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With one Grad rocket they killed my husband, son, mother, and dog
Irina Zhivolup, Notary
After the surgery

Photo courtesy of Irina Zhivolup
They’ve just brought me into the room in a wheelchair. Now I’ll have a seat on the bed and we can talk…

So. On the 24th, my son called me at 5 am from Kharkiv and said that they were being bombed. He lived on the side facing Belgorod.

I jumped up, started yelling to quickly get down to the basement, and then to get out to Izium.

The next day he arrived by the last train out of Kharkiv. Then there was a call from a colleague. Their house had been bombed. After that friends called from a neighboring district. Their village which long, long ago used to house a military unit was bombed.

The wounded were coming and on the 25th explosions started at our place as well. I suggested we should leave, but my mom and husband did not want to, and I couldn’t leave them.

Irina's mother, husband and son

Photo courtesy of Irina Zhivolup
Only I survived

Why didn’t people run away immediately? Nobody believed that they would level the town like that. After all they destroyed schools, churches, buildings that survived both world wars. Izium was being razed to the ground; they couldn’t go around our Mount Kremenetz. Just as the Germans used pontoons in 1941, so the Russians set them up in the same places - and so our boys hit them again. The mountain was covered with Russian corpses, but they were led into the city by a traitor. Everyone knows who that is and I think they will catch up with him.

On March 1 at midnight we were asleep in our apartment on the fourth floor, and suddenly my husband shouted out: “Airplane!” And it felt like it was flying directly into the window. It dropped a bomb into the square, and we lived a little further on, the first house past the city council building. The blast wave was so powerful that it threw me across the bedroom towards the door. My husband pulled me up. In general, we hid in the bathroom and then went down to the basement. Soon after we moved to stay with my mother. She had her own house with a full basement. They shelled us every day, every hour and a half. The planes kept coming one after another.

For one day it seemed to be a little quieter, and then in the evening, on March 6, the dog started whining. I understood that it was a raid and then a Grad rocket hit directly in the hallway, where all of us were standing: me, mom, son, husband, and dog. Only I survived. I dug them out. I don’t know where I got the strength - head cracked open, all covered in blood, both legs broken. But I managed to pull the beams away. My son died in my arms, probably from internal bleeding.

We all wear glasses, and all the glasses remained intact. So strange… Don’t know why I survived for, but I crawled into the house, found some water, climbed into bed, put on my son’s jacket and a hat, and I stayed like that for eight days - no windows, no roof, freezing cold of 10C, rockets flying around the clock, and the bodies of my family lying on the doorstep. I drank water, got some sausages from my son’s backpack. I remember the smell of rocket fuel. Then I opened my eyes to see the closet across the room all covered in holes; in other words had up in a blind corner, thank God.

All that remained of Irina's mother's house after the shelling
Photo courtesy of Irina Zhivolup
I was lying in my bed, and one of them came over with a machine gun, his hand on the trigger, and lifted the blanket
One day I heard the neighbors’ voices and started screaming. They pulled me out, washed me and fed me. Then a paramedic came by, looked at my leg and said that I needed a doctor. By that time, the hospital had already been bombed. But one surgeon remained. The neighbors put me in a car and under a bombing, brought me to the doctor. His name is Yury Yevgenyevych Kuznetsov. He and a nurse put in stitches with no anesthesia. I remember them screaming, don’t even think about fainting, we have nothing to resuscitate you with. Anyway, they patched me up and put me in the hospital basement. But I was lucky, they still had a lot of medications and dressing materials. They gave me IVs, dressed the wounds, and I spent 25 days in the basement. I don’t know how I got the strength to endure it all.

They threatened to shoot the only remaining doctor in the legs

There were a lot of people with shrapnel wounds and fractures. Then there were lung issues since people lived in basements, and strokes in old people. Someone tried to push money to a woman doctor, but she wouldn’t take it: “It`s not looters who work here, but decent people”. The head of the lab was a Jewish woman, 82 years old, who had survived the Holocaust. She did basic blood and urine tests, the ones that could be done practically without reagents. We used to live in the same apartment complex, so she knew me. One day she brought me a jar of jam. I asked, ”Why, Eleonora Danilovna? “No, Irochka, this is for you.”

I started a crossword-solving club in the basement. First there were three of us, then five, then eight people would come and set up chairs. They bombed us, but we had our own life. It was a distraction: it’s scary when the walls are shaking, and plaster is pouring over you. I was on crutches, and at least could crawl somewhere, but some people were completely unable to move. There was a young man there, Vlad, he had a pelvic fracture, a broken arm, and a broken leg. A wall fell: his dad was killed, but he survived. Their house was bombed; there are about eight rocket “tails” sticking out in the garden. His wife was taking care of him. I keep trying to call them but haven’t been able to reach them so far… (later Vlad and Anya made it to Poland through Russia. Now they are in Lviv, where Vlad is being treated – ed.).

By then the city was occupied by Russians. They entered at the end of March. They didn’t really bother people. And then they were replaced with people from Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics as well as Kadyrovtsy. The Chechens didn’t go into the hospital, but the soldiers from the Donetsk People’s Republic were a nightmare. They told the only remaining doctor: we are going to shoot you in the legs and see what kind of doctor you are. I was lying in my bed, and one of them came over with a machine gun, his hand on the trigger, and lifted the blanket. He poked my leg, which was in a cast. I thought, oh my god, he’s going to shoot. They proposed to take me to Russia, to Belgorod. The doctor told them, this patient cannot be moved. He specially scared them off.

So the Russians left, and this lot remained: checkpoints every 50 meters, dressed like homeless people, helmets from WWII. One was wearing sneakers, the next - sandals. A collection of thieves and a gang of beggars.

Destroyed civilian buildings in Izium
I arranged for funerals for my family. People started digging the grave (the earth was frozen through) and then they started firing on the cemetery from a helicopter.
They checked all the apartments, opened up houses, drove people out of basements. If something was locked, they broke off the lock.
A friend told me about her neighbor: she had left with a friend and then came back to pick up some documents. When she got to her two-story house, she saw that everything was packed up: the stove, the dishwasher, her kids’ clothes. A soldier followed her with a machine gun and this Auntie Zhenya said to him, ”Come on, leave at least some clothes, it’s cold.” He wouldn’t allow it and she was only able to take documents and her husband’s medals.

They even bombed the cemetery

Our apartment had the windows and doors blown out, but they cleaned it out even there, taking stuff, bodywash, even my underpants, pardon the intimate detail. At the neighbor’s apartment, the metal door was stuck, so they kicked it in and destroyed the three-room apartment. They took cars, broke into garages and offices, took equipment, and looted. They demanded alcohol, food. ”Give us meat”, they said, - but how could people in a high rise apartment building have meat a month into the war?

There was a gypsy village next to us. They threw them out into the cold, and said: Gypsies are not people. They burned some houses and ran a tank over one. Some antifascists!

I arranged for funerals for my family. People started digging the grave (the earth was frozen through) and then they started firing on the cemetery from a helicopter. One man had his arm torn off. Even the section with graves of those who died in the Afghan war was bombed out. The memorial to the fallen soldiers of the Great Patriotic War stands there - this does not stop.

There was a period when things quieted down, and then the volunteers dug up the bodies from the flowerbeds, gardens, green spaces by the apartment building entrances. They photographed everyone, buried them, and sent out numbers of their graves. They were buried in a distant cemetery, further to the forest. I don’t know where my family’s grave isor under what number. It’s also impossible to get a death certificate. Volunteers were not allowed into the town. They offered to take the wounded to the hospital. Neither they nor international organization were allowed in. At first, people managed to get out through secret pathways in the forest, but now (early May) everything was blocked. The bus station was bombed out. They shot up evacuation buses. My friend tried to leave with her mom; her husband covered the grandmother with his body. He was wounded, but lived thank god. Another friend of mine, an ob-gyn Lidia Medynska, was in labor in a basement, when a bomb killed her. The head of the local bank branch had their mom and brother killed with his whole family.

They took things by the truckload to Russia: equipment, household appliances, toilets etc.
On March 9 they hit a multi-story apartment building. Some say there were 50 people, other say 60 people under the rubble - entire families perished. Nobody counted them. A friend of my late first husband (they grew up together) died there and was only buried after Easter, his body was only retrieved at the end of April.

Behind Izium there is a large village of Kamenka – Pushkin’s friends, the Decemberists, used to visit there, and now there are only two houses left from this village. Not far from us is the Svyatogorsk Lavra (monastery) - people ran there to escape, - it was also bombed. Even the Nazis did not do this.

They sent me the photo of my house: I can’t look at it

How did we survive? We cooked food on an open fire, set up joint food banks. Someone got water; someone brought firewood; someone cooked. The neighbors rushed to see me at the hospital, brought food to me from their own provisions: ”Take at least something, some pomegranate juice,” and so forth. The best human qualities were manifested, food was even shared with pets.

The Russians appointed their own mayor - a collaborator, from our apartment complex. I’ve known him since childhood; he’s three years younger than me. He is a former police officer, who got fired from the narcotics department. It looks like the person who was supposed to fight against drugs was distributing them himself. Now he is talking up the charms of the Russian world, how well we will live. They promise to build a garden-city, but can’t even keep the lights on. There is no infrastructure left: no hospitals, no schools, nothing. I was sent a picture of my house. I can’t even look at it…

Locals write that everything has being looted. They took things by the truckload to Russia: equipment, household appliances, toilets etc. But most of all, people suffered from the lack of information, with no Internet, they are told that Izium is practically part of the Belgorod region of Russia.

At the same time, they are spawning fakes. There is a big farm right outside the city. They used to import heated cow sheds from the Netherlands. The owner is pro-Ukraine. He left after the occupation. So they posted that they found a flag of the Right Sector, NATO instructions and a plan to capture Donbas. It`s just ridiculous: NATO instructions in the barn!

Humanitarian aid is a different story. During one of these distributions of” unprecedented generosity”, one man began to saying something against them, and he was simply shot. The people fled.

On another occasion, a confectionery warehouse was looted and Roshen sweets were distributed to children under the guise of humanitarian aid, even though everyone could see that these were Ukrainian sweets.

Building of Realschule (1882) in Izium after the battle of Izium (2022)
Photo courtesy: Kharkiv Regional State Administration
There was no dressing materials left, so the doctor gave me two bandages and told me to wash them
Once my young hospital roommate came running in: «Aunt Ira, would you like a Russian officer`s rations?» I didn’t eat on principle, but I looked at the date on the packaging of the cheese: February 2020, the shelf life is 12 months. And this is an officer's rations!

Another time, their soldiers brought Bodyaga cream for bruises. I threw it away: I didn’t want it, I would rather have the bruises. When they began to make lists to get rations, I refused - nothing was needed from them. And not everyone, by the way, was given rations. They called a friend – “Come to work for a ration.”

There are issues with drinking water too. The town is on the mountain and the wells are quickly depleted and they used them up too. Now they draw water from the Donets, and sometimes corpses float on the river.

Dragged across Donets on a suspension bridge

All this time friends tried to get me out, but they were not allowed on this side of the Donets (the town is divided by the river). They were shot at and forced to turn around. And then their house was hit. Everything burned down and the fridge door ended up on the neighbor’s roof. They survived by a miracle, managed to leave Izium and for a few weeks we had no contact.

Then at our hospital there was a man who was looking for his wife who was approximately my age. He returned to his village, where some friends of my mom and I had lived, and told them his story. And mom’s friend started crying, mentioning our last name, saying that everyone in the family died. “I heard that name at the hospital,” he said, recollecting. So they came to get me the next day and took me to the village, about 20 km from the city. When I was checking out, all the nurses were there. We hugged and kissed. I said, ”Just don’t cry.” By that time there was no dressing material left, so the doctor gave me two bandages and told me to wash them.

They dragged me across the bridge on a cart. It was April 7th. When they brought me over, immediately a bunch of people who knew me came to me. I told them: ”Just don’t kiss me on the forehead. I am still alive.” And they stopped crying. In the village, they washed me, fed me, put me in a warm bed. Auntie Raya, a medic, changed my bandages. And in a few days, the volunteers who were taking people to Dnipro, arrived Again, they dragged me across the Donets over a suspension bridge, then through the forest, along some sort of goat trails. In Dnipro my friend hosted me. I came to the Mechnikov hospital. They asked me where I came from. I said from Izium, and it got quiet. They patched me up in the trauma department there. My heel was fractured, pieces of flesh had been torn out.

I spent three weeks in Dnipro and during that time my friends from Israel started a whole social media campaign. As a result, my paternal cousin was found in Toronto, who through the local Jewish community contacted the community in Dnipro. I retrieved my vital documents, given that I was born in the Dnepropetrovsk region. My father was Jewish, and there were Jews on my mom’s side but there were no documents about that left. Izium didn’t have a Jewish community, although there were a few Jews, like Eleonora Danilovna. Another acquaintance is a Jew - he was shell-shocked. His wife's sister was killed.

Izium after Russian occupation (September 9, 2022)
Photo courtesy: Army Inform
The town lived its own life, strawberries were grown, mushrooms were picked, there was trade, construction, roads were made, bridges. No one shouted: Putin, come!
So thank you, to the Jewish communities of Dnipro, Kryviy Rih and Toronto, and of course the Jewish Agency! They organized a medical evacuation to Warsaw. I went with a military medic from Kriviy Rih and the rabbi’s daughter - Musya. They got me to the Polish border, and there we were met by Jewish Agency representatives and transported to Warsaw. So we arrived today at 4 am.

We have a very beautiful town. Or, we had.

My other cousin lives in Russia. She invited me to come to her, but I won`t go to Russia. At first, she would tell me to just wait for three days and I would be freed. So I told her just how they freed me – about everything. Now she only talks to me about health. The conversation does not go further.

When I was taken out there were still whole houses standing. And then, even if upper floors were hit, cracks began to appear. And our building manager came into the basement of the first entrance of our building, and immediately a rocket flew in and hit. They were under the rubble and had to break through a wall into the next entrance. Then they specially hollowed out the walls in order to be able to run from entrance to entrance without leaving the building.

There are still a few families living in my stairwell of the building. An 80 year old grandma, some other people: they cook together, somehow get water, there is a small spring; they survive as a commune. They unite, and if a building were bombed out, they would go to the basement that survived.

A friend called from the village where I stayed (Spivakovka). He went to see his kids. His house was completely looted and they took his car. He had to run away.

At first they mined the entire city, and now they are filming news clips about demining, while they blow them up right in the gardens – all the windows are blown out. Those who escaped from Izium say that all the streets are mined. It is dangerous to walk.

Mom has a sister - she has Alzheimer’s. Yesterday their house was burned down. A brother from Kyiv arranged for them to be transported through Russia to Poland, and he would pick them up there. Many people leave through Russia and then go straight to the Baltic States or Poland. Many of my colleagues, women with children, are already in Poland: in Krakow, Wroclaw. Some are in Slovakia, others in Western Ukraine. But everyone wants to come back. My friend, is a cool lawyer with long nails and mascara. She says that she ill restore every brick with her own hands. We have a very beautiful town. Or, we had.

What is all this for? Most of us are Russian-speaking, Izium is very multinational – at one time many Armenians who fled from Baku settled here. The last head of the city council was an Armenian. Azerbaijanis fled from Nagorny Karabakh, Ossetians fled from Russians, there’s a Chechen diaspora. What do they mean by denazification?

I have to live at least for the sake of my relatives in order to wait for a fair punishment. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.
The town lived its own life, strawberries were grown, mushrooms were picked, there was trade, construction, roads were made, bridges. No one shouted: Putin, come! We still tried in 2014, but once we saw the refugees from Donbass, many chilled down.

Actually, my Israeli friends fled from Donetsk in 2014, back then I helped them, and now they help me. Such things are not forgotten.

A generation should pass to forgive what they have done

Israel is also unlucky with its neighbors. The only good thing is Ukraine only has two “fraternal” peoples: Russians and Belarusians But a generation must pass to forgive what they have done. I don’t understand how it is possible to bomb a sleeping city at one in the morning and then say that we are shooting at ourselves. Did I bomb my own house, kill my relatives, cut off my own heel. And some people believe this.

I don’t allow myself to go into all this, I have to live at least for the sake of my relatives in order to wait for a fair punishment. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. I understand that my grief is a drop in the ocean of the communal grief. For me it was the worst – to be left all alone in this world. My mom had only one child, me. And I had only one child, my son, who was 33 years old.
And so here I am lying under this beautiful sky; above me is the gorgeous constellation Orion. Stars are like light bulbs. Tracer shells are flying, and you think: how so, five minutes ago you had everything, and now nothing. I lay there and thought that I would never hug my grandchildren. I am a woman; I want to be a beautiful young grandmother. Part of my life was taken away from me, the memory of my ancestors, I didn`t manage to take a single photo with me. There was a picture from 1920, with the family of my maternal grandmother, Maria Davidovna, and her father David Markovich. And my friend doesn’t have a single picture of her child anymore: no first baby pictures, no school pictures, no graduation photos, no college photos. The house just burned down. They cut off the connection with all generations.

But how many people took part in my destiny! Friends and colleagues… When I was back online, I got a call from the Head of the Notary Department of the Kharkiv region. He broke in tears: we are glad that you are alive, Irina Vitalievna. Whatever you need, assistance, money, we will get it for you. I just said: “Just don’t cry.” I have lost a lot of blood; my veins are sunken, I'm not allowed to cry. I just broke down once, in the hospital basement. It’s impossible to keep it in yourself, you know. The nurse had her grief; I had mine. We hugged. She was cold as ice; I was hot as fire.

And we told ourselves: we have to survive. For those who perished - they protected us, and we must rebuild a flourishing Ukraine. And watch how the corpses of enemies float past us. I am a life-loving person, so I will fight.

Request for the reburial of family members in the city cemetery of Izium

Photo courtesy of Irina Zhivolup
P.S. Two months later, July 2022

I`m already walking a little, but with crutches, of course. There is not enough skin to straighten the leg. Doctors will have to decide what to do with it. Here I learned that my second leg is also broken, and there are shell fragments in it.

Today is exactly two months since I’ve come to Israel. They turned my entire life upside down. I started thawing up here; I can get teary eyed, which is not like me normally. It’s hard. I still react to all sounds. Yesterday there was a loud sound, looks like the neighbors were doing some repairs. I used to confuse the sound of the local ambulance siren with the air raid alert, but now I can tell them apart.

Despite of everything, the world is much better than we think. A lot of people are helping. This is worth living for.

Long rehabilitation in Israel

Photo courtesy of Irina Zhivolup
P.P.S. Six months later, November 2022

I moved to Netanya, rented a small apartment. I walk down the street with a stick, but splinters are still coming out of my wounds, doctors are constantly cutting and cleaning, but it is not a big deal. Yesterday the doctor who saved people in the hospital basement got a medal. He deserved it.

After Izium has been liberated, many people are coming back if they have somewhere to come back to. There is electricity, water, gas, but no heating and there is a lot of destruction. There was an exhumation.

I kept calling all the hotlines, and finally they put me in touch with the investigator from the prosecutor’s office, so I found my family, found the numbers of their graves. The prosecutor’s office sent me instructions on how to do a DNA test abroad. It has already been done and transferred through volunteers to Ukraine. I am waiting for the results.

The testimony was chronicled on May 6, 2022

Translation: Dr. Mariya Gyendina