So next morning I am in tram No. 2 as it bumps over the potholes of Odesa. The tram is losing its mind. I am drinking strong tea with a bit of milk as it splashes in my paper cup. I rub a little hole in the mist of the window with my finger and watch the street bristle with tank traps, sandbags, wire; dogs are standing in the entrances to courtyard, belly deep in rain and mist. Next stop is high school No. 117, next to the Isaac Babel monument. It is now a refugee center.
“Don’t be shy, walk around, talk to them, don’t just make shy noises like an old grandma drinking soup.” Julia, who shows me around the center, has a sense of humor. She turns to an older volunteer. “We work here without weekends, because we are inspired, yes, Lenochka?”
“Yes, I’m so exhausted from all this inspiration that I need to sit down.”
“You’re not a reporter, are you?” Julia smiles at me. “Stop clasping your hands like you’re trying to squeeze a lemon and don’t want the juice to get in your eye. Go ask questions.”
In the time that I spend at school No. 117, the air raid siren wails twice and Lenochka ignores it both times, as does Julia. The kids playing with the cat surely ignore it, and a woman patting her dog ignores it, and the man with a child sleeping on his lap on the stairs ignores it, and, as for me, I don’t hear it, or try to persuade myself that I don’t hear it.
“When the air raid starts, my daughter —” the man kisses the head of his little girl sleeping. “My daughter sleeps by the front door of our apartment. She sleeps like that for nights on end. When the sirens start wailing my little daughter gets dressed very quickly and —” he pats her head. “And she brings me my shoes —” he coughs. The little girl sleeping on his lap adjust her foot a bit. “She’s barely four years old, how did she learn this?”
As he speaks, an older man to our left wants to know what pharmacy is best. He has a prescription and no money to buy medications. “It’s for my wife. She need an operation on her kidney,” he says. He wants the best pharmacy. He looks straight at me, blankly, then smiles because behind me two kids have climbed into the empty supplies box, and a third, the smallest, is a little hesitant, but then sighs and climbs in, right onto the heads of the other two.
In front of us, an old man is rolling an old woman in a wheel chair down the stairs, and Lenochka is running to help, but no, he says, I know how to do it, and rolls her down, surprisingly effortlessly, while she jumps a little bit at each step. Lenochka sighs and walks away.
An old man comes towards us in thick-rimmed glasses, stepping to the rhythm of the siren.
He stands in a line to get his bag of grapefruits.
And suddenly a bunch of volunteer girls run to hug him. “He’s their college professor from Kharkiv,” someone says. “Before the classrooms were bombed.”
The siren keeps wailing. The smallest child in the room of refugees keeps biting her big toe.
In front of me a group of volunteers are assembling donated strollers for expectant parents who escaped from Kherson. Behind them, a lady with a walker slumps into a chair and begins to fold donated t-shirts.
I will save the rest of my own impressions and stories for another time. What’s important to know is this: Hostinna Khata (Hospitable Hut) is a refugee center, an all-volunteer project. Every day, it welcomes 700 to 800 people seeking shelter and food, most of them women and children who’ve escaped Mariupol, Bucha, Irpen, Izium, Kharkiv, Slavyansk, Kherson, and Mykolaiv, various areas of Donbas and other places in Ukraine. Many of them are victims of violent crimes.
“Every single day we give refugees food, clothes and medical supplies,” says Diana Grebneva, co-founder of the center. I met Diana this summer and we have kept in touch via text messages and e-mails. Often, she e-mails with an urgent story in the middle of the night. I don’t know if she sleeps. Helping people is her life. “There are more and more children coming to us these days,” she writes to me. “The war is at the core of their days. Every family visiting us has a story,” Diana insists. “But our volunteers have stories too.” Diana wants the world to know what happened to them. Here is the story of one of her co-workers, Valentin, as told by Diana Grebneva.
— Ilya Kaminsky
On February 24, when Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine begins, Valentin is in Odesa, but his parents are in Mariupol. As bombs fall around them, Valentin’s parents can’t escape.
They are trying to survive in a warzone.
Soon, there is no water, no electricity, no gas.
Valentin’s parents cook on fires in their courtyard. They wash themselves with water from the outskirts of the city.
They forage for food, but soldiers prevent humanitarian aid from entering the city. There are no supplies left.
The internet and phone connection are lost.
On March 2, the last words Valentin hears from his father: “Valik, where can I find bread?”
The last thing Valentin’s mother says to him: “Son, we won't see each other again.”
Ten days pass.
Twenty days pass.
No word from his parents. It’s impossible to get into Mariupol.
Finally, after 23 days of silence, a friend reaches Valentin, shouting into the phone: “They are alive!”
And the phone connection is lost again.
That friend brought Valentin’s parents water and food while the city was bombed, Valentin later learns.
A day passes. Another day.
Then Valentin receives a message from refugees, his former neighbors, now living in Poland: “Your parents are dead. The house is destroyed.”
An inconsolable day. It passes.
Then, a different neighbor calls to say Valentin’s parents are in fact alive.
A day passes.
Another person calls — he’s escaped but wants to come back to rescue Valentin’s family.
Sleepless nights: Valentin and this friend are trying to come up with a plan.
Most drivers refuse to travel in that direction.
Plus, there is no gasoline.
But they find a driver. They find gas.
There is now a way to make it into Mariupol.
Finally in the city, Valentin’s friend makes it into his neighborhood. He’s a few blocks away from Valentin’s house — now one block away — now only 20 meters away — when new hostilities begin.
Under fire, he has to leave the city.
A day passes.
Valentin’s friend goes into Mariupol again — and on that day, for the first time in many weeks, Valentin sees his parents on a video call.
He doesn’t recognize them.
Both parents look 30 years older.
The friend is able to help Valentin’s parents cross the border.
They are able to escape into Georgia, then fly to Poland. From Poland they fly to Moldova, and then take a bus into Odesa.
They are in a terrible psychological state.
They have no hometown left.
Their apartment has been bombed.
But they are now with their son.
Upon arrival, Valentin’s father keeps describing how their home was lost: He’s standing outside as the building is bombed. He stands three feet away from it as the shell explodes.
That’s what Valentin’s father keeps seeing: He stands three feet from his home, and the home, where he’s lived all his life, is bombed. Both parents fall to the ground, knocked down by a shock wave, from that moment on they do not remember a thing.
When they wake up there isn’t enough air, but as they struggle to breathe, they see: There is no house at all.
It’s a miracle they survived, his father whispers.
In Mariupol, after this explosion, Valentin’s parents went to the bunker where neighbors hid from escalating bombardments.
There, people tried to help each other: shared food, water. They cooked for each other and guarded each other. But there was very little water and the bombs kept falling all around them.
His father keeps repeating: There was very little water and the bombs kept falling all around them.
There was very little water and the bombs kept falling all around them.
Now in Odesa, Valentin’s parents receive humanitarian aid at Hostinna Khata, where Valentin also volunteers. Should you like to learn more about the refugee center in Odesa, please see their website: www.hostinnakhata.org
Translated by Ilya Kaminsky and Katie Farris.