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Ukrainian sisters’ flight to freedom

3 May 20220 comments

Two Ukrainian sisters have found refuge in Australia after braving bombs and snipers in a desperate journey to safety.

Yevheniia Cherkasova, 24, and her sister Alexandra, 14, fled besieged Kharkiv as Russian tanks attempted to encircle the city.

After surviving bombing and missile strikes, the sisters were put aboard a train by their parents in the precarious hope they would reach safety.

Now safe in Melbourne, they have told of the human, economic and emotional toll the Russian invasion has taken on themselves and their beleaguered nation.

As the Russian attack on Kharkiv began, Yevheniia’s immediate emotion was disbelief.

At home with her family in their comfortable apartment close to the centre of the city, she struggled to process the idea that her world was about to be turned upside down – nor that she was headed for the other side of the world.

“I thought maybe it was fireworks but far away. But then they started to bomb the city centre and we knew what it was. It was the Russians attacking us,” Yevheniia said.

“At 5am in the morning and we all woke up. We heard loud noises from the street. There were explosions not far from us – maybe 10 kilometres away.

“At first we didn’t think it was war but then there was a factory explosion and when we read the news and we realised it was war.

“We all went to the window in the kitchen and saw a mushroom cloud and the sky was much brighter than it should have been at that time in the morning. It was then that it really sank in what was happening.

As the Russian attack continued, Yevheniia and her parents went to check on the craft shop they own and run.

“It is small shop but I loved working there because I do a lot of craft. We sold yarn, beads for embroidery and material for crochet.

“We had a lot of customers from other countries, so it helped my English a lot. I learned English at school but we would have lots of foreign students come to the shop.

“We got to the shop at 8am. It is 5 kilometres from the border of the city, on a ring road, and less than 40 kilometres from the Russian border,” she said.

“Then we tried to reach my grandparents who live in a small village closer to the border. But the Russians were occupying this village.

“For the first two weeks we heard nothing from them.  Even now my parents can’t call them, but my grandparents can call them when there is a connection.

“My grandparents are trapped with no electricity or gas. They are surviving by cooking soup on an open fire,” she said.

A couple of weeks into the conflict, Yevheniia and her family also suffered blackouts.

“We had some days in Kharkiv where there was no electricity or water. It was scary because we had no electricity or internet connections, no water and we didn’t know what was happening because we couldn’t see or read the news,” she said.

Yevheniia’s parents sent her and her sister away on March 13 after a missile hit houses across the street from their apartment.

“Our parents put us in the car and drove us to the railway station. They put us on a train to Lviv in the west of Ukraine and then we made it into Poland,” she said.

“At the time, we were lucky because there were not so many people. We got the first train to the border. It was not scheduled, so it was not so crowded and we could sit down.

“But I have friends who spent 26 hours on their feet with nowhere, trying to get out of the country by train.”

Yevheniia says it was eerie and frightening travelling across the recently peaceful but now devastated countryside.

“It was scary looking out of the train travelling across the country. We went through Kiev and other places that had been bombarded,” she said.

“We could see bombed buildings and wrecked cars. Ordinary people had obviously been killed by the Russians.

“I remembered how these places were supposed to look and now all I could see was ruins.

“My city Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second largest. It has beautiful old buildings, lots of industry and factories and universities. It was heart-breaking to see it under attack,” Yevheniia said.

The Russian army attacked the northern suburbs of Kharkiv on February 25 after a massive artillery barrage.

Ukrainian forces were able to hold out against the Russian forces but bitter fighting continued for weeks on the outskirts of the city.

And incessant shelling killed dozens of civilians, including children.

It took the sisters two days to reach the Polish border. Again, they were lucky in being able to cross the border in just a few hours. Other refugees have spent 16 hours or more getting though border posts.

They arrived in the Polish town of Bialystok, where champion junior speed skater Alexandra’s ream had been based for training.

“We were able to stay with the team for a while but it was hard in Poland. It was difficult to find a job and we had no money or extra clothes.

“We were faced with having to pay for accommodation and food in Poland with no job and little money,” Yevheniia said.

It was then that Maxim, a family friend who has lived in Australia for a decade, reached out the sisters.

“Our friend told us about the Australian program to offer tourist visas to Ukrainians and we and we applied.

“After we got our visas we flew 27 hours through Warsaw and Istanbul to Melbourne.

“Melbourne is a beautiful city and very peaceful. We were very scared and so we are happy and grateful to be here,” Yevheniia said.

She said other family members had found refuge in other parts of Europe but her parents were still in Ukraine.

Yevheniia said that a sad outcome of the conflict in Ukraine was that it had split families with links to Russia.

“My father has a brother living in Russia and he told my Dad that Russia was only attacking military targets. They had a huge fight over that and have fallen out,” she said.

“Most Ukrainian families who have connections in Russia have had arguments about what is happening.

“People inside Russia have been fooled by propaganda. They are not hearing about civilians being killed and people losing their houses.”

Yevheniia says every family in Ukraine knows someone who has lost everything.

“In my grandparents’ village, a lot of people were robbed by the Russians. They raided a beauty salon there and took everything – mirrors, blow dryers even chairs. Why do they need chairs? They don’t have chairs in Russia?” she said.

Yevheniia said that even Ukrainians who were once in favour of closer ties with Russia have now changed their minds.

“Ukraine was a bit divided over our relationship with Russia – we do have historic, cultural and family ties – but no one wants to be close to Russia now,” she said.

Yevheniia said that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has reunited Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.

“Since becoming independent, Ukraine has not really been united until now. At first no one thought Zelenskyy would be such a strong leader.

“People thought he was very young – in his40s – when most world leaders are much older. But whatever happens from now, Zelenskyy will be remembered as a great leader,” she said

Asked what she would say to Russian President Vladimir Purin given the chance, Yevheniia said: “I would say just – why?

“In 2014 when Russia attacked the eastern part of Ukraine and Crimea, it seemed like he had a plan – an evil plan – but a plan. Now there doesn’t seem to be a plan and it is not going to end well for Putin,” she said.

Yevheniia says she is uncertain about the future and where how the conflict in her homeland will end up.

“I didn’t think would be so bad. And I never understood how much I loved my country until this whole thig happened.

“When the war started we thought it would be over in a few weeks. And then we thought it would be just one week more, one week more…

“But it hasn’t stopped yet and we are just hoping for the best every day.

“I don’t know what the future holds but I hope the war ends soon and we can go home and rebuild our country.

“About 1200 houses have been destroyed in Kharkiv – that’s a lot of people. We will rebuild but things will never be the same after this,” she said.