‘Soviet collapse brought me to Melitopol, now the Red Flag flies there again’

Hanna But in Melitopol(Credit: Hanna But)

Teacher Hanna But lived in the southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol for 30 years, 20 of them as a teacher engaged with her community and, since 2014, contributing to the war effort. After Russian troops occupied Melitopol, she remained for 70 days in protest with other residents. But it simply became too dangerous to stay, she tells journalist Kateryna Kyselova.

Hanna But’s social media profile is a riot of yellow and blue; a teacher in the southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol and active in the community for thirty years, in 2014 she went to war, supporting the army in her own way. But then the war was far away. When it arrived in Melitopol in February 2022 it was sudden. Hanna was determined to stay and protest against the Russian occupation. She stayed for 70 days.

Her house is like a Ukrainian museum, so any Russian stepping into her home would probably arrest her, like one of her students. “Russian soldiers spoke to him, he answered in Ukrainian. They taped him up, put a bag over his head, beat him and threw him on the road out of the city. The boy came home on foot all in bruises.”

Hanna was active in demonstrations against the occupation until 18 March when armed Russian soldiers cleared them from the streets.

“Suddenly one starts swearing, saying Melitopol is ugly. My daughter Kristina shot back: “Why did you come here then?” “I got a letter from a kid asking to free him”, he said. Then a woman came up shouting the war was all our fault, because Ukrainians were “nazis”, bombing Donbass for 8 years. It was our last pro-Ukrainian meeting in occupied Melitopol”.

Hanna is not from Melitopol, and when she came here in 1991 from the west she was surprised to find it was a Russian-speaking city. She threw herself into all things Ukrainian, at the very moment Ukraine was being reborn from the Soviet rubble. Hanna had heard people in Melitopol calling her “nazi” before but hadn’t been afraid to post photos of those Ukrainian demonstrations in Melitopol. Now it would only be a matter of time before the wrong person saw them.

“With our Ukrainian patriotism we won’t survive here,” said her daughter Kristina, but there was a final straw.

(Credit: Hanna But)

“It was a flag,'' says Hanna. “They tore down the biggest Ukrainian flag from the main square and put up a flag of the USSR instead. I first thought it was madness, almost like I’d travelled back in time.”

Finally at the beginning of May they both left. They faced a 100-kilometre drive to Zaporizhzhya, a 30-hour journey fraught with danger.

“We had to spend hours in a hundred-car jam before each checkpoint. There were families with babies and children. The Russians are bastards, they care nothing about people. We were in a shabby old Zhyhuli so they didn't want it but I saw a Russian take an expensive car at gunpoint leaving the owners by the road,” says Hanna. “‘Are you choosing the best cars for yourself?’ people shouted at him.” 

“They’d take everything: food, cigarettes, personal belongings. They took our water. We travelled with a dog, cat and two chinchillas. We all had nothing to drink after that. The moment I saw a Ukrainian flag on the road, I cried. I cried at every Ukrainian checkpoint and thanked the Ukrainian army.”

“We are in Zaporizhzhya. Kristina and I are safe now!” was the message I got on 5 May from Hanna, “Yesterday I could not even speak: my jaws and hands were shaking. I just covered myself with a blanket and laid down. Today I feel better.”