Faces of Ukraine

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Piskovska family


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The front line cuts right through our homeland

When the Russian army invades Ukraine on February 24th 2022, war has already been part of life for the people of Avdiivka for a long time. The town that features so many concrete tower blocks is about 20 km from Donetsk. Since 2014, the Ukraine forces have been fighting pro-Russian separatists. Parts of town come under occupation, are lost and regained. When the fighting picks up seriously again in 2016, the Ukrainian administration even evacuates about half of the 35,000 residents, as documented on Wikipedia. Viktoria Piskovska and her family have already fled once at that point.

In 2014 Avdiivka becomes a frontline town.

The Piskovska family look for shelter from the grenades in the neighbouring town of Myrnohrad. They return only 1.5 years later. “It was just too dangerous at the time”, Victoria explains. Peace never fully returns to Avdiivka though. Time and again shots ring out and sometimes hit people’s houses.

But this time the Piskovskas are staying. Viktoria works at a bakery and keeps working there after the Russian occupation starts. “I wanted to provide people with bread”, she asserts. In mid-March Avdiivka is only a few kilometres removed from the front line. There’s massive shelling. The detonations are so strong that one time Viktoria is thrown to the floor of the bakery by the massive shockwave. “That was a sign for us even though we had grown used to the war”, she says. It is March and the family has been spending most of the time in the basement. She only goes back to the apartment to cook meals. For a few days the shelling eases off, but then her two daughters Yeva and Ethel urge Viktoria to flee the war. They had been reading social media posts warning that the town was targeted for complete destruction. That post had later been removed, Viktoria reports.

It does have an effect though: The 42-year-old mother and both her daughters, 17 and 18 years old, pack a small suitcase with essential items und leave the town on March 16th. Only her husband stays. “Clothes, underwear…  we took a few things, it didn’t really matter what, it only mattered that we would come out of this alive”, Viktoria recounts. They don’t have much money, but they manage to find someone who takes them west to the industrial town of Pokrovsk, where they board a train evacuating people to Lviv.

The three women travel on the floor of one of the train cars.

On its long way west via Dnipro and south of Kyiv, the train stops several times out in the open because of air-raid alarms. They spend two full days on the train and travel through Poland via Warsaw and eventually arrive in Berlin. For a long time, it’s a journey without a destination. What matters is that they are moving west, away from the war, away from missiles and artillery fire. It’s only on the train to Berlin that they meet a woman who speaks Russian and tells them that there are volunteers in Braunschweig offering help. They decide to go there and on to Wolfenbüttel.

They receive messages on their mobile phones that at home in Avdiivka the war is raging. “The town has been hit hard”, Viktoria reports. Her own and her neighbour’s house have been hit by missiles.

She is worried about her parents who stayed in Avdiivka. On the phone she learns that Tatjana and Vitali are safe. Vitali has a hard time walking, which is why he stays at home most of the time, even when there’s an air-raid alarm. During the current attacks, even he leaves the apartment to find shelter in the basement of a supermarket. He makes it just in time. At the entrance, a shockwave knocks him off his feet, but he manages to come to safety inside the building.

She convinces her parents on the phone to flee as well. There would be volunteers helping them and they could live in safety in Germany, she assures them. Eventually they too make the decision to leave their home country. They pack some belongings, take their passports and Nika, their small dog. This time the train only takes them to Dnipro, about 200km west. They then have to change onto a bus to get to Lviv, the town which has turned into a hub for refugees in Western Ukraine.

There’s not much left of their home in Avdiivka. Tatjana, Viktoria’s mother, has a video on her phone showing Tatjana’s and Vitali’s house burning. Almost all buildings have been destroyed, even the school building, Viktoria says. The house she used to live in with her daughters is also said to have been damaged.

Despite all that, the family is hoping to be able to return to Avdiivka soon and that the coking plant still operates, where a lot of Avdiivka residents are employed.