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A rendezvous with a Ukrainian refugee in Prague

“I can’t even bury my mother, there are no remains left” were the words of 50-year-old Aliya Hryhorichenko, a Ukrainian refugee woman in Prague, who witnessed a calamity hit home in the Ukraine-Russia war when she received the news of her mother-in-law’s tragic demise in a bomb attack. In March, Aliyah’s mother-in-law — whom she describes as her beloved mum —was driving from Poltava to Sumy, running errands and carrying humanitarian aid, when her vehicle got hit by a Russian bomb. She shared her story with me during my visit to a non-profit organization based in Prague, called NGO DEI,  run by a group of Czech and Hong Kong people.

Aliyah’s partner, whose car was right behind his mother’s, witnessed the heartbreaking incident.

“He is devastated. He saw a bomb raining down on his mother,” Aliya tells me as her partner fights the war in his homeland. The Ukrainian government has barred men between the ages of 18-60 from leaving the country and it is mostly women and children refugees arriving in Europe, including in the Czech Republic. At least 300,000 Ukrainian refugees have so far arrived in the Central-European country.

“My mother-in-law was in the car in the driving seat. My boyfriend was in the car behind her and he saw it with his own eyes [the bomb hitting his mother]. The first thing that went through his head was ‘there is nothing there. I cannot even bury her because there are no remains left.’”

Aliya, who is away from her partner, says they were still trying to figure out a way to put their mother to rest somehow after the news but had to come to the heartbreaking fact that there was “nothing left of her.”

“The only thing people were saying to us was that ‘we can’t find anything of your mother. There are no remains and you cannot have a burial,’” she says.

Aliya says her partner, who cannot get emotional support from the family in this stressful period, is greatly distraught after having witnessed the traumatic incident and is devastated about not being able to pay final respects to his mom.

The 50-year-old arrived in Prague via Poland with his two daughters, Lisa, 17, and Katya, 26, and a seven-year-old grandson, Artur, on 10th of March. The family received their visas on the 11th. They left Ukraine on the 4th of March, almost a week after the war began, and say they “lost track of time” during a long, precarious journey.

Aliya describes receiving “heavy news” almost daily now from her country, sharing that many people who her family has known are also dying in this war.

“Recently, like three days ago, there was a situation where Lisa’s [her daughter] friend passed away,” Aliya says, adding that another family she has been acquainted with, comprising mostly men of the household, were trying to escape in a car and were stopped by Russian soldiers and shot down on the spot.

“They were stopped by the Russians. The family, of course, obliged and got out of the car with their hands up. Before they even had a chance to talk, they [Russian soldiers] just shot them down,” she says.

Aliya also shows an online group on an app called Viber through which she tries to stay in touch with her friends, family and acquaintances in Ukraine. She says, as soon as she hears or reads any news or telegram about cities being bombed, she goes straight to the phone to this group to ask people if they are alright.

No safe passage

Aliya shares that her daughter’s ex-husband and his family were stopped by Russians and not allowed to leave their town despite having kids.

“Out of desperation, their family wrapped the car with signs and posters stating that they have kids inside the car and want to live but the Russians send them back to danger [to where they were coming from].”

She further says she also knows people whose sons turned 18 on the day of the war and had to stay in Ukraine and are now resisting the invasion.

Adjusting to a new life

Originally from Southern Ukraine, Aliya worked as a seller in a market before the war turned her world upside down. Currently, just one of her three kids, a son, is in Ukraine.

Earlier, refusing to leave her country, Aliya’s daughters convinced her with much difficulty to eventually escape the war-torn region.

“My daughter said she would not be able to settle in a new country without me and, in that case, just cut her veins,” Aliya says, while talking about a truly mentally and emotionally stressful period her family has been through like many other Ukrainians.

“It got to a point where I had no other option. Every time I would leave the house to get food and other products, there would be gunshots. The daughters pushed me to believe that this isn’t a home for us anymore,” she says.

Aliya shares that her 7-year-old grandson is traumatized by airplanes and the PTSD is such that every time he sees an aircraft in the sky, he gets terrified thinking it might start bombing, and she needs to explain to him that it’s a “normal thing” here.

Since their arrival in the Czech capital, the family has been trying to make ends meet. Aliya has taken a cleaning and cooking job and Lisa is volunteering at the NGO where she found a new home.

About the Author
The writer is a journalist from Pakistan, mostly covering social issues and women's rights, and an Erasmus Mundus scholar currently based in Prague.
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