Ukraine

'We are lucky to be alive'

A Ukranian family of four tells a story of miraculously surviving a string of accidents during March 2022 – right after the Russian Federation offensive was launched on 24 February. Back in Chernihiv, where their hometown is located, DRC meets them at what they describe as a site marked by great misfortune and incredible luck.

26-year-old Oleksii remembers the moment all too well – it was on Monday 7 March around noon, a dark and cold winter day, when the car he was in made a turn to cross a country road he had passed so often - but this time, it hit a landmine. It was just 50 meters from his home, in the middle of the road, dug down in the narrow grass-covered path dividing the lanes and where nobody had expected that an anti-vehicle landmine could be hiding in the soil.

The explosion came from the ground right under my feet, as I was standing up in the car with one other person next to me, and three seated in the front cabin. The blast affected me the most and threw me out of the car.

Oleksii, 26

“I was finishing a second trip to the forest where we were fetching wood for construction nearby. My father who had been with us in the first group, had waited for me to return. That was when the explosion came from the ground right under my feet as I was standing up in the car with one other person next to me, and three seated in the front cabin. The blast affected me the most and threw me out of the car,” tells Oleksii, sitting at a small wooden chair and often looking down at his still swollen feet with multiple scars witnessing of pain and complicated surgery. After five months he is finally out of the wheelchair and now moving cautiously around with a walker.

Oleksii’s father managed to quickly bring his son to a hospital over 100 kilometers away where he could get treatment. Both parents – the mother being a nurse, the father an oxygen tank mechanic and both usually working elsewhere - decided to stay near their son at the hospital to be able to better help.

The missile

Exactly one week later, on Monday 13 March, when they were still at the hospital caring for Oleksii, a phone call brought them shocking news from their village. A missile had hit right in the middle of the house – their home since more than 22 years - now, a site of ashes, debris, and all their belongings vanished or melted into bits and pieces hardly recognisable.

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Oleksii's family house is now a site of ashes, debris, and all their belongings vanished or melted into bits and pieces hardly recognisable.

Alexandra Strand Holm / DRC

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The sewing machine of Oleksii’s mother melted when the missile hit the house and a fire broke out – and all their belongings are lost.

Alexandra Strand Holm / DRC

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Oleksii's parents are looking for items that can still be used.

Alexandra Strand Holm / DRC

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Oleksii's family house is now a site of ashes, debris, and all their belongings vanished or melted into bits and pieces hardly recognisable.

Alexandra Strand Holm / DRC

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More familiar items keep showing up from the ruins of their house – but nothing is any longer of use.

Alexandra Strand Holm / DRC

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After five months in a wheelchair, Oleksii’s is still only able to move around with a walker.

Alexandra Strand Holm / DRC

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Oleksii's family house is now a site of ashes, debris, and all their belongings vanished or melted into bits and pieces hardly recognisable.

Alexandra Strand Holm / DRC

While trying to grasp how to deal with yet another tragedy, Oleksii’s mother tells how in that moment they also reasoned that being with their injured son had perhaps saved their lives.

"If our son had not been at the hospital, and us with him there, we would probably have been at home and seeking shelter in the basement from the shelling. But all is gone now, including part of the basement, and from the damages we now see, we would never have survived the strike."

VIDEO

DRC-worker shows where the missile hit Oleksii's house.

Hospital bombed

Air raid alerts are frequent daily occurrences across Ukraine, also in Chernihiv only around 50 kilometers south of the border with Belarus and close to the Russian Federation. When these were once again followed by actual shelling near the hospital, Oleksii’s parents decided to move their son to another place and to seek refuge and help at the hospital in which they are both employees and where their other son, Oleksii’s big brother was at work.

Traveling for several hours, they arrived at the hospital only to find yet another disaster. Several people had been killed and many injured from a strike that had hit the hospital 10 minutes before they arrived.

"The shelling had just happened, and we were met by a terrible scene of chaos and people in panic. Our other son who was at work on that day at the hospital luckily only sustained minor injuries from shrapnel," tell the parents of Oleksii.

It’s now five months ago, and I can walk a little now. It still hurts, but it’s much better. I hope to be able to get a job once I have recovered and my feet are ok again.

Oleksii, 26

Back to work

Out of hospital, Oleksii and his parents have moved into his grandmother’s small house nearby. When they are not at work, they spend time in the ruins of their old house, trying to clean up, organise and repair as much as possible with little means, goodwill and borrowed tools from their neighbours. Their water supply is still working, but electricity, heating systems and all other amenities are gone.

The tractor parked outside what used to be the entrance and which they used to cultivate their half acre of land nearby is no longer functional. Oleksii’s father is still farming, but now with simple tools and his bare hands.

When not working either at the hospital or in the ruins of their house, Oleksii’s mother is trying to rehabilitate and train her son to get back on his feet. And the efforts are slowly showing good results and promising progress.

"It’s now five months ago, and I can walk a little now. It still hurts, but it’s much better. I hope to be able to get a job once I have recovered and my feet are ok again. My dream is still to become a driver and I hope that someone will be able to employ me once I’m able to walk on my own."

Oleksii Ukraine

Oleksii sits by the debris of his family's house: "So far, I am only able to watch my family working their way through the ruins of our home and try to make it ready for the winter coming soon. I hope I can soon help them."

Photo: Alexandra Strand Holm / DRC

DRC demining and victim assistance

Chernihiv is one of the oblasts in Ukraine where DRC is supporting the State Emergency Services of Ukraine in tasks related to humanitarian mine action. Assistance to victim of incidents like the one that happened to Oleksii is part of DRC’s programmes and activities in Ukraine, where offering a range of integrated assistance provides people with access to other protection mechanisms such as psycho-social counseling and support, legal aid, as well as possibilities to apply for skills training programmes, and grants to strengthen economic recovery through new livelihoods opportunities.

Oleksii has so far received a grant that allowed for paying expensive hospital bills from the surgery that required special implants and parts to reconstruct the bones in his feet.

"We are grateful to DRC for this grant. It helps us at a difficult time and as we are still trying to come to terms with what has happened to us - and what is still happening around Ukraine. We had never ever imagined that a situation like now would be facing us," says Oleksii.

"So far, I am only able to watch my family working their way through the ruins of our home and try to make it ready for the winter coming soon. I hope I can soon help them."

By Alexandra Strand Holm

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