Escape from Zaporizhzhia: Ukrainian refugees in Georgia recall horror of occupation’s early days
A year after Russia’s invasion, a family that fled the occupation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant describes their escape to Georgia.
Oblivious to the menace rolling their way, female employees of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant showed up to work carrying treats and presents for their male colleagues. It was February 23 a year ago. Both Ukraine and Russia were celebrating Defenders of the Fatherland Day, a holiday traditionally centered around men.
Meteorologist Olha Chernyaeva did her rounds in the morning, taking readings of equipment in Unit 5 of Europe's largest nuclear power plant. She then arrived at her office and began setting up a festive table together with her colleagues.
"We arranged little hors d'oeuvres and put out presents for our guys," Chernyaeva recalled in a recent interview in Tbilisi. "We said toasts, made jokes," she said.
She had no idea that her job was about to become her prison.
Despite all the dire warnings, a full-out war between Russia and Ukraine seemed unthinkable, especially while both countries were thanking people in uniform for their service, with traditional nods to a common enemy: Nazi Germany.
Nevertheless, the next day, columns of Russian tanks and personnel carriers came roaring toward Chernyaeva's hometown of Enerhodar ("giver of energy"), a small city built to house plant employees. "The entire town came into the streets and for three days they prevented the army from entering," Chernyaeva said.
"It was silly, I guess, but we somehow thought that we could talk sense into them and that all of this was some kind of mistake. We were telling them that we are all brothers and that it was the 21st century, but then they opened fire."
Putting down resistance from the plant's security teams, Russian troops swiftly seized the station. A segment of the station caught fire in the deadly shootouts, touching off fears of nuclear disaster. "My husband was watching live feeds from the security cameras and when he saw fire at Unit 1, he started having a panic attack," Chernyaeva said. "He was shaking and hyperventilating, and I did not know what to do."
The plant's management eventually convinced the invading troops that it was in the entire continent's interest to let the fire brigades in; the blaze was put out.
Chernyaeva and her husband Dima were terrified to go back to work and leave their 10-year-old son, Sasha, alone at home. While her husband worked in the supplies department, Chernyaeva's job was important to the safe operation of the plant. Her boss called her and asked her to come help service the station.
"When I arrived, soldiers and military vehicles were everywhere. It was surreal," she said. "They poked the barrels of their rifles at my purse and made me empty it on the table. I had to empty all my pockets and they even patted me down."
After going through the decontamination chamber, where employees are required to take a shower and change into work clothes, Chernyaeva found armed men pacing about in the very corridors that she had tread daily for years.
To pass between various sections of Unit 5, the armed men waited for the employees to open the doors with their security badges. Her advanced clearance allowed Chernyaeva to go everywhere except where protective gear was required. When she stepped into the elevator to descend to level 15, a Russian soldier with a rifle piggybacked in behind her. She kept staring at the wall, with beads of sweat streaking down her forehead.
"When I came out, he followed me through the hallway and I had to fight the urge not to look back or run," she said. "Stories of atrocities were coming in from everywhere and I had no idea what this man behind me was capable of. And I was all alone in the hallway."
Thankfully, the soldier kept walking when she turned into her office, where she found a handful of her terrified workmates and remnants of the February 23 celebrations. Coworkers updated her on which of the security guards had been killed. They said that the Russians had stacked ammunition in the section of the unit where cooling pumps operate and that the heat there could cause a detonation.
Over the next weeks and months, the occupation became the new normal. Russians removed Ukrainian flags and national insignias; they erected checkpoints. Residents of the once quaint, hardworking town now spoke in whispers and tried to avoid roving bands of armed men.
"We just had to watch as our hometown was violated, as our quiet lives were destroyed and as our identity was erased," Chernyaeva said.
"They were telling us that they came to free us," she said, smiling bitterly. "But I was always free. I was free to speak Russian or Ukrainian. Unlike them, I was always free to complain about my government and speak my mind loudly, and I never had to lie and whisper, not until they arrived to 'free' us. I guess they came to free us from freedom."
Chernyaeva was committed to her job despite the occasional shelling and suffocating occupation. But then two things made her change her mind.
In May, a brigade of Russians showed up at her building and shot her neighbor dead for allegedly feeding intelligence to the Ukrainian forces. "When the shooting began two stories above my apartment, I thought that the Russians were randomly killing residents," she said. "I just hugged my son, told him to close his eyes and waited for the Russians to come breaking through the door."
Some days later, mother and son were on a bus when a group of Russian soldiers entered. One of them accidently hit Sasha with the butt of his rifle. The soldier turned around and offered the boy to play with his gun. "He said, 'when you grow up, you will be a fighter like me.’ This was his idea of playing with the kid," Chernyaeva said.
"A chilling vision of the future came over me: Occupation continues for years and they take Sasha away from us. And he, too, grows up to become a zombie with a gun, and goes around terrifying peaceful people somewhere in a foreign country. I shuddered at this thought and I decided to leave at any cost."
But the family was tethered to the power plant. The furthest they were allowed to go was the nearby village where Chernyaeva's parents and grandmother live. Beyond that, they could not cross the occupation line.
Chernyaeva's parents refused to abandon their home. "We can't leave our house. Your grandmother is too old to travel," Chernyaeva's mother told her. "You are still young and can start life from scratch in some other place."
The family first tried to escape westward, to the unoccupied part of Ukraine. At a checkpoint they said that they were going to pay a quick visit to a family member, but the Russians did not allow Chernyaeva to leave. "They had lists of all the employees of the plant and their ranks," she said. "So while they were willing to let my Dima and Sasha pass, they did not let me out."
Then they came up with a plan to go on a pretend holiday to Crimea, the first piece of Ukraine that Russia seized back in 2014. The real plan was to flee across Russia to Georgia, where Dima's nephew had settled a few months earlier. "He [the nephew] was one of the few people from our town who heeded the warnings of war and left just before it all started," Chernyaeva said.
Chernyaeva was indeed owed a vacation. Her boss gave her a written permit and was willing to back up the story over the phone.
Decked out in summery outfits, winter clothes buried deep in their bags, the family drove south. They faced the most scrutiny at the entry to the Crimean Peninsula. While Russian border guards examined their papers, they sat in the car, their palms sweating as they prayed that the ruse would work. "It felt like escaping from East Berlin," Chernyaeva said.
Their story checked out and they were allowed to proceed. They drove south through Crimea, crossed the bridge over the Kerch Strait and arrived in Russia proper.
"As we drove toward the Caucasus the next day, I saw roads in poor condition, without proper curbs," Chernyaeva said. "And I was thinking that the Russians should be fixing their own country instead of 'saving' another."
The family spent the next night in Russia's southern republic of North Ossetia. They were fleeced and harassed by traffic and local border police. "As a parent you try to shelter your kid from danger and from encounters with bad people, but on that road we just could not do anything. [Sasha] was watching as bad adults came and said bad things to mom and dad, and there was nothing we could do," Chernyaeva said.
When they finally reached the international border, they saw other Ukrainians also trying to cross. Georgia became a key escape hatch for Eastern Ukrainians fleeing the warzone. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians came to Georgia last year, mainly to transit to different locations in Europe.
The Chernyaevs changed their story and told the Russian border guards that they were planning to spend their vacation on the beaches of Georgia. The border guard, however, went through their bags and found winter clothes.
"A smile froze over my face and I did not know what to say when he asked me to explain the warm clothes," Chernyaeva recalled. "Thankfully, my husband chimed in and said that the clothes were for his sister, who was going to join us from Turkey. She actually does live in Turkey."
They feared that they would be arrested and sent back, but after a few hours they finally reached the Georgian side of the border. "We breezed through and were on the other side in like 15 minutes," Chernyaeva said. "After that crazy journey, all the hours-long checks, we just could not believe that this was it. I kept asking around, what are the next steps we’re meant to take?"
They drove on, in disbelief. "But then we saw a large Ukrainian flag over a building by the road and we all burst into tears," Chernyaeva said, tearing up. "We had not seen a Ukrainian flag for months and did not know if we were ever going to see one again. But now they were everywhere, on the restaurants, on the balconies of houses, on gates. We cried so hard that we had to pull over. It was finally hitting us that at last we were free."