Russian tanks erupted, killing my son while I held his hand

Early in the morning, I found my family hiding in an unfinished house with a basement. I realized it served as a location for Ukraine’s Territorial Defense. They had blankets, water, and food. When we reached the house, I saw my son wrapped up in blankets. The shelling went on incessantly and I started to scream.

  • 1 year ago
  • February 20, 2023
11 min read
Maryna Pichkur and her son Rostyslav hid in an underground shelter when Russia invaded Ukraine Maryna Pichkur and her son Rostyslav hid in an underground shelter when Russia invaded Ukraine | Photo courtesy of Maryna Pichkur
Interview Subject
Maryna Pichkur, a 38-year-old accountant, lived in Kyiv with her husband and 13-year-old son when Russia invaded Ukraine. The family fled but found themselves caught up in the cross hairs of the attack. On February 28, 2022, Maryna lost her son Rostyslav when Russian tanks targeted and shelled civilians.
Background Information
On February 24, 2022, Russia launched an unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which is still ongoing. In this unprecedented war, Russian army and commanders have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Among them are bombarding of schools, hospitals, and maternity homes, massive killing and torture of civilians in Bucha, Izium, shelling of civilian cars while evacuating and queuing in line for bread, as in Chernihiv, or waiting for train in Kramatorsk.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Russia killed 7,155 civilians in Ukraine during the full-scale invasion. The Office also specifies that the real number of civilian casualties is higher. This is due to the fact that many areas remain under occupation. Moreover, Russia allegedly uses mobile crematoriums to dispose of bodies and cover up its war crimes.

KYIV, Ukraine ꟷ When the Russians invaded Ukraine in February 2022, we fled Kyiv for our country home in Kolonshchyna – me, my husband, my 13-year-old son Rostik, and our extended family. Huddled together in that basement with no electricity, our safety remained short-lived. As Russian tanks descended upon us, we fled for our lives, but one of us would die.

Orato World Media has collected numerous first-person accounts from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Read them now.

Trying to make it to our vehicle, a shell exploded from a tank marked with a “V,” and a piece of it hit my son. It tore off his arm and penetrated his chest. Now, a year later, every night when I lay down for bed, I talk to God. I ask him to protect little Rostik’s soul; to let him visit me in my dreams. I know I will meet Rostik again one day. My little boy was everything to me. Now, all I have left of him is the portrait I embroidered.

Explosions drive us from Kyiv in the early morning hours.

On February 24, 2022, at 5:00 a.m., we awoke to the sounds of explosions. My son Rostyslav slept in his room. I ran to Rostik and told him to go and lay down for a little while with his father. After another explosion rang out, we knew we needed to flee. We decided to leave Kyiv and go to a country home we recently built in Kolonshchyna. It had a large basement where we could hide.

We quickly gathered our things as we readied to leave the city. My sister, who lived in Vorzel, asked us to pick her up, along with her family and pets. Traffic jams flooded the streets. Everyone seemed to be running away to wherever they could go.

My husband and son took a large van and stopped to pick up my sister, then went straight to Kolonshchyna. My parents and I took my car. In the country, we immediately set to work equipping the underground shelter in our basement. We brought down mattresses, blankets, water, and food. At night, we slept there, and when the sun rose, we climbed the stairs into the house and watched the news. As new explosions rang out, we fled back into to the basement.

Only one day after we arrived, my son’s godfather called. He pled with my husband to come get him from Irpin. He had a wife and a little child, so Bohdan left. Thank goodness, he made it back safe and sound.

Huddled in the basement in the dark, the bombing continues. We run once again.

For the first four days of the invasion, we huddled in our basement, a short distance from Kyiv. The lights stayed on for a while, but on February 27, we plummeted into darkness. Russians shot down a Ukrainian airplane not far from our village. As it tumbled through the sky, it damaged the electrical wires and just like that, the lights went out.

We remained in the dark that day and all night as we slept in the basement. The next day, at 10:00 a.m., a neighbor came running to our house. “Russian tanks are coming from Makarov,” he said. They would descend upon us soon. Once again, we had to leave. We loaded up our things and drove off as quickly as we could. At the first checkpoint, Ukraine’s Territorial Defense did not let us though. A Russian tank just shelled a civilian car. It became clear, that direction was not safe.

We turned around and attempted to move through another village. Before we set off, my husband looked at me and said, “God forbid, if we come across Russian troops, just pull over on the side of the road.” We believed the Russians were not supposed to target us and the news even showed Ukrainian citizens in Kherson stopping tanks with their bare hands.

The Territorial Defense denied our passage at the second checkpoint as well, so we drove further, our fear building. All the road signs appeared to be knocked down or painted over, likely to mislead the Russian troops. As our phones nearly died, and with Kyiv the only other remaining option, we decided to go back to our country home. The last thing we wanted was to encounter Russian troops.

A line of Russian tanks marked with a “V” shoot at us with everything they have.

My sister, parents, and I rode in the back, following behind the vehicle carrying my husband, my son’s godfather, and his child. As we approached the village of Buzova, three kilometers from our country house, my husband began to pull over on the side of the road. I followed him, just as we planned. Then, suddenly, my husband leapt out of the car and ran, shouting, “Quickly, to the forest!” Russians in front of us fired a shell from a tank.

The Borden’s car, which they escaped in, ended up burned during shelling | Photo courtesy of Maryna Pichkur

My entire family – all the people I love – ran from the vehicles and began crawling through the forest. The Russians kept shooting as we fled for our lives. When the shelling finally stopped, my husband suggested we pull the car back to leave. Because it sat parked behind the van, the Russians could not see it as well. We slowly emerged from the forest and my sister, her husband, and Rostik’s grandparents made a quick decision and ran away. I, on the other hand, approached the car.

I could see a line of tanks marked “V” – a Russian symbol for Victory – 500 meters away. The muzzles of their guns pointed to the right and to the left, randomly firing at houses. I quietly began to open the door to the car when I heard an explosion. As I turned my head to the left, I saw my young son lying down on the ground. I could not understand what happened. Perhaps he lost consciousness or had shell shock. As I ran to my little Rostik, the Russians began shooting at civilians with everything they had.

They killed my little boy right in front of me.

I noticed I still had a hold of my son’s left hand. Part of the shell from the tank had hit him and tore off his little arm. It also pierced his chest. They clearly saw a child and they killed him on purpose. I laid down on top of him and began yelling into the forest. The Russians shelled even more heavily.

My husband Bohdan began to drag me toward the forest. “Stand up,” he shouted, so I did. We moved toward some cottage houses, but my parents had run back to Rostik. Bohdan took off to get them and I let him go. Jets flew overhead and the shelling continued to explode in our ears. I had no hope my parents would survive. I finally reached a house and approached the strangers. A woman and her son took me in as the bombardment continued. We rushed down to the basement. The woman gave me tranquilizers to calm me down. I had no idea where I was, what was happening, or even if it was day or night.

The very shell that caused Rustik’s death | Photo courtesy of Maryna Pichkur

Early in the morning, I found my family hiding in an unfinished house with a basement. I realized it served as a location for Ukraine’s Territorial Defense. They had blankets, water, and food. When we reached the house, I saw my little son wrapped up in blankets. The shelling went on incessantly and I started to scream.

We called the police and they promised to come but an hour passed by. I called again and the officer explained, “You are trapped in a hotspot.” They could not save us. I begged and begged for them to come and take Rostik away – to take my son. They said, “It’s a war. Bury him somewhere in the forest and rebury him later.”

Helicopters attack from the sky, but we make it to the morgue.

My husband and Adrii looked for a new shelter for us but when people found out we had a murdered child they immediately and categorically refused. Along the way my husband met an old man. He said one of our vehicles on the side of the road had erupted in flames. Smoke wafted from the Russian tanks, shot by the Ukrainian counter offensive. The man indicated we had about ten minutes to escape. The danger level only seemed to escalate.

Bohdan went for the car and I felt certain I would never see him again. We remained trapped in a nightmare. Despite my fears, Bodhan made it to the vehicle and came to get us. We piled in and called the police to escort us away. I just wanted to take the body of my son from this place and properly bury him, but we faced the real possibility of more Russian shelling.

A memory corner the family created in honor of their son who was killed during the first week of the Russian invasion | Photo courtesy of Maryna Pichkur

We reached the village of Myla and waited for the police to arrive. Suddenly, a Russian helicopter flew overhead. As it prepared to shoot us from the sky, the Ukrainians hit it, and it crashed to the ground. The police arrived and took us back to Kyiv where it all started. “What do we do,” we pleaded. Kyiv remained a hotspot and we felt unsafe.

Adrii suggested we take Rostik to the village in Kropyvnytskyi where he had family. I cried the entire way. When we arrived, we found it quiet and peaceful. At 8:00 p.m., we pulled in and Adrii’s stepfather met us. They took me to the police station while Bohdan took my son to the morgue. He later told me, that walk, when he carried Rostik’s body in his arms to the morgue, was the worst moment of his life. At the morgue, he closed my son’s eyes forever.

Life will never be the same. I was supposed to buy him clothes for graduation, not his funeral.

Back at Andrii’s home, they prepared rooms for us, but I never slept that night. When morning came, we waited for authorities to conduct an autopsy on my son while we went to buy clothing for his burial. We picked out the most beautiful suit and shoes we could find. Then, the phone rang. At the morgue, they found a piece of a shell inside Rostik’s body. They had to call in the military because they could not identify it themselves. As we walked, I howled like a wolf. I begged God to get the shell out of Rostik’s body so we could bury him without it. God answered my prayer.

A portrait of Rustik beaded by his mother is all she has left of her son | Photo courtesy of Maryna Pichkur

Ultimately, we decided to bury Rostik in Khmelnytskyi – my husband’s hometown. The entire village of Stara Suniava cried with us. People came out of the houses to pay their respects to Rostik. Seeing my child in a grave was, by far, the worst moment of my life. I wanted to buy him clothes for graduation, not a funeral. On February 28, 2022, life ended for me. My world can be divided between the day before and the day after. Before they killed my son, I felt like the happiest person on earth. Afterwards, I could not feel happiness again.

Holidays do not exist for us anymore. For 40 days after the funeral, I visited Rostik’s grave and talked to him. I could not comprehend his absence. The world feels so cruel. We no longer live life. We exist. Every month, on the 28th day, I go to his grave and take him the things he loved. I had a son and now he’s gone. Nothing is the same; nothing makes sense. I was pregnant at the time and people say, but you have a new son now. Yes, I have a baby boy, but I cannot forget I had two sons, and one is gone forever.

Translation Disclaimer

Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.


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