How to survive in hell, or Vasylyna’s story from Vorzel

Vasylylna, her mother Maria and her sister Maria with the dog

Vasylyna Tomyshynets is an accountant at One Philosophy Group. She loves her job so much and gained a perfect reputation with her colleagues. She is a true believer, considers herself a Greek Catholic, and regularly attends church. Shortly before the war, Vasylyna and her twin sister bought a house in the picturesque village of Vorzel near Kyiv. Actually, there were three people living in the house: Vasylyna, sister Maria and 73-year old mother Maria.

On February 24, 2022, the Tomyshynets family learned from the news that Russia attacked Ukraine. Certainly, it was hard to believe but the hostilities started close to their quiet and nice village. The Russians tried to land their troops in Gostomel at a military airfield. All night you could hear the roar of helicopters and gunshots. Early in the morning on February 25, they were strongly recommended to go to a shelter, as heavy artillery shelling in Vorzel was expected. They did not have to wait long: at 8 am the first powerful explosions were heard nearby. The sisters quickly took their mother and ran to the cellar which turned out to be their shelter. It should be noted that this was just a so-called technical cellar – a 2-meter deep pit for storing vegetables. It was definitely not designed to serve as a bomb shelter. After some time, the number of explosions increased significantly.

Once in a while, mostly in the afternoon, there was a short period of silence. When the girls went outside, they saw a lot of craters from the explosions and shell fragments in the street. Russian artillery “spotted the Nazis” (a bitter irony, as the Russian propaganda, states that there were a lot of Nazis in Ukraine and they invaded Ukraine to liberate us from them) in the newly built kindergarten and turned it into ashes along with an old watchman. The sisters quickly prepared something to eat while they had a chance. Soon Russian artillery resumed heavy shelling, and the Tomyshynets family had to run to an improvised “bomb shelter” again. It was hell, the shells exploded every minute. The earth was so shaken by the powerful explosions that there was a feeling that soon everything would go into the void. After this heavy shelling, a convoy of Russian soldiers entered the village. There is no need to retell the following days because they were the same. The explosions injured the dog. It was heard that the fighting continued somewhere on the outskirts. The Russians directed all the power of their artillery to squeeze the Ukrainian soldiers out from there because they had already successfully “denazified” (bitter irony again) the village itself. It was totally destroyed. The sisters were very afraid to leave their shelter not even because one could catch a bullet from a Russian marauder rummaging through houses, but because of the fear of seeing the destruction of a once prosperous village, which now recalls a scene from a movie about the war in Somalia.

However, the greatest challenges for the Tomyshynets family were still ahead. In early March, electricity and gas were turned off. The water was turned off even earlier. But what really saved them from starving to death was a neighbour’s well where they could fetch some water.

Every night, Vasylyna’s family met with surviving neighbours, shared food, and exchanged news. They had been barely acquainted since the war started, but soon became closer than ever. During one such meeting, the family found out that a rocket hit a basement and killed a whole family in their village. Since then, the Tomyshynets family decided to spend the night in a house and hide in a corridor where they were protected by two walls. They put some unnecessary clothes on the floor. As there was no heating, and it was -8C on the street, they covered it with all the blankets they managed to find. As there was no gas, food was prepared on a small fire, made near the garage.

After so many terrible stories heard before and fear of being killed by Russian marauders, Vasylyna, and her family could barely sleep at night. However, the most dangerous thing was to fetch water at the other end of the street. As there was not only regular artillery shelling but Russian soldiers who shot at everyone walking down the street no matter who it was – man, woman, or child. They considered everyone to be a Ukrainian scout. So they killed a man who went out into the yard in the evening and lit up a cigarette. Every time Vasylyna was going to fetch water, she said goodbye to her relatives because these 400 meters could be the last ones in her life.

The house in Vorzel

What really helped Vasylyna and her family to survive in those terrible times was faith in God. They are parishioners of the Greek Catholic Church. Their parents taught them to believe in God. When there was heavy shelling, they constantly prayed. Back then, Vasylyna and her sister regularly visited injured Ukrainian soldiers in hospitals, who were at the frontlines at Donbas. They tried to support them because they were in a difficult psychological situation. The sisters studied at the Catechetical and Pedagogical Institute of the Ukrainian Catholic University, which provided a solid foundation for how to treat people who had traumatic experiences. They met a lot of soldiers in the hospitals. Some of them became their close friends. So when Vasylyna and her family were stuck in Vorzel, while there was cell service, they received SMS with words of support from the soldiers they once visited.

When the cell service was lost, many people started looking for Vasylyna, including her friends and colleagues. When cell service was restored, her sister tried to call for an immediate evacuation in FB groups. In a few days, Vasylyna’s colleagues finally announced that they would be taken out of the village by the volunteers soon. It was such a long-awaited ray of hope. However, there was still a big problem since her mother could not walk, as the volunteers took people only from the centre of the village. She simply could not get there. Moreover, the street where Vasylyna and her family lived was believed to be the most dangerous place in the village. Nobody wanted to go there to evacuate them.

Being in terrible despair Vasylyna and her sister went to the neighbours who had a car with a plea to take their mother to the village centre. But no one wanted to help. The distance was quite short, just 1.5 km, but people were afraid of Kadyrovites standing in the village. They could shoot at a person without a reason. The Chechens were afraid of every bush and shadow on the street, so they shot at everything they saw, especially if it was a moving object. The sisters had to tell their mother that the evacuation would not happen, but their faith was unwavering. Mother said that they would be evacuated in some way, they just had to really believe in it. And a wonderful miracle happened. After a while, the sister received a message from the volunteer group that allegedly one man agreed to come and pick them up. He simply got their address. There was no more information about him. Hope was the thing that helped them to withstand those days. Two days passed, but no one came. Vasylyna and her family still believed that they would be saved. There was no despair anymore. The Tomyshynets family continued to hope for salvation and prayed. On the morning of the third day, the sister was called by volunteers and told that the man was going to their house. But he didn’t have a cellphone for security reasons, so they should wait for him on the street. After a long time of waiting, he finally came. As it turned out later, the driver lived in the town of Bucha, near Vorzel. The Russians also “denazified” his apartment and turned it to ashes. When he was driving away from them, a mine hit his car, but it did not explode. Since then he considers it his duty to save other people’s lives. He started evacuating people from the most destroyed villages and towns in the suburbs of Kyiv. At the end of the day, he found out about Vasylyna’s family and decided to help them.

As they began to drive through the village, Vasylyna realized the real scale of destruction: the majority of the houses were destroyed, Russian tanks had smashed the cars. It was a complete disaster. The young Russian soldiers of Buryat nationality searched them at the checkpoint. Vasylyna had a strong impression that they were under the influence of drugs. They were poorly dressed; stunk so badly. The Buryats looked more like homeless people than soldiers of the ” world’s second strongest army.” The Russian soldiers became very offended when they knocked on the door of a house in the village and wanted to ask for food; no one opened it for them. The driver said, “Just look around, and then you can understand why that is.” The Buryats boasted that they did not care who they had to kill: a dog or a human being. Russian soldiers also boasted that they killed a mother and her son in the same house, and raped her daughter for 11 days in a row. Then they did her a “great service” allowing the volunteers to take this poor girl away. They stressed that the Russian soldiers were generous and humane ones.

Vasylyna was struck by the fact that there were many dead bodies of Russian soldiers and their parts just at this checkpoint and on the way to Kyiv. No one was going to take them away. Some of them were already torn apart by stray dogs. Nobody cared.

When they finally saw Ukrainian soldiers, they wanted to hug each of them. They talked to them politely. There was an immediate sense of security. Vasylyna and her family spent three days at their friend’s apartment and then they went to Transcarpathia. They have many relatives there. There they were greeted warmly and were given all sorts of support.

This is a kind of happy ending story about the life of an ordinary Ukrainian family who had to live through the real hell created by the Russian soldiers. Vasylyna told me that she could understand why the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians have no compassion for the mothers of the killed or injured Russian soldiers because their sons kill innocent men, women, and children, rape young girls, destroy houses, hospitals, and schools. They don’t deserve compassion.

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