House to House: Voices from a Refugee Center in Odesa

Oleg Suslov

“Until February 24, 2022, I had never written about the war. A journalist needs to have the specific vocabulary, terminology. Until this full-scale invasion, I did not have the terminology of war.”

But these days, Oleg Suslov, the 58-year-old editor of the Odesa Evening News, is writing mostly about the war. “This September,” he says, “in the middle of the war, my daughter will give birth…Explosions woke me at 5 a.m. My daughter calls. Dad, what is this? My daughter has three children and at this moment she is pregnant with her fourth.”

“That is how I remember it,” Oleg says. “The beginning of full-time invasion.”

His fingers twitch.

“The enormous lines at gas stations. The waterfall of people at banks. Empty shelves in the grocery stores. Then, more explosions.”

Oleg stops for a moment.

“More explosions. I am in an Odesa street, watching people lean against walls as they walk, as if the walls can save them.”

I meet Oleg in his office at the Odesa Evening News. I am visiting the city this July, and he insists I come to hear his stories.

“A missile hit a residential high-rise building and eight people died, including a mother with a three-month-old girl, and several dozen were wounded. After a couple of days, when the tenants were allowed to return, a video was uploaded. My heart ached from the sight of children’s things powdered with dust, broken furniture, broken windows, toys scattered by a blast wave. An acquaintance who lived there, showing footage of her ruined apartment, kept repeating: ‘Somewhere there should be my boys’ pajamas. Where did they go?’ I still can’t forget those words. Whether she found pajamas, I don’t know.”

Oleg gets up, walks around the room, sits down.

“And then, another day, my wife and I went to the sea—and almost immediately we turned home. A siren wailed, anti-aircraft defenses started up. By now we have learned to distinguish the sounds of explosions. Walking was uncomfortable. Returning home along city center, we first heard a whistle, and then we saw black death flying over our heads. Rocket! It flew to the side of the city where my dad and sister live. A moment later, there was an explosion in the distance. A few seconds later, social media reported explosions and fire in the area of the Tairovo district. I began to feverishly dial their phone numbers, but it took a while to reach my father and sister. Luckily, they were okay.”

Oleg gets up again. Picks up a newspaper. Folds it in his hands. Sits down.

“But enough about me. I called you to come so that we can speak about the refugees of war.”

The refugees, all of them old, didn’t know each other before February 24, 2022, he says, the first day of full-scale invasion.

They didn’t know each other, these people from Luhansk, Nikolaiv, Liman, Donetsk, Kherson, and Mariupol, now living together in the shelter at Archangel Mikhail Monastery outside Odesa.

How long will they stay here?

No can say.

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Hundreds of old people huddling at Archangel Michael’s have abandoned their houses and apartments, gardens and kitchens.

Many of their villages had been bombed out.

Daily, they talk to each other about furniture they left behind, as they sit outside the Monastery, in mismatched clothes.

Some of them wearing sandals in this cold October. No winter shoes. Just sandals. That is what they took when escaping home.

They shared their stories with Oleg Suslov. What follows is his writing about those stories and the people who told them.

—Ilya Kaminsky

Anna Loboda:

“I have nowhere to go,” says 93-year-old Anna, in a precise, clear voice. Her son died in the city of Liman. Her daughter-in-law escaped to Bulgaria. Evacuated to Odesa, she kept calling neighbors who remained behind.

How is my house? she calls and asks.

Your house is okay.

She calls again. How is my house?

She finds out that Russian soldiers took out the new windows and doors from her house. They tried to steal her refrigerator, too, but it was too heavy to carry, so they left it in the backyard, and there it still stands, in rain, in sunlight, the beat-up refrigerator in the middle of an empty front yard.

Her yard was once filled with chickens. Soldiers walked by and shot all her chickens, one after another.

Anna doesn’t cry. She is speaking in a precise, clear voice.

I realize that this precision, this clarity is a form of cold fury aimed at the soldiers who are miles and miles away. Anna remembers World War Two, how soldiers went house to house taking food.

Now, eighty years later, soldiers again go house to house.

Anna sings beautifully, says the woman sitting next to her, trying to change the subject. And so the 93-year-old woman who’s lost her home begins to sing.

A song. Another song. Another. She can’t stop.

I keep thinking about her house, hundreds of miles away, from which the windows and doors were torn off, like body parts.

Valentina Kirpichenko:

“They have bombed all the houses in our village.”

Valentina Kirpichenko, a refugee from a village located between Nikolaiv and Kherson, approaches me.

“There are no houses left in the village.” That’s how Valentina introduces herself.

“We had almost no people left. Maybe twenty of us. No electricity. No water.”

Valentina coughs.

“My granddaughter can’t breathe, she’s severely disabled. So all my family left, taking her to safety. They left on March 15.”

But Valentina stayed in the village.

“I was afraid to leave the house. I thought, I will survive. This war can’t go on forever, I thought. There were still a few houses left then.”

Valentina coughs.

“I made it until May 15. There were almost no houses left by May 15. So I ran.”

Evgeny Maidanov:

What happened to your village? I ask Evgeny.

He doesn’t say much.

“What village? It’s flat land now.”

That’s all he says.

“Flat land. There is no more village.”

Next to Evgeny is a woman who doesn’t want to share her name. She is from Nikolayiv.

“The city isn’t occupied by the Russians yet. The city is still standing.”

She pauses.

“But the missiles keep exploding, often a dozen explosions at a time. And you have no idea where they all are coming from. My neighbor came home, parked his car at the garage. An air raid began. He ran to the shelter. When he came back—there was no car, no garage. Just a giant hole in the ground.”

Gennady Lapykin:

“It’s like the Battle of Stalingrad,” says Genady of his village in the Donetsk area. Not a single house is left standing.

In Odesa, Gennady had several surgeries to repair his eyesight, but no luck. “These surgeries cost money,” he says. “I have no money. I haven’t received my pension for two months now. Can your newspaper help me to find out why?”

Valentina Zabelina:

“I want to go home,” says Valentina. She is from the occupied city of Lisichanks. “Ukrainians are about to liberate my hometown. I want to go home,” she repeats. Her son has remained in Lisichanks.

“I don’t know if my boy is alive,” Valentina says. “I want to go home.”

—Transcripts translated by Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky

Oleg Suslov is the editor in chief of Odesa Evening News, the city’s oldest independent newspaper that is known for fighting corruption and also for in-depth cultural coverage. Despite the war the newspaper continues its work. | Katie Farris is the author of Standing in the Forest of Being Alive (Alice James Books) and Boysgirls (Tupelo Press). | Ilya Kaminsky is the author of Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo) and Deaf Republic (Graywolf).

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