Gary Horton | An Account from Ukraine

Gary Horton
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We have family friends living in Irpin, Ukraine. Irpin was one of the towns hardest hit by the initial Russian invasion. You’ve seen the horrifying pictures. The mom, Juliya, shares her personal experience here. Her personal terrifying story brings home to us how lives like ours, in towns like ours, have been terrorized, brutalized and destroyed. We can and should do everything possible to assist Ukraine – a people and a country not that different from our own:

Since childhood, I learned the blood-chilling military horrors stories my ancestors suffered. But my understanding was like an abstraction, a scary fairy tale. Who would have thought that just 77 years later in the 21st century, in the world of space technology and modern democracies, our world would be forcibly dragged into a cynical, deceitful war with beast-like cruelty, against all international rules and agreements.

Ukraine before the war was a country of beautiful cities, developed industry, hardworking, happy people; a resource-rich land with almost everything: endless fields with harvests of fruits, vegetables, and grains; with two seas off our shores, beautiful mountains, huge forests, rivers and reservoirs. And, attractively to oligarchs and foreign autocrats, oil and rare earth minerals in abundance…

And then, Vladimir Putin decided to take it all away. Because he thought it was the opportune moment to choose “might is right.” This doesn’t even sound possible in our day – except that the unimaginable unimaginably happened.

No one knew that on the evening of Feb. 23, 2022, when we kissed the children with wishes of sweet dreams before going to bed, whole hordes of Russian soldiers, missiles and aircraft were launching a full-scale invasion, ordered to destroy our cities, murder our people, and rob, ruin and rape.

I woke up at dawn from vibrations that shook the ground and reverberated through the house like an earthquake. It was 4 a.m., a time when the whole country is sleeping a deep, calm sleep. By 10 a.m., explosions were everywhere. The attack on Ukraine went in all directions of the country. By Feb. 24, explosions from Russian tanks were all over neighboring villages.

My first thoughts were to gather all my four children and run away. But gas stations were clogged with panicked people in long queues, trying to fill up a full tank. Highways were backed up for miles. Departure by car was ruled out. Still, even with the reverberations of all the bombs, this all was so crazy it was hard to believe all this was not happening in a dream, a nightmare.

We lived in constant fear for several more days and sleepless nights until exploding shells began to be heard right above our heads. The winter sky was covered with thick, black smoke that it seemed day was night. It was difficult to tell the difference. There was a smell of gunpowder, fires, and something terrible, uncontrollable in the air, filling the space of the city.

Fear for the lives of our children and feelings of helplessness drove us crazy. Our children were terrorized. We didn’t have a basement for shelter. But we had a basement in an unfinished home we had been building ourselves. It has no heat, water and electricity. But it had a safe basement, so it was there, on a cold concrete floor, that we hid with our family as shells and explosions began hitting our neighborhood and neighboring houses.

We gathered up blankets, carpets, winter jackets and warm clothes and moved everything to that cold basement. I put headphones on my 10-year-old daughter, tightly covering her with several blankets so she could at least get some sleep. My eldest sons and my husband took short naps fully clothed in case we needed to quickly evacuate. We knew our basement would not protect us in case of a direct hit, but we had no other choice.

Our thoughts turned into continuous prayers. When shells fly over you, even the most convinced atheist will believe in God…

The shelling became stronger each night, making sleep nearly impossible. Soon, all functions in the city were damaged, including water, communications, electricity and gas. Ours was a single-family house, with a water well. This saved us. However, we couldn’t cook, even with fire, as this would attract enemy patrols. The city was already full of saboteurs. We hid in our basement and ate canned food for a week, huddled and hiding.

And even when the neighbors’ house on our street exploded, I could not realize the reality of what was happening, hoping that I would wake up and get back to my world. But instead of awakening from a dream, real enemy aircraft continued to attack, and we realized that if we didn’t leave the city right away, we might not live to see morning.

I decided to flee with my daughter. First, there was a trip under fire to the train station, waiting for a lifetime for a train from the Red Cross. The car was full to the ceiling with people and pets, with no place to even turn around because of the tightness. I was able to break through and miraculously push myself, my child, and a small backpack into the packed car. Picture images of World War II victims packed into trains…

My frightened daughter questioned, “Why are we leaving and when will we return home?” the answers to which I didn’t know. All I knew was the ridiculousness of fleeing with my daughter; of leaving my husband and three grown sons in a senseless war, triggered by an unhinged dictator in Moscow.

We traveled for hours without food, water and toilet with our fellow refugees to Lviv. We arrived on a freezing cold night in a foreign city, all of us panic-stricken. Then, 12 hours of endless waiting in a chaotic queue of frightened people on the border. Next, four days in Poland, two of which we slept like the dead after two weeks of insomnia and shelling….

Eventually, my daughter and I located to Spain for seven months. I worked with small children, while my husband ferried wounded soldiers from the front back to hospitals. Seven months later, I returned to Irpin after Ukraine fully ejected Russian invaders from our region.

And one short week after my return, the Russians began their long-distance missile strikes, destroying our electrical and hydraulic infrastructure, attempting to throw all of Ukraine back into the Middle Ages. We are now living mostly without power, water and gas. Heat is just a wood-burning stove and power is a small neighborhood-shared gas generator to charge our phones. And it is very cold…

All of Ukraine is pulling to defeat and eject the Russian invaders. But that is another, continuing story….   

Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.

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