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‘You saved our Mum’s life’

Liubov Yelisieieva is starting a new life in Carterton – thanks to the generosity of the Wairarapa community. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED.

Liubov’s journey from Ukraine to Carterton
Liubov is ‘surrounded by love’
Liubov Yelisieieva, pictured with her late husband Nikolai and grandchildren Daniil and Anya, spent all her life in a small village outside of Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine.

Liubov Yelisieieva has survived relentless shelling attacks on her home, been driven into a hail of bullets while fleeing to safety, and spent several weeks sheltering in an underground train station.

Now, she’s starting a new life in Carterton – thanks to an outpouring of aroha and generosity from the Wairarapa community.

Liubov, a retired teacher, spent most of her life in a small town outside Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine – less than 10km from the Russian border.

When Russia first launched its invasion of Ukraine eight months ago, her village was one of the first in the firing line – and the 73-year-old became a prisoner in her apartment, as mortar shells rained down outside her window.

Half a world away in Carterton, son and daughter-in-law Vlad and Christine Eliseev watched in horror as the war unfolded on their TV screens – and waited on tenterhooks for Liubov’s next phone call, reassuring them she had made it through the night.

Anxiety gave way to action: With support from their networks in Ukraine, Vlad and Christine were able to help Liubov escape, under cover of darkness, across the border into Poland – and, eventually, make the long journey to safety in Aotearoa.

Residents of Kharkiv, like Liubov, lived under siege during shelling attacks on their homes by Russian forces. PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

Liubov’s evacuation was not only fraught with potential danger, but came with a heavy price tag: close to $20,000 NZ for transport and accommodation, including Vlad’s flights to Europe to meet his mother, and transport for the volunteers accompanying her out of Ukraine.

In April, Vlad and Christine set up a Givealittle page to help cover the costs, and were “astonished” to see the donations and loving messages flooding in from the community.

Thanks to the kindness of both friends and strangers, and some extra support from local businesses, including a quiz night hosted by Kainga Café in Carterton, the couple were able to raise close to $15,000 in a few short weeks.

Christine said she and Vlad were deeply moved by the aroha the community has displayed for her family – particularly poignant and appropriate as Liubov’s name is the Slavic word for “love”.

“The generosity people showed us absolutely blew our minds,” she said.

“We knew we were asking for a pretty audacious amount. We’ve never been in a position where we’ve had to ask others for help, so we weren’t sure what to expect.

“But people really stepped up for us and for Liubov. The sense of community, caring and manaakitanga really was palpable. It was overwhelming, actually.”

“Everyone who donated did something tangible, they helped save a life. We can’t thank them enough.”

American-born Christine met Ukrainian national Vlad while on a university exchange to the former Soviet Union and the couple [while living in the US] and their children would often spend the summer in Kharkiv with Vlad’s extended family.

The whānau remained in close contact with Liubov after relocating to New Zealand but, over the past decade, visits back to Ukraine became increasingly difficult, after the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the Maidan Revolution of 2014.

One evening in February, the couple got the phone call that would change everything, Russian forces had crossed the Ukrainian border into Liubov’s home region, and war had broken out.

“She woke up to the sound of bombs going off. She called us at 5am [her time] in an absolute panic,” Christine said.

“She lived 15km away from a Ukrainian airbase – one of the first sites to be shelled by the Russian military.

“We were absolutely beside ourselves, I was in tears for the next 48 hours. We felt utterly helpless.”

She and Vlad immediately began planning to get Liubov out of Ukraine – but they knew it would be far from easy.

Within days, Liubov’s village was enclosed by heavily-armed belligerents – the Russian and Ukrainian armies, various militia groups, and violent gangs – and it wasn’t long before her apartment building became a target.

“She was completely trapped,” Christine said.

“Her building was hit over and over again by mortar shells. Her windows were blown out. And it was the middle of winter – some nights, the temperature would get down to about 17 degrees below zero.

“She initially thought it was fixable – that it would all be over by Easter and she just needed to sit tight.

“I think she was in a fog of shock.”

Eventually, Liubov accepted help from a volunteer service, which sent a driver to collect her from her apartment in the early hours of the morning.

Her evacuation was nothing short of traumatic: Liubov and her small handful of possessions were “scooped up” by the young volunteer and bundled into a waiting car, which drove off into “a literal fire fight”.

“Leaving the village, they were shot at the whole way. They had to keep swerving to avoid the holes in the road from the shells.

“It was terrifying. But, they got her to safety.”

Liubov spent the next few weeks in a makeshift shelter at a Metro station in central Kharkiv, before moving in with a relative who lived in “a safer neighbourhood”.

In August, accompanied by an escort, an acquaintance of Christine and Vlad’s from university, she headed to Lviv in Western Ukraine on a “black-out train” [travelling overnight with the windows covered].

There, she met a second escort, with whom she travelled to Warsaw on an overnight bus trip, where Vlad was waiting for her at the station.

She and Vlad made the long trip to New Zealand and arrived in Carterton on August 26, exhausted but safe.

Christine said Liubov was able to secure a Special Ukraine Visa through Immigration New Zealand – however, this only has a two-year term.

“She’s 73 years old, she’s got hardly any family left in Ukraine, and her home has been destroyed. She has nothing to go back to.

“We’re hoping we can figure out something more permanent. But, for now, she’s out of there. We feel we can breathe again and that we can start to move forward with our lives.”

Christine said Liubov is settling into her new life in Carterton, though her family anticipates it will be a slow recovery from her horrific ordeal.

“She’s been sleeping a lot. She told me last night was the first time she hadn’t had night terrors.

“She keeps saying she can’t believe she got out, and that she’s still alive.

“I think the trauma will stay with her for a while. But she’s here, and she’s surrounded by love.”

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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