How a misplaced telephone pole saved a Ukrainian family | Russia-Ukraine war

Hostomel, Ukraine – Amid a brutal Russian occupation of their city, Alla Voloshynovych, and her husband, Vadym Smirnov, imagine a misplaced phone pole saved their household’s lives.

In mid-2021, the phone pole had been clumsily put in on the outskirts of Hostomel, a city roughly 20km (12 miles) northwest of Kyiv, partially blocking a right-hand activate a slender earthen highway.

Alla and Vadym, who’re each medical doctors, had repeatedly requested the native council to reposition the pole which obstructed the path to their home by briefly forcing the motive force off the highway. However their neighbours, who loved the diminished visitors stream, repeatedly blocked their requests.

The suburban dispute resulted in months of bickering between the residents of the small middle-class enclave.

Then on the morning of February 24, Russian paratroopers landed at Antonov Airport, positioned subsequent to the household’s residence, as Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Alla, 55, a doctor with neat, quick hair and a pleasant manner, was woken by an early morning telephone name from her daughter who was within the close by metropolis of Bucha. “Mum, it’s struggle,” her daughter informed her. Alla shook her husband awake and prompt it was time for the household to flee.

A photo of a CCTV still of an explosion viewed from the backyard of a house.
Explosions on the Antonov Airport in Hostomel are captured on the household’s safety digital camera as Russia invaded Ukraine [Courtesy: Vadym Smirnov]

The convoy arrives

The couple is from the Luhansk area and have been pressured to desert their residence eight years earlier with their two kids, Ilia, and Anastasia Smirnov, then aged six and 18, after Russian-backed separatists occupied the world.

Vadym, a affected person and pragmatic 56-year-old, was decided to not as soon as once more be pressured out of his residence and persuaded his spouse to “wait this one out”. He estimated {that a} modern-day struggle of this scale can be determined in lower than every week. Alla started to notch every day with a marker on their lounge wall.

Three days later, a 64km-long Russian army convoy arrived within the city as a part of the deliberate assault on Kyiv.

Alla remembers watching tanks with the now-infamous “Z” Russian army image storm via the native space. Russian troops rapidly erected checkpoints round Hostomel, firing their weapons at individuals and looting their properties. In addition they started to arrange bases within the space’s quite a few plush villas, spraypainting “V”, one other Russian army image, on the outer gates in order that Russian tanks would know to not open hearth.

The identical day, utilizing a pair of binoculars, Alla noticed from the household’s massive lounge home windows a row of Russian tanks snaking up the highway in direction of their home earlier than abruptly coming to a halt in entrance of the misplaced phone pole. The tank crews appeared to imagine that the highway was a dead-end and turned again.

The couple had survived a probably deadly encounter with Russian troops who they are saying would “shoot at every thing they noticed” together with, they might later discover out, a lot of their neighbours who tried to flee via the close by forest. No less than one they knew was killed. However they now discovered themselves remoted from any provides and with no means out.

They continued to observe the approaching and going of kit via binoculars throughout the early phases of the occupation. Occasionally, they referred to as the native unit of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces to inform them of their observations, however after listening to uncommon noises within the background, they feared the occupying forces have been intercepting their calls.

A photo of a view from the road with a misplaced telephone pole.
A view of the highway with the misplaced phone pole that made Russian troopers assume it was a dead-end [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]


As shelling shook the partitions of the home, Ilia, their studious and shy 14-year-old son, would climb underneath the desk in his bed room together with his pc and headphones. He would briefly zone out of the real-world struggle round him and play Name of Responsibility, a first-person shooter video recreation, on-line together with his buddies, a few of whom had fled to Poland. “Battle is far scarier in actual life than in a recreation,” he mentioned, including that he felt fixed worry throughout the first few days, “however ultimately, I bought used to it.”

The household have been in a position to talk with their daughter, a pc programmer, who lives in Bucha, a number of kilometres south of Hostomel, which might be the positioning of a number of the worst atrocities of the struggle thus far. She had managed to flee on February 24 to the relative security of the Ivano-Frankivsk area positioned within the southwest of the nation.

Then, on the seventh day of the occupation, the Russians destroyed the native communications tower, and the household misplaced all contact with the surface world.

Vadym, an avid handyman, had put in a number of photo voltaic panels on the roof of their home. Regardless of the patchy sunshine, the panels might present sufficient heating throughout the bitterly chilly nights, however the household quickly started to expire of water and meals. Finally, on the morning of March 11, they determined to evacuate and head west.

They rapidly stuffed all of the money that they had right into a bag and packed two jerry cans full of petrol into the boot of the automobile earlier than heading out of their walled driveway and previous the misplaced phone pole, petrified of what they might discover on the first checkpoint.

Vadym, who was driving, was pressured to manoeuvre round numerous bullet-ridden and burned-out vehicles belonging to individuals who had tried to evacuate. Some households had scribbled the phrase “kids” in Russian throughout their destroyed autos, hoping that troopers would present them mercy. They drove previous deserted properties, some occupied by Russian troops.

A view of a door with a painting V on the upper half of the door.
Russian troops marked buildings that they occupied with a ‘V’ signal [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

A Russian checkpoint

A couple of minutes later, they encountered a Russian checkpoint. A soldier, about 20 years of age, approached the automobile and squinted at them within the sunshine. Alla recalled that he reeked of alcohol and had a small bruise underneath certainly one of his eyes however confirmed “no indicators of aggression”. He requested them the place they have been going earlier than half-heartedly looking out the car and letting them cross.

As Vadym drove off, Alla felt gripped with nervousness. The behaviour of troopers who had occupied the world was notoriously erratic and Alla was not satisfied that they had been allowed to depart. She knew if the soldier fired on the automobile, he would possible strike the petrol cans. Regardless of being racked with worry, the couple did their finest to seem calm in entrance of their son. Within the rear-view mirror, they watched because the silhouette of the soldier ultimately light into the gap.

Throughout the week following the invasion, rumours circulated amongst residents over messaging companies that the Russians have been utilizing outdated Soviet-era maps of the areas surrounding Kyiv, making it troublesome for them to navigate newer roads and paths.

A photo of the front window of a car as viewed from inside the car with a woman reflected in the mirror,
Alla Voloshynovych reveals the route the household took once they evacuated Hostomel [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

So Vadym determined to circumnavigate the closely fortified predominant roads, utilizing a collection of bicycle paths and forest trails as a substitute. Finally, they have been pressured again onto an everyday nation highway sandwiched between a stretch of forest suffering from Russian troops and a Ukrainian defensive position frequently firing at Russian positions. They drove in terrified silence alongside the potholed tarmac anticipating a hail of bullets hitting the aspect of the automobile at any second. However the quick drive proved uneventful and, ultimately, after they handed the village of Vorzel, they encountered a column of autos draped with makeshift white flags within the type of white towels and sheets, a part of a so-called “inexperienced hall” for individuals evacuating to the west of the nation.

Vadym recalled seeing vehicles that had been shot at and partially destroyed within the column, however he and his household have been lucky and allowed to cross out of occupied territory unhurt.

Alla described bursting into tears the second she noticed the primary Ukrainian checkpoint. “I used to be so joyful seeing our individuals, however I additionally felt sorry for our troopers. We have been in a position to depart however they needed to keep and combat,” she mentioned.

Early the following day, the household arrived within the Ivano-Frankivsk area, the place their daughter and her boyfriend had fled.

A photo of a CCTV still of Russian soldiers looting the home capturing the CCTV footage in mid-March as seen from the backyard.
Stills captured from the household’s CCTV footage of Russian troopers looting their residence in mid-March [Courtesy: Vadym Smirnov]

The household’s return

After greater than two weeks within the west of the nation, the household was in a position to return residence after Russian troops started to withdraw from the world on March 28. They’ve now repaired many of the home windows blown out by close by shelling, however skinny gentle beams from the solar nonetheless stream via numerous bullet holes scattered throughout the partitions.

Anastasia came visiting from her house in Bucha, the place she has since returned, to assist her mom put together espresso and contemporary cake for a day snack.

In a delicate voice, she started to explain what it was wish to see her household after not having heard from them for a few week, however quickly turned her head as tears welled up in her eyes. She picked up the household’s small, brown cat, which was wearing a knitted jumper, and gently kissed it.

Alla continued the dialog, explaining that the household discovered it extraordinarily troublesome to regulate to life whereas within the west. “I nonetheless had plenty of nervousness; it was so unusual for us to not hear any explosions or artillery. I cried for 3 days straight after we bought there,” she mentioned.

Vadym pulled out his telephone, peering at it via his skinny geometric spectacles. He held up what gave the impression to be footage of two closely armed Russian troopers standing on their porch. “We left on the eleventh, and Russian troopers got here to our home on the twelfth, however I had the cameras operating the entire time!” he defined.

He had related the surveillance system positioned round the home to a reside feed on his telephone earlier than he left. So, from the Ivano-Frankivsk area, the couple noticed as Russian troopers ransacked their residence, exhausting the household’s provide of alcoholic drinks and stealing digital devices, together with a drone.

Watching strangers rifle via their private belongings left Alla feeling “disgusted”. Nevertheless, Vadym flashed a wry smile as he recalled watching one humorous second when a soldier misplaced his stability and fell over making an attempt to function their Segway.

Earlier than the invasion, Alla would not often eat alcohol. Throughout her time within the west, she says she has taken to ingesting to numb herself from the trauma she skilled. “I began with wine however rapidly moved onto vodka because it was stronger, however now, even that doesn’t have any affect,” she admitted.

A photo of a man repairing his car in the middle of a parking lot in front of some shops.
Locals in Hostomel are cleansing up the world, together with repairing their vehicles which have been broken within the combating [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Life restarts

When the household returned residence, though their home was trashed, their electrical automobile had been left unscathed, in order a gasoline scarcity gripped the nation, the household was in a position to re-stock their residence and purchase supplies for repairs.

The realm was nonetheless lined with destroyed and deserted properties, however slowly life was returning to a brand new type of normality. Cyclists whizzed alongside the city’s many bicycle lanes, and a few native shopkeepers have began to reopen for enterprise, together with a classy espresso store.

The household are attempting to restart their lives. Alla remains to be racked with nervousness. At any time when she sees a army car or hears an air-raid siren, she is reminded that the nation remains to be at struggle. “Each time I change on the TV, I simply see struggle and begin crying,” she mentioned.

The city was severely destroyed within the weeks-long occupation and plenty of buildings are past restore. Beds nonetheless grasp precariously out of half-destroyed properties, shattered glass litters each pavement, and mangled vehicles line the roads.

It’s not but clear what number of of Hostomel’s roughly 17,000 inhabitants died throughout the 35-day lengthy occupation. Preliminary studies from the Ukrainian Human Rights Ombudsman claimed 400 individuals have been lacking. On March 7, Russian troops shot lifeless the city’s mayor as he was delivering medical help and meals across the metropolis.

Alla’s expertise has left her with a “deep hatred for Russians”. She admitted that although she had been pressured to flee their earlier residence in Luhansk after Russian-backed separatists occupied their land, she by no means thought Russian troops might perform the atrocities they’ve been accused of since February 24.

“At first, I believed this struggle should be some sort of misunderstanding,” she mentioned. However, greater than 10 mass graves have been uncovered within the Kyiv area, with Ukrainian authorities claiming that Russian troops kidnapped and tortured unarmed civilians. Her voice was laced with bitterness as she added, “Now, I really feel I might kill any Russians if I had a gun.”

Alla and Vadym have cleared the mess of their home and repaired most of their broken furnishings. They’ve eliminated virtually all of the shrapnel from the backyard. Vadym has even positioned a few mines within the surrounding land and expresses some gentle irritation that they haven’t but been cleared. He’s fastidious, however prepared to forgive one piece of shoddy workmanship – the misplaced phone pole. “It saved our lives,” he conceded.