Pro-Russian rebels strengthen position in Horlivka, seizing town hall and police headquarters.
Donetsk, Ukraine – Dmitry* remembers the Sunday, in the spring of 2014, when his mother disappeared. The exact date is a blur to him, but the war in Donbass had already started. The fighting had not spared his home town, Horlivka, north of Donetsk city. His mother had to go out to find some food because they had nothing left to eat at home, and never came back.
Dmitry was a 16-year-old high school student, living with his mother in a flat on the outskirts of Horlivka, near the lakes. The family was not rich, but they managed.
They had everything they needed: food on the table, clothes, and some money.
But that was all before the war started. After the Euromaidan revolution, everything changed. The euro and the dollar went up, so the money his mother was making became insufficient. Everything became more and more expensive, and as the war crept in, there was not much left to buy. Life became difficult.
In April 2014, the separatists came to his home town. They put the Russian flag on top of the police station and started confiscating the houses and cars of anyone who seemed well-off, Dmitry says. Then the Ukrainian army came, and the war started in Horlivka.
“I remember people looking forward to their arrival, asking ‘When is the army coming? When?’ ” Dmitry says.
In the beginning, the situation didn’t seem so serious. But, suddenly, homes were being attacked with artillery fire.
“I would crawl on the floor, hide under a chair or anywhere and just wait for it to be over,” Dmitry said. “It wasn’t safe anywhere any more, not outside, not even in your own home.”
One day his apartment was hit. But, thankfully no one was home at the time. The Grad missile had entered through the window. Dmitry could not believe his eyes when he returned home – everything was destroyed.
The day his mother didn’t return, he was left all alone.
“My mother was very good to me. I can’t imagine her leaving me behind. Something definitely had to have happened to her. And I feared the worse,” Dmitry said.
Two days after her disappearance, as the shooting died down, he went out to look for her. At first, he thought she had sought refuge in a neighbour’s house. But she was not there. He called relatives on the other side of town. But they did not pick up.
He ran through the town for days looking for her. But she was nowhere to be found. At night he would stop the search because of the intense fighting.
“I lived alone for over a year, in the basement of our apartment building. For a year and a half I lived on boiled wheat alone,” he said. His neighbour would help him on some occasions, bringing him some soup and bread once in a while.
At some point separatists started bringing food for him and the friends he shared the basement with. One of them was a neighbour, fighting for the Donetsk People’s Republic. He tried to convince Dmitry to join them because they needed more soldiers.
“We have enough weapons,” the man had told him, “but we need more men to fight.”
Dmitry refused. Then one day, he received a message on his mobile phone saying, “If you are not with us, you will die.”
He fled Horlivka that same day.
“I packed the little I had, a pair of trousers, a vest, two pairs of socks and my phone, and I ran. I borrowed 300 euros ($336) from my neighbour who used to bring me food, hoping that some day I would be able to repay her,” Dmitry said, recalling the day he left his home.
‘I was so scared’
He passed the separatist checkpoint on foot. No cars were willing to take him. He managed to avoid being detained. Then he ran through the forest, and crept on his belly through the fields, afraid the soldiers at the Ukrainian army checkpoint would think he was a separatist.
“The first night I slept between two corpses. The field was full of bodies that seemed to have been brought there and left to rot,” Dmitry says.
It was August, and the air was hot, impregnated with the smell of dead bodies.
“I thought if someone saw me, they would think I was dead. I was so afraid I would get caught; there was nothing in my mind except that I had to run.”
Dmitry reached Krasnoarmisk, about 70 kilometres to the west, on foot. When he reached there, a man took him in his car up to Dnipropetrovsk in central Ukraine, from where he hoped to find transportation out of the country.
When he saw a truck coming from a distance, he stopped it by jumping in the middle of the road. The truck driver thought he was crazy endangering his life like that.
The truck was heading to Austria and Dmitry offered to pay the driver to take him across the borders, somewhere in western Europe.
“I was scared to stay in Ukraine. I worried they would find me. And who knows what will happen next in my country,” Dmitry said.
Beyond Ukrainian borders
The boy managed to cross into the Republic of Moldova and then to neighbouring Romania hiding in a box in the back of the truck. Luck was on his side, and despite some close calls, he was never discovered by border security. For the 100 euros ($112) he had paid, the truck driver got him up to Suceava, in northeastern Romania.
There, the driver told Dmitry that he was on his own.
The boy wanted to go further to the west, so he took a night coach from Suceava to a town called Cluj in the west of Romania.
“I fell asleep and when I woke up, people on the coach told me I must have had a very bad dream, because I was shaking and trembling in my sleep.”
From Cluj, Dmitry continued his train ride westward to Oradea on the border with Hungary. This is where he was finally caught, as he tried to cross into Hungary.
Dmitry’s grandmother was Romanian. She had moved to live in Ukraine when she married his Ukrainian grandfather when it was still part of the Soviet Union. His mother, although born in Horlivka, grew up speaking Romanian at home, as did Dmitry.
When the border police stopped Dmitry, they had initially assumed he was from Moldova because he was communicating with them in Romanian and had no documents on him to prove his identity or citizenship. He said many of his documents had been destroyed during the explosion in his apartment.
He explained to the police he was from the Donetsk region and they sent him to a centre for asylum seekers in Romania. After a few days he was transferred to a shelter run by an NGO in the Romanian town of Timisoara.
Dmitry wants to live in Romania. He wants to go to college there and become an electrical engineer.
“I have nothing to go back to in Ukraine. My mother is gone, my house is gone. Most of my friends are gone: some dead, some ran away and others are fighting for the separatists,” Dmitry says, holding back his tears.
“I miss my mom,” he continues. He lost all hope when he could not find her.
Dmitry is determined to keep searching for his mother. Now that he is safe, he will search for her again. He intends to start calling the police or anyone else that might be able to help him.
“People say that experiences make you unique. So yes, I am unique, but at what cost?” Dmitry says, shaking from the trauma of his memories.
“Dead men, dead women, dead children. Dead soldiers. All dead. I don’t wish upon anyone to see what I have witnessed in my lifetime.”
*The name of the boy was changed to protect his identity.