Bullets and bandages in a besieged Ukrainian city

When the Russian soldier placed the bag on olena‘s head and began to wrap it around his neck, his training as a medic telling him he only had 40 seconds before he began to lose consciousness as he suffocated. All she could think of to do was start counting down the seconds. Her son, sitting next to her, whispered that she was running out of breath. She counted to 10. her husband, For, he was locked in a nearby cold room, bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds. He counted to 15.

Russian soldiers had kidnapped the family that morning as they walked from block to block in Hostomel, a suburb of kyiv, 24 days after the war began. “For me, I thought, this is the end,” Olena said. When her count reached 20, a soldier began to make small cuts in the bag and she was able to catch her breath. But that was just the beginning. What followed was nearly two days of detention and interrogation, her being separated from her family. Olena would only be released so she could return to her home and continue treating patients.

LR: Dima in his fight gym; Olena and Oleh in front of her house in the same place where Russian soldiers shot Oleh in the leg and knee; Olena and Dima. LR: Courtesy of Oleh and Olena; By Danny Gold; Courtesy of Oleh and Olena.

While Russia occupied this city for 35 days, on its failed war path to kyiv, Olena ran a one-woman clinic that treated all kinds of war-wounded neighbors (gunshot and shrapnel wounds, concussions and concussions from explosions). and sick children) under constant care. shooting and bombing. That morning of March 20 would be a horrible turning point for Olena and her family. It would be weeks before she saw her husband again, as he was first taken to a filtration camp in Belarus and then held in a Russian prison for weeks before being released during a prisoner exchange. Her son, last seen at the filtration camp, is still missing.

Hostomel is a small town north of kyiv, the kind of place where city dwellers have summer houses. It forms a trio of satellite suburbs along with Bucha and Irpin, places now synonymous with a variety of war crimes perpetrated by Russia against Ukrainian civilians, from executions to torture. Their names will go down in history with those of Srebrenica and Babi Yar.

Today, the buildings of Hostomel are still destroyed, with a few burnt-out tanks hidden in an alley. But the roads have been cleared, demining teams have worked in the area and the bodies have been removed. Spring is in full bloom. Dog walkers and bikers have returned.

It is almost impossible to imagine that for five weeks, this very city was hell on earth, that the war came here in the most unnecessarily cruel way, that the people here were terrorized in ways that those lucky enough to survive will have to process. for the rest of their lives. Many still wonder how this could happen. And because. How is it possible that their perfectly normal lives are altered so brutally, so quickly, from one day to the next? But for Olena and Oleh, only one question haunts every minute of every day: What has happened to their son?

Olena and Oleh had moved to Hostomel five years ago, after growing tired of the city and living the Ukrainian version of the suburban dream. Oleh, 57, was retired and had retired as a senior police officer in the kyiv region, while Olena worked as a general practitioner. Both stridently maintained their fitness and were professional dragon boat rowers in their age group, skilled enough to have traveled the world competing. They were comfortable enough to have bought their three children their own apartments: two from Oleh’s previous marriage and dima, their son, then 22, who lived a few miles from them. “Just so you understand, we live a perfect life here in Ukraine,” Olena said.

Satellite antennas on the wall of a residential building destroyed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Hostomel, Ukraine, on April 22, 2022. By Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto/AP.

Early on the morning of February 24, Oleh was walking the family’s Jack Russell terrier while Olena stayed home. At 6:50 am they both heard a large explosion coming from the airport, which was about two miles from her home. Soon, the sky was filled with military helicopters. Olena hoped it was a training exercise, or at least Ukrainian military helicopters. But Oleh knew better. He had served in the Soviet Army as a paratrooper, fighting in Afghanistan from 1982 to 1984. He identified the helicopters as Ka-52s and knew they were Russian. The invasion had begun.

“The feeling was that something was about to happen but it wouldn’t affect us,” Olena said. Oleh added: “We were waiting for information from the authorities who have some kind of alarm, in order to be able to react appropriately to what is happening. But there was no reaction, everyone was paralyzed. They froze”.

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