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'The sounds of war are still with us': Nina recounts escape from Ukraine and journey to Ireland

“A mom next to me reassured her little son: ‘You will remember this as a terribly interesting adventure.’ I hope my son feels the same way.”

Nina and Andriy during their journey from Kyiv to Dublin.
Nina and Andriy during their journey from Kyiv to Dublin.

FOUR DAYS AFTER Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his assault on Ukraine Nina Mishchenko said goodbye to her husband, her cats and the city of Kyiv as she and her son embarked on a six-day journey that would take them to safety in Ireland.

Before the war Nina worked as a communications director for a large construction company. The firm was involved in several massive projects in the Ukrainian capital.

Now the carparks of its apartment blocks have become bomb shelters and its steel and concrete has been fashioned into roadblocks to fortify Kyiv against Russia’s attack. 

The 41-year-old says Putin has unleashed a humanitarian catastrophe with his unprovoked war on Ukraine.

As Russia’s advance stalled somewhat in the face of staunch Ukrainian defence it began bombarding cities with missile strikes and heavy artillery.

“Kyiv is still defended and the air defence system tackles many missiles, but the suburbs of the city have already been bombed and destroyed,” Nina explained.

It is the most horrific time for Kyiv since 1941 when it was attacked by Nazi Germany. Ukrainian children are being born in bomb shelters.

Nina’s relative Olena and her son 13-year-old son Zhenya spent three days in a bomb shelter without food or water before embarking on the escape with Nina and her son Andriy.

Early on the morning of 28 February, they managed to squeeze on board a train to Lviv in western Ukraine, which lies around 70 kilometres from Poland. 

The carriages were packed but Nina says everyone helped each other along the way. She saw an African man nurse a newborn Ukrainian baby as the train trundled across the countryside.

Screenshot 2022-03-11 at 15.18.58 The group took a train from Kyiv to Lviv on 28 February. Source: Nina Mishchenko

Lviv is now buckling under the weight of a refugee crisis, as 200,000 people have arrived there since the invasion began. But it was a welcome sanctuary for Nina after the chaos of Kyiv. 

“In Lviv, the situation is a little easier, there are many air raid alerts, but no explosions.

Stores are open. I remember how I burst into tears in a large supermarket where there was a lot of food, like before the war.

“But there are many military bases around Lviv and the Russians could start bombing these cities any day.”

The group stayed in an apartment belonging to the friend of a friend alongside a family from the city of Vinnytsia, who previously fled from Donetsk in 2014.

“This is the second time for them to quit everything because of the war,” Nina said.

After three days the group queued for six hours to get a train to the town of Przemysl, 10 kilometres inside the Polish border, which has become the epicentre of the European aid effort as thousands of refugees arrive each day. 

Before the war, the journey would have taken around 90 minutes. Nina and company finally reached Przemysl after travelling for nearly a whole day.

“When the train stopped, people from the villages brought us food and water. Volunteers tried to feed everyone. They brought tea, soup, porridge, sandwiches, sweets, even pickles. For children; diapers of all sizes, napkins and baby food. How did they organise all this?

When everyone had eaten, people stopped being nervous, they were already joking and began to smile. Food is soothing. This is our Ukrainian tradition. Feed to soothe and delight. 

“A mom next to me reassured her little son: ‘You will remember this as a terribly interesting adventure.’ I hope my son feels the same way too.”

When they arrived in Poland Nina was again moved to tears as people brought toys, strollers and car seats for children.

Screenshot 2022-03-11 at 15.21.18 Andriy, Zhenya, Nina and Olena during their journey to Ireland. Source: Nina Mishchenko

Andriy and Zhenya were given Moomins and teddy bears. Food and sim cards were also handed out.

Nina was able to re-establish contact with her husband and was relieved to learn that he was ok. 

I was very worried. Worried that he is in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, which Russia wants to capture. But he cared more for us than for himself.

Once inside the EU the journey was less perilous but still exhausting as the small band travelled to Krakow, where a friend of Nina’s cousin got them a place for a night.

They then took another packed train to Vienna, where Nina’s sister and her husband met them with medicine for Zhenya, who had fallen ill.

That same day, nearly a week after leaving Kyiv, they boarded a flight to Dublin where Nina’s sister Natasha has lived for 20 years.

While Nina and Andriy have escaped the war, the war hasn’t left them as even mundane sounds can trigger flashbacks of the violence of living through Russia’s attack.

“It’s calm and quiet here in Dublin. We can sleep in our beds. But the sounds of war are still with us.

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“When we were travelling by train, the sound when the train moves off is like the explosion heard when the air defence shoots down a rocket.

“At the station in Krakow, the train signal looks like an air raid siren… The rattling of a motorcycle sounds like a burst of machine gunfire. 

“When my sister dropped her shoe from the second floor, Zhenya ran out of the room. He thought it was an explosion. Creaks, knocks, they all evoke these memories, like sounds of war. 

Despite being separated from her husband and having to leave her career and her plans behind, Nina says “life begins again”.

“We are very grateful to the Irish for their help. Ordinary people brought us clothes and food. A sister’s friend said it was a great privilege for her to help us and our children.

I’m crying again. In 2014-2015, we in Kyiv helped refugees from the Donbass who fled the war. We also collected clothes and food. And now people are helping us. 

About the author:

Céimin Burke

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