Turchyn found the man via a messaging app a few days ago, advertising transportation services to Ukrainians stranded in Russia. They struck a deal – $500 to move Turchyn’s mother and sister from Moscow to Przemysl, Poland. It’s more than most families fleeing war can handle.
She wonders if it is working.
Turchyn turns around and suddenly finds herself in her sister’s arms. There is a short moment of joy, but no time to hug her mother. The smuggler wants to get paid now. He blackmails her to get more money. It pays. At this point, there is nothing she wants more than to be with her family.
The exchange finally ended and the three women were reunited in Poland. They hug quietly and quickly.
“I was trying to find informational crumbs,” she explains. “We have these Viber (messaging app) groups, and everyone is talking, ‘Do you know where a missile fell today? Do you know which house was destroyed today?'”
Her phone was flooded with images of a city that had been at the center of fierce fighting for weeks. The lack of food, water and medicine has caused a humanitarian catastrophe for the thousands who live under constant air strikes and bombardment.
“Every day, it’s getting worse,” Max Strinik, an MP in the Izium city council office, told CNN at the end of March. “The bombing of the Russians has not stopped – it started weeks ago. The dead are buried in the central park.”
Izyum lies on the main road between Kharkiv and the Russian-backed separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, putting it in the crosshairs of Putin’s brutal attack.
A few days after the dispute, Turchin lost contact with her family. Isium’s cellular networks have been interrupted or jammed. She was afraid of killing her mother and sister.
“Someone[in message groups]saw that a missile had already hit our back garden, and I was crying a lot because I didn’t know, maybe they were already dead,” she recalls, crying.
Unable to help her loved ones, Turchin decided to help others and traveled to the Polish-Ukrainian border, where millions of refugees were crossing to safety.
“I came to Poland to take that energy and turn it into something,” she says. “Because crying, depressed, sitting at home – nothing has changed.”
On Facebook I stumbled upon Lisco House, an abandoned office building turned into a refugee center by owner Wojciech Brenza, who has spent thousands of out-of-pocket dollars to provide food and shelter for dozens of fleeing families.
Turchyn decided to live and volunteer at the shelter. Every day she was trying to contact her family.
Finally, she received a return call, but it did not come from Izium.
“I first heard about them after a whole month, and I was so torn. I was glad they were still alive. But I was terrified. They were in Russia. And I don’t know, should I be happy? Or should I be sad?” she says.
Turchyn later discovers that her mother and sister, who are desperately trying to escape from Izium, have found a local resident willing to take them to the Russian border for a price. There was no way to go east, or further into Ukraine.
“We only had one chance to get out of this hell,” Turchin’s older sister, Vita, told CNN. “And we decided not to miss this opportunity. We decided to go there and see what’s next later.”
Once in Moscow, the couple tried to board a train to Belarus, but said they were prevented from doing so by Russian border officials.
Turchyn was desperate to get them out. She began to seek help from the Viber groups that had provided her with information throughout the war.
“Someone from Poland gave me a number, and that led to another number and another number,” she said of trying to find a smuggler online. They’re trying to keep it a secret because it’s obviously dangerous.”
Over the course of at least two days, her mother and sister traveled in a large truck with several other Ukrainians through Latvia and Lithuania, south toward Warsaw until they were reunited in Przemysl.
“They’ve filled me in details now, it’s worse than I could have imagined,” Turchin says as her mother and sister share details of the weeks he spent under Russian bombardment.
“You can put it in one word,” says her mother, Luba. “It was hell. It was a nightmare you can’t wake up from.”
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians living under Russian occupation face the same bleak situation – cut off from Ukraine even on their native land, and the only way for the few who can find it is toward Putin.
Editor’s note: The last photo incorrectly identified the woman embracing Mila as her sister. The caption has been corrected to identify her as an unnamed Ukrainian refugee and not her sister.