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From Ukraine to Serbia: A living nightmare to escape war

In a Refugee Reception Centra in Vranje, a Ukrainian woman thinks back at the time one year ago, when she decided to leave and eventually make her way to safety and shelter in Serbia.  

Stefan Simonovic for DRC

Posted on 06 Mar 2023

'The city was under siege, Russian tanks surrounded it. It was still winter then. There was no electricity, heating and water, the temperature in the apartment was 8 degrees. We heard constant shooting and saw soldiers everywhere. Many went to the basement. But not me. I didn't want to. When the neighbours called me from the basement, I told them that I would stay in my apartment and if a shell buried them, I could dig help them get out from there,’ tells Galina, a 69-year-old woman from Bucha in Ukraine who is now a refugee hosted in Serbia.  

But after a while, food ran out, they were hungry and could not sustain their wish to remain at home. It lasted for almost a month.  

‘When I arrived in Serbia and in the Asylum Centre Vranje, I ate bread every day. A lot of bread. I thought I would never get enough bread,’ tells Galina.  

She recalls that there were people who tried to negotiate with the Russian Federation forces to let them out of the city, but with no luck. Some people were shot because they tried to escape. One day, they suddenly declared that civilians could leave the city under an emergency arrangement agreed for Bucha.

‘I needed to pack so fast, that there was only time to bring a few personal documents. We walked about 5 kilometres to the municipal building where we spent that whole day and during the night we were hiding in the area. The next morning, a bus came to pick us up, but we were too many and they could not all fit us all. With a group of 14 people, including four small children, as well as a pregnant woman, I started walking behind the bus. They told me to not let the children look around. We walked along Vogzalna street, where there were tanks and dead bodies on both sides, and everything was dug up for trenches,’ Galina recalls.  

‘I took the pregnant woman by the arm as we passed by these horrors, and I made her look me in the eyes and talk to me about her baby so that she wouldn't look around.’  


Distribution of cash assistance at the Refugee Centre in Vranje, Serbia.Stefan Simonovic

Distribution of cash assistance at the Refugee Centre in Vranje, Serbia. Stefan Simonovic

The group had to walk fast, then crossed the river and eventually reached the city of Irpin. From there, Galina and others from the group were transferred by bus to Kyiv, where they stayed for some days. She couldn't believe how surprised she was by again seeing running water from a tap.  

‘It's like we forgot to use water! Kyiv looked like another planet, there was water and food.’  

From Kyiv, she went to western Ukraine, and from there to Hungary by bus before finally crossing into Serbia. She wanted to go to Vranje after having heard about this centre from a friend staying here. 

‘I earned a pension in Ukraine and had lived alone for a long time. Life was beautiful. I had a personal trainer, friends, and just a beautiful life,’ tells Galina. She used to work at the Institute for Organic and Inorganic Chemistry and later as a chemistry teacher.  

‘My son stayed in Ukraine with his new wife. They live in Kyiv, and his first wife lives with my 14-year-old grandson in Kaniv. I worry so much about my grandson. He goes to school one week online and the following week they have classes in person, and when he goes to school, they spend a lot of time in the basement as they do not have a proper shelter there to protect them when there are air raid alarms.’ 

It was not for Galina to settle in in Vranje.   

‘When I arrived at the centre in Vranje, there were no translators. Organisations came and invited us to activities without a translator. I didn't want to participate like that. Then, when DRC engaged a translator to be present in the centre, our lives changed for the better,’ says Galina. 

‘I can't complain. I was confused at first as Vranje is quite a small town, and I'm not used to such environments. But the people here are wonderful.’  

DRC provided cash cards to enable Ukrainian refugees to decide for themselves what they needed the most and to get by.  

‘I'm old and don't need much, but when I talk to the young women in the Centre, those cash cards are especially important to them.’ 

The Ukrainian women hosted in Vranje enjoy the yoga classes facilitated by DRC who organises daily morning gymnastics for the women in the centre. On Sundays, Galina goes to church. 

‘Physical activity means a lot to me. It helps me somehow to stay who I am. I learned a lot from the yoga classes and from the group with whom I practice morning gymnastics. Some of us practice yoga alone as well and we all noticed how we are progressing. That turned out to be very important and useful to many of us.’ 

Being far from home, family and friends is painful every day for the refugees who are living through trauma and mental scars, but they are safe in the Refugee Centre in small-town Vranje.  

Galina wants to return to Bucha as soon as she can, but she is not optimistic about when it will be possible. Her neighbours who have remained in the area are taking care of her apartment while she is away. Recently, they even repaired her windows that were shattered due to explosions.   

‘We are all hoping for I peace, but I fear that it will not come anytime soon.’ 

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