Woman living in basement in war-hit Ukraine sends messages to Lancaster

A Ukrainian woman who has previously worked in partnership with Lancaster University has spoken exclusively to Guardian reporter Gayle Rouncivell about the horrific reality of life in a war zone since Russian troops invaded her home country.

By Gayle Rouncivell
Friday, 4th March 2022, 4:04 pm

Mum-of-one Larisa Nikitenko is from Chernihiv, but lives and works in nearby Slavutych as adviser to the mayor.

Slavutych has a population of around 25,000 and is 16km from Belarus, 56km from the regional centre Chernihiv, and 188km from the Ukraine capital, Kyiv.

Larisa has been keeping in contact with former colleague Vince Hart, who lives in Bolton-le-Sands and was a socio economic development consultant to the Ukraine government between 2003 and 2009.

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Larisa Nikitenko at Heysham Parish Church during her secondment to the North West Development Agency in 2005.

Vince worked with Larisa on a government-funded project to bring high-tech wireless broadband to Slavutych, an initiative supported by Lancaster University.

Slavutych was built to house residents of Chernobyl who were evacuated after the nuclear disaster in 1986. However, the town's economic growth had been hindered by a lack of technological infrastructure.

As part of the Social and Economic Consequences of Nuclear Power Plant Closure Programme, Lancaster University sent scientists over to Ukraine to provide a high-tech wireless broadband system.

During this work, Larisa was director of the Slavutych Business Development Agency and local project manager for the communications project.

Deputy mayor and chief financial officer for Slavutych with Larisa Nikitenko, translator and Vince Hart (back centre) on a Business Park Study tour to Sellafield Business Park in Cumbria.

Larisa is likely to spend her 52nd birthday next week camped out in a basement in Slavutych which she is sharing with more than 100 others, mostly elderly people, women and children.

While there has been no hostility yet in Slavutych, she reported “terrible battles” in Chernihiv, where some of her friends and relatives still live.

“Russia has wiped the city off the face of the earth,” she said. “Residential areas, hospitals, boiler houses, and a water utility are fired upon by aviation and heavy artillery. This is genocide of the Ukrainian people.

“We constantly hear the sounds of explosions and the sounds of military battles from the city of Chernihiv. Our windows are even shaking. This is scary.

Larisa Nikitenko's home town of Chernihiv has been attacked during the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

“We are very worried about the people in Chernihiv. My heart aches for Chernihiv, where I was born and raised, where my son was born. This is our hometown, which is destroyed along with buildings and people.

“Yesterday was a very terrible day for Chernihiv. The bombing of residential areas, schools, kindergartens, energy and social infrastructure continued throughout the day. 33 civilians were killed, many wounded.

“Three of my acquaintances from Slavutych lost apartments in Chernihiv, they were bombed. Their children or parents lived there.

“The parents of our director of the House of Creativity for Children suffered and were left homeless.

A map of Ukraine showing where Larisa Nikitenko lives in Slavutych.

“In Slavutych, sirens are also constantly howling and we are waiting for air strikes. The inhabitants of our house (old people, women, children) go down to the basement and wait for the alarm to be cancelled.

“So far we do not live in the basement, but we are there regularly at the risk of air strikes.

“We still have light, heat, water, but this is because we have not yet been bombed, but Slavutych is under blockade. The roads to our city are mined. People can't get in and out.

“Russia is destroying sources of heat, light and water, to ensure that civilians suffer as much as possible. People will start starving soon.

“No food is brought to us, so volunteers bring some milk along the forest roads, which they distribute to people for free. People are asked to save food.

“There are not enough medicines. People with diabetes are at risk. People who need kidney dialysis are at risk. I don't even want to imagine what can happen.

Larisa Nikitenko's home town of Chernihiv has been attacked during the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

“Newborns and very young children are especially affected. There is no maternity hospital in Slavutych. Our women gave birth in Chernihiv. Now this is impossible.

“Our doctors have organised the delivery, and there are already the first two newborns. But no diapers, no baby food, no medicine.

“There is very little fuel left for cars. And soon the volunteers will not be able to go even to neighbouring villages for milk.”

Larisa said everyone is helping to keep each other’s spirits up, despite the difficult conditions.

“We support and inspire each other a lot,” she said. “Conditions in Slavutych are not as bad as in other Ukrainian cities. And we have nothing to complain about yet.

“My friends in Chernihiv have been living practically in the basement for a week now. It is very difficult both physically and psychologically.

“My godmother and her husband - they are 80 years old - no longer go down to the basement. It's hard for them, they just can't do it that often. Yesterday in Chernihiv, only in the daytime, there were 11 air raid alerts. They took refuge in the bathroom.

“Despite such terrible conditions and the horrendous actions of the Russian military, we remain positive.”

Larisa has a son living abroad who is keen for his mother to escape, but she says this is impossible.

“I love Ukraine, I like living here,” she said. “I didn't want to go anywhere.

“Even if I wanted to leave, I couldn't. Slavutych is in a blockade. My son is very worried, and of course wants to pick me up, but this is impossible. All roads are mined, and there are fierce military battles and constant bombing around.

“We have a curfew. Basically, it is from 7pm to 7am. Every day I go to work, to the Slavutych City Council, to help solve social issues.

“Everyone is helping as much as they can. I help to look for food, medicines for our people. I'm looking for additional humanitarian assistance.

“During curfew, I do not leave the house, only the basement, to hide from air strikes.”

Larisa is proud of her country, its people and leaders, and what is being done to protect her homeland.

“Our media is doing great,” she said. “There is a round-the-clock broadcast of the united news channel. Many channels have united and together they inform our citizens about what is happening on all military fronts.

“There are constant speeches by the President, the military, heads of administrations of all regions of Ukraine, public and cultural figures. They inspire us and raise our morale.

“My friends, neighbours and acquaintances entered the territorial defence, ready to defend our country. They dig trenches, prepare cocktails, put up defences, etc.”

Larisa said everyone had belief that Ukraine would come through the invasion successfully.

“We all believe in our victory, because the truth is on our side,” she said. “We are Ukrainians and we are proud of it. Everyone is trying to bring Ukraine closer to victory.

“Our patriotic spirit cannot be broken. Such cruelty of the Russian military will not go unpunished.

“Waking up in the morning, it seems to me some kind of surrealism. I could never even imagine that such a horror could happen in the civilised world.

“It's a very scary and tense time. My brain can't put up with what's going on. We worry about our hero defenders and people.

“This is the worst thing a person can see in life.

“But we are fighting for our beautiful country. No one is going to give up. All the people stood up for their country.

“That's how our life is now. But we don't give up. We will never forget our dead, especially women and children, who are not guilty of anything.

“What Russia is doing is genocide and a war crime. It's inhuman. They must pay for the ruined lives, the deaths of our innocent women and children. Shelling and destruction of schools, kindergartens, hospitals, maternity hospitals, cancer clinics.

“Each new day is worse than the previous one. Every day our pain, sorrow and hatred intensify.

“Innocent Ukrainians are dying, just because they love their country and want to live in a European country as civilised people.

“I don't know how much time must pass and how many generations must grow up for the Ukrainians to forgive the Russians. I cannot understand how such atrocities against peaceful people can be forgiven at all.

“But we will survive, we are a strong nation.

“We are proud of our people, our military, our President. Glory to Ukraine!”

“Thank you for your help to all countries that support Ukraine, including Great Britain. With your help, we will stand!”

Larisa Nikitenko's home town of Chernihiv has been attacked during the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
Larisa Nikitenko's home town of Chernihiv has been attacked during the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
Larisa Mikitenko sharing a platform with the British High Commissioner to Ukraine in 2006.
The mayor of Slavutych with Prof Garik Mararian of Lancaster University with Larisa Nikitentko, pictured during the planning of the new Town Information System.
Larisa Nikitenko's home town of Chernihiv has been attacked during the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
The project team in Slavutych (with Larisa Nikitenko pictured front, third from left) in 2008.
Larisa Nikitenko's home town of Chernihiv has been attacked during the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
Larisa Nikitenko.
Larisa Nikitenko's home town of Chernihiv has been attacked during the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
Larisa Nikitenko's home town of Chernihiv has been attacked during the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
Larisa Nikitenko's home town of Chernihiv has been attacked during the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
Larisa Nikitenko's home town of Chernihiv has been attacked during the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.