Like many Ukrainians, Halyna and her parents are returning to homes they fled just a few weeks ago. But the carnage left behind is beginning to emerge.
“I’ve actually been to Auschwitz, to the museum in Poland. And I met with a few survivors, former inmates. And the feelings I feel now are actually kind of similar to what I was feeling. Just realising the scope and the pointlessness and the brutality and the cruelty of it all.”Halyna
I’m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker from Tortoise.
One story, every day, to make sense of the world.
For the last two months, we have been talking to a 28-year-old Ukrainian woman called Halyna.
She fled from Kyiv in the first few days of the war.
“I kind of think if you can’t fight in the streets, you probably should get the f*** out and not be in the way.”Halyna
A few weeks later, her parents made their own daring escape – from an occupied village near the border with Russia.
“Oh my god, they are not using evacuation corridors, they are doing it by themselves.”Halyna
They were all reunited in western Ukraine – in the city of Lviv.
“Oh, it was wonderful. It was wonderful. And my dad gave me a big hug and my mom cried. I bought her flowers. She likes that.”Halyna
In today’s episode, the family are separated again.
And the extent of Russian atrocities begins to emerge.
“I have very exciting news. So my mom’s hometown is as of now completely free of the Russian army, which is really great.”Halyna
When the bombs began to drop and the tanks rolled in, Boromyla – a small village in the region of Sumy, in the far north eastern corner of Ukraine – was one of many places which fell to the Russians.
The historic centre was destroyed, the power was cut, and a 51-year-old woman was reportedly shot dead by Russian forces. Her only crime… wanting to escape.
But here, in time, the scales tilted towards the Ukrainians.
The Russians eventually scarpered.
“Today the Russians that were in the town… They were suddenly very much in a hurry to leave… Some soldiers apparently, according to eyewitnesses, stole scooters and even bikes. I’m telling you, bikes from the locals. *Laughing*. They were in such a hurry to leave.”Halyna
Russia’s invasion saw Ukrainians flee their homes en masse.
Nearly a quarter of the 44 million people who live in Ukraine have been internally displaced or left the country altogether.
But a growing number of Ukrainians are returning home.
With their village newly liberated, Halyna’s mum and dad are among them.
“My parents are going back to Sumy… I don’t think it’s such a good idea but my mum’s a doctor and she’s really eager to return because she thinks the patients need her, the city need her… It’s a bit troubling because I am going to be very worried for them still.”Halyna
And Halyna has gone home too.
“It was a very easy decision. I just wanted to go to Kyiv. I wanted to go to my apartment.”Halyna
The war rages on, but Halyna and her parents are back where they started.
We started talking to Halyna before the invasion.
And it’s luck, really, that we’ve been interviewing someone who’s stayed out of danger.
Her cousin is fighting in Mariupol, the coastal city that Russia seems determined to raze to the ground… and where the maternity hospital and local theatre lie in ruins.
“We haven’t had any news from him since 20 March and my aunt is worried obviously.”Halyna
Halyna’s aunt hasn’t been able to contact him for weeks and she’s worried.
She even went to a fortune teller for reassurance.
“At least that woman told my aunt, you know, was okay. He was doing fine… At least that woman didn’t tell her anything awful to make her more upset.”Halyna
There’s some comfort in the news that Halyna and her parents have returned to their homes. A sense that… even against the horrors of war… life can go on.
But there is carnage in the places Russians are leaving behind.
And atrocities are on both Halyna and her parents’ doorsteps.
For Halyna, they are in Bucha on the outskirts of Kyiv.
“Massacres of Ukrainian men have been uncovered by the army here. The war crimes committed here mark a bleak new low in this conflict, described by Ukraine as the most outrageous atrocity of the 21st century.”Halyna
She was with her friends when the pictures of Bucha emerged.
“I have feeling you would want me to say something about the photos, the horrible photos that appeared yesterday… And I mean, I don’t know what to say, except it’s just awful… It’s utterly devastating.”Halyna
They made Halyna think of a trip she made outside of Ukraine.
“Five years ago I visited the Auschwitz Birkenau museum in Poland… As someone who is a human with emotions and empathy and some capability to feel compassion, it made a great effect on me… Even though the scales of the tragedies are obviously incomparable…. It made me feel the same hollow, sinking feelings of… why? Why would you do that?”Halyna
For Halyna’s parents the horrors are in the town of Trostyanets, just a twenty minute drive from Boromlya.
There, a body was found in a garage.
“His hands were tied behind his back. His trousers were down. There was human excrement on the corpse.”Halyna
It’s thought there is a mass grave at the local garden centre. The mayor estimates that 50 people in the town have been tortured to death or murdered.
“Trostyanets is a place that’s very near and dear to my heart. Obviously I’ve been there several times… Trostyanets before the war [and] Trostyanets now are certainly very different places from what I see in the videos and in the photos.”Halyna
Ukrainians… like Halyna and her parents… are returning to villages, towns and cities secured by their army.
But there is little triumph in liberation.
Only the raw wounds of war and the guilt of survival.
“I really think that any of those people, all those people on the photos, it could have been me easily. It could have easily been me.”Halyna
Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine
A collection of daily messages from inside Ukraine as the Russian invasion unfolds.