Story #85. Escape from Russian Occupation and a New Life in an Abandoned House

March 30, 2023
The story of Natalie Al Baz, whose family fled a Russian-occupied village and started a new life in a small hamlet. #UkraineWorldTestimony

Before the full-scale Russian invasion, Natalie Al Baz's family lived in their new house in the village of Tsyrkuny near Kharkiv. On February 24, 2022, the village was occupied by the invaders, so they evacuated and settled in an abandoned house in a khutir (a small rural settlement where there are usually 3-4 houses). Natalie is now restoring this house and showing the process of its renovation on her Instagram - khutoraesthetic.

However, Natalie, her husband, and their 5-year-old daughter still had to live the first week of the war under occupation. The fact that they were able to leave was a miracle.

On February 24, at 5 a.m., Natalie woke up to the cold, the sound of fighter jets, and the sound of explosions that were getting closer. Her body began to shrink in fear, and she felt compelled to pray.

Their house had already lost electricity, their gas heater and water pump were not working, and there was no heating. Their Internet and mobile connection had disappeared. "It was as if we were in a cold vacuum, without a clear understanding of what was happening. The house was gradually getting colder, and we didn't buy groceries in the evening, nor did we buy gasoline, hoping to do so in the morning," Natalie recalls.

A little later, Natalie managed to find a place in the yard with mobile service and called her relatives. This is when it became clear that this was a real, terrible war.

The first thing in the morning, Natalie's husband decided to go to the gas station in the nearest city, because there was almost no fuel in the car. He was gone for three hours on a trip that usually takes no more than 10 minutes. There were huge traffic jams and lines of cars everywhere.

On the way out of Kharkiv, back home to Tsyrkuny, Natalie's husband was stopped at a checkpoint by the Ukrainian military because Tsyrkuny was already under occupation at that time, and the front line was between him and home. Fortunately, he was able to get home by driving off-road through a field.

On a narrow street in the village, an enemy tank drove toward him. Thankfully, he managed to back up, driving in reverse for another 100 meters and avoiding the tank. Unfortunately, not everyone was so lucky.

When Natalie's husband returned home, he was able to buy the last 10 bags of buckwheat, 10 packs of peas, and the last packs of instant noodles from a small store near the house. There was no more food there.

"There were constant explosions and the sound of gunfire near us. It sounded very close, so I immediately taped all the windows crosswise to calm down and to prevent glass fragments from flying around too much if something exploded nearby. It seemed a little safer. But we were still very scared," said Al Baz.

Since Natalia's house was getting cold quickly without electricity, the temperature in the kids' room was about 6° C. The family decided to sleep together in the bedroom, where it was at least 12° C. Natalie, her husband, and daughter slept under all the blankets and bedspreads they had, wearing warm clothes and two pairs of warm socks.

It was impossible to charge their phones, and they could only get mobile service in a single spot in their yard, and even there not consistently. There was no internet at all. The family didn't know for sure what was happening or what the situation was in the city or their village. They saved a lot of battery power in their phones. To charge their phones, they had to start the car, and it was scary to do it even in the garage because the Russian occupiers were simply taking away civilians' cars.

The only reliable source of information was to go out into the yard and listen to who was shooting from where and where the shells were landing. Natalie says that only those who lived under occupation can understand this.

Every day, missiles were flying closer and the range of enemy weapons was expanding. The front line was 500-1000 meters from the family's house, and sometimes even closer. The sound of missiles was almost constant, joined by machine guns, tanks, and Grads. "If you closed your eyes and didn't think about the war, the sounds were very similar to fireworks, and some even to a train," she recalled.

There was no basement in Natalie's house, and they had nowhere to hide. Every night, they managed to sleep briefly. Their nerves were breaking down. Her little daughter prayed every day, and Natalie told her that they would be okay, because they were protected by the great power of love, like a big, big heart around them.

On the 5th day of the war, a rocket hit a house 500 meters from Natalie's home. She saw it burning. The family was again gripped by fear and helplessness. The situation was getting worse.

On the 6th day, the family woke up at night to bright flashes and a very loud explosion, the whole house shook violently. It was ballistic missiles falling somewhere in the neighboring village. It was becoming too dangerous to stay at home any longer, but it was also impossible to leave, as there was constant fighting on the highway and the occupiers were not letting anyone into Kharkiv.

On the night of March 1, Natalie had a dream that they were driving down an unusually empty Nauky Avenue in Kharkiv, with no cars on the road, no traffic lights working, and they managed to drive at the last minute at high speed.

In the morning, the family decided to try to leave. Natalie and her husband loaded everything they could into the car, got in, and drove off into the unknown.

They could not get on the highway, so they tried to leave through the village. On the way, they met four people, and they all said that even this exit was controlled by the Russians and no one was allowed to leave. One of them advised them to tie white rags around the car so that they wouldn't be shot right away.

Before leaving for the highway, Natalie's husband parked the car across the road, took cigarettes and vodka, and went to the Russian checkpoint, telling his wife, "Get behind the wheel. If I don't come back, go home."

Their chances were 50/50. But the family was fantastically lucky: there was no one at this checkpoint. They managed to escape from occupied Tsyrkuny. Since there was fighting almost everywhere on the way to Kharkiv, they had to get to the city through a cemetery and fields. They risked getting stuck in the mud, but eventually made it to Kharkiv.

They drove through an empty, broken city with wires hanging over the road, stones, rubble, and broken glass. Nauky Avenue looked exactly like in Natalie's dream: not a single car, no traffic lights, and total emptiness.

After passing through Kharkiv, the family arrived at their friends' home in a small village. There they were settled in a small outbuilding that consisted of one room of about 20 m². There was no water or toilet, but the most important thing was that it was warm and peaceful. After a few days of living in the outbuilding, the family started looking at abandoned houses in the khutir. They found a house that had been empty for 5-7 years. There was light, basic furniture, and a wood stove in working order. Little by little, Natalie and her husband began to restore the furniture in the house and make it cozy.

"I once dreamed of visiting Dubai, scuba diving in the Red Sea, and leaving a note in the Western Wall. And I did all of that. But now the only trip I dream about is going to the completely bombed-out village where my home was," Natalie says. Her only concern now is  that all her family and friends survive the war.

This material was prepared with financial support from the International Renaissance Foundation.