On the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we have recorded stories of people who have suffered and are still suffering from this war. Anzhela Pivnenko and her family withstood the occupation of Bucha. She was lucky: she survived and none of her family members died. Here is her story.
‘I couldn’t believe that the war would come‘
— I myself am Russian. Bucha is a little town of nuclear workers mostly. My dad used to build atomic plants and got an apartment here. I’ve lived here for many years. I loved this town, it grew with me. I consider it my hometown although I spent many years in other places. I couldn’t believe that the war would come.
In the morning we were awakened by the sound of explosions. It was 7 AM. I ran outside and realized the war had begun and I needed cash. Bucha was dark and people were going somewhere with their suitcases. There were already very few cars driving on the highways. There were crowds of people at the ATMs, and we tried to withdraw money wherever we could.
Later we saw the helicopters and the dark smoke coming from Hostomel. And everyone stopped. I still can’t get over those memories of how the world stopped. Everything stopped: cars, people, and all of them were looking in the same direction. I managed to withdraw my money and then together with my husband and son we went to the shop and bought what we could. And I went to the pharmacy for antidepressants.
‘My husband said: I’m not going anywhere‘
We live in a private house in the center of the town. My daughter and her husband live in Kyiv, and they tried to persuade us to leave right away. But my husband is 25 years older than me, we’ve been living together for 28 years. Besides, I have a disabled father, a dog, and a son. Where were we to go? We didn’t even have a car. And my husband said explicitly: I’m not going anywhere. As a good wife, I accepted his decision. At that point, we didn’t know the stakes in the game we were in.
Electricity and gas were gone. There was a little house with a stove nearby and we could cook there. And I also had a little stove in my room. Actually, we were in the most comfortable position because we also had a well. It saved us. And those who stayed here came to us to get some water.
‘Corpses were already lying all around‘
People from all parts of the town were trying to leave it. A car was riddled with bullets right in our street. It was a really cool car. These people were driving to Kyiv along the main road instead of the country roads. They were shot up. We even have the pictures. A woman’s body was lying on the left side and a man’s body was on the right side.
Corpses were already lying all around. My son took pictures of them. At first, there were eight people, later — more than ten. We began to persuade our son to leave. We are old and he is only 25 years old. But he would answer: ‘How can I leave you?’ I told him: ‘Vanya, just go. I won’t be able to carry this burden.’
He packed his things and got to the evacuation bus. They were driving the whole day. On top of it he was underclad. Those people went through their pockets and took the money he hadn’t hidden. When he finally made it to my sister’s he got pneumonia.
‘I can’t stand the cold at all now’
Our routine life began, we just listened and watched. Telegram channels showed us how tanks were driving past us. And we saw the tanks moving along the street, over the fence.
A house nearby burnt down. I have a video of it burning. I was serving the table for my father and saw the shell flying into the window on the second floor. Just a moment, a flash — and the house started burning. We were all standing and watching it burn. As the word goes, everything acquired by hard work was gone. And we all knew the same thing could happen to us. Just half an hour — and your home is gone.
I can’t stand the cold at all now. We were dressed in many layers. And the food we’d got to buy saved us. Besides, the neighbors gave us the keys before leaving and said we could take everything we wanted. But they also gave us their dog, seven cats, two parrots, and a guinea pig. And we ourselves already had two cats and a dog. All this stuff just loaded on our shoulders. I would’ve never thought that if you mix cereals and dog food the cats would eat up almost the whole bowl of it.
We didn’t wash ourselves. Only a month later when it was 19 degrees, I decided to heat the water and try to help my father clean up a bit in a cold bathroom.
A week or two prior to the occupation my lower abdomen began to hurt. I thought it was cystitis. But in the end, after a long time, it turned out that meanwhile, I developed a perforated bowel. And it’s a miracle that I didn’t die from peritonitis. It was only in December that I finally got surgery.
My husband began to go to the toilet frequently too, just like me. Affected by the cold and stress he developed prostate cancer. Last Wednesday he got surgery.
‘The dog was so terrified she got into my bed’
We ate very modestly. At 5 PM we would go to bed because it was already dark. I would read books. I had bought all the ‘Game of Thrones’ and on the second book I have soot marks now because I once threw a dirty towel on it. Now when I look at those pages they bring to mind how terrifying and nightmarish it was back then.
And everything kept flying and shooting and you don’t know what’s going on, and all of it seemed endless.
There was a very happy moment at the very beginning when we found out that Zelensky hadn’t left Kyiv. I guess that’s what gave us hope that finally we’d be liberated.
When the howitzer fired, it was like an earthquake. I remember it from my childhood in Armenia. And my son’s dog, Akita Inu, was so terrified she got into my bed. And so we lay in an embrace with her.
And then a shell got into our neighbor’s garden. We only heard a ringing. Everything around literally rang. The shrapnel riddled everything around. The clothesline was torn in two places. My husband was shell-shocked for three days, he almost lost his hearing.
‘Orcs are here!’
And then I heard a loud metallic sound. I looked out of the window and saw the neighbors’ gates being beaten. There was a car, not like an APC, but a huge, tall one. And a bunch of soldiers. My husband was cooking inside the house, I ran to him and shouted: ‘Orcs are here!’ I quickly hid our phones in the garden, and the radio and our documents I had already hidden long ago. Then they knocked on our door. I opened it. Dad was sitting in the front room. They were all wearing masks and said: ‘Papers.’
I had to save my life so I told them I was Russian. I said: ‘Guys, you freaked me out so much I can hardly remember where I put papers.’ I told them I would let one of them in and they obeyed me. I’m very easygoing so I said calmly: ‘Please understand, I have two old men here and a dog. Come here alone otherwise you might scare them.’ One of them came in, the other guy stayed outside.
Our house is old, we have lots of Orthodox icons. My dad is a religious person and so am I. That guy looked around, saw my dad, turned back, and didn’t search anywhere at all. I don’t know why. They had searched everywhere they could at our neighbors’. One of our neighbors didn’t hide anything, neither the radio nor the phone. Sure enough, he was robbed.
They robbed everywhere they went. But we can call ourselves lucky because they weren’t embittered yet. It was 11 AM and they just came.
They broke our neighbor’s door and also all of our fence doors. We tried to fix them later so that we could close them because a crazy number of tramp dogs began to roam about the streets. People had left their pets and the dogs started to form packs. They were cold and hungry. And that was really scary, I know very well what a pack of dogs is.
Those guys came to our neighbors where the host had left a bag of dog food under the roof. I came to them and said: ‘Excuse me, please, could you pass me a bag? Did you see? There are so many pets here.’ They leaned over and handed me the bag. And then I was like: ‘Maybe you have cigarettes?’ And they handed me cigarettes. Pure luck that they weren’t the Kadyrov guys.
‘There’s nobody there.’
When our guys began counteroffensive, it was scary. There was neither shooting schedule nor understanding where they might shoot. We would hear the noise and get frightened they might hit a tree. We have pines all around and if the tree falls, it would break the entire roof. And the sounds of machine guns were closer and closer.
We had refrigeration chambers near the railway station and meat there started to go off. Those who had enough courage would go there. This meat was cooked for the dogs. And one morning my husband went there and when came back he said: ‘There’s nobody there.’
I went to the town. And I saw gray people walking, all dressed in dark. They would stop from time to time, avoiding one another. A hopeless gray mass walking and searching for something, either food or something else…
We walked all over the town. We dropped in on our neighbors. I saw an old woman there who went blind after sitting in the basement for so long. When we came home, I stood at my doorstep and threw up. Because I’d seen all those dead bodies, nobody had taken them away yet.
And then our guys came. The town started to come back to life. Some special people came to us and began to ask what had happened. The volunteers brought us bread and butter. The police officers dropped by and asked if we had dead people, so they should call a service to take them away. I told them: ‘Thank God, we don’t have anyone who died or who was killed nearby’
‘I lost my socialization’
I wanted to take a shower so much and my son-in-law brought me keys from their apartment.
First days in Kyiv I almost didn’t sleep. I would wake up at 5 AM, look at dark Kyiv – and I couldn’t make sense of how I ended up here, how I survived. I was all alone, I would take a bath and just lay there. For several days I couldn’t come out, even to get some drinking water. And then I went shopping and just walked there with a cart and cried. I lost my socialization. I didn’t know what I was doing there or how to do shopping.
I couldn’t watch TV, news, or movies, I could only turn on quiet music. At the end of the month my son-in-law came. He invited me to the cinema and that’s when we laughed for the first time. And it’s only then I started to come back to life. I said I should go home now, to clean the house, to take the war out of my home.
‘Fireworks are a big ‘no’ to me now’
I spent three months in Spain as a refugee in a catholic boarding school. There were 28 of us there. Then someone went to Canada, someone went to Ireland, to Belgium. But I couldn’t live without my family. On top of it I was sick but Spanish medicine would just say: ‘Take ibuprofen.’ So I came back. Thank Lord, He kept me and I didn’t die of peritonitis. Besides, I also saved my husband and he has diagnosed with cancer at an early stage.
In Spain, we had a farm nearby and an enormous amount of different beautiful animals, horses, and cows with wonderful long horns. And we would come to look at them. Then there were fireworks in a nearby town. In Spain, they like to make it posh. So I heard the first one, then the second, the third..
It was already late so I got dressed and went to the second floor. There was a large viewing platform there with tables, armchairs, and couches. People were having fun, they were like: ‘Anzhela, look! Fireworks!’ But I just kept covering my ears. And a woman touched my shoulder. How I screamed! She even jumped away from me. I said: ‘What fireworks? What?’ I have so many of those ‘fireworks’ recorded in my phone: the planes flying and bombing, and shelling!
And only a Spanish social worker figured out that I wasn’t feeling well. She sat beside me. Tears were streaming down my face. She tried to distract me until I came to my senses. Fireworks are a big ‘no’ to me for a long time now.