They had an hour to pack up their lives. To save their lives.
In the middle of that frenzy of emotions and decisions, Angelina asked husband Egor whether she should pack their photo album.
“Looking at photos will only make you cry,” he said.
That album now lies somewhere under a mountain of rubble – all that remains of the couple’s home in the besieged town of Irpin, one of the flashpoints of the Ukraine conflict, a town now battered beyond recognition.
Angelina, 25, is speaking from the inner suburbs of Romanian capital Bucharest, in a shelter for victims of domestic violence which has offered up 40 of its 100 rooms to Ukrainian refugees like her, who are being supported by World Vision.
Six women, a baby and a dog
Angelina’s journey here has been epic and tortuous. When the bombs began raining down close the family home at 4am on February 24, they knew what they had to do. By 10pm that night, they were on the road to the Polish border.
Crammed into a single vehicle were Angelina’s mother-in-law Iryna, 59, father-in-law Andrew, 59, sister Dasha, 29, sisters-in-law Xenia, 22, Maria, 19, Tatiana, 17, her 10-month-old Tim and the family
dog – six women, a man, a baby and a dog.
Progress at the Polish border was painfully slow, with the group at one point inching along at just one kilometre in 15 hours. They reached the border point only to be told that Andrew would not be allowed to leave Ukraine. Just two weeks short of his 60th birthday, he was considered an able-bodied man, and so would have to stay in Ukraine.
The next couple of days were spent hugging Ukraine’s western borders, trying to find a way out, before finally finding a crossing in the north-western pocket of Romania.
Leaving Andrew behind in Ukraine, the six women, baby Tim and dog Bruno boarded a train to Bucharest’s Gara de Nord station with few possessions and even fewer connections. There they were picked up by the women’s shelter and offered temporary refuge.
The motive behind coming to Bucharest was to visit the United States embassy where they applied for visas to join Iryna’s son, Ivan, who lives in Florida. It was a faint hope, but by now they were clinging to anything.
But the next day brought two serious blows. Not only were they denied any prospect of entry to the US, but they received a video showing both Iryna’s home and the adjacent home belonging to Angelina and husband Egor had been destroyed in a Russian airstrike.
The footage left little doubt – nothing from their previous lives would be salvaged from the two homes, now just a tangle of timber and stone, like countless others in Irpin.
If it weren’t enough to be refugees of a brutal conflict, the six women are now homeless and, one might think, hopeless. Yet there is little sense of despair. They tell their stories through a smile, and a remarkable good cheer.
Casting our eyes around a room where their seven lives are packed into a scattering of shopping bags and small backpacks, we ask: “What do you need?”
“We need nothing,” Angelina says, adding that have been overwhelmed by the generosity of Romania and Romanians. “What we need is a future. All we think about is a future. What does our future look like?”
World Vision last spoke to Angelina on March 14. She said she had heard from Egor who was “alive, healthy but in a very unsafe area … we are praying”.
No time for ‘hysterics’ as Julia and her son flee
Julia Mulyarchuk is another of the many women who’ve found refuge at the shelter, after she was picked up in a confused fog at a Bucharest train station.
Her story began in the early morning of February 28. At 6.55am, in a flat in suburban Kyiv, she shakes son David awake. They must be on the road by 7am.
This way, she figures, there will be little time for messy explanations about their departure, no time for “hysterics”. Julia does not want to leave Ukraine, but the bombs have been falling too close their home for five days now. The time has come, she decides, she must save her son.
In the swirl of decisions about what to take, Julia packed a large folder of family photos – a thick stack of black-and-white snaps of Soviet-era school camps, family picnics and winter holidays.
“We didn’t have much time to pack. But I knew I had to take the photos. It might be all I have left,” she said.
Among them, a picture of her with husband Leonid, a colour, studio portrait of two 20-somethings very much in love. Apart from the fact that adult males must stay behind in Ukraine, Leonid is suffering from chronic kidney failure and needs daily dialysis treatment.
With the help of a local church, Julia, 44, and David, eight, boarded a small bus with around 25 others headed for the southern Ukraine city of Chernivtsi.
With every spare room in the city occupied by other Ukrainians fleeing the frontlines, Julia decided to keep moving south across the Romanian border.
At Bucharest’s Gara de Nord railway station, a policewoman spied a dazed-looking Julia wandering around the station in tears, and arranged for her to go straight to the refuge.
“I just can’t believe how generous people have been. It’s hard to understand why people want to help us … I find it so hard to receive help,” she says.
Like so many Ukrainians who have fled, Julia is happy, in the first instance, just to be safe. David is happy enough, playing with a new-found Romanian friend in the shelter and whiling away his time on Roblox and YouTube. But thoughts of the future are never far away.
“I never planned to come to Romania, but here I am – kind of a homeless person. We have a roof over our head, we have a shower, we have food, but I have no idea how long I will be here, or how long I can be here, if or when we can ever return to Ukraine.”
And yet amid it all, the trauma of war, upheaval and the weight of uncertainty, Julia can still muster gratitude.
“You know, I think for me some day, my war will be over. But my heart goes out to these women [victims of domestic violence] – their war just goes on.”
Mike Bruce is in Romania working with World Vision’s response to the Ukraine refugee crisis.