Hostomel, Ukraine – Amid a brutal Russian occupation of their town, Alla Voloshynovych, and her husband, Vadym Smirnov, believe a misplaced telephone pole saved their family’s lives.
In mid-2021, the telephone pole had been clumsily installed on the outskirts of Hostomel, a town approximately 20km (12 miles) northwest of Kyiv, partially blocking a right-hand turn on a narrow earthen road.
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Alla and Vadym, who are both doctors, had repeatedly asked the local council to reposition the pole which obstructed the route to their house by briefly forcing the driver off the road. But their neighbours, who enjoyed the reduced traffic flow, 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, located next to the family’s home, as Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Alla, 55, a physician with neat, short hair and a friendly demeanour, was woken by an early morning phone call from her daughter who was in the nearby city of Bucha. “Mum, it’s war,” her daughter told her. Alla shook her husband awake and suggested it was time for the family to flee.
The convoy arrives
The couple is from the Luhansk region and were forced to abandon their home eight years earlier with their two children, Ilia, and Anastasia Smirnov, then aged six and 18, after Russian-backed separatists occupied the area.
Vadym, a patient and pragmatic 56-year-old, was determined not to once again be forced out of his home and persuaded his wife to “wait this one out”. He estimated that a modern-day war of this scale would be decided in less than a week. Alla began to notch each day with a marker on their living room wall.
Three days later, a 64km-long Russian military convoy arrived in the town as part of the planned assault on Kyiv.
Alla recalls watching tanks with the now-infamous “Z” Russian military symbol storm through the local area. Russian troops quickly erected checkpoints around Hostomel, firing their weapons at people and looting their homes. They also began to set up bases in the area’s numerous plush villas, spraypainting “V”, another Russian military symbol, on the outer gates so that Russian tanks would know not to open fire.
The same day, using a pair of binoculars, Alla observed from the family’s large living room windows a row of Russian tanks snaking up the road towards their house before abruptly coming to a halt in front of the misplaced telephone pole. The tank crews appeared to assume that the road was a dead-end and turned back.
The couple had survived a potentially fatal encounter with Russian troops who they say would “shoot at everything they saw” including, they would later find out, a number of their neighbours who tried to escape through the nearby forest. At least one they knew was killed. But they now found themselves isolated from any supplies and with no way out.
They continued to monitor the coming and going of equipment through binoculars during the early stages of the occupation. On occasion, they called the local unit of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces to notify them of their observations, but after hearing unusual noises in the background, they feared the occupying forces were intercepting their calls.
As shelling shook the walls of the house, Ilia, their studious and shy 14-year-old son, would climb under the desk in his bedroom with his computer and headphones. He would briefly zone out of the real-world war around him and play Call of Duty, a first-person shooter video game, online with his friends, some of whom had fled to Poland. “War is much scarier in real life than in a game,” he said, adding that he felt constant fear during the first few days, “but eventually, I got used to it.”
The family were able to communicate with their daughter, a computer programmer, who lives in Bucha, a few kilometres south of Hostomel, which would be the site of some of the worst atrocities of the war so far. She had managed to escape on February 24 to the relative safety of the Ivano-Frankivsk region located in the southwest of the country.
Then, on the seventh day of the occupation, the Russians destroyed the local communications tower, and the family lost all contact with the outside world.
Vadym, an avid handyman, had installed several solar panels on the roof of their house. Despite the patchy sunshine, the panels could provide enough heating during the bitterly cold nights, but the family soon began to run out of water and food. Eventually, on the morning of March 11, they decided to evacuate and head west.
They hastily stuffed all the cash they had into a bag and packed two jerry cans filled with petrol into the boot of the car before heading out of their walled driveway and past the misplaced telephone pole, fearful of what they would find at the first checkpoint.
Vadym, who was driving, was forced to manoeuvre around countless bullet-ridden and burned-out cars belonging to people who had attempted to evacuate. Some families had scribbled the word “children” in Russian across their destroyed vehicles, hoping that soldiers would show them mercy. They drove past abandoned homes, some occupied by Russian troops.
A Russian checkpoint
A few minutes later, they encountered a Russian checkpoint. A soldier, about 20 years of age, approached the car and squinted at them in the sunshine. Alla recalled that he reeked of alcohol and had a small bruise under one of his eyes but showed “no signs of aggression”. He asked them where they were going before half-heartedly searching the vehicle and letting them pass.
As Vadym drove off, Alla felt gripped with anxiety. The behaviour of soldiers who had occupied the area was notoriously erratic and Alla was not convinced they had been allowed to leave. She knew if the soldier fired at the car, he would likely strike the petrol cans. Despite being racked with fear, the couple did their best to appear calm in front of their son. In the rear-view mirror, they watched as the silhouette of the soldier eventually faded into the distance.
During the week following the invasion, rumours circulated among residents over messaging services that the Russians were using outdated Soviet-era maps of the areas surrounding Kyiv, making it difficult for them to navigate newer roads and paths.
So Vadym decided to circumnavigate the heavily fortified main roads, using a series of bicycle paths and forest trails instead. Eventually, they were forced back onto a regular country road sandwiched between a stretch of forest littered with Russian troops and a Ukrainian defensive line regularly firing at Russian positions. They drove in terrified silence along the potholed tarmac anticipating a hail of bullets hitting the side of the car at any moment. But the short drive proved uneventful and, eventually, after they passed the village of Vorzel, they encountered a column of vehicles draped with makeshift white flags in the form of white towels and sheets, part of a so-called “green corridor” for people evacuating to the west of the country.
Vadym recalled seeing cars that had been shot at and partially destroyed in the column, but he and his family were fortunate and allowed to pass out of occupied territory unharmed.
Alla described bursting into tears the moment she saw the first Ukrainian checkpoint. “I was so happy seeing our people, but I also felt sorry for our soldiers. We were able to leave but they had to stay and fight,” she said.
Early the next day, the family arrived in the Ivano-Frankivsk region, where their daughter and her boyfriend had fled.
The family’s return
After more than two weeks in the west of the country, the family was able to return home after Russian troops began to withdraw from the area on March 28. They have now repaired most of the windows blown out by nearby shelling, but thin light beams from the sun still stream through various bullet holes scattered across the walls.
Anastasia came over from her apartment in Bucha, where she has since returned, to help her mother prepare coffee and fresh cake for an afternoon snack.
In a gentle voice, she began to describe what it was like to see her family after not having heard from them for about a week, but soon turned her head as tears welled up in her eyes. She picked up the family’s small, brown cat, which was dressed in a knitted jumper, and gently kissed it.
Alla continued the conversation, explaining that the family found it extremely difficult to adjust to life while in the west. “I still had a lot of anxiety; it was so strange for us not to hear any explosions or artillery. I cried for three days straight after we got there,” she said.
Vadym pulled out his phone, peering at it through his thin geometric spectacles. He held up what appeared to be footage of two heavily armed Russian soldiers standing on their porch. “We left on the 11th, and Russian soldiers came to our house on the 12th, but I had the cameras running the whole time!” he explained.
He had connected the surveillance system positioned around the house to a live feed on his phone before he left. So, from the Ivano-Frankivsk region, the couple observed as Russian soldiers ransacked their home, exhausting the family’s supply of alcoholic drinks and stealing electronic gadgets, including a drone.
Watching strangers rifle through their personal belongings left Alla feeling “disgusted”. However, Vadym flashed a wry smile as he recalled watching one funny moment when a soldier lost his balance and fell over trying to operate their Segway.
Before the invasion, Alla would rarely consume alcohol. During her time in the west, she says she has taken to drinking to numb herself from the trauma she experienced. “I started with wine but quickly moved onto vodka as it was stronger, but now, even that doesn’t have any impact,” she admitted.
When the family returned home, although their house was trashed, their electric car had been left unscathed, so as a fuel shortage gripped the country, the family was able to re-stock their home and buy materials for repairs.
The area was still covered with destroyed and abandoned homes, but slowly life was returning to a new form of normality. Cyclists whizzed along the town’s many bicycle lanes, and some local shopkeepers have started to reopen for business, including a trendy coffee shop.
The family are trying to restart their lives. Alla is still racked with anxiety. Whenever she sees a military vehicle or hears an air-raid siren, she is reminded that the country is still at war. “Every time I switch on the TV, I just see war and start crying,” she said.
The town was severely destroyed in the weeks-long occupation and many buildings are beyond repair. Beds still hang precariously out of half-destroyed homes, shattered glass litters every pavement, and mangled cars line the roads.
It is not yet clear how many of Hostomel’s roughly 17,000 inhabitants died during the 35-day-long occupation. Initial reports from the Ukrainian Human Rights Ombudsman claimed 400 people were missing. On March 7, Russian troops shot dead the town’s mayor as he was delivering medical aid and food around the city.
Alla’s experience has left her with a “deep hatred for Russians”. She admitted that even though she had been forced to flee their previous home in Luhansk after Russian-backed separatists occupied their land, she never thought Russian troops could carry out the atrocities they have been accused of since February 24.
“At first, I thought this war must be some kind of misunderstanding,” she said. Nevertheless, more than 10 mass graves have been uncovered in the Kyiv region, with Ukrainian authorities claiming that Russian troops kidnapped and tortured unarmed civilians. Her voice was laced with bitterness as she added, “Now, I feel I could kill any Russians if I had a gun.”
Alla and Vadym have cleared the mess in their house and repaired most of their damaged furniture. They have removed almost all the shrapnel from the garden. Vadym has even located a couple of mines in the surrounding land and expresses some mild irritation that they haven’t yet been cleared. He is fastidious, but willing to forgive one piece of shoddy workmanship – the misplaced telephone pole. “It saved our lives,” he conceded.