‘When Freedom Square was hit by a rocket, our house shook’
My name is Nataliia Ivanivna Frolova, I am 55 years old. I was born, studied and worked in Berdiansk. I studied to become a seamstress, namely a dress designer. For many years I worked as an entrepreneur, sewing clothes for people. I had my own atelier. I have a grown-up daughter and a granddaughter... I’ve been doing handmade things for the last few years. I took part in exhibitions and made dolls as well. Berdiansk was a resort town. People came to spend vacation there and bought souvenirs. My daughter was helping me too — we both were creative. We lived quite well. I loved my city very much...
I have recently moved to Kharkiv: my family circumstances have changed, so to speak. I live in a civil marriage. I have been in Kharkiv for seven years now. I worked in a sewing firm. There was a developed infrastructure in Kharkiv. For example, in Berdiansk it was hard to work in winter — only in summer because it was a resort town. I like Kharkiv very much, it’s a beautiful city. Everything was good. Until the 24th of February.
What were the first days of full-scale aggression like for you?
Usually I got up very early: about half past four. And as soon as I got up, they (Russian troops) started bombing Kharkiv. The shots were heard nearby. I turned on the TV — they announced that there was a full-scale invasion. Of course it was stressful, I was in tears. The first few days we didn’t even eat. I mean, I could not even concentrate and believe in everything that was happening. And the explosions were so stressful that we didn’t even want to eat. And we didn’t sleep. We couldn’t sleep or relax, we were afraid of everything.
Running to a shelter was a long way off. But we had a private house and we were counting on it to be our safe place. And we had such a room, it was like a corridor — between two load-bearing walls and without windows. We taped everything we could with duct tape, just like they said on TV. We listened to the news the whole days long in order to be at least aware of what was going on.
After about three days, I decided to pull myself together somehow. After all, war is war but you have to survive and stay healthy. So I started to distract myself. The first time it was very difficult even just to prepare something to eat. I could not concentrate on any certain actions.
Derhachi and Izium (towns in Kharkiv Region) were situated near our city, as well as the Belgorod highway (highway to Russia). We heard first explosions there quite distantly... A rocket hit there at night, we saw it — everything was on fire!!! And next afternoon we went to check what had happened: everything was burnt. Kholodna Hora and Poltava Slough (Kharkiv historical sites), bus parking area — everything was damaged...
The shops were open but you could enter only through the back door. We stood in lines for two and a half hours to buy some groceries at big underground car parks. So, we stood not at the main entrance of the shop or in the open air but at the car parks. We could stay for two and a half hours each.
I have a lot of acquaintances. Those who lived in Saltivka district said that everything there was completely destroyed. They went to visit their parents in Solonytsivka (urban-type settlement in Kharkiv Region). People who lived near Kharkiv Tractor Plant said there were a lot of mines there, near Solonytsivka. They (Russian troops) dropped mines there by parachutes.
People could be standing in line to buy some bread — and a rocket could hit there. One day a woman lost her leg after such rocket attack.
Have you witnessed the shelling and destruction of civilian objects, houses of civilians?
When Freedom Square was hit by a rocket, our house shook. It was a few kilometres away from us. It was the hardest hit ever. Eventually war planes started flying above us. We lived in Kholodna Hora district, near the Ozerianska church. There was a prison nearby. Its building was completely destroyed.
Not far away there was Kholodnogorska Street. There was a military school, namely a tank school, so the corner of the school building is completely destroyed. One day we went to the supermarket “Klass”. The windows were completely blown out in the houses nearby. We walked past the shops — there were no window glasses in the buildings. Local shops — same picture, no window glasses. But nobody looted. All goods were there and no one stole anything.
The Nikolsky shopping centre — just recently built — was almost destroyed.
The Barabashova market was completely burnt out — it was bombed three times. That smoke, black and grey ash, was blown in the direction of our house. We had it on the windows, in the courtyard and on the roof. Feldman Park and Gorky Park had the same fate...
Once I went outside, and in 20-50 metres away from me I saw that building (prison) destroyed.
At first people around were devastated, everyone had the same expression on their faces.... Everyone had the same facial expression. Everyone was scared. And we always heard that air raids, we couldn´t understand where to run first — home (to hide) or to the grossery shop (to buy some food).
We actually didn’t save much food (before the war). Because we could buy everything we need, everything was available. So, when the war had begun, we didn’t have any groceries bought beforehand. We didn’t even stock up on flour or sugar.
Every day we went outside and each time there was an air raid. Sometime it happened ten times a day. But we got used to it. Anyway we didn’t go far from our house.
We prepared our cellar in order to hide there. But later we thought: what if our house would be destroyed and we would die in that cellar?
How you and your family managed to get to Lviv?
Well, it happened when almost the whole our neighbourhood was on fire: you know, where a rocket hit, a building next to it was immediately on fire. There were also war planes flying over our house and whistling.
We put up with it for a while... My husband tried to persuade me to go. But I couldn’t make up my mind. How could I go to a new city? Afterall, we couldn’t even take a lot of belongings with us. And it also meant that we had to solve all our everyday problems at new place, which was not so easy at our age.
We didn’t leave for a long time because I refused to go. It was hard for me to make up my mind. It was simply impossible for me. The last nights we didn’t sleep because every day there were fights nearby. It was very loud all night long. It was impossible to sleep. Almost all distrcits nearby were bombed. I don’t even know a neighbourhood that remained undamaged. There were no houses — just parts of them with holes (from shells), black walls and without window glasses. It was still winter and people had no windows.
And my children were in Berdiansk... They said the city was occupied. The gas pipeline was damaged in Mariupol, so they had no heating at all. How to cook food? There’s no food to buy, everything was three times as expensive at the market. They (Russian troops) hung out Russian flags (on buildings)...
Recently, my granddaughter was able to leave (Berdiansk) under fire. She had to pass eight checkpoints. We just recently met her in Lviv. We accompanied her to Poland.
They (my children) went once to the bus (station in Berdiansk) to check if there was a way out of the city. They found out about “Mariupol corridor” (Mariupol — Berdiansk— Zaporizhzhia). They tried to get on the bus three times. It was either cancelled or there were no seats. And then somehow they managed to get on. But my daughter stayed (in Berdiansk). She wanted to go to Dnipro but now they (Russian troops) don’t let people out.
My granddaughter left but she said that they were driving under shelling and through mines. Women were treated normally. But not men: they were undressed, checked, and they (Russian troops) took away their money. One man (from that bus) had sold something beforehand and he was going to settle his life in a new place — they (Russian troops) took all his money, it was a large sum...
They drove in three stages. They reached Zaporizhzhia, spent the night there in a children’s shelter. They had some rest there, and the next day they drove further to Lviv...
And when we wanted to leave Kharkiv, we went to the railway station on foot. We lived not far from the railway station. That time there was already no public transportation in Kharkiv, none at all.
There was an evacuation train (free of charge) and several regular trains. There were too many people who wanted to go with that evacuation train, which meant no free seats and 24 hours drive actually on foot! We decided to take the regular train. Mykolai Borisovich, my husband, was a military pensioner, he had fought in Afghanistan. He got a ticket free of charge, I bought the one for myself. And so we got there (to Lviv), but we drove for a very long time. The rails were already damaged there. They were repaired and the train bypassed the damaged parts of the route, so it took much longer time.
So, we took that train, and we saw different people talking to each other on the platform. They were carrying their pets. They were young, someone was with sick children. Men mostly stayed: they sent their children and wives to another cities or further abroad.
Do your friends communicate with their relatives in Russia? How do Russians feel about a full-scale invasion into Ukraine?
At my workplace, many people said that they had quarrelled and were not speaking (with their Russian relatives). That is, their Russian relatives said: “Don’t make it up, it is impossible (that Ukraine is bombed)!” I wouldn’t believe it either, if I didn’t hear it every day. They (Russians) think it’s not true.
For example, Mykolai Borisovich had a fight with his sister. She lives somewhere in Russia. She said that for some reason we are “Banderas” (Russians call Ukrainians or pro-Ukrainian people “Bandera(s)” because of the surname of a famous Ukrainian politician and activist Stepan Bandera). And I hear that a lot of people have quarrelled. They don’t even contact each other. So they (Russians) absolutaly don’t understand us. And they have no mercy or sympathy for us.