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Viktor Melnikov


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Fleeing Berdiansk in a wheelchair

Viktor Melnikov was sure: there would be no war. It would not deteriorate so quickly and completely. He believed the massing of troops on the Ukraine border was only fearmongering, meant to spread panic in the population.

On the morning of February 24th, he has to realize he was wrong. Sirens are blaring. There’s an air-raid warning in Berdiansk, a town of 115,000 on the Azov Sea. Missiles and bombs hit the military base nearby. The people in town live in fear.

There are no air-raid shelters.

The sea is much too close. The water would simply flood the basements. The 42-year-old stays in his apartment. It’s difficult for him to move about outside without help anyway. Falling from scaffolding and suffering spinal injury when he was working in construction 20 years ago left him paraplegic and he depends on a wheelchair for mobility.

He lives through the air raids with his wife and his mother. They hear fighter jets, missiles and the detonations. They turn off all lights in the apartment to be a little safer.

Russian troops occupy the town in early March. There are Russian ships mooring in the port. The town was not defended, Viktor reports.

The situation is already difficult, but terrible news from nearby Mariupol scares them even more. The town that is being destroyed by Russian forces is home to their daughter and her husband. Every day, they hope the two of them can escape Mariupol, but for the longest time they receive no sign of life from them. There are only the images on TV. At long last, their daughter calls on March 12th. “It was a moment of happiness because we knew the family is still alive”, remembers Viktor.

And then the family even reunites in Berdiansk for a short time. Their daughter and her husband have been evacuated from Mariupol on a Russian bus.

It’s becoming increasingly hard to live in Berdiansk. There are frequent power outages. Sometimes there’s no water and the only way to get food is when a humanitarian aid transport reaches the town. When Viktor talks to a friend on the phone who has fled Dnipro and has reached safety in Magdeburg, Germany, Viktor wants to leave too. His pregnant daughter is scared, though.

Eventually, the family separates.

Viktor and his mother decide to flee while the others decide to stay.

It’s not easy to leave the town. The bus they boarded turns back six times because Russian troops have closed off the road. They finally take a taxi and pay 90 Euros for the trip to Zaporizhzhia, which amounts to almost a month’s worth of a minimum pension in Ukraine. But they made it out of Berdiansk. Fortunately, they don’t have to pay off Russian troops at checkpoints.

They want to continue by train from Zaporizhzhia, but they have to wait at the station for 3 long days. Then they travel via Lviv to Przemysl in Poland. The train takes 24 hours and is completely overcrowded.

Their odyssey comes to an end in Wolfenbüttel after stops in Berlin, Magdeburg, and Hanover.

Viktor needs a wheelchair, which makes it impossible to work in construction again. He also trained as a tailor, though. “Maybe I can find work here”, he hopes.