“That is how I remember it,” Oleg Suslov says, “the beginning of full time invasion.”
His fingers twitch.
“The enormous lines at gas-stations. The waterfall of people at banks. Empty shelves in the grocery stories. Then, more explosions.”
Oleg stops for a moment.
“More explosions. I am in Odesa street, watching people lean to walls as they walk as if the walls can save them.”
I meet Oleg Suslov in his office, in Odesa Evening News. I am visiting the city this July, and he insists I come to hear his stories.
“When the missile hit a residential high-rise building and eight people died, including a mother with a three-month-old girl, several dozen wounded. My friend, a fitness trainer, lived in this house with her family. The missile destroyed her apartment. By some chance, the child survived. After a couple of days, when the tenants were allowed to their affected housing, a friend began to upload a video. From the sight of children’s things, powdered with dust, broken furniture, broken windows, toys scattered by a blast wave, my heart ached … An acquaintance, showing a murdered apartment, kept repeating: “Somewhere there should be my boys’ pajamas, where did they go?”. I still can’t forget those words. Whether she found pajamas, I don’t know.”
Oleg gets up, walks around the room, sits down.
“And then, another day, my wife and I went to the sea – and almost immediately we turned home. A siren wailed, anti-aircraft defenses began to work. By now we have learned to distinguish the sounds of explosions. Walking was uncomfortable. Returning home along city centre, we first heard a whistle, and then we saw black death flying over our heads. Rocket! It flew to the side of the city where my dad and sister live. A moment later, there was an explosion in the distance. A few seconds later, social media reported explosions and fire in the area of the Tairovo district. I began to feverishly dial the phone numbers, it took a while to reach my father and sister. Luckily, they were okay.”
Oleg gets up again. Picks a newspaper. Folds it with his hands. Sits down again.
“Until February 24, 2022, I have never written about the war. A journalist needs to have specific vocabulary, terminology. Until this full scale invasion I did not have the terminology of war.”
But these days, Oleg, 58, is the editor of Odesa Evening News, is writing mostly about the war.
“This September,” he says, “in the middle of war, my daughter gave birth. My fourth grand-child.”
“But enough about me,” Oleg says. I called you to come so that we can speak about the refugees of war. I have interviewed them. I want the people in the West to hear their stories.”
And so what follows is Oleg Suslov’s story about meeting refugees.
— Ilya Kaminsky
“They didn’t know each other before February 24, 2022.
February 24, that’s the date everyone keeps repeating, the first day of full-scale invasion.
They didn’t know each other, these old people from Luhansk, Nikolaiv, Liman, Donetsk, Kherson and Mariupol, now living together in the shelter at Archangel Mikhail Monastery outside Odesa.
How long will they stay here?
No can say.
Hundreds of old people huddling at Archangel Michael’s have abandoned their houses and apartments, gardens and kitchens.
Many of their villages had been bombed out.
Daily, they talk to each other about furniture they left behind, as they sit outside the Monastery, in mis-matched clothes.
Some of them wearing sandals in this cold October.
“No winter shoes. Just sandals. That is what we took when escaping home.”
They share stories.
“I have nowhere to go,” says 93 year old Anna Loboda, in a precise clear voice. Her son died in the city of Liman. Her daughter-in-law escaped to Bulgaria. Evacuated to Odesa, she kept calling neighbors who remained behind.
How is my house?
She calls and ask.
Your house is OK.
How is my house?
She calls again.
She finds out that Russian soldiers took out new windows and doors from her house. They decided too steal refrigerator, but it was too heavy to carry, so they left it in the backyard, and there it still stands, in rain, in sunlight, the beat up refrigerator in the middle of empty front-yard.
Her yard was once filled with chickens.
Soldiers walked by and began to shoot.
They shot all her chickens, one after another.
Anna Loboda doesn’t cry. She is speaking in a precise, clearly voice.
Soon, the listener realizes that this precision, this clarity, is a form of cold fury at the soldiers, who are miles and miles away. Anna Loboda remembers World War Two, how soldiers came from house to house taking food.
Now sixty years later, soldiers again go from house to house.
She speaks in a clear, precise voice.
Anna sings beautifully, says the woman sitting next to her, trying to change the subject.
A song. Another song. Another.
She can’t stop.
I keep thinking about her house, hundreds of miles away, from which the windows and doors are torn off, like body parts.
“They have bombed all the houses in our village”
Valentina Kirpichenko, a refugee from the village that’s located between Nikolaiv and Kherson comes towards us.
“There are no houses left in the village”
That’s how Valentina introduces herself.
“We had almost no people left. Maybe 20 of us. No electricity. No water”
“My granddaughter can’t breathe, she’s severely disable. So all my family left, taking her to safety. They left on March 15.”
But Valentina stayed in the village.
“I was afraid to leave the house. I thought I will survive. This war can’t go on forever, I thought. There were still a few houses left then.”
“I made it until May 15th. There were almost no houses left by May 15th. So I run.”
“What happened to your village?” I ask Evgeny.
He doesn’t say much.
“What village? It’s flat land now.”
That’s all he says.
“Flat land. There is no more village.”
“The city isn’t occupied by the Russian’s yet. The city is still standing.”
“But the missiles keep exploding, often a dozen of explosions at a time. And you have no idea where they all are coming from. My neighbor came home, parking his car at the garage. Air-raid began. He run to the shelter. When he came back—there was no car, no garage. Just a giant hole in the ground.”
“It’s like Stalingrad battle,” says Genady of his village in the Donetsk area. Not a single house is left standing.
In Odesa, Gennady had several surgeries done to help his eyesight, but no luck. “These surgeries cost money, he says. I have no money. I haven’t received my pension for two months now. Can your newspaper help me to find out why?”
“I want to go home,” says Valentina from the occupied city of Lisichanks, “Ukrainians are about to liberate my hometown. I want to go home” she repeats. Her son has remained in Lisichanks.
“I don’t know if my boy is alive,” Valentina says. “I want to go home.”
Katie Farris is the author of Standing in The Forrest of Being Alive, which is forthcoming from Alice James Books in 2023. Her previous collection, A Net to Catch My Body in Its Weaving was published by Beloit Poetry Journal as the winner of Chad Walsh Poetry Prize.
Investigatio, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons