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Margaryta Popova

Dergachy — Uzhgorod

On the morning of February 24, I was going to work as usual. I heard the explosions and understood that the war had begun, yet I couldn't quite believe that it had happened. So I went to the bus stop to take a bus to work in Kharkiv. I lived in Dergachy. I am retired, but I worked as a lab assistant at the Kharkiv Medical University. Before that, I'd worked as a family physician for almost 30 years, I'd been always among people.

As I and my colleagues stood at the bus stop waiting for the bus, we saw tanks coming towards us... The scene was very frightening. That was how we knew there would be no buses to Kharkiv so we went back home.

I stayed with my husband in Dergachy for over a month. The shelling only got worse. I had to make a very difficult decision. It took me a long time to make it, and it was very painful for me. But both my husband and my daughter kept insisting that I should hide from the shelling and move to a safer place until that horrible nightmare was over. Dergachy was bombarded extremely heavily, shells exploded right next to our house, buildings got hit by bullets, burned and collapsed. All that was happening in front of my eyes, and it was terrifying. So I made that decision… spontaneously, if I may say. I simply couldn't take it anymore.

I decided to go to Lviv on my own, and then just see where it took me. A colleague of mine asked me to take her elderly father with me and help him get to Lviv, from where she would take him across the border. So I took this responsibility upon myself; I felt like I had to help.

Volunteers helped us get out of Dergachy, and that was how we ended up at the train station in Kharkiv. There we somehow crammed into an evacuation train with that grandpa and left. It was not an easy ride. It took us more than 24 hours to get from Kharkiv to Lviv.

We were met at the station when we arrived, and I stayed overnight at my acquaintances' place. But it was still very painful and scary. A new city, new everything. My daughter kept insisting that I go abroad since she lives there herself. But I didn't want to leave my country. Plus it seemed very difficult to adapt to a new environment at my age, not knowing a foreign language. I wanted to be at home in Ukraine. I talked to my daughter and we made a decision that I would stay in Uzhgorod.

Acquaintances of mine helped me find a place to live. That was how I ended up in Zakarpattia. I spent the first two weeks alone in my apartment embroidering, reading, watching movies and crying... But then I managed to overcome myself. Besides, I couldn't just sit at home, because I was used to being always active, among people, working with people all my life. I found a website of Uzhgorod volunteers, called them and asked: "How can I help you?" And they said, "Come over, we always have work to do." And so little by little, I started volunteering.

The Zakarpattia battalion launched an initiative to provide free food for the displaced, and I began to help them in any way I could. At first, I made sandwiches, then I helped to prepare new rooms from scratch: came over to clean and tidy them up. Then I worked as a waitress. I was so anxious... I thought I wouldn't be able to do the job. But I set myself a goal: I told myself that I was strong and that I would succeed. And I did.

Now I work in the kitchen; I assist the cooks. There are four assistants there, all displaced, and the cooks are locals. Every day our volunteer canteen feeds more than 1,500 displaced people for free. The people who come for food really need this support and help, and they are so grateful that they are so well received.

I work in the kitchen every day without days off. I don't sit still. Today, I took some time off to go out and do my chores. I did everything really quickly, and now I feel like I must go somewhere, do something, I feel like I need to rush. Feels like I haven't done anything. That's how my days go by. They pass very fast: I leave home early and come back late. It helps me distract myself from thoughts and take no notice of how the day is going.

Here I have become friends with Natasha, a woman from Kherson. She is a very good person, we are very close, and we support each other. She has lost her home completely, her apartment was destroyed by a bomb. I have also made friends with girls from Mariupol, Severodonetsk. That's how we live now.

Sometimes we manage to find time for ourselves after work to go somewhere, to spend time out. It is difficult to work all day long. We do what we can to help people. Everyone is in the same situation now, so we have to work somehow, to keep ourselves together. And if we do nothing, it will be very hard for all of us.

I hope that peace and victory will come soon, and I will definitely come home. For me, Uzhgorod is a temporary solution. I like the city, it's small but very cosy, green, and beautiful. And people here are kind, understanding, and supportive of each other. I haven't met anyone who had a negative attitude toward displaced people. Still, I think that maybe after the summer I'll be able to go back home.

Every day, as soon as I wake up, I pick up the phone and check what is happening at home in Dergachy, read the news, and worry about my family and friends. Every day I call home. My husband is still there and he flatly refuses to leave. It's very loud there, and as the days go by it doesn't get any quieter.

Almost every day, my daughter and I try to persuade him to leave, but all we hear is resentment, anger, and irritation. Things like, "Don't try to persuade me, I'm not going anywhere anyway", you know? He does not want to leave his home. He's already an old man, already retired... Everyone is different, everyone has their own opinion, and he has made the decision to stay there until the end, until the victory. I only wonder when I will be able to go back there.

I really do hope that peace and victory will come soon, and I will definitely come home. It's a bit hard for me to talk about it, I get upset, I feel a bit lost... But I hope I come home, everything will be fine, we'll rebuild the town, and everything will be even better than it was. And as for now, we all need to unite and hold on.

Recorded by Olena Vysokolian
Photography: Igor Mayherkevych