night, as government reconstruction aid is slow to keep up with demand due to the long list of destroyed homes in wartime and the complex situation in Kherson. Viktor shakes his head in disbelief. “All my life’s work is destroyed. I grew the garden, bought a tractor, and renovated the house.” 

But in the midst of the disaster, the flood at least had one positive turn for Viktor. His village of Kardashenka on the Left Bank was occupied almost immediately at the beginning of the Russian war. "But since Tuesday, nobody controls anything there," he says, explaining how Ukrainian volunteers and the military managed to rescue him “by accident”, as he puts it, while the Russians withdrew. 

For Viktor, that also meant: He could finally meet his son again, from whom he had been separated since 24 February 2022 as he lived on the other side of the river. However, since his son's flat in Kherson is also flooded, Viktor initially stays with Natalia, together with Aza, whose daughter happens to be Viktor's son’s wife. Suddenly the old man starts crying as if he is realising all of it just now.  “It was too much for him yesterday”, says Natalia. 

“We walk like Mummies”, comments Aza and adds "It seems like we have to become moles. We will be like them and hide under the ground." The reflective and witty former school headmaster with snow-white hair, arrived on Wednesday at Natalia and her new home. She remembers the moments of her evacuation. "I saw the road turn into a river, but I didn't understand. I couldn't believe it." She continued her daily business in the house until some time later she heard a soldier shouting from the street. "Babushka, are you planning to leave?". "I don't know.", she answered. A few minutes later she heard the shouting again, "Grandmother, where are you, we don't have time". Then someone came and took her away. "When I found myself in the boat a little while later, I lost my sense of reality." 

Aza left her house with only a small bag of documents and her dog. She was one of the last residents to be evacuated in her street on Tuesday, the day after the dam explosion turned the port city of Kherson and the whole region into a disaster zone. "I am very grateful to all the volunteers," she would like to add. "Now the only thought I have is: How am I going to live on?" 

Natalia, who set up a volunteer group with friends and colleagues immediately after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion reports on the problems at the hospital, where many new evacuees are admitted and provided with rooms. "Many of them don't want to be evacuated to other parts of Ukraine, they want to go back home. They have delusions," Natalia says. "So it is very difficult to insist." 

She puts this down to poor communication from the local administration on Tuesday. "There was completely wrong information from the beginning." Many of the volunteers we talked to over the past two days complained that the local authorities were communicating too unclear at the beginning about how badly the disaster would affect the region's residents, so that many decided to wait and see, making evacuations more difficult. Meanwhile, the situation is changing and more and more people are asking to be rescued. 

After Viktor collects himself again, he reminds us of the even worse situation on the other side of the river. He reports what he has heard on the phone from friends and relatives from his village and the surrounding region. "Such a disaster there, people sitting on the roofs, many elderly people screaming for help. But the Russians passing by in boats just shout "drown!" and laugh at them instead of rescuing them.”

Before we leave, Aza wants to make a statement towards the Russians: “You don’t even need to shell us anymore, the water destroyed everything. Are you really enjoying what happens? Does it really give you joy?” 

When we ask Viktor if he would like to add something, he slaps his hands together over his head.  "I wish I never had to think about them. I can think about people. But they are not people for me." 

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