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“Will we all die? Yes, most likely.” Story of people who were killed by the Russian military during evacuation

41-year-old Iryna Yemelianova was hoping to go on holiday abroad for the first time in the spring of 2022, and 15-year-old Maksym Shelupets dreamed about a world with no wars. But the Russian military killed these Ukrainians while they were trying to leave war-torn Chernihiv.

A city in the North of Ukraine was attacked in the first days of the full-scale invasion. Chernihiv was besieged, and the Russians were shelling residential areas en masse. People were left without water, electricity, and gas supply. Evacuation was a chance to survive. 

However, the Russians targeted civilians who tried to leave. On March 9, Russian soldiers fired from a tank at a car in which the families were evacuating.

The text was prepared by the documenting platform “Memorial”. It tells the stories of civilians killed by Russia and deceased Ukrainian soldiers. 

Iryna Yemelianova with her husband, Volodymyr, at her daughter Diana’s graduation party.
Photo from Iryna’s family archive.

Iryna Yemelianova lived in Chernihiv for a long time. For the last 12 years, she had a meat shop at the local market. Iryna will be remembered as a kind person: she always gave discounts to pensioners and people in need. 

21-year-old Diana is her only daughter. Iryna divorced her father when the girl was very young. Diana was raised by her stepfather, Volodymyr, a construction worker. Volodymyr and Iryna had a house in the city, always immersed in flowers in the warm season, and frequently welcomed guests there. Iryna had remarkable culinary skills. Her acquaintances said that eating at Ira’s (short from Iryna) is a feast for the eyes and stomach.

After school, Diana entered the National Aviation University in Kyiv, to get a degree in Psychology. While studying in the capital, she called her mother every day, sometimes 5-6 times a day. They were very close and talked about everything. “And on weekends, I just rushed home,” – Diana recalls.

Iryna Yemelianova.
Photo from the family archive.

“My mother is the best person in the world. She always helped everyone. She spared neither time nor money for good deeds. We were very close friends, all the time on the same wave. Mother had a dream of going on vacation abroad with her husband, me and my boyfriend Sashko (short from Oleksandr). We have never been abroad: neither of us,” Diana says.

Iryna Yemelianova planned her first vacation abroad for the spring of 2022. She wanted to go to the sea in Egypt or Turkey. At that time, her husband Volodymyr was working in Lithuania and was just about to go on vacation.

“Why is there a need for wars?”

At the beginning of 2022, Diana’s university studies were online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She was living in Chernihiv with her 24-year-old boyfriend, Oleksandr. His parents and a younger brother, 15-year-old Maksym, also lived in the city.

Maksym Shelupets with his mother, older brother Oleksandr and his girlfriend Diana.
Photo from the family archive.

The boys’ mother Maryna and their father were divorced. She married a Spaniard and moved to Spain with both sons. Maksym went to elementary school there and learned Spanish. However, after five years of living in Spain, circumstances forced the family to return to Ukraine. It was difficult for the boy to get used to the local school, his mother recalls.

“Maksym was meek, calm. He didn’t like conflicts,” says Maryna. The boy’s character has developed into more introverted. He played video games and read a lot. He loved anime, board games, bowling, swimming, and took private math classes.

Mom says that Max loved her very much, and she loved him. Every evening, Maryna came home from work and said: “Masia, I’m home.” Her son used to welcome her with their cat Mort – she gave him to Max for his birthday. Maryna does not remember them arguing.

“Max was an amazing child. He didn’t ask anything for himself. He had two worn out, old phones. He used one for making calls, and another for reading. And when I gave him a new one last year, he asked: “Why?” Maryna recalls.

The woman says that six months before the full-scale invasion of Russia, she drew Maksym’s attention to trivial things during walks: “Look at the sky! How wonderful it is! Do you hear how the birds are singing? Learn to love and appreciate all the good things, even if they are small, because life is so short.” And Max, says his mother, told her that he had an aspirational dream: that there would be no war in the world. “Why is there a need for them?” – he asked rhetorically.

Maksym Shelupets. One of the last photographs taken during his lifetime.
Photo from the family archive.

Mother and son were planning a vacation in Cuba in the spring. But prior to that, a friend of Maryna suggested they go to Egypt for a week, on February 20-27. Maryna did not believe that the full-scale war was possible back then, and neither did Maksym, who stayed in Chernihiv. 

“Run away, please run”

On February 24, when the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Iryna called her daughter at 6 a.m. 

– My girl, it’s war. Colleagues called me and told me not to go to work.
– Everything will be fine. I’ll sleep for another hour and call you back.
Half asleep, Diana kicked Sashko.
– Mother says that the war has begun.
He waved it off, saying: what war?

Neither Iryna nor her relatives believed there would be the full-scale Russian invasion, shelling and air strikes, until the very last moment. However, on February 24, the news about explosions rained down. Iryna and her neighbours stocked up on water and food. Diana and Oleksandr went to pick up his brother, Maksym, who was home alone.

Iryna said them: “Run away! Please run to where it’s safer!” But they stayed in Chernihiv, and in a few days they moved in with her.

“We held out in extremely tough conditions for about a week,” says Diana. “We estimated the situation by the strength and proximity of the ‘booms.’ The sirens went off late, so we went into the basement when the windows were shaking already. However, it was scary there too: planes were buzzing overhead, and Russian bombs were exploding 50 meters away from us.”

Iryna cried over the terrible news: a high-rise building nearby was destroyed and people died. “I couldn’t watch it. I said: don’t cry because you would just die from his weeping,” recalls Diana.

The family decided to evacuate: more and more of their acquaintances were leaving Chernihiv, and the shellings were getting closer. One day, in the first week of March, everyone said “It’s time to go” without previous discussions. The family decided to evacuate on March 9. Before that, they still needed to find fuel to drive from Chernihiv to Lutsk, the regional center in the West of Ukraine. The journey had to be rather long, more than 500 kilometers.

In Lutsk, Oleksandr’s family friend could let them stay in her empty house. Next, Iryna wanted to get to her husband in Lithuania. Diana and Sashko were thinking about staying in Lutsk. 

Sashko’s brother also decided to evacuate. Max spoke with their mother Maryna on the phone for the last time on March 8. They discussed plans to go to their friends in Spain.

The mother shared her worries with her son, and Max said that he was not afraid of dying. He was scared that if he did, it would hurt his mother badly.

Maryna could not go back to Ukraine from Egypt earlier: all flights were canceled. She was able to get to Poland only on March 9. She was supposed to wait for her sons, Iryna and Diana Yemelianova, at a friend’s house in Lutsk.

Evacuation. March 9, 2022.

On March 8, Iryna, Diana, Oleksandr, and Maksym were packing. Iryna was very nervous. She kept repeating: “Why do I have to leave my home? Why should I run away?” She put an old mobile phone with an archive of photos and a few things in her suitcase. Although her mind suggested the need to leave, her heart could not say goodbye to home. Diana told her mother: “We will return, you’ll see. We are going for a month or two. Otherwise, would I have left Din?”. Din is a German Shepherd that belonged to Iryna. He was left with a neighbour and a relative, they agreed to take care of the dog until the owners return.

On March 9, the family woke up at 5 a.m. and got into the car.

– 24-year-old Oleksandr Shelupets, driver.
– 15-year-old Maksym Shelupets, in the back seat behind his brother.
– 21-year-old Diana Yemelianova, next to the driver.
– 41-year-old Iryna Yemelianova, in the back seat behind her daughter.
– Misha, a 10-year-old pug, in the arms of the owner, Iryna.
– 4-year-old cat Mort, belonging to the Shelupets family, was in a carrier on Diana’s lap.

Maksym with the cat Mort.
Photo from the family archive.

At 6:00 a.m., Oleksandr’s Volkswagen Golf was already standing at the end of a long line of cars exiting the city. Until noon, the Ukrainian military did not let anyone out of Chernihiv because of the shelling 50 kilometers away. Iryna and everyone in the car did not worry: they were going to take a tested road, bypassing several villages then occupied by the Russian forces. On March 8, two families of their friends passed this way safely.

At 12:30, Sashko’s car passed the first Ukrainian checkpoint, then the second one, and the third. Everyone at the checkpoints wished the passengers a safe journey. Next, Iryna, Diana, Max and Sashko drove along the road past the village of Kolychivka, 14 kilometers from Chernihiv. Due to the peculiarities of the landscape, the turn ahead was not visible from afar. They noticed it from only a few dozens meters away, as well as three Russian tanks under the trees.

“Sashko shouts: “Invaders! Bend down!” But I saw the Russian flags myself already. And than the tanks were turning their muzzles at us, – says Diana. – We had almost no chance to turn around at speed, so Sashko pressed the accelerator. It was the only chance to slip through.”

Russian tanks started shooting at the civilian car. They fired continuously until the car stopped in about 200 meters. Diana took off her shoes in the car because she felt heat – and saw that her left foot had no toe. It was hanging on the skin, and other toes turned into a bloody mess.

Oleksandr shouted: “Everyone, get out of the car!” Then everything was unveiling with lightning speed: Diana climbed through the driver’s seat, and the Russians continued firing at the car from the right. Iryna jumped out of the back door and ran around the car, bending over. She got wounded in the side. Sashko tried to pull out his younger brother, but he was already dead… “They killed my Maksymko!” he cried. Confused, Diana called the rescuers: “We have a wounded and a dead person here.” But the signal was lost.

The group were hiding under the car. But Oleksandr noted that they were under the fire, and the car was full of fuel. Staying there looked like a bad idea, considering that the Russians had already climbed out of the tank and were approaching them. Sashko, Diana, and Iryna crawled into the bushes on the side of the road. 50 meters away from the car they stopped to examine the wounds. Oleksandr tore off his T-shirt to bandage Diana’s leg. “And what’s up with you, aunt Ira?” – he asked. The woman opened her jacket. 

“Half of the stomach was gone. Guts, skin, blood. I could see everything,” says Diana. There was no time to bind the wound. Russians were shooting, and people were crawling through swamps and streams, followed by a pug. He was spared. The cat remained in the car, and its fate is still unknown.

The bushes were too thick. The man had to break them and gnaw them with his teeth. The shrubs were almost never-ending. The three crawled silently in the following sequence: Oleksandr, Diana, and Iryna. The sounds of shelling increased, and they froze.

– Will we all die here? Diana whispered.
– Yes, most likely, – Sashko answered.

Diana told her boyfriend and her mother one by one that she loved them. They answered in the same way. The sounds of gunshots became quieter, and they crawled further. Iryna became slower and slower.

Her daughter tried to convinced her: “Mommy, please, hold on, just a little bit more… mom, mom!…” Iryna did not answer. She fell silent.

Diana did not say goodbye to her mother. Enemies did not let her do it, they were catching up with them on a tank, cracking branches.

“If Sashko did not pull my hand, I would have stayed there. I would have been lying still. The pug stayed by my mother’s side, no matter how I tried to call him after me. He belonged to my mother. Slept in her bed, and he followed her everywhere, even to the bathroom. In his dog mind, she was also his mother,” says Diana.

Together with Oleksandr, they crossed 12 swamps: the first had water up to their ankles, and the last one – up to their shoulders. They crossed the field that was on fire and burned their legs – but they felt nothing. They noticed the Chernihiv Power Station from afar and moved towards it. They heard shooting overhead and saw another Russian tank but ran past it. “Come what may”, they said. When Diana became fully exhausted, Sashko had to carry her.

At 5 p.m., they returned to the bridge they had crossed to leave Chernihiv that noon. The Ukrainian military took them to the hospital. Diana received a surgery – 4 toes were cut off, only the big one left. The girl believes that it was still luck that the shots went sideways because a caliber of that size could have knocked her entire leg off.

Maryna at the time was still abroad. She tried to call her sons, but no one picked up the phone. The woman decided that her relatives were already on the way, and there was simply no mobile signal between the villages. She got on the plane and received a message from her ex-husband only after landing in Poland.

“Maksym and Iryna were killed, Diana is without toes in the hospital, Sashko is alive, and everything is fine with him.” The woman collapsed. The emergency room doctors gave her a sedative injection and some pills. Later, Maryna was picked up by a friend and stayed with her in Poland. Sashko forbade his mother to go to Ukraine. 

“I can’t go to the cemetery. No and no, it doesn’t fit in my head that Max is there.”

Sashko and Diana met with Maryna only on March 24. At first, they lived in Lutsk. Diana’s treatment continued there. In addition to the foot injury, she was under enormous stress after her mother’s death: the young woman was afraid of any noise, even if it was a knock on the door. Sirens got her hysterical. 

Sashko was also stressed. Maryna and he searched for Maksym’s body every day. Their acquaintances went to morgues in Chernihiv. In the end, one of their friends went to the place of the tragedy and found their burnt car. 

The car where Iryna Emelianova drove. It was gunned down and burned by the Russians.
Photo from the family archive.

On March 9, several cars were trying to evacuate from Chernihiv, and Russians gunned down 5 to 7 cars. Then they chased the survivors in tanks. Sashko, Diana, one other woman with her daughter survived. In total, 13 people were killed, their cars were looted and burned down. Sashko and Diana were carrying $10,000 in the car, which they planned to invest in a future home they wanted to buy together.

At the end of April, Maryna was informed that, most likely, her son’s body had been found. The bones belonged to a teenager, a bit of short blond hair remained on the top of the head, and there was a piece of the gray jacket. A palm-sized hole was at the level of the shoulder blades. The family was not allowed to see the body, which laid frozen in a refrigerator with the remains of four other people in a black bag. They were offered to take a DNA test and for this, Maksym’s father handed over his toothbrush and comb to the experts. 

However, they had to wait for two months for the results. It was too long for Maryna. The woman was looking for an opportunity to see a piece of the victim’s jacket, quilted fabric which she was sure she would recognize. In the end, she received a photo of the fabric, and there was no doubt: it was Max’s jacket. This piece and the description of the body were enough for her to get a death certificate and а permission to bury her son.

At the beginning of May, several of Maksym’s classmates and their parents came to the funeral at the Yatsevo cemetery. His friend Artem cried so hard that he did dare to reach the cemetery. Maryna asked to reserve a place for Max’s grave near the graves of her father and grandmother.

“We buried him in a closed coffin. I never looked at the remains. I saw them only in photos. And these photos are terrible. I want to remember my son as I saw him during his life,” Maryna swallows her tears and words.

“On the one hand, it seems easier that the body was found and buried. On the other hand, I can’t go to the cemetery. No and no, because it doesn’t fit in my head that he is there. I don’t believe it, I still haven’t accepted his death. It seems like my son will come to me before going to sleep and kiss me and say “goodnight”, as he did every night.”

Maksym with his mother, Maryna Shelupets.
Photo from the family archive.

Maryna left Max’s room as it was during his lifetime, though she gave some of the things to children who lost everything in the war. She tries to see her friends more often and has started taking dancing classes, which she once loved very much. 

“My son did not want me to suffer. I believe that he is in heaven, looking at me. And that even though I feel bad here, he is fine there. It helps a little. I don’t want him to worry about me falling into depression and suffering,” Maryna says.

“I remember her words: “If I die, don’t cry a lot and live on.

Diana began to look for her mother’s body right away: she informed the military and several emergency services about the situation. Unfortunately, until April 1, the territory of the Chernihiv region had been partially occupied, and it was impossible to reach the place of her mother’s death. 

Iryna’s body was found months later thanks to volunteers who read Diana’s story and a request for help on Facebook. Men cut down thick branches, and made corridors in the bushes. And on July 16, one of them shouted: “Found it!” Diana heard it while she was waiting in the car. She could not participate in the search as she was still recovering from the operation on her leg. She only saw a photo: the body was almost decomposed. The dog remains were also found nearby. The pug died from cold and hunger.

The police arrived at the scene, and Iryna’s body was transferred to the morgue. The relatives were able to bury her at the Yatsevo cemetery in Chernihiv after all the necessary procedures to establish the identity of the deceased.

Neither the girl nor her 69-year-old grandmother, Iryna’s mother, have been able to get over the loss to this day. They say that they cry for their loved one every day.

Iryna Yemelianova.
Photo from the family archive.

Diana carries a figurine in the form of a heart with her. It was a gift from her mother. And also a golden chain with a pendant that was taken off her body. She visits her mother’s house, where she left everything as it was before her death. Iryna’s dog Din is still alive and well now.

“I remember her words: “If I die, don’t cry a lot and live on.” It helps me, and I live for her sake. Sashko and his mother help a lot. It’s easier to carry on together. Also, I live with the thought that I need to accomplish what my mother and others who died at the hands of Russians did not have time for. Just to live on this land to the fullest,” Diana says.