The last child in a ruined village in north-east Ukraine has been evacuated with his family from the basement in which they lived for three months after a benefactor read of their plight in the Guardian.
Tymofiy Seidov, eight, did not want to come out of his underground home in Kutuzivka, east of Kharkiv, owing to Russian fire, but he was gently persuaded to leave on Sunday by his mother, Rita Sotnikova, and a second woman in the basement, Alla Lisnenko, 59.
“When we took Tymofiy out of the bomb shelter, he kept holding my hand,” Rita said. “He kept telling me ‘Mum, let’s go back inside, Mum, let’s hide, Mum, let’s not be out in the open.’”
Kutuzivka, 12 miles east of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, has been on the frontline of the war since 24 February and it was retaken from Russian forces three weeks ago, at a heavy price for those living among its ruins.
The village was bombed throughout and of the 1,500 people who had lived there only about 50 remain – most of whom had been living alongside Tymofiy in the dark, dusty cellar where the young boy spent much of his time drawing pictures of monsters, tanks and remembered beaches and happier days under the sun.
Along with Rita, his aunt Yana, 33, grandmother Lyudmyla, 57 and grandfather Mykola, 62, Tymofiy is now heading to the relative safety of western Ukraine, but the family’s final destination is Zurich in Switzerland, where more than 40,000 Ukrainian refugees have made a home since the war began.
Their future remains full of uncertainty as they look to resettle in a strange country without money or the ability to speak the local languages, yet Rita said the family had no choice but to flee the fighting.
“At first Tymofiy did not want to leave Kutuzivka,” she said. “He was very upset when we told him we were leaving. I think he is now afraid of travelling. He cried. He was afraid of artillery shelling when we were taken from Kutuzivka to Kharkiv.
“He is afraid of shelling throughout Ukraine. Alla, as a mother, and we all talked to him and convinced him that we are going to a place where nothing will shoot and where everything will be quiet.”
Rita said her son’s health had begun to wane after living for 87 days with 23 other people in the almost pitch black 40-by-five-metre basement below the ruins of two-storey kindergarten and medical centre.
“Tymofiy was examined by a doctor and diagnosed with an allergy to dust from the basement,” Rita said. “This dust from the basement walls, which Tymofiy was breathing all the time, had begun to cause an allergic reaction.”
The family’s evacuation was made possible after a Guardian reader with connections to Ukraine Now, a not-for-profit organisation, made contact to offer logistical help, while the Ukrainian military agreed to provide safe passage. The reader did not want to be identified but said he hoped others would donate funds to help Tymofiy and his family, and he called for a greater political effort in the west to “prevent the suffering of millions caused by the insanity of the few”.
Rita said making the decision to leave Kutuzivka had been difficult, although it was confirmed as the right move as they emerged from the basement to see the full scale of the damage wreaked on her village.
She said: “My mother cried all the time, all these days when we were packing she cried. She cried all the way from Kutuzivka to Kharkiv railway station. When we started to leave Kutuzivka we saw how our village was destroyed. We saw that Kutuzivka was in ruins.
“This was the first time we saw our village because all these days we were constantly in the basement. And when we went out and saw the scale of the destruction, I had a lump in my throat from pain and sadness. We had lived in our peaceful village for a long time and in one moment it has been destroyed. It was very painful for us to look at it.”
She went on: “My parents really didn’t want to go. They did not want to leave their home. But I convinced them. Because we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We are afraid that tomorrow the war may return to our village. I told my parents it was safe. We will not be constantly under fire and we needed to go.”
Rita said she hoped in the future to help others to escape, and she would never forget the aid given to her by the readers of the Guardian. “If I could, I would also help people – take them to safe places, would help them settle,” she said. “After we experienced all this horror in Kutuzivka, I realised how important evacuation is for people from dangerous places.”