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Helena Angerstein


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Panic attacks on the way west

The deafening sound of an explosion jolts Helena Angerstein out of her sleep in the morning hours of February 24th. The war has come to Vorzel, a small Kyiv suburb. She is deeply shocked. The 42-year-old will not find sleep for the next four days. She stays awake until her mother, her husband, her 4- year-old daughter, and herself make it safely to the German town of Wolfenbüttel.

Her husband Matthias comes from Salzdahlum near Wolfenbüttel.

He emigrated to Ukraine in 2002 from Salzdahlum in order to head a sales office for agricultural machinery. Helena was hoping for a peaceful solution until the end, but now just a glance at her smartphone confronts her with the shocking new reality. New messages from her friends in Kyiv keep popping up on her display. They report of missiles hitting the capital.

She wakes up her husband and they drive to their company with the head accountant, pay the employees one last time, take the hard drive and shut down their company. The next stop for Helena is the supermarket, where she buys food for more than 400 Euros. Everything will be over in two weeks, she believes.

At home they can hear more explosions.

Some missiles hit Vorzel.

Helena is afraid. She decides they have to go underground and they take shelter in a deserted sanatorium close by. At night, though, Helena lies awake and begins planning their escape. “We’re going west”, she tells her family in the morning. She calls up a lot of hotels but there are no free rooms anywhere to be found. All through the day she hears fighter jets and explosions and at night she can’t take it anymore. She suffers a panic attack and packs all the suitcases.

At 6 in the morning the next day all four of them get into the car. Her father stays behind in Vorzel. He can’t walk well and is going to watch over the house.

It doesn’t take long for them to decide where to go: Matthias’ brother in Salzdahlum has offered to take them in. They take the E40 headed for Rivne. The roads are congested and when they are close to the Polish border all traffic comes to a standstill. It takes them 38 hours for the last 14 kilometres to the border. Helena hears missiles exploding. A military base close by has become the target of Russian attacks, she explains. The people waiting in line at the border are terrified, some panic.

When they finally cross the border, Helena’s fourth day without sleep has just begun. “I said: we have to keep going and going and going until we reach Germany”, she remembers later.

In Salzdahlum it takes her a week to recover. Whenever she hears a siren or a helicopter, the anxiety returns. Two weeks later, the Angersteins drive back to get Helena’s father. She cries when she sees the extent of destruction in Bucha.

Back in Wolfenbüttel she’s staying in a rented apartment. Matthias wants to rebuild the company in Bucha and Helena wants to return eventually as well: “it’s my home.”

“But I will only go back when I know for sure that the Russians won’t be coming back with their bombs and missiles. I can’t raise my daughter knowing she’s not safe.”