Zoya Ilnytska, who lives in the Ukrainian town of Irpin, suddenly found herself in a war zone. Here’s her harrowing story.
Zoya Ilnytska

© Courtesy of Zoya Ilnytska

Ukrainian real estate broker Zoya Ilnytska, center, helps to prepare food for hundreds of refugees sheltering inside a church in the town of Irpin.

This article is written by Ukrainian real estate broker Zoya Ilnytska and edited by REALTOR® Magazine contributing editor Melissa Dittmann Tracey. Ilnytska is 48, married, and has three kids ages 22, 16, and 11. They live in a house in the town of Irpin, close to Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv. Ilnytska is also a private entrepreneur and has her own office in Irpin.

Warnings from friends in the U.S. about the coming of a real war sounded weird. We didn’t listen to it carefully. Not until about February—two weeks before invasion began. I had a conversation with a deputy from the town of Bucha, also in charge of the territorial defense in our region. After that talk, we understood. Something was definitely about to happen.

We had to make a decision as a family: to leave or stay and be prepared. We chose to stay home.

On Feb. 24, it started.

But we were not scared. The fighting was distant. We understood it as a skirmish in just Kyiv and Bucha. So we just read the news. That’s all.

As Tensions Near, A Community Unites

The church we attend--and where my husband is a deacon—has quite a big basement. They had planned ahead with reserves of food and water, and it became a place for people from town to come if they needed a place to hide.

On the very first day of the war, 80 people stayed at the church during the night. On the second day, 200 people stayed. The church needed some help with organizing. I came there the fourth day, and I saw there was a big need in the kitchen to cook for all the people.

For a month, I came to help. From morning till night, men were driving their cars to help evacuate people who had come to the church. Some other women and I were cooking. We prepared food for those who were staying in the church basement, who had come to evacuate, or who just came from home to get food as the supermarkets were not open.

A Close Call

As a family, we had planned a place to hide in case of air raid sirens. We thought about my real estate office. It is located on a semi-basement level and has strong walls and window protection. We heard sounds of shots and explosions from the first day, all around and quite close. Again, we understood it as just a skirmish, and we didn’t panic.

The first real bombing of Irpin happened March 5. At that time, we could have been in two places: our house or my office. Two of my kids, 11 and 16, stayed in the office the whole day, as the internet still worked there. My husband and I were in the church across the street, helping people.

At 5 p.m., the kids came to us because the [town’s] curfew had started.

At 5:10 p.m., the bombing began.

A shell hit our house. It also fell 30 meters from my nearby office. Its fragments pierced through the windows and the protection. We were saved only because we all were where we hadn’t planned to be at all … and where we found we could be useful to others.

The next day, March 6, we lost the last way to connect with the world by car. The only road left was closed by the Russians. Our only option was to walk under a destroyed bridge to get out or to get help. We decided it was time to send our kids out of town. Just one hour after we evacuated them, that same ruined bridge was fired upon and eight civilians were killed. One of them was a 26-year-old IT specialist, a volunteer from our church who had been helping other people to evacuate.

My husband and I stayed at the church to volunteer, as there was so much to be done! I was left alone in the kitchen, while there were still many people evacuating or just living in the church's basement.

On March 7, Irpin was left without gas, water, or electricity. In the church building we had a generator, and it saved all of us. But it needed diesel and our reserves were not big. We turned it on only three times a day for one hour to charge phones, boil water for tea, and do some quick cooking. It was not enough to heat the building. So day by day, it was getting colder and colder inside.

The most difficult day was when the last road to Kyiv was closed and our soldiers turned the evacuating cars and buses back.

We stayed busy cooking. We cooked lunch three times. Maybe around 30 liters of hot food for hundreds of people—and even this was not enough for everyone! And then we would start over again …

Where to Go From Here?

I didn’t see violence.

I didn’t try to go out and walk the streets, where I knew there were dead bodies. My husband saw them, as he helped to evacuate people from the apartments or basements where they were hiding. But I didn’t want to see those pictures that I knew I wouldn’t be able to escape. I knew for sure, it would never get erased from my memory.

There was a big difference between Irpin and Bucha. Bucha was taken on the third day of the war. People there had no chance to leave and had to stay as hostages in their own home. The invaders entered Irpin much later, and stayed here for about three weeks. Around 30% of the town was occupied, and our soldiers attacked them all the time. They didn’t exactly have the opportunity to "settle" here. Also, they were mostly located in the newest part of Irpin, with nice buildings, owned by people who had the means and time to evacuate before the war began.

Most of the people who stayed in Irpin up until the city was invaded were those who lived in old private houses. Luckily, it was also the part the Russians did not destroy as much. I heard from my colleagues that even in those newer areas and new buildings some people stayed in the basements, and some of them were killed.

There is some difference in Irpin compared with what you may hear on the news. In the big cities, rockets are being used. So, they have air raid sirens all the time. In Irpin, we had only artillery shots, and it was 24/7. You did not get warnings.

This was continuing for a whole month for me.

On March 25, my husband said, “Even in the army they have a rotation. You need to rest.”

I went to my parents’ home about 162 miles] from Irpin. Now I'm planning to go get my kids from Germany and hope we can soon go home with them. Three days after I left the town, it was freed. And five days later, Bucha also was freed.

Finally, the silence came.

Of course, it does not mean we can go back now, as Irpin still has not been completely checked for mines and other dangerous things that may have been left behind. Also, most of the critical infrastructure was damaged or destroyed: water pipes, gas, power lines, etc.

But as soon as we can, we are going home.

When I found out Irpin was free, I felt relief that my husband was no longer risking his life there under shelling, though there is still the risk of being blown up by countless remaining mines. But I do not experience any great joy because the war in my country continues. And we continue to worry about thousands of civilians who may die. And of course, we are thinking about how it will all end.

The Strength of the ‘R’ Lifts Up Ukraine

The real estate community’s response to the Russian invasion has been massive, finding housing for refugees and leading numerous humanitarian efforts. Read more.