Hiding from Russian troops: Ukrainian mother recounts ordeal

For days, Rivil Kofman and her son David were in the cross-hairs of blood-curdling duels between Russian tanks and Ukrainian artillery in their village of Myrotske, 40km (25 miles) the capital Kyiv.

They spent days in an ice-cold, pitch-dark basement without electricity and running water – and even survived a house visit by Russian soldiers who mistook them for artillery spotters.

Last Wednesday, they decided to try to flee the Russia-occupied area by car.

“Only five cars made it out of there,” the bespectacled 62-year-old psychologist, who also heads a charity, told Al Jazeera.

The other seven or so village cars – packed with civilians, children and pets – were shot at and burned down by Russian troops.

David believes this is because the Russians realised fleeing civilians would be able to help Ukraine’s military locate their armoured vehicles and artillery.

Myrotske is where Kofman started her charity, Strong-Willed, and built a rehabilitation centre for children with cancer.

A cancer and multiple sclerosis survivor, she has for years used what she called “fairy tale therapy” to help hundreds of children with the disease by immersing them in positive impressions and thoughts.

But her village of 1,500 was taken over by Russians shortly after the invasion began on February 24.

Russians are still trying to take the strategic highway into Kyiv and tighten a noose around the city of more than 2 million.

Myrotske is close to the Ukrainian towns of Bucha and Irpin, and not far from Belarus.

It has seen some of this war’s worst fighting yet that killed dozens of civilians, according to Ukrainian officials and witnesses.

The Kremlin has claimed it never targeted civilians and residential areas.

But Russian planes have bombarded the area relentlessly, hitting just behind the Kofmans’ house.

When Russian tanks and APCs entered the village, “we were in the cross-hairs”, Kofman said.

For days, the villagers – and residents of Bucha and Irpin – were trapped in their basements without electricity, natural gas supply, heat or running water.

They were “fully surrounded, cut off from everything that gives people lives,” Kofman said.

“A friend told me she was slowly dying in her house [because of a lack of essential items and services],” she said, adding that another friend spent days in the frigid darkness of her basement with a newborn baby.

The Kofmans’ cellphone batteries died and, only during the loud shootouts, David snuck out of the basement for a couple of hours to start a generator to pump water and recharge the batteries.

Otherwise, the Russians would have killed him for making the suspicious noise, he said.

One morning, two Russian servicemen visited their house, thinking the Kofmans had been notifying the Ukrainian military about the whereabouts of Russian armoured vehicles.

“They walked around the house, fingers on triggers, turned around and said in a walkie-talkie, ‘No, these are civilians here,’” Kofman said.

One of the soldiers was in his mid-30s, with “half a jaw filled with golden tooth-caps,” and looked like a “kadyrovets,” an elite officer loyal to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify these claims.

But, in Russia, these forces have for years been accused of extrajudicial killings, abductions and torture of Chechen civilians, according to rights groups and survivors.

In Ukraine, they were deployed “not to attack fortified positions, but to serve as barrier troops and to suppress armed Ukrainian resistance,” Nikolay Mitrokhin, a Russia researcher at Germany’s Bremen University, told Al Jazeera.

The other, younger soldier looked to Kofman like an ethnic Russian.

“We looked at their faces, they seemed full of hatred to Ukraine since they had been born,” Kofman said.

Russia has long portrayed average Ukrainians as Nazi-sympathising ultra-nationalists.

In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support to separatists in the southeastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk were triggered by Kyiv’s “violation of rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians”.

He used the same pretext to justify the ongoing invasion – something Russian-speaking Ukrainians like the Kofmans reject.

“Here they were in our village, liberators of the Russian-speakers,” Kofman said, adding that, like many others angered by the war, she has decided to switch to Ukrainian in her daily communications.

The two soldiers left without harming her and David, but they claim others were killed amid the violence.

“When we arrived at a roadblock in [the central Ukrainian city of] Vinnytsia, [a] neighbour told us the column behind us was shot at,” David said.

They drove their Hyundai Accent past Russian roadblocks with tanks and realised they were out of harm’s way only after passing two Ukrainian posts.

“Only then, we shed tears of joy,” Kofman said.

Hours later, they stopped for the night at a volunteers’ house in central Ukraine and ended up in a two-bedroom apartment in Ternopil, a city in western Ukraine.

Even though two-thirds of their friends and acquaintances have crossed into neighbouring Poland or other European Union nations, Kofman plans to sit out the war in Ukraine and help other displaced Ukrainians in Ternopil as a psychologist.

“I want to thank Putin for making all of us friends,” Kofman said, referring to a growing sense of unity as the war continues.

The conflict has broken down the barriers between the Russian-speaking east and south and the Ukrainian-speaking centre and west, she said.

“They used to laugh at us in Western Ukraine, saying: ‘Look, Muscovites have come,’ but now everyone is dearest family member,” she said.

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