Hanna Ilnytska from Irpen: “Now our house is even better than it was before the war”
All five of her children grew up in this house in Irpen. Hanna Ilnytska was born here herself, and has lived here her entire life. She cared for her bedridden mother in this house. And from this house – her childhood home – she was forced to flee in the first days of the Russian army’s full-scale invasion.
“For us, the war started on February 24 with explosions that woke us up,” explains Hanna. “Then the President of Ukraine made an announcement…told children not to go to school…Our oldest son called from Kyiv and said that he was heading over with his wife and son, who wasn’t even three months old yet. (At that time it seemed like the suburbs of Kyiv were safer than the capitol itself.) But buses and the commuter rail had stopped running, so they were forced to get to Irpen on foot – over 20 kilometers – with their suitcases and stroller. We met them at the entry to the city, and by then fighter jets were flying overhead and explosions were heard everywhere. We could see Hostomel Airport burning. Here, in this room, we stood and prayed while the windows in the house shook and seemed like they would blow out any minute.”
We could see Hostomel Airport burning. Here, in this room, we stood and prayed while the windows in the house shook and seemed like they would blow out any minute.
The next morning, Hanna’s family decided to attend a prayer meeting in the village of Nemishaeve (about 15 kilometers from Irpen, near Bucha). They didn’t take any belongings with them because they thought they would return straight home. But that’s not what happened. “While we were stuck in traffic jams on the way to Nemishaeve, we had no idea that at the same moment, at the other end of Irpen, Russians were shooting up cars with civilians who were trying to get out of the city,” remembers Hanna.
Going back home was too dangerous, so the family headed towards another village nearby – Klavdievo. Hanna’s oldest daughter lived here with her family. But when they finally arrived, they found themselves in a real trap as the village was surrounded by Russian troops and battles waged all around. “Thirty people had gathered in my daughter’s house, sixteen of them were children of all ages, plus our grandfather with cancer,” recalls Hanna. “The gas and electricity went out. There wasn’t enough food. And my daughter-in-law, who was breastfeeding an infant, stopped producing milk. We couldn’t get baby formula anywhere. For several days in a row we tried to get out, but were turned away at the security checkpoints. Our [Ukrainian] military told us, ‘Look at all these cars with bullet holes! Where will you go?’”
The scariest thing that happened during that time was a phone call from another one of Hanna’s daughters, who lived in the village of Borodyanka. “They were bombed mercilessly! We could see from our windows that Borodyanka was burning – the whole town was alglow! And my daughter was there with her little girl and another baby on the way! There was no cell phone connection. And then one evening she was finally able to reach us. She said, ‘Mom, I’m lying on the floor. I don’t know if we’ll survive til morning,’” remembers Hanna, pausing to wipe away tears.
The fate of this large family was decided by a call from friends who had also been trying to get out of the surrounded village. “They told us which checkpoint they had just been able to pass through, one where the battle had subsided. We immediately got into our cars (there were four cars for 30 passengers!) and headed in that direction.”
It was a long and grisly drive past completely demolished villages, burned-down houses that were still smoking, and bullet-ridden cars with people’s belongings strewn nearby. There was also a harrowing meeting with a russian tank and soldiers right in the middle of the road (it was a miracle that the soldiers didn’t shoot this frightened group and allowed them to make a U-turn). There was driving in fields, attempts to find even a drop of gasoline at night in an unfamiliar village, and a shelling encounter with an enemy fighter jet near Zhitomyr. And there were amazing people who helped: soldiers who shared their gasoline and Christian acquaintances who brought five liters of priceless fuel to the highway. And finally, there was the long-awaited phone call from the daughter in Borodyanka: they had been able to escape!
After all their wanderings, the family made it to Lviv and split into two groups: Hanna’s four older children went on to Germany while the rest of the family chose the Carpathian Mountains as their temporary home.
“This whole time we didn’t know anything about our house in Irpen, whether it still even existed,” says Hanna. “When the occupiers left the Kyiv region, our territorial defense team drove down streets and took videos of the houses so that people could see what state their property was in. And in one of those videos we saw our house. It didn’t have windows or a door, but it was still standing!”
At the end of May, the Ilnitsky family, along with their youngest 11-year-old son, returned to their home village. They braced themselves for the worst. “The house was missing nine windows and the window frames were turned inside out. The front doors had been taken out by a blast wave,” recalls Hanna. “Everything was a mess. There was a stench throughout the house – stray cats had already moved in. There was broken glass and metal debris from shells everywhere. I remember like it was yesterday: I walked into the dirty bathroom, turned on the faucet, and into this pigsty flowed clean hot water. And this water gave me such hope – everything can be cleaned, rebuilt, renewed! Everything will be okay! All around us people had lost their homes, but ours was still standing. It didn’t matter that the windows were missing. We said, ‘Lord, in your mercy you protected our house.’”
Despite hardships, the family began rebuilding their house. The older children who were in Germany received financial support as refugees. They saved this money for their parents and sent it to Ukraine, allowing Hanna and her husband to buy new windows and material for a new roof. But the roof was structurally unsound and needed to be replaced completely – beams and all. “The roof was like a colander. When it rained, we put buckets under the streams. But we couldn’t replace it because we had run out of money,” says Hanna. They couldn’t count on an income: Hanna’s husband could only find part-time work in the summer and Hanna, who had spent her life taking care of her children, was unemployed. Plus, they had a sick grandpa on their hands who needed care. Thus the family lived with holes in their roof until September.
Realis Christian Center came to the rescue, completely replacing the roof on the Ilnytski’s home. They also installed new front doors and a window that hadn’t been replaced earlier due to funds running out. “The work ended in October and immediately afterwards we got hit with cold weather,” says Hanna. “But our house was warm and cozy. Thanks to people who cared, our house is even better than it was before the war!”