Ukraine conflict: 'Hell was happening there' - one young woman's story about her escape from her war-torn homeland to Falkirk

Lying on the bathroom floor with her hands over her ears, Natasha Matiusha could still hear the noise of the bomb as it soared over the rooftop of her home. “But it was a different sound than I’d heard before and I was convinced that I was going to die,” she recalled.

Wednesday, 13th April 2022, 7:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 13th April 2022, 4:01 pm

Along with millions of others in Ukraine, she had found herself involved in a war that her country did not want after Putin’s forces invaded on February 24.

Thankfully Natasha didn’t die and after a terrifying journey to escape from the northern city of Chernihiv is now safe in Bonnybridge, near Falkirk, living with her future in-laws.

However, she has left behind her brother, her many friends and her homeland.

Natasha Matiusha recalls the destruction of her home in Ukraine and the friends who have died in the conflict

Twenty people were killed when the vacuum or thermobaric bomb that Natasha heard hit the school she had once attended and situated only 800 metres from her home.

"They had been seeking shelter as one wing of the school was being used to provide humanitarian aid. But that has gone now, as has much of where I grew up.”

Although she is now safe Natasha, 29, says it is very difficult to watch the TV news reports of what is happening in her country and its population.

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Shaking and tearful as she talks, she said: "It’s extremely painful to see what people are going through and all a bit surreal.

"They have destroyed my home, they’ve shelled the cemetery and destroyed my parent’s graves, destroyed my old school and my childhood memories.

"What is wrong with these people? What they are doing to the people of Ukraine is genocide.”

She had returned to Ukraine last September after spending several years working in China. There she met Lewis Pantony, 26, who had travelled from Scotland to teach maths.

Natasha Matiusha with her future in-laws, Helen and Donald MacKinven of Bonnybridge, Picture: Michael Gillen

The couple fell in love and planned to begin their life together by spending a few years in her homeland. However, Lewis was also looking forward to bringing her to Scotland to meet his mother and step-father, Helen and Donald MacKinven, as well as introducing her to this country’s history and culture.

The outbreak of the war changed their plans and the priority was to ensure Natasha was safe.

She said although many people were aware of the danger that Russia posed as it massed forces on the border with Ukraine in the weeks prior to the invasion others, including her brother Alexey, 44, dismissed any threat.

But that all changed when she received a call from a police officer friend as the invasion began.

"I hadn’t slept well that night, had terrible dreams about being trapped,” said Natasha, “and I became aware of my phone ringing. I couldn’t think who was calling me and when I answered she said to me to ‘don’t ask any questions but this is really bad. Go to your cellar for shelter’.

"I opened the window and heard the explosions. I also saw neighbours packing up their cars to escape. That’s when I ran to wake my brother and told him we had to shelter.

"We didn’t have a cellar so we went into the bathroom. We took my cat and our emergency bags that everyone had been encouraged to have since the invasion in 2014.”

Over the coming days there were constant air raids and the population were put under curfew, only able to light their homes with one candle when darkness fell.

A river runs through the city and as the bombing continued, coming from both Russia and Belarus, the bridges were destroyed making it difficult to move about.

After talking with friends including the contractor who was helping to renovate their house, Natasha finally convinced Alexey they needed to flee.

They had a short window of opportunity to leave and packed their car. However, her cat Solomon frightened by the bombing had escaped and she was heartbroken at having to leave him behind. But she has since heard that he survived and is being fed by neighbours.

"Although I didn’t want to leave my friends, family and my country, I knew that it was too dangerous to stay,” she recalled tearfully.

"Hell was happening there.

"We were in a convoy of about ten vehicles going down remote roads and constantly going through checkpoints. I used to be shaking holding up my documents before they would wave us through.

"I saw a small sign at the side of the road that said mines and when I said to the guy at the checkpoint he nodded and said ‘keep on the road’.

"Normally the journey would take three hours but it took us 14.”

Only women and children were allowed to board the train and Natasha had to leave Alexey.

"I had to say goodbye to my brother and I didn’t know if I would see him again.”

He wanted to go back and help with the humanitarian effort, as did her friend Anastasia who had travelled with them in the convoy.

Sadly, Natasha has since heard that she was killed. She was 20 years old.

Eventually after travelling by train and bus, Natasha arrived in Warsaw where Lewis had managed to book her a hotel room as he didn’t want her having to find a bed in one of the makeshift refuges opened up in gym halls.

She stayed there for two weeks, but had to move every couple of days to another hotel.

On March 28 she heard that her visa had been granted and she arrived at Edinburgh airport two days later.

She says the last few weeks have been “bizarre” with so much changing.

"One minute I was in Ukraine, then Poland and now Scotland. It’s a strange mix of emotions. I’m getting used to new realities but it still feels a bit like I’m on vacation.

"I wanted to come to Scotland but didn’t plan on it being this way – and I do want to go back."