Two and a half thousand kilometres of life. How I taught children during the occupation, and then left the village of Strilkove on the Arabat Spit.
Physics teacher and journalist Alina Kovalenko lived in Uman. However, due to her state of health, she had to quit her job and, on the recommendation of doctors, move to the seaside in the summer of 2021. Friends invited the woman to live and take care of their house in the village of Strilkove on the Arabat Spit in the Kherson Region, where she found a job in her speciality and resumed teaching at a local school after a 15-year break.
Alina adapted to her new life, carefully prepared for lessons and tried to make them as practical as possible for children. However, everything changed on February 24.
In this article, she tells her story — about the peculiarities of teaching schoolchildren under the occupation, the reluctance to cooperate with the occupation authorities, the fear and the difficult decision to leave the village, which turned into a 2500 km road from Strilkove to Kherson — Kryvyi Rih — Uman and finally Germany.
Next is a direct speech by Alina.
The summer of 2021 was my first summer by the seaside. I moved to a village in the Henichesk District on the Arabat Spit — near the Sea of Azov, Sivash, a gas field, thermal springs and healing waters, therapeutic mud, salt lakes, and a bunch of fresh vegetables and flowers in every yard.
I stuck to this region and told everyone that Strilkove is not the last Ukrainian village, but the first. Because behind the village there was already a border post and the Crimea. And when in August it turned out that the local school has a vacancy for a Physics teacher just in my speciality, I happily went to work at the Strilkove school.
A small cosy rural school with a century-old history for 150 students and 15 teachers. School is a family because from the 1st to the 10th grade, everyone knows each other. In the 11th grade, there were simply no enrollments for that academic year. The vast majority of students and teachers are 2nd or 3rd generation locals. In each class, children from Crimean Tatar, Ukrainian, Russian, and Moldovan families always find a common language, make friends, and sometimes argue — children are like children.
At breaks and among themselves, they, like most teachers, speak Russian. I think at home, too. Although everyone “switches" very quickly, and when you speak Ukrainian, they also speak Ukrainian to you.
The language of instruction at the school is Ukrainian, but not so long ago, perhaps only in the last few years. Before that, there was Russian for a long time, and quite a lot of textbooks in the school library are in Russian. The school subject "Language of Indigenous Peoples and National Minorities” is Russian. I asked why not Crimean Tatar. They explained to me that a survey was conducted, and 75% of parents chose Russian to study.
I will never forget the call from a friend from Uman at 6 am on February 24: “The war has begun. Explosions in Uman. Explosions, detonation and a big fire in Rosishky. The glow is above HRES." (HRES is a small district on the western outskirts of Uman — editor's note) I called home, they weren't sleeping there anymore.
And then I just screamed — because of despair, fear, rage, and the inability to change anything.
Still, it was quiet on the Arabat Spit. Later it turned out that, while leaving, the engineer of a separate battalion, sailor Vitalii Skakun, blew himself up to destroy a part of the Henichesk automobile bridge to the Arabat Spit. Thanks to him, no big and heavy military equipment can enter there. Only cars and minibuses.
The headmistress of our school explained that we continue to work remotely to implement the curriculum. She asked us to talk to the children, to calm them down, and to pay more attention to their emotional state.
On the first day of a full-scale war, one of the teachers left the village. Her academic hours were “dispersed" to other teachers. I go" a few more disciplines.
I taught Physics, handicraft lessons, Russian, Ukrainian, and Foreign Literature.
I think the lessons were rather an element of a “normal life” during the war. In the days when there was electricity and the Internet, children still got in touch somehow during an online lesson.
I told them to be careful, not to walk on the street themselves, not go to the sea, and take care of their health because there were no medicines in the pharmacy either. But it was useless to calm the children down. They all followed the news and heard what their parents were saying. Students in the 9th grade were especially worried because each child had plans for further life and study.
Some strongly condemned the colleague who left. They say that she wore a vyshyvanka (embroidered shirt), but as soon as something happened, she ran away. I was very sensitive to all this. Because I also had vyshyvanka, I knew that I would also have to run away.
Subsequently, the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine gave schools the right to finish the school year at their discretion, and teachers were quick to warn about the responsibility for collaboration.
Then the russians forced school directors in the Henichesk District to draw up lists of teachers who are ready to undergo "retraining" in Crimea this summer and work according to the new curriculum. I think that the invaders were much more interested in the lists of teachers who would not agree to undergo “retraining”.
When the invaders came to the village, I just sat in a closed house for several days in complete despair, because the atrocities in Bucha and Irpin had already been discovered. I was scared to the point of panic.
All the while, I tried to conduct scheduled lessons online from home. But fewer and fewer children got in touch. There were power outages and problems with mobile phone service, there was no Internet. Sometimes I just wrote the topic, page, and task number. 1-2 children who were conscientiously helped and supervised by their parents sent photos of their work.
At first, there was hope for a local carrier, who for 100 dollars smuggled people out through Henichesk and Melitopol to Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro. But he was so brave and reliable alone, and the number of people who wanted to leave was constantly growing.
I couldn't squeeze into the queue for departure for 2-3 weeks. And then the situation in Mariupol worsened, and military operations intensified in that direction. The driver came under fire and, after spending three days on the road, which previously took three hours, decided to stop transportation for a while.
I learned from the local Viber and Telegram communities that regular bus service has resumed directly from Strilkove to Kherson. I already knew from the evacuation chats that the invaders were reviewing and taking away the phones and laptops. I had a lot of patriotic information, photos, journalistic achievements, and teacher's developments that russians would definitely not like.
I turned to the media circles from my previous professional life for help. A security specialist helped me properly clean all my gadgets, transfer what I need to cloud storage, and just throw away what I can live without.
My first checkpoint was on the Henichesk bridge. The occupant simply looked into the bus, examined the interior and let the driver pass. Then there will be a lot of such checkpoints — more than 100 in total.
They looked into the salon carrying machine guns with cocked triggers, checked documents and phones, undressed men, and rummaged through things. Someone “just did their job", and someone enjoyed humiliating and intimidating people.
It is immediately clear which of them is a russian military man, and who is an “LPR-DPR”-traitor, who is a career officer and ardent, and who is a conscript or a volunteer. But they are all enemies, and each of them holds weapons in their hands that can kill you at any time. Because that's why they came to our land. And I didn't forget about it for a second all the way, especially when the bus stopped at another checkpoint.
And I also cried in silence when I saw traces of a fierce battle in Oleshky and near the Antonivka Road Bridge ahead of Kherson. This is probably the first battle where our guys tried to stop the enemy.
In Kherson, I have, or rather had relatives. They had already left the city by that time, but I had the keys to the apartment, so I stayed there. This is really very important during such a multi-stage evacuation so that there is a place where you can rest.
Having no friends in the city, I was looking for an opportunity to leave in chat rooms. There were a lot of scammers who promised to leave but asked for an advance payment. You are alerted about them in every thematic group, but they still do not disappear anywhere.
For about a day, neither I nor my family, who helped me online, could find anything real for leaving. And there were bomb and missile drops all night. The windows were rattling and shaking nonstop — and I was listening to the war in Kherson, the war which I had hardly ever heard before on the Arabat Spit.
All this time, between driving, checkpoints and searching, I conducted online lessons and fulfilled my part of the agreements with the school administration. Children were not always in touch, in the village the Internet was again turned off and mobile communications were jammed. But those 1-2 reactions to my tasks were very important for me.
Reading for the second day in a row about the evacuation from Kherson, I increasingly saw messages that “only cars with children and people with disabilities were released by orcs”. Then I decided to write to the chat: “1 woman, disability group 2, leaving Kherson does not matter where”. Several people immediately wrote to me with an offer to go with them in a car, provided that I really have a disability certificate. I had, so this is a ghostly, but possible pass to unoccupied Ukraine.
In a column of several thousand evacuation vehicles with white rags on the mirrors and the words “CHILDREN” on each window, we drove to Mykolaiv through Snihurivka. They did not let us out. After a day in a frenzied wind in a long column, we had to return to Kherson.
Another night in Kherson with explosions searching in the chat for an opportunity to leave. Once again, I was asked: Do you definitely have a disability certificate? Yes, I do. So we're leaving in 10 minutes, get out.
It was a minibus that was taking the family out of Komyshany (a village near Chornobaivka — editor's note). They accidentally got one seat, and they were urgently looking for a person, preferably with a child or with a disability. Because it makes it more likely to leave. On the bus, the parents took out two girls aged 4 and 6 and a tiny boy who was only 15 days old.
At one of the checkpoints, while we were waiting for an inspection, a young russian soldier looked in the window. He saw children inside and very politely told, “Can I ask? It's not an interrogation, just like normal people. Why are you all leaving? We can't understand why you're all going nowhere. After all, everything will be fine here soon. Why are you leaving? Please explain to us, we don't understand.”
I think each of us would like to shout something back to him. But the driver answered. Very quietly and very politely: “We are taking the children out. You see that the bomb and missile drops are constant. Would you take yours out too? So, we are taking the children out”.
Our carrier's name was Oleh. He explained that he is an entrepreneur and earns money by transportation. He usually took people on excursions and to the sea. But now he has to earn money to get his family out of Kherson. Because they also have nowhere to go, they need to rent housing and make a living in a strange land, so he takes on this dangerous job and drives people. We're all going there, and he has to come back. Therefore, he conducts negotiations at all checkpoints himself, because he still has to return. All the way there, he planned what and whom to take back to Kherson, so that the bus would not be seized, because if it goes empty, then such a risk is very high.
Oleh took us out. Through 70 checkpoints, interior searches, inspections of men's torsos, checking phones and passports, across the mined bridge, past a burning warehouse, shelling, craters on roads and broken power lines, a 50-kilometre queue of cars in the grey zone, a night road without headlights, lanterns and guide signs.
I will remember our first Ukrainian checkpoint in the field near the planted trees for the rest of my life. Under the Ukrainian flag, smiling guys are trying to give us an apple, an Easter cake, a candy through the car window. And people who hug our defenders and all cry without exception. I cried too, and now when I think about it, I cry.
Near this checkpoint, the whole ground is strewn with white rags, which the occupants force all people to tie on cars. People tear them off their cars, and this is very symbolic because they finally broke away from the occupation.
Oleh carefully folded the rag, because he still has to go back. He brought us to Kryvyi Rih and delivered everyone to the right place: some to the train station, some to the bus stop, and me – to the BlaBlaCar to Uman. When I asked how much I owed, he said, “Pay as much as you can.” I paid 4,5 thousand hryvnias. That's what I had on the card. I want to think that Oleh managed to take his family out of Kherson, and they are now in a safe place.
I barely remember how I travelled another 300 km from Kryvyi Rih to Uman. There was a lot of fatigue, calmness and a sea of tears from each Ukrainian flag and every one of our soldiers. There was anxiety because the whole city was filled with Czech hedgehogs. It was surprising that ATMs have cash, and store shelves are full of anything you need. That public transport runs around the city, yard-keepers sweep the streets in the morning, and children play on the playgrounds.
In the occupation, I really “went wild” — for a long time I could not remember how to pour myself a cup of tea at a petrol station.
At home, we cried again. But now all together. And I began to adapt to life not in the occupation — to get used to the fact that every night the warning siren wails, that you can hug and shake hands with the person who supported you every day.
When I first went out into the city, I hugged as many Uman residents as I had ever done in my life.
People I used to know, worked with, and was friends with before the war, and who knew that I lived in the occupied territory, who understood my path and my fear — people just came up, hugged and cried with me. This is invaluable and unforgettable.
I restored my Facebook profile, restored my accounts, launched my laptop, and informed my students that I had to leave the village and that I would only be teaching them until the end of April. And then, when the war is over, we will definitely see each other again.
Every reaction was priceless, every word from the student and the parents was important. Someone thanked me, someone wished me good luck, and I sincerely asked and ask everyone to take care of themselves. Go out in the yard as little as possible, avoid meetings and conversations with the invaders, do not show your position on social networks, and many other important and small “not's” that can cost your life under occupation.
At home, the feeling of anxiety and fear did not go away. Living day by day with the "lost" syndrome was getting harder and harder. There was an opportunity to go to Germany. And I continued on my way. Another two thousand kilometres. And in another country, I am no longer a teacher, but a student. But I know for sure that the time will come when I will return to Uman, Kherson and Strilkove to thank those people who were there and helped during a very difficult time.
Writer: Alina Kovalenko
Photo: Alina Kovalenko