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War in Ukraine

They Vilely Kill Us Here

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Sergei's wife Tatiana and their 9-year-old daughter Alice

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Sergei Perebyinis lost his wife, teenage son and nine-year-old daughter. His family were killed by mortar shelling while trying to evacuate from the town of Irpin near Kyiv. 

Sergei was nervously smoking and surfing online news when he learned about their deaths. He saw a picture on Twitter. He saw his children’s disfigured bodies. He immediately recognised his son’s backpack, his daughter’s sneakers and their green dog carrier. A terrible cry of grief, despair and hatred broke out of the father’s chest…

Sergei Perebyinis and his wife Tatiana

“It’s started!” – texted his wife, Tatiana, in the early morning hours of February 24, – “Something has flown above our apartment block. A missile or a military plane.” 

That morning Tatiana, who had just returned home from a ski resort in Georgia, did not realize that her life had ended. That Putin had dared the complete military invasion of their country. That the Russian army would cynically shoot at residential areas, hospitals and maternity wards and schools. And hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians would flee, leaving their destroyed homes as the war had come to their peaceful land.

Lost life 

Before the war, Sergei worked as a software engineer in a large Ukrainian agricultural company. Tatyana worked as a financier analyst with an American IT company. They had been together for 23 years. They were former classmates. They were raising wonderful children. Their son, Nikita, was in his second year of university and was preparing to become a programmer, like his father. They also had a 9-year-old daughter, Alice. In a new apartment in the town of Irpin, located 21 kilometers from Kyiv, they lived with their two dogs - Keks and Bens.

A week before the war, Sergei went to occupied Donetsk to visit his aging mother. The woman was sick with covid. And she was getting worse. Her son understood that this might be his last meeting with his mother. On the day he arrived in the city, a general forced mobilization of men and the evacuation of women and children began. He understood that there would be an aggravation of the military conflict in the territory seized by Russian-backed separatists in 2014. But, until the last moment, he did not believe that a full-scale invasion by Russia was possible.

Then shelling began in Donetsk. The internet connection and cell-phone service became unstable and Sergei found himself in an information vacuum. Then on February 24, his wife wrote another SMS saying explosions were heard near their house in Irpin. He was not able to assess what was happening. Soon across Ukrainian media there were reports about the military attack and explosions throughout the country. After that, he advised his wife to withdraw cash from an ATM, buy food, stock up on water, medicine and everything else necessary to care for her mother-in-law with Alzheimer's.

Tatiana with Keks and Bens

Sergei’s wife's parents lived in their house. Tatiana already knew how to behave in such situations. They were immigrants from the Donetsk region. More than once they had come under shelling in 2014 in the city. Back then the family lived near the railway station and shells exploded near their house. And when the city was captured by the militia, who once again destroyed Sergei’s office - the family left all their property and fled to Kyiv to start a new life.

Tatiana did not dare to flee from Irpin on the first day of the Russian invasion. Traffic on the roads was paralyzed. The speed on the highway was 20 km per hour. If in peacetime it was possible to get to Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine, in 6 hours, now it took at least two days.

Sergei's 9-year-old daughter Alice

“I offered them to hole up until everything subsides,” Sergei recalls. “I couldn’t believe that we would have to leave our home again. Only two years ago we managed to pay off the mortgage, finish the repairs and finally move from a rented apartment to our own one. We were so tired of being refugees!” - the man told Katapult Ukraine.

The war at the porch 

Events developed very rapidly. The front line moved northwest from Kyiv to Irpin and neighboring cities. Missiles and Russian military planes constantly flew over the family’s home. The shelling didn't stop. Tatyana was in no hurry to leave. At night, her son guarded her and his sister’s sleep. When the explosions started, he woke them up, and they hid together in the basement.

Sergei's teenage son Nikita

They started talking about evacuation after a shell hit their apartment block. The blast blew out the windows in the kitchen. Power outages began. The water supply systems were no longer working properly. It became very dangerous to stay and the family decided it was time to leave. Sergei and his wife made a clear evacuation plan which included the safest way to get out of the city. The bridge across which it was possible to run to Kyiv had already been blown up.

On March 5 they were ready to go. In the morning, a column of civilians’ vehicles successfully left the city. But Sergei's family did not manage to escape. Russian tanks entered the city and a battle began on their street. Tatiana and the children hid in the basement and sat there until dark. The next day they tried to flee the city again.

In the evening, Sergei spoke to his wife for the last time. She was positive and believed that they would be able to get out. He apologized for not being with them. "Do not worry! We'll get out!" she replied.

In the morning, a convoy of 12 cars with white flags and signs "children" on them was supposed to leave Irpin. One of the cars was supposed to be Sergei's family: Tatiana, her children and her parents who lived nearby. For a long time, Tatiana could not lower the wheelchair with her sick mother from the 8th floor.

When everybody, finally, got into their car and set off, Tatiana saw that some cars were coming back. As it turned out, the first four cars of the column were shot by Russian soldiers. Many were killed. The wounded were taken prisoners.

In the evening, Sergei spoke to his wife for the last time. She was positive and believed that they would be able to get out. He apologized for not being with them. "Do not worry! We'll get out!" she replied.

In the morning, a convoy of 12 cars with white flags and signs "children" on them was supposed to leave Irpin. One of the cars was supposed to be Sergei's family: Tatiana, her children and her parents who lived nearby. For a long time, Tatiana could not lower the wheelchair with her sick mother from the 8th floor.

When everybody, finally, got into their car and set off, Tatiana saw that some cars were coming back. As it turned out, the first four cars of the column were shot by Russian soldiers. Many were killed. The wounded were taken prisoners.

Irpin as it is now

Tatiana, like dozens of other civilians, decided to leave the city on foot. She was going with children and dogs ahead of her father pushing the wheelchair with her sick mother. Suddenly the Russians opened fire on them. The first shell hit the river. Panic set in. Tatiana and her children pulled forward under the destroyed bridge. The second shell landed not far from them and killed a woman with a child. Tatiana rushed forward. It was only 600 meters from the bridge to an evacuation bus. The family overcame the first half of the way but were hit by the third shell.

Sergey learned about the death of his wife and children from a photo on Twitter. Bodies, torn apart by hundreds of metal fragments, lying on the road - that is what he saw. His son suffered the most. The boy was at the epicenter of the explosion and literally covered his younger sister with his own body. Shrapnel cut the entire left side of the teenager's body from head to toe. The daughter was hit by one fragment in her left temple, and it killed her.

Tatyana's phone GPS showed that she was in the Kyiv hospital. Sergey asked his friends to go there. He hoped his wife would survive and immediately began to get out of Donetsk, heading home. His journey took several days. From the territory controlled by the separatists, he crossed the Russian border. From there to Rostov, then to Moscow and Kaliningrad.

On his way home, Sergei was repeatedly stopped by the Russian special forces. They interrogated him for hours. “My children were killed during what you call a special operation. We [the Ukrainians] call it a war. You can do what you want with me. I have nothing to lose, ”Sergey told them.

At the Russian-Polish border, Russian guards took his fingerprints and it seemed that they were ready to detain him without any explanation, but at the last moment, they changed their minds for some reason and let him go. Through Poland, Sergei got to Ukraine.

He learned about Tatiana's death on the way. After the shelling, she was taken to hospital with a shrapnel wound to the chest from the mortars. Her injuries were too serious. She died soon after.

The bodies of children and other dead civilians lay on the muddy ground near the bridge for a long time. They couldn't be taken away. There was a fight going on. Irpin has become one of the hottest spots in the war in Ukraine. Russian soldiers have shot down residential high-rises, killed elderly people, raped women in front of children and then killed them in cold blood. There have been intercepts of conversations between Russian soldiers in which they have talked aout how they have stolen and committed rape which have been posted by the security service of Ukraine.

The dogs also died. One of them died in place, and the older, Bens, lay bleeding all night. It was picked up by volunteers and taken to a vet clinic. They had to amputate his paw, which had been torn by the blast, but ultimately it was not possible to save the dog.

Phone sensor did not respond to dead fingertips

Sergey got to Ukraine on the fourth day. Friends and the company for which his murdered wife worked, helped him. “Tatiana was a very friendly, brave, daring woman with a great sense of humor. She always cheered up everyone around her. She was like an older sister for all of us,” says Ksenia Khirvonina, a spokeswoman for Tatiana’s company.

Their employees managed to get out of Irpin on February 23, on the eve of Russia's military invasion. Before the war, the company called on its employees to leave Ukraine. But Tatyana refused because of her sick mother. When the war began, housing was rented for the families of employees in Poland. But without her husband and son, Tatyana refused to leave. In Ukraine, it was already forbidden to travel abroad for men from 18 to 60 years old. If necessary, they were supposed to stand up for the defense of their homeland. “There are no words to describe our grief or heal our pain. But it is very important for us that Tania and her children Alice and Nikita do not remain just statistics. Her family became victims of the shelling of civilians, which, according to any law, is a crime against humanity, ”the company’s official Facebook page says.

Tatiana managed the financial affairs of the company. There was a lot of sensitive information on her phone. Therefore, Sergei was asked to help unlock it. This could only be done with his wife’s fingerprint. Sergey got permission in the morgue. He was allowed to enter a huge refrigerator where the corpses lay.

“There were hundreds of them. Lots of civilians were killed. They were brought from Irpin, neighboring Gostomel and Bucha, where fierce battles also took place,” says Sergei. - “There were so many dead that the morgue staff did not have time to put the bodies in fridges. Refrigerators were brought into the yard. They, too, were filled with bodies. I put my wife's finger on the phone, but it remained locked. The phone's sensor, as I later was told, does not respond to cold, dead fingers."

Tribunal for Putin and all those involved in the killings of civilians

Sergei lost his relatives and does not know if his house is intact. The Ukrainian military, who liberated the city from the Russian army, reported that half of the houses had been destroyed. And as of now they do not allow the locals to return. It's still dangerous there. Sergei has already submitted documents to the prosecutor's office for the international court. He wants maximum publicity so that the world knows about the crimes against humanity that Russia is committing in Ukraine. He doesn't want any financial compensation. He needs justice - a military tribunal over Putin, over members of the security council who made the decision to attack Ukraine, over the all Russian commanders who gave orders to shoot at civilians.

“I speak and think in Russian. And, despite the fact that I speak Russian, I am a native Ukrainian. I would like to tell all Russians about this - I am not a nationalist, not some kind of ‘banderite’! I am an ordinary citizen of Ukraine. We are being eliminated as a nation! The world must see what is happening in Ukraine, and how vilely they are killing us here,” Sergei says.

Sergei says he will never forgive himself for not being able to protect his family.

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