“My name is Natalia Nesterenko; I come from the Donetsk region. In June of 2013 we moved out of that region because the war had started. Various newspapers and Europe said that it was just a civil war, but it wasn’t. Russia had occupied Donetsk, step by step.
So, in fact, we’ve been running from the war for years. We moved to another part of Ukraine, then my husband got work in Kyiv; we moved there, to an apartment, then to another apartment. The next move was to Batumi, Georgia, then back to Kyiv. And for the last five years we’ve rented an apartment 40 kilometres outside of Kyiv, in a small town called Ukrainka.
When the war started, my husband was in the hospital to undergo surgery. The surgery shouldn’t have been difficult, but on the day that the war started, I woke up, I read the news that the war had started. And then I got a call from the hospital letting me know that my husband had died.”
The shock that Natalia felt was overwhelming. She had to react quickly to the war. She asked a friend to retrieve the car documents, which were in the hospital. She took her two children, a 16-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl, and they left.
They quickly packed up, took a few warm clothes and documents. Nowadays, Natalia smiles when she recalls how, in the chaos of those days, among other things, she put the robot vacuum cleaner they had in their apartment in the luggage. She tells me that she has used it everywhere they she has lived for the past year, and she has even convinced one of her hosts to buy a similar device.
They lived in Sweden for a while. During the first few months, Natalia cried a lot and felt a great deal of helplessness and sense of injustice. For a while, she worked in a restaurant. She felt the language barrier very strongly and was frustrated by the fact that there were no intensive Swedish courses for Ukrainian refugees. They moved house several times, and the houses kept getting smaller. Eventually, the three of them ended up living in a 15-square-metre room with bunk beds. Those were some difficult times, mainly because her eldest, already a teenager, needed space to learn. Rules in Sweden stated that minors unaccompanied by their parents would be provided with their own space, and so Natalia made the decision to leave for Romania with the girl. The boy stayed in Sweden to study; he lives with a family and has his own room.
In Romania, Natalia feels better. She enjoys the weather here and feels like she has more time to herself. She attends the psychological support groups organised by the Snagov Olympic Sports Club Association. She has found a community of women originating from Ukraine where she feels supported to move on.
“I feel really sad for Ukraine, but I feel much sadder for my husband. He was a good father; we were a good family. The day before the war, I sent him a message, when he was in the hospital, and asked him what to do if the war started. And he said that no matter what, we would get through it together. And now I’m on my own. It’s not fair.”
“This photo was taken a few days before the war. We realised that it had been a while since my son had overtaken me in height and we decided to take a photo to remember that moment.”
Story collected by Bogdan Dincă for the Suitcases of Abandonment campaign. Project funded by CARE through SERA Romania, Care France and FONPC.
Last Day of Peace, First Night of War is an interactive digital installation, part of the Museum of Abandonment, a digital wall of images showing the last days of peace collected from mobile phones.