‘We were not prepared’: Award-winning filmmaker caught up in desperate escape from Kyiv

A mother who fled under-fire Kyiv with her son, her cat, and a handful of clothes has spoken movingly about “the longest three days of our lives”.

As an award-winning and outspoken filmmaker, Iryna Tsilyk is on a Russian blacklist and knew when troops began heading for the capital, she had to escape.

Her husband Artem Chekh, a peace-loving, well-known writer who “hates war”, had volunteered to fight and left for an unknown destination the day before, so Iryna knew the time had come to leave their home.

“We have had three months of all this emotional swing,” she said. “People told us the war was coming, but I never believed it can come to my city.

“Me and my husband were pretty sure they would try to attack eastern Ukraine near Donbas. I had always said it is impossible they can reach Kyiv, so we hadn’t picked any survival or emergency kit.

“We were actually not prepared.”

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Iryna and her 11-year-old son Andrii grabbed what they could – “some documents, my laptop, some presents from my husband and a few t-shirts and jeans” – and fled to a friend’s house 30km from Kyiv.

The cruel irony is that with wider Ukraine now coming under attack, she has moved near to an area targeted in the latest shelling.

“It is such a strange lottery,” she said quietly. “I felt we would be more safe here.

“Last night, one of the Russian missiles hit the oil terminal nearby, and I saw this fire from my window. It’s insane. You never know where in this place you can be safe with your children.

“The whole of Ukraine is in danger now. It’s been the longest three days of our lives.”

Speaking to Sky News on faltering Wi-Fi from her new base, her voice breaks in parts, and she takes breaths to push past difficult recollections.

“It is really painful,” she says. “Only now I have started to understand refugees.

“When all these people were fleeing from Donbas, of course I had a big empathy to them – but I have never understood them so deeply as I do now.”

Donbas was at the centre of more than seven years of conflict when fighting broke out between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists.

The 39-year-old said her son had been traumatised by this week’s invasion, by his father leaving and by moving away from his friends.

“He tried to be very brave and pretends he is not afraid of anything,” she said.

“But two days ago (in Kyiv) we had a terrible night because it was very loud – all the sounds of the explosions 500 – 700m from our house.”

But now, away from that, he feels guilty.

“It is difficult to be far from the centre of the situation,” she said.

“Yesterday I saw my son crying because he was chatting with his friends, and they were sitting in their shelter in Kyiv, and he said, ‘mama I want to come back and sit in my corridor. I want to be together with them’.

“I understand his feelings because I feel the same. All my friends who had to flee to western Ukraine or to European countries, they also feel terrible because it is really difficult to leave your friends and family.”

Key developments in the Ukraine crisis:

Putin orders nuclear deterrent forces to be put on high alert
Zelenskyy: Ukraine and Russia to hold talks at Belarus border
Ukraine claims control of key city Kharkiv after fierce clashes

Foreign secretary warns conflict could last ‘years’
BP to offload its stake in state-owned Russian oil giant Rosneft

‘Like a movie’

As well as a filmmaker, Iryna, who was born in Kyiv, is the author of several books (poetry, prose, and children’s books) which have been translated into nine languages.

One of her films, The Earth Is As Blue As An Orange, had its world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the directing award for best world cinema documentary.

Ironically, she describes the situation in Ukraine today as “like a movie”.

“When you are sitting in your apartment, and you are scrolling and scrolling (through news on your phone) and at the same time I am listening to sounds of Grads (Russian rockets) – in my Kyiv – it is like you are inside some movie, but one that is happening to us.”

She says she would rather die than see her beloved country fall to Russia.

“If Russia occupies my city and my country – it will destroy my world,” she says, her voice cracking. “That’s a matter that affects the future of my country – the freedom of my country.

“I would rather die than lose it.”

She said that since Ukraine won its independence from Russia in 1991 it had changed so much – and she hated that all that might now be on the line.

“The whole country feels that we came to some other level, and we got rid of this Soviet heritage, and our connections with Russian culture. It is impossible to imagine we can now lose this new world and future for our country.”

And while she wants to fight, she says she can’t.

“I feel guilty that I can’t fight myself because I am a mother – but I need to protect my kid.”

But while everyday Ukrainians, since the start of the invasion this week, are taking up arms, she says it is against their nature as a peaceful country.

“All these people do not want to fight – they are not military people. My husband hates war, and he doesn’t want to fight… he is a writer and my friends are filmmakers and from the worlds of literature and the arts.

“They don’t want to do this.”

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Ukrainian civilians prepare Molotov cocktails

She said it feels like the world is witnessing a new era, when “so many people are ready to fight for democracy”.

And she had a final message for the rest of the world watching on.

“Of course I understand all other leaders do not want to enter this war …but come on, we feel so alone here,” she said.

“We are grateful for the support, weapons and sanctions, but in fact we are alone in the face of this Russian invasion. It seems like they (other world leaders) are waiting and waiting.

“But all this time, people are dying.”