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Islam Melikov


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Escape from Kharkiv with a toddler

The terrors of the war come to Islam Melikov and his family at night. At half past four in the morning, Russian troops start the massive shelling of Kharkiv, a metropole in Ukraine’s northeast. Panic spreads quickly in the city and also the Melikov family fears for their lives. Both parents and their two sons are sitting in their apartment and don’t know what to do. At six o’clock their daughter, her husband, and their toddler join them.

First, nobody believes it will be a long war. “We thought it would be over in three to five days”, Islam remembers later. The people of Kharkiv speak Russian and there’s a strong Russian influence on the city’s cultural life anyway. “There was no repression, who were they supposed to liberate?”, he asks.

But when the bombing continues, the family looks for shelter in the basement of a nearby school building. They stay there for five days and hear the gunshots and bomb explosions. It keeps getting worse. The walls of the basement shake when the bombs explode. One of their sons is so terrified that he faints. “That’s when I knew we had to get out of here”, Islam recounts.

The family leaves the basement in the morning and heads to the train station. They take a few things for the toddler but nothing for themselves. The clothes they’re wearing are now the only thing left to them. Pants, shirts, and clothing for winter. It’s cold in Ukraine in February.

At the Kharkiv train station there’s already a large crowd who want to leave the city and travel west. Everybody is scared. When a bomb explodes close by, panic spreads among the crowd, Islam reports. The family eventually manages to get onto a train headed for Lviv in Western Ukraine.

The train is completely overcrowded.

Islam and his two sons have to travel standing like most people on this train, but at least someone offers their seat to their daughter with her toddler.

Not everybody is allowed to travel west. Islam’s son-in-law is old enough to serve in the army. He has to get off the train and report to the military. But because of his Azerbaijan passport, Islam will not be conscripted into the army.

They spend the rest of the day and the whole night on the crowded train, which reaches Lviv at four in the morning.

Volunteers welcome them and hand out food.

“We were all terribly tired”, remembers Islam. On March 3rd the journey continues for the family. They board a free bus to Poland and receive a warm welcome. Initially, they can stay in a supermarket building but are relocated to a public gym later because of their toddler, which they are very thankful for: “it was warm there and we got to sleep on beds.” Three days later they travel further west.

A minivan takes them to Braunschweig in Germany. After spending a night in a hotel, they move on to the neighbouring municipality where they stay in different villages before eventually settling in Wolfenbüttel.

Even though Islam is very thankful for the possibility to live in safety for now, he wants to go back to Kharkiv. He runs a grocery shop in summer and works as a taxi driver in winter. “Kharkiv is my home. We had a good life there.”