When the war in Ukraine began, her picture went around the world: in the early morning of February 24, one of the first Russian rockets landed in front of Olena Kurylo’s house. In an interview with the star, she talks about the moment of the attack and her life afterwards.
Ms. Kurylo, what was your life like before the war?
I am a professionally trained choreographer and have dedicated myself to the profession for 24 years. But for the last four years I have worked as a kindergarten teacher and loved this work. Whenever I went on vacation, I couldn’t wait to see the kids again. I had a good life in my two-room apartment on the outskirts of Chuhuiv.
When did you realize war was coming?
As recently as January, no one was expecting a real war to come. But I had a bad premonition: On the night of February 20th to 21st I dreamed that I had to flee from a hail of bombs. I told my co-workers about my premonitions. But nobody took me seriously. “What war?” they laughed at me.
I still had such a bad feeling that I stocked up on a small emergency supply: two packs of rice, two packs of buckwheat, two kilos of sugar, two liters of sunflower oil. Not much, but something for my own peace of mind.
How do you remember February 24, the day of the Russian attack?
I went to bed at 10pm the night before and fell asleep immediately. I’m usually a light sleeper. But that night I fell into a veritable nirvana. My partner at the time, Nikolaj, was with me that night. At five in the morning, explosions woke us up. My first words were: It has started. We knew immediately: we have to go.
I gathered a few belongings: my silver jewelry, documents, photos. little things. I haven’t packed anything else. I still had hope that only military targets would be shot at, not civilian ones. Meanwhile, Nikolaj drove to the gas station to fill up again. We feared that we would run out of petrol later. On the way back he had a flat tire. It may have saved his life: the rocket hit in the 20 minutes that I was waiting for him.
Do you remember the moment the missile hit?
I sat on my bed, waiting for Nikolai. I’ve been thinking about taking out the garbage. But I thought: Oh, what the heck. Suddenly, a loud bang ripped through the air. The windows shattered. The shards hit the wall first. Then they were thrown in my direction. I have this image in my mind’s eye like a still shot: splinters flying towards me. They hit me in the face, in the shoulder, in the back.
There was complete silence for a moment. Then the screams started. The blood flowed in streams into my eyes. But I didn’t feel any pain. I just thought: I don’t want to die yet. I have to pull myself together. I wrapped a blouse around my head that I had just bought for an upcoming party. Then I rush outside. All the collected belongings were forgotten.
What situation did you find outside?
An ambulance was already parked in front of the house. A large shard was lodged in my forehead above my right eye. I’m over to the two paramedics. But they just looked at me and said I need to go to the hospital. However, I have seen people being carried out of the house who were injured far worse than I was. And there were only two of the paramedics.
At that moment Nikolai returned. He helped the two young women to rescue the injured. My wounds were only disinfected and bandaged. Then I waited while he and the paramedics carried three more people out of the house.
You were photographed in front of your house. Your picture went around the world, making you one of the first faces of war. Do you remember how it came about?
Three young men in body armor came up to me. I saw they were from the press. At first I thought it was our local journalists. But they were Americans. They photographed me from all sides. But I didn’t care. Only the next day did I find out that I had become one of the first victims of this war.
How did it go for you?
At the local hospital, I received emergency care. But I didn’t want to stay there. I was terrified. Explosions could be heard all the time. I wanted out of there.
Nikolai had a small house outside of town. That’s where he took me. That’s when the pain started. Hell began for me. There were broken glass everywhere. We tried washing them out. It was only now that I realized that my back and shoulder were also injured.
I was supposed to go back to the hospital the next day. But the bombing was so strong that I didn’t dare. We settled in the basement. Every time the explosions started again, I would run over there.
How long did you stay there?
I stayed in Nikolaj’s little house outside of town until mid-March. But my injuries caused me agony. Nikolai finally found a man who could take me to Kharkiv. To this day I don’t know how much money he paid him for it. Rockets flew overhead on the way into town. They flew so low that I could see every detail.
He dropped me off at the train station. But there were no more trains until morning. So I went outside again. Then the bombardment started again. And then a car stopped in front of me. A couple of young men offered to drive me to Dnipro.
However, the doctors there could not help me. Nobody dared to operate on me. Especially since I against anesthetics am allergic. So, with the help of British journalists, I made my way to Poland where I could have an operation.
How are you today?
I don’t know how my life should go on. i need medical help I’m almost blind in my right eye. i lost my teeth I’m currently flying back and forth between Warsaw and London: a British professor is trying to save my eye. Donations fund the operations. Just like my apartment in Katowice. But in a few weeks this aid will expire. Then I don’t know how and where to live. The professor would even be willing to treat me further. But I have no money to fly to London. I long so much for my homeland. But there is nothing there to return to. My home is in ruins.
If you want to help Olena Kurylo, whether financially or medically, write to the author at [email protected] We make sure that your help reaches her in its entirety. She is happy about every little thing.
I have been working in the news industry for over 6 years, first as a reporter and now as an editor. I have covered politics extensively, and my work has appeared in major newspapers and online news outlets around the world. In addition to my writing, I also contribute regularly to 24 Hours World.