Natalya Pesotska had been working at Chernihiv’s Centre for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation as a teacher, living her life with a husband and two children. But the events of 24 February when Russia invaded Ukraine turned her life upside-down. That morning, her city was attacked by Russian troops. From that day on, she had to take care of 30 children at the centre – under bombing, without water, heat, electricity and with little food. After three weeks of survival in Chernihiv, Natalya Pesotska took all her courage and despair in her hands and managed to flee with all the children to the Ivano-Frankivsk region.
Today, she remembers all the events as a horror movie. We met Pesotska in a mountain village in the west of Ukraine; the specific location is not named for their safety.
During the first week of the Russian invasion, Natalya and her colleagues did everything possible to take care of the children and keep them safe. The youngest of them is three years old. Whenever air raid sirens sounded, they took the children to the basement, and soon they had to stay there all night long because of frequent airstrikes and shelling.
“2 March was the last day when I was home. I took my kids to work, and we never came back”, says Natalya.
When a shell destroyed the wall of the centre, Natalya, with all the kids, moved to the closest bomb shelter. Some 700 metres away was the St. Trinity Cathedral, which was already sheltering 600 people. Older women slept in the corridor in wheelchairs, and Natalya with her kids got a small room.
The youngest kids doubled-up and slept in five two-bunk beds. Others were sleeping on the floor. Natalya napped, leaning on a wardrobe. Without heating, many children caught a cold. Every hour, someone was crying or calling for help.
Natalya taught the children to pray, and they continued praying aloud altogether every time there was bombing or airstrikes.
“I don't know how we survived in the cathedral. The building was closed from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. because of the curfew. For 12 hours, the children could pee only into a bucket; it was impossible to go out. Five children were in diapers without the possibility to wash them. We only had a pack of napkins – they were worth their weight in gold. It wasn’t easy, of course. The children could be wounded or killed at any moment. Once, in the morning, an older man went out of the cathedral, and his thigh was broken by shrapnel. We had to go through a lot, and now, as I think back, it’s like watching a movie in the cinema – you feel like it isn't actually you”, says Natalya.
In the cathedral, they were fed with breakfast and dinner. The rest of the day, the kids ate some cookies or apples and canned food provided by volunteers. Children were hungry all the time, especially during the curfew.
The dining room was in a separate building, and they ran there, at times braving bullets or shrapnel fragments. Once, Natalya was hit by a shock wave and fell. But luckily, she was ok.
“We were walking and shrapnel was flying overhead. We could actually see it. Scary! You know, we even got used to it. We had to live somehow,” says Natalya. “The children gave me the strength to endure all the trials and not lose hope. They are the biggest treasure in my life, and they were with me all the time.”
When Ukrainian soldiers offered evacuation, no one dared to evacuate kids except for Natalya – the danger of getting out and coming under fire was severe.
“Our vehicle convoy was huge, 15 buses. Two buses ahead of us were hit by gunfire. No one believed that we would get out, but it was no longer possible to stay there. God probably saved us”, says Natalya.
They got to Kyiv and took the first available train, which took them to Ivano-Frankivsk. A month has passed since then. Natalya still looks tired, and she says that she started sleeping all night long without anxiety only three days ago.
“In the first days here, when kids heard air raid sirens on the phone, they would fall to the floor,” says Natalya. “Once at night, there was a strong wind similar to the sound airplanes make. We know how bombers fly, and they fly very low and make a similar noise. So when the wind blew, my son Ivan climbed into my bed, hid under the blanket, and said: ‘Mom, planes are flying; what should we do?’ Many children thought the same”.
Now they are in a relatively safe place. Kids are running around and having fun, get some rest and rehabilitation. Natalya is looking forward to going back to Chernihiv. Her apartment on the sixth floor is now windowless. Flats on the ninth and fifth floors were hit by rockets. Natalya is not sure if her home is safe to go back to. When she speaks about her city, I can see the tears in her eyes.
“When I come back to Chernihiv, I will kiss the ground; I want to see colleagues and neighbours so much.”