I am 15 years old and I am afraid to sleep alone. I am ashamed to say this, but we have been very scared. You didn’t know what could happen the next minute and we said goodbye every time of this life. This is the response of Fania Bratunets when she is asked about the six weeks she has lived under Russian occupation in Ivankiv, in northern Ukraine and very close to Chernobyl. Faina has been traveling to Euskadi every summer for seven years, like hundreds of other children from this area near the nuclear power plant. «I am going to Getxo. There is Virginia, my second family, and my friends, and I am looking forward to returning », she assures in perfect Spanish.
With an overwhelming integrity, she walks through the garden of her house accompanied by her German shepherd, Chery, and points to a crater next to one of the walls. A shell hit right here, but it didn’t explode. “It was like a plane crash. We were at home, we heard that loud sound… but in the end nothing happened », she assures. The artifact is still there, stuck in the ground waiting to be removed by specialists from the Ukrainian forces.
Russian troops have withdrawn from northern kyiv and their legacy is death, destruction and isolation. The areas they occupied have become a black hole without coverage of any kind and this has generated great anxiety among the families who have been sheltering these children for years. There are only small islands where you can make a call abroad. In Ivankiv, which had 10,000 inhabitants before the war, this island is on the ninth floor where Faina’s grandmother lives and from where she first contacted her adopted family in Getxo after weeks of silence.
Faina has experienced the entire Russian occupation in the first person. Soldiers and tanks patrolled the streets of Ivankiv, where there was not much resistance from Ukrainian forces and so there is not as much destruction in the urban area. This was the area they first occupied and the last they left, and in their farewell they destroyed the main access bridge over the Teteriv River, so that now the only way to enter and leave is through a provisional bridge installed by the Army.
The trip to kyiv is 90 kilometers and before it took an hour and a half. Now it can carry more than six, depending on the queues of vehicles on the bridges and the mud on the alternate paths that have to be taken through the woods.
A few minutes’ drive from Ivankiv leads to the village of Sukochi, where Anna Mertel lives with her parents, two brothers and a grandmother. It is a quiet place, away from the main route where the Russian tanks circulated, but where the sounds of war “terrified us and that is why we spent four days locked in the basement,” recalls this 13-year-old girl in sweet Basque with Oñati accent. She has been traveling to Gipuzkoa for six years and her last visit was at Christmas. A few weeks after her return, the war broke out and she cut off all communication with “my aita Iñaki, my mistress Zorione and my two brothers Eneko and Unax, who are younger than me,” she laments. In Sukochi there are no nine-story buildings with cell phone islands, just humble cottages lined up side by side with their orchards and smoky chimneys.
In this part of Ukraine there is no electricity, but there is gas, and in Anna’s kitchen there is never a lack of a good casserole of boiled potatoes with onions. Supermarkets are closed and food is scarce so they live off what the land gives them. This week the first humanitarian aid has arrived in Ivankiv Square and little by little the authorities hope to improve the services.
There is no electricity and Anna can’t listen to records from the teen series ‘Goazen’, her favorite on TV. He reads stories about ‘Nur’ to his little brother and counts the hours to fly to Oñati again, although this time, taking into account the uncertainty that reigns in his country, he assures that “I would like to go with my mother and two brothers until things calm down, we have been very scared ».
Faina and Anna are united by being Chernobyl girls, by having lived under the Russian occupation and because both have their sights set on their adopted homes more than ever. More than four million Ukrainians are now refugees in other countries due to the war. Ukraine is a country of farewells and Getxo and Oñati may soon be the scene of two warm welcomes.
Fania poses next to what was the main access bridge to Ivankiv over the Teteriv River, destroyed by the invading Army.