Hanna Kovalenko was leading a comfortable life with her husband and two young daughters in Mariupol, Ukraine, when suddenly her hometown became the epicenter of a full-scale war.
Since the start of the Russian invasion on February 24, a once peaceful city of nearly 500,000 people has turned to rubble within weeks, forcing Kovalenko to embark on a difficult journey to Quebec where she and her daughters have been warmly welcomed. by a fellow Ukrainian. family and the Montreal community of Pierrefonds.
LIFE IN MARIUPOL UNDER FIRE
On the morning of February 24, Kovalenko remembers turning on the television and seeing Kyiv being bombed live. Hours later, explosions of the screen were now before her eyes, as she watched the nearest neighborhood bombarded from her ninth-floor apartment.
As the upper floors of nearby buildings were obliterated by Russian missiles, Kovalenko brought her daughters, seven-year-old Sofia and five-year-old Veronika, into the basement of her friend’s house. “It was freezing cold, below minus 10, so we couldn’t even take off our boots or our winter coats while we were hiding in that little basement,” she said.
“There was no electricity or internet, so we were completely cut off from the rest of civilization,” Kovalenko said, adding that she had no way of contacting her husband, who was working in Kyiv at the time.
Her daughters could only drink five sips of water at a time, as the water supply in Mariupol was extremely low. As the gas was no longer available, they had to make a fire outside under constant bombardment to heat up a meal.
“Why did we deserve this? We didn’t need to be ‘liberated’ – not once have I been discriminated against for speaking Russian in a city where most of us speak Russian, where we can choose the language to speak!” Kovalenko exclaimed, referring to Vladimir Putin’s claim of “discrimination against the Russian-speaking population” in eastern Ukraine earlier in February.
Around 21,000 civilians were killed in Mariupol during the 85-day siege, according to the port city’s mayor, Vadym Boychenko. This includes nearly 600 civilians dead in Mariupol drama theater following Russian attack with two 500 kg bombs — that Amnesty International has described as an “obvious war crime”.
The once bustling streets had turned into a graveyard under gray skies. Kovalenko remembers seeing graves next to shops and schools, many of which lack information on who exactly was buried.
“I saw two small corpses covered with a blanket: two children who were killed by a missile inside their apartment. Some left bodies on raised surfaces so that at least they would not be shredded by hungry dogs – and that’s in the 21st century,” she added.
High-rise apartment buildings were badly damaged after two months of shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, April 29, 2022. — FILE PHOTO (The Associated Press)
A HIGH-RISK JOURNEY TO SAFETY
As living conditions became unbearable and resources became scarce, Kovalenko decided to flee the war zone with his daughters. On March 17, as Russian troops marched through the streets of Mariupol with assault rifles, Kovalenko got into her small car and drove her daughters out of town.
The drive to Ukrainian-held lands was “a near-death experience” as Kovalenko recalls Russian soldiers firing into the rows of cars full of civilians as they tried to drive out of town. Most of the damaged vehicles carried signs reading “CHILDREN” in Russian.
“Some of the cars behind me were missing roofs, some were missing doors and windshields,” she explained.
Like all civilians evacuated from the region, Kovalenko had to pass through numerous Russian checkpoints in the occupied region of southeastern Ukraine. The soldiers searched his vehicle each time and checked his phone for images or messages that would portray the Russian military negatively.
Six days later, Kovalenko reached the city of Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine. She stayed almost a month in the region while waiting for her biometric data to be updated so that she could apply for a visa for her final destination: Canada.
After many delays, the family received the temporary visa, known as the Canada-Ukraine Emergency Travel Authorization, to Poland. Kovalenko and her children then flew to Toronto and finally landed in Montreal on May 24.
A WARM WELCOME TO CANADA
Lyudmyla Peregudova and her husband Oleg Peregudov welcomed the family to their home in Pierrefonds, on the West Island of Montreal. Also from Mariupol, Peregudova came into contact with Kovalenko through a mutual family friend and didn’t hesitate to provide them with a safe place to stay.
Veronika, Sofia and Hanna Kovalenko (right) smile in their new home in Pierrefonds, Que., on June 30, 2022. (CTV NEWS/Bogdan Lytvynenko)
“If the roles had been reversed, I’m sure they would have done the same, because it is our duty as Ukrainians to help each other in these horrible times,” she said. Additionally, Peregudova noted that support also came from outside the Ukrainian community.
As the owner of Atelier Chic, a sewing and clothing repair service in Mount Royal, Peregudova has successfully transformed her business into a local hub for donations with the help of her clients for the many Ukrainian families. in need, including Kovalenko and her daughters.
Some contributed financially, while others donated clothes, mattresses, beds, toys, gift cards and even gym clothes for Kovalenko’s eldest daughter, Sofia, a local gymnastics champion. from Donetsk who wants to pursue his passion while staying in Montreal.
“All Canadians have come together as a community, and I can’t thank them enough for their generosity,” Peregudova said.
To better integrate into a new society, Kovalenko will start taking French lessons next week, while making sure that Sofia finishes her first year as soon as possible. Kovalenko said she eventually wants to find a place of her own in Montreal, as it remains uncertain when the family will be able to return home.
“Our house has been completely wiped out, Mariupol is no longer there,” Kovalenko said, confirming Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba’s April statement that “the city no longer exists.”
The war in Ukraine has now been going on for 130 days, with no clear end in sight. However, Kovalenko and her daughters can now live under peaceful skies, hoping that one day normal life will return to their homeland as well.