Russian captivity, one week in the cold shelter of a bombed house, evacuation by car with shattered windows on a road covered with dead bodies. This is what a family from Hostomel, a town in Kyiv Oblast, had to go through. Larysa Khokhuda, a TV project scriptwriter, her husband Vasyl, a construction worker, and their four-year-old son Zakhar were fortunate enough to get out of the Russian-occupied city and seek refuge in Ireland.
Hell. The Beginning
Hostomel, a small and cozy town right next to the Ukrainian capital, was one of the first to face the war. This Kyiv suburb has been rapidly developing in recent years: many comfortable housing complexes have been built along with infrastructure and leisure areas. Hostomel is a popular place for living among young families with children.
However, it was the Antonov International Cargo Airport that gave Hostomel glorious recognition. This airport serves as a base for the Antonov An-225 “Mriya” (The Dream), the world's biggest and most powerful cargo aircraft. This airborne giant, Ukraine's pride, was designed and manufactured by the Antonov Design Bureau in Kyiv. Being a unique aircraft, it is considered to be the heaviest in the world with a maximum takeoff weight of 640 tons. The aircraft secured its place in the Guinness World Records for its 240 records.
The Khokhuda family had just finished renovations on their apartment in Hostomel and liked to watch the Mriya’s takeoffs and landings from their kitchen window. On the morning of February 24th, out of the same window they saw about 30 enemy helicopters shelling the Antonov airport and nearby residential buildings. Later that evening, the Ukrainian Mriya was destroyed, following numerous enemy aviation strikes.
“Everything inside me was burning and freezing simultaneously because of fear, uncertainty, and obscurity. I didn't know I'd be living with those feelings for three more weeks,” Larysa recalls her emotions at the time she heard the first explosions.
According to Larysa, there were no official statements from local authorities or air raid alerts at the moment. The family ran for shelter as they heard explosions and didn't know how to evacuate safely. They decided to stay home, especially after witnessing their neighbors try to leave the place on their own, but get shot and wounded in the crossfire of the Russian military.
“We had a lot of plans and work perspectives for this spring. On February 25th I was going to start as a chief editor at a social TV project. My husband had lots of different construction and repair offers, and my son was preparing for another concert at the music studio he attends. He's been playing violin (Suzuki method) since he was 3,” recalls Larysa Khokhuda on what is now an unfulfilled family plan.
The woman has been working as a scriptwriter on Ukrainian TV for 15 years now. She's been an integral part of dozens of TV projects, primarily social ones, made by the Kyiv StarLightMedia group: family reality shows and projects where participants are given psychological or medical treatment. The Russian missile attacks have canceled all TV filming and ruined the future of her family.
On March 3, Russian military troops broke into the Khokuda family apartment. Their neighbors who had a small child were in the apartment with them.
“We sat and heard the noises as they were breaking and shooting the doors of apartments on the first floor, going up. We lived on the 6th floor. My whole body became frozen and kind of weightless, kids fell silent. My husband and our neighbor were ready to be taken. Everyone was silent and waited. It was a dead silence. For me that was the scariest moment,” recalls the Ukrainian woman.
Larysa's family was fortunate not to be killed like other families, and the women were not "even" raped. However, Russian soldiers confiscated their phones immediately and spent two days in their apartment. Why weren't they killed? Larysa emphasizes that those soldiers were an exception rather than the rule. That's why the family managed to make contact with them and begged the soldiers not to kill them.
“I've been working on TV for 15 years and have a lot of experience with thousands of different people. I can understand the type of person I'm dealing with and how best to communicate with this person right away. So after analyzing the words, speech peculiarities, behavior, and looks of the soldiers who first stepped into the apartment, I decided to talk to him. (…) I talked a lot to both of them. I picked up a strategy that made me feel calmer because I could control things they do here and now and what was on their minds. This way, I and my family became personalized to them. Our neighbors' apartments were destroyed, and all their property was damaged,” Larysa says.
Eventually, all the enemy soldiers left and the Khokhuda family, along with about 60 of their neighbors, spent a week in a cold shelter at +10 ° C. The surroundings were constantly being bombed throughout that time.
“We drained water from pipes and cooked food on a camping gas burner. Everyone got their 150 ml of soup per day. A regular bucket served as a toilet. Kids were playing, quietly. Once a day we took them outside for a few minutes to stand next to the door so their eyes could adapt back to light,” the Ukrainian woman recalls.
Their house survived four more raidings by Russian troops. “Phones were destroyed as they were afraid of fire spotters. Russians used the house as their base and ammunition depot. The backyards of the two neighboring private houses served as firing points. They shelled our defenders from there, and the Ukrainian military couldn't respond as they knew that civilians were in the shelters of those houses,” Larysa says.
Another happy coincidence. One of the neighbors managed to save her phone and called her husband, a firefighter from the State Emergency Service of Ukraine. That's how everyone learned about the evacuation through the "humanitarian corridor". In a car with blown-out windows and windshield, the Khohuda family and their neighbors set off in an evacuation column, carrying with them only a few backpacks.
“We left memories, photos, things we loved and cherished, our comfort, our HOME. We had to save our lives. It was so hard, we couldn't even cry, as if we were petrified,” Larysa recalls.
“We saw burnt and shot cars along the road, people's dead bodies, ruined houses, burnt down shops. I tried to place my son so he's not seeing the aftermath of all that hell, and so the wind isn’t blowing at him. It was -3°C outside. My son eventually saw something, lowered his head, and said quietly: "BITCHES!". It was quite scary when the column stopped suddenly. We were on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Finally, we reached the first Russian military checkpoint. I saw them coming to every car, carrying guns and asking some questions. Our car stopped in front of the burnt civilian car with a burnt body lying close to it. Right on the asphalt of Zhytomyr highway. Laid a dead body,” Larysa Khokhuda recalls.
Road to Ireland
Then, there was the long way journey: Kyiv to Lviv to Wroclaw to Cologne to Dublin to Kinvara by train, car, and plane. Larysa's parents and her older daughter joined her in Lviv and they decided to head for Ireland, a country their godparents had moved to earlier. They got help from friends and strangers and volunteers all along the way who provided housing and fed the family. A Polish musical teacher even presented a four-year Zakhar with a little violin, as he had left his in Hostomel. In turn, the little boy presented the teacher with a bit of a "Toblerone" chocolate bar that he kept since he was in the Hostomel shelter.
Ireland and the small town of Kinvara warmly welcomed the newcomers. Locals took Ukrainians on a tour around the town and even made a celebration for Mother's Day, bringing toys and treats for kids. “We were sincerely happy and celebrated the moment, for the first time since February 24th,” Larysa says.
The local refugee center's staff helped with doing the paperwork, providing food and essential items, and finding hotel rooms on the next day. The whole family may live there for the next 2-3 months. Later, Ukrainian refugees may live with Irish families. In addition, Ukrainians are offered jobs and kids attend local kindergartens and schools.
“We are infinitely grateful to Ireland, we're ready to work and be useful to the host country that sheltered us,” Larysa Khokhuda emphasizes. However, she adds they are all dreaming of returning to Hostomel one day to help rebuild it and help other Ukrainians who have suffered from the war, especially kids with post-traumatic stress disorder. “But most of all, just like millions of Ukrainian women, I'm dreaming about hugging my husband who stayed in Ukraine. '