Hanna Chmelyova is a resident of Mykolaiv who decided to remain in her city in spite of the daily shelling and air raid sirens that have been terrorizing inhabitants since the onset of the Russian invasion. She gave us an interview to offer our readers a glimpse into daily life in a city under Russian occupation.
Hanna works as a children’s librarian and a hospital clown and takes great pride in her role as plastun-senior of the Mykolaiv branch “Plast” (the Ukrainian Scouting Organization). Hanna’s husband distributes humanitarian aid with the Ukrainian military elsewhere in the city. They have two sons.
“Each Mykolaiv resident now has a very special ‘alarm clock,’” Chmelyova explains. “It goes off not at the time you set it to wake you up, but at the time when the Russians launch a missile.”
This is the kind of humor that helps people in Ukraine survive during trying times. “These alarm clocks scared us a lot, especially in the beginning,” she says. “We don’t have a basement, but there is a rule of two walls: you must place two walls between yourself and the outside. For us, that means a closet. When we hear explosions, my youngest son and I run to the closet. This is our shelter, even though we don’t fit in together.”
During the first two months of the year, before the invasion started, the Plast members, or plastuns, underwent training for what to do In the event of a war. In mid-February Chmelyova attended a training course in Bucha, where she learned how to evacuate properly and how to provide pre-medical assistance. Even then, she says, she did not believe a full-scale invasion was imminent. “On February 24, I remember telling my husband, ‘Can you hear a plane? It’s so close,’” she remembers. “It’s only now that I realize: that was a Russian missile.”
Chmelyova knows the war has in fact been going on for eight years, since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014. But many fellow Ukrainians did not perceive the full threat until that fateful day in February.
“Until February 24 we lived peacefully in Mykolaiv,” she says. “After that horrible day, we all saw the enemy’s face — the true face of Russia. Back in 2014, most people didn’t believe me, even when I said that it was Russia that occupied Crimea. Maybe they didn’t want to understand.”
Back in March Chmelyova’s brother took his family out of Matviivka, their home village in the Mykolaiv region. He kept asking her when she would do likewise. She considered it, she says, but in the end felt her place was in Mykolaiv.
Waking Up to Russian Missiles
The start of a typical day in Hanna’s life under constant shelling
5:30 a.m. Explosions. Shelling. Windows rattle. I should go to the shelter, but I’m so tired. My eyes are so heavy…
Air raid sirens go off: “Attention! Please proceed to the shelters!” The siren is so loud. There’s no way I can sleep now. I’m getting up from my bed and I walk to the shelter.
6:15 a.m. I’m in the shelter. I’m hoping I can sleep a little before going to work. I’m falling asleep…
6.25 a.m. “Attention! Air sirens clear! You can leave the shelter!” Oh no, I had just started to fall asleep …
6.30 a.m. I’m going back to my bed again. It feels nice, I can sleep for a bit now …
7 a.m. Alarm clock goes off. I overslept. I need to get up and go to work.
“Each person behaves within the limits of their inner data: their temperament and level of critical thinking,” Chmelyova explains. “Plastuns have rules, too, and one of them is a rule of good fortune. I often tell myself that I haven’t accomplished everything I wanted to do yet. I have not developed a Plast movement in Mykolaiv, for instance, so I have to stay alive and keep going.”
So Chmelyova and her family stayed, woken up each morning like clockwork by sirens and shelling. She and her family get by without running water, which has been cut off in Mykolaiv since April when a Russian missile damaged the city’s water system. And after each sleepless night she goes to her work — at the hospital, at Plast, and at the library. “I am glad to see other people who choose to stay in Mykolaiv.” she says. “I’m happy to provide them with books now, more than ever before.”
She takes rare breaks from the war, too. Around Easter she spent a few days in her home village of Matviivka where the “Russian alarm” doesn’t shock her out of sleep each morning.
“For the first time since the beginning of the war, I slept through the whole night,” she said. “All these nights before … I can’t even remember if I slept at all, to be honest.”
And yet Chmelyova, like many Ukrainians, chooses to stay. While the men defend the country on the frontlines, she does her part at home and at work. She even finds time to weave camouflage nets for Ukrainian servicemen in between her various work schedules.
“There is fear in me, but not panic,” Chmelyova says. “We, Mykolaiv residents, are tired of being afraid.”
You can help Hanna and other residents of Mykolaiv. Your donations help supply water, equip bomb shelters, and provide basic necessities Mykolaiv residents need to survive.