This entry is part of the GRAPHIS world poster initiative intended to help support the Ukrainian people as a result of the current humanitarian crisis brought about by the unprovoked Russian incursion and is based on this article reported by Vanity Fair on May 19, 2022:
“We Will Never Be the Same”:
Bullets and Blindfolds in a Ukrainian City Under Siege
When the Russian soldier placed the bag over Olena’s head and started to tape it around her neck, her training as a doctor told her she only had 40 seconds before she would start to lose consciousness as asphyxiation set in. All she could think to do was start counting the seconds. Her son, sitting next to her, whispered that he was running out of air. She counted to 10. Her husband, Oleh, was locked in a nearby walk-in refrigerator, bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds. She counted to 15.
Russian soldiers had snatched the family that morning as they went block to block through Hostomel, a suburb of Kyiv, 24 days after the war began. “For me, I thought, This is the end,” Olena said. When her count reached 20, a soldier started cutting tiny slits in the bag, and she was able to regain her breath. But that was just the beginning. What followed were nearly two days of detention and interrogations, separated from her family. Olena would only be released so she could return to her home and keep treating patients.
While Russia occupied this city for 35 days, on its failed warpath to Kyiv, Olena ran a one-woman clinic treating all manner of her war-wounded neighbors—gunshots and shrapnel wounds, contusions and concussions from explosions, and sick children—under constant gunfire and shelling. That morning of March 20 would prove a horrific turning point for Olena and her family. It would be weeks before she would see her husband again, as he was taken first to a filtration camp in Belarus and then held in a Russian prison for weeks before being freed during a prisoner exchange. Her son, last seen in the filtration camp, is still missing.
Hostomel is a small city north of Kyiv, the kind of place where city dwellers keep summer homes. It forms a trio of satellite suburbs along with Bucha and Irpin, places now synonymous with an array of war crimes perpetrated by Russia on Ukrainian civilians, from executions to torture. Their names will go down in history with the likes of Srebrenica and Babi Yar.
Today, Hostomel’s buildings still lay destroyed, with the occasional burned-out tank tucked away in an alley. But the roads have been cleared, the demining teams have worked through the area, and the bodies have been removed. Spring is in full bloom. The dog walkers and bicycle riders have returned.
It’s almost impossible to imagine that for five weeks, this same city was hell on earth, that war came here in the most needlessly cruel fashion, that the people here were terrorized in ways those lucky enough to survive will be left processing for the rest of their lives. Many are still asking how this could happen. And why. How could their perfectly normal lives be upended in such a brutal way, so quickly, from one day to the next? But for Olena and Oleh, only one question haunts every minute of every day: What has happened to their son?
Olena and Oleh had moved to Hostomel five years ago, after they grew tired of the city, and were living the Ukrainian version of the suburban dream. Oleh, at 57, was a pensioner, having retired as a high-ranking police officer in the Kyiv region, while Olena worked as a general practitioner. Both stridently kept up with their physical fitness and were professional dragon-boat rowers in their age group, skilled enough that they had traveled the world competing. They were comfortable enough to have bought all three of their children their own apartments—two from Oleh’s previous marriage, and Dima, their son, 22 years old at the time, who lived a few miles from them. “For you to understand, we lived a perfect life here in Ukraine,” said Olena.
“The feeling was that something was about to happen but it wouldn’t affect us,” said Olena. Added Oleh: “We were hoping for information from the authorities who have some kind of alarm, to be able to react properly to what’s going on. But there was no reaction, everybody was at a standstill. They froze.”
Oleh and Olena decided to go check on Dima, who lived in a newer residential area close to the entrance to the city. The streets were chaotic as residents tried to flee the area. Two bridges had been blown up, and Russian forces were shooting at civilian cars, killing dozens.
As Olena and Oleh made their way through town, they noticed the hospital, where Olena had previously been the head of the outpatient department, was shut down. People were showing up with shrapnel wounds, panicked, but there was no one to treat them. Olena reckoned someone needed to take control, and Oleh was able to commandeer an ambulance in the parking lot. Together they started making home visits, providing first aid. Olena also organized a number of other doctors and volunteers to do the same. For the next few days, they drove around Hostomel and treated as many people as they could.
“Every second house was burning when we were driving and passing by, and all these houses had people in them that needed help,” Oleh said of a neighboring street. People were being shot down in the streets, homes leveled. There was a constant exchange of gunfire, rockets, and fired mortars. At night they could see the Russian army on one side and the Ukrainian army on the other, firing at each other. By February 27, four days into the full-scale invasion, power and internet were cut in their area. “Shooting was going on, and we didn’t know who was shooting,” said Olena.
By then it was clear that driving the ambulance had become too risky. The next day they started treating people at their own home, gathering whatever medical supplies they could. “My profession has always been like a hobby for me,” Olena said. “I’ve always treated people in my home. Friends, neighbors…”
Many still had mobile phones they could use, and word spread about “Lena the Doctor.” People came from neighboring districts to get treatment. Olena was taking out shrapnel, bullets, whatever she could, and stitching people up, eventually with just regular sewing thread. Her first internship, she said, had been in cardiac surgery, “so I can stitch, I can cut, I can take something out.”
Two men she knew from the neighborhood came in, each with wounds from a sniper. But some patients were too far gone to recover. People were dying, and no one knew what to do with their bodies. Olena told them to bury their loved ones in their yards and that when the fighting stopped they would make sure the bodies were exhumed and given a proper burial.
With a complete vacuum of authority in the town, Olena started solving problems. She helped organize what to do with garbage, turned her house into a charging station for electronics because they had secured a neighbor’s generator, and organized food deliveries. So much was happening, and Olena was the contact point for everything.
“People were panicking like crazy,” said Olena. Added Oleh, “We had to take the responsibility and do something, organize them somehow and support them to be able to survive in these days.” The basement of an unfinished apartment complex down the street from their house became an ad hoc bomb shelter, a labyrinth of bare rooms with hard concrete floors that was cold, damp, and dark, where people slept on mattreses on the ground. In the early days of March, it was often below freezing. Many people had already been sheltering in their own basements, often without heat or electricity. “Children were catching colds, they were crying, and they were in bad mental shape,” said Olena.
Soon, Russian troops started showing up to people’s homes, telling them they had minutes to leave before they would shoot. Families began to flee with whatever they had on their backs. By mid-March there were 60 people living in the basement, and Olena spent a lot of her time down there treating people, sometimes spending the night when help was needed or when the bombing grew too heavy. “Every hour we had this hope that everything would end any minute,” Olena said. Around that time, the Ukrainian and Russian authorities agreed to arrange a “green corridor,” a safe route for civilians in the area to evacuate. But information on the ground was thin. Hundreds of cars lined up to leave the city, with many people also on foot. Olena had told her son Dima to stay in his apartment, but now it had been days since she had been able to reach him. “I looked at everyone who passed by our house. There is no son, no son, no son,” she recalled.
Desperate for answers, she was close to venturing out to find her son, when he finally showed up at her house. The Russian military had taken over his home and forced him to leave, and he was badly traumatized. “I saw the state he was in,” she said. “I was worried about him, and I hid him on the second floor, and I wanted him to stay there until he was normal.”
On the morning of March 20, Olena was in the backyard cooking food over the woodfire stove when she heard screaming coming from the front yard. She ran through the house to the front porch and saw Oleh lying on the ground. He had been shot in the hip and knee. There were 15 fully armed soldiers. One held a gun to his head, screaming, “Traitor! Traitor!”
Dima, who had been in the house, ran to the front yard and dropped to his knees, begging the men not to kill his father. “Dima, my son, was hysterical,” Oleh said. Oleh yelled for Olena, hoping her arrival would distract the soldiers and calm tensions. Russian soldiers had visited their house a couple of times before, but never like this. “I was not afraid for my life, I was not scared that they would kill me, but I understood that we need to calm everybody down somehow,” said Oleh.
Olena came out of the house with her hands up. She told the soldiers that she was a doctor, that they had no weapons. The soldiers ran into the house and started searching, demanding to know where the phones and weapons were hidden. They found some of Oleh’s medals and awards from his time as a police officer. They yelled again that he was a traitor. Then they took Olena, Oleh, and Dima as prisoners, bringing them to the ad hoc Russian base at the Hostomel airport. Each of them was interrogated by whom they believe to have been intelligence officers, their answers filmed. Oleh was accused of communicating with Ukrainian artillery forces, alerting them to Russian positions.
Olena and Dima were led through a different hallway. That is when the plastic bags were taped over their heads.
“I thought that Olena was with me all the time, but they took her somewhere separately,” Oleh said. “Olena has her story, and Dima and I have separate stories. And all this time, all the days when I was taken away, I thought that she was taken with me and she was somewhere nearby, in the cell near me,” he said.
Olena spent two days being questioned by Russian forces—who was her husband communicating with? How many other doctors were there in Hostomel? She told them she was the only one. What would happen, they asked, if she were no longer there? She said that her patients would likely die.
The Russians decided to test her, getting a military doctor to show her medications and ask her about each one. She passed, and the next day was loaded into a military vehicle and dropped off near the local administration building. The soldiers told her that if she didn’t leave her house, her husband and son would also be released.
Meanwhile, Oleh was still in the ad hoc cell, ignorant to the whereabouts of his son and wife. At 9 p.m. the day he was taken, military doctors placed a hood over his head, led him down a hallway, and laid him down on the floor. It was so dark that they had to use flashlights to examine his wounds. They gave him painkillers, and then asked him to look up and pray. Then they removed the bullets and sterilized and bandaged his wounds, telling him they would stitch him up the following day.
There were a number of other walk-in refrigerators being used as cells in the area, and the men in his cell were able to communicate with those being held next door. He received word that his son was there, and the men told him not to worry, that they would take care of him. “I felt much worse after that because I thought they would let him go,” he said.
Instead, Oleh and other captives were marched, blindfolded with their hands bound behind their backs, into military transport trucks, and delivered to a base in Naroulia, Belarus, which the Russian military was using as a filtration camp to interrogate and divide its prisoners. Once the blindfolds were removed, Oleh was able to see that his son was among the prisoners and felt a wave of relief, but it would not last.
The next day the separations began—Oleh was called to join 13 other men on a large Ilyushin-76 transport plane; Dima was not. He had a brief chance to say goodbye—worried about Dima’s state of mind, he checked to make sure his son remembered his name, address, and phone number—and asked some of the other prisoners to look out for him.
Oleh was blindfolded and bound on his flight, kicked and beaten by Russian soldiers. It was only days later, when he happened upon a library book in his cell, that he realized they had been brought to a prison in the Russian city of Kursk.
Oleh spent the next four weeks there, never going outside. Prisoners were treated awfully. The beatings were so severe that one prisoner later died in the cell. Oleh’s bullet wounds soon grew infected, his leg ballooning to three times its normal size and his temperature reaching nearly 106. Oleh took to urinating on his wounds in the hopes of sterilizing them. When he could no longer stand up at the morning check-ins, they finally took him to receive some treatment, including multiple shots of antibiotics.
He was summoned twice for questioning by Russia’s Federal Security Service and Investigative Committee. They asked if he was a member of far-right Ukrainian organizations, if he was a Nazi, if he knew details of Ukraine’s air defense systems, and if he was in contact with Ukrainian intelligence and the military. Eventually, they realized he was old and not in contact, and mostly left him alone, focusing their ire instead on the Ukrainian soldiers detained alongside him. “They were very cruel to them,” said Oleh.
For him, the torture was wondering what was happening to his wife and son.
Back in Hostomel, Olena was not faring as well. She took to writing in a journal to calm her anxiety. Her diary entry from those first few days at home reads: New days, new fears, I just hope that they are treated normally…I hate, I hate, I don’t know what to do.
A separate entry from around the same time reads: This morning, snow, terrible weather. The bell is ringing in the church. The weather is disgusting. The wind is strong, it seems like the end of the world. Dima, Oleh what is happening with you? How can I help you? I’m waiting but very soon I’ll be able to talk even to the devil to help you. I’m hoping, God save them, it’s all a mistake…. I’m scared.
“I would have gone crazy if I hadn’t been writing,” she said. People continued to come to her house for medical treatment. One patient died from a contusion suffered during an explosion. Her husband, who had diabetes, started drinking because of grief and died as well. But hope kept Olena going. She followed the routines she and Oleh had set up, starting the generator, pumping water into bottles for people, cooking hot food to give out. During the night, it was too scary to leave the house. “The shooting was all the time until our army came,” she said.
On April 1, nearly two weeks since she had last seen her husband and son, she heard the bell towers of the church ringing. At first she thought she was hallucinating. Then she learned that Ukrainian forces had liberated the city. When she saw a Ukrainian soldier for the first time, she cried. “There was a huge sense of relief, at least: Thank God our people are here,” she said. “People were just flooding into the streets in a great mood.”
But she still needed to find her son and husband.
At one point police investigators asked her to provide materials with DNA in hopes of identifying her husband and son among the corpses. She refused, wanting to think they were still alive.
Weeks after he was brought to Kursk, Oleh was released with as much confusion as he had been taken with. He was photographed, filmed, and forced to write a statement saying he had not been tortured, then flown to the Russian-occupied peninsula of Crimea—stopping in the Russian city of Taganrog and the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Donetsk along the way to pick up ever more prisoners.
He soon realized he was being driven to a prisoner exchange—by Oleh’s count, the Russians released 52 people in exchange for 30 Russian soldiers. The Ukrainian government had called Olena to tell her her husband was alive. Once released, Oleh called her himself, and at first she couldn’t recognize his voice. “I called Olena and she was ready to run right there,” Oleh said. “It was the middle of the night, the curfew, and everyone here was trying to persuade her that she couldn’t go now.”
Their joy was short-lived, as both soon realized that Dima was not with the other and was still missing. Oleh was distraught. He had not wanted to come back and face his wife without his son. “I was praying for him to come back at first. I was even telling the [Russian] military investigator that I wouldn’t leave,” he said. “I kept telling him, ‘I don’t want to go anywhere until I find my son. I cannot go to my wife, his mother, without my son.’”
It has now been four weeks since Oleh was freed, and there is still no information on Dima’s whereabouts. Olena worries that her son, a handsome champion wrestler who in February graduated from the National University of Food Technologies with a degree in bioengineering, will be a target for his captors to “break,” as she described it. He was already suffering from PTSD when he was taken hostage. “I need to save him somehow,” she told me.
She is doing all she can—reaching out to the military, government, and police connections in Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church, prison networks made up of criminals and ex-convicts, ex-Soviet military channels, and journalists.
For now, all she and Oleh can do is wait and try. On their kitchen table, they keep a place setting for Dima, waiting for his return. “We are normal people who were living a normal life,” she said. “Even people coming from Kyiv, they come and they can’t realize the situation we were in. We have changed so much after the war. And we will never be the same.”
This is a portrait of OLENA and represents the real-life ordeal of OLENA, her husband Oleg, and their son Dima that occurred during the Russian invasion and occupation of their city Hostomel, a suburb of Kyiv. A horrific period of personal loss as reported by Vanity Fair on May 19, 2022.