‘It is genocide’: Ukrainian refugee, WASD grad, escapes war-torn homeland | News, Sports, Jobs
Alina Beskrovna watched atrocities unfold in Mariupol, Ukraine, her native city that has been blasted by repeated shelling and aerial Russian troops assault.
“This is not a war, not a conflict — it is genocide,” the 31-year-old Williamsport Area High School graduate said from the safety of Copenhagen, a week after her host parents, Geoffrey and Robin Knauth, of Williamsport, told the Sun-Gazette what they knew based on her texts.
Beskrovna spoke with the Sun-Gazette via Zoom on Thursday to share an update on her family’s safety and her homeland’s situation.
Modernity to mass destruction
“I came back (to Mariupol) by choice after getting my MBA in finance from Lehigh University,” Beskrovna said.
It was a cosmopolitan town. She was born in the same maternity hospital that was destroyed by shells.
Her mother, an elementary school teacher, and three cats, lived in an apartment that she had remodeled with niceties.
Beskrovna had a fabulous job at a start-up development center called 1991, building online stores on the platform called Shopify. Life was good and the city was nothing as it was when she left in 2014 to attend Lehigh University.
Mariupol had a refurbished dock and many young professionals, some of whom had moved from the Donetsk region.
The city’s population went from 300,000 to 550,000.
“This was the ‘go-to’ place for everyone who wanted to be in peaceful Ukraine,” she said.
During her down time, Beskrovna volunteered to help animals and strays and would go to movies with friends, date and run errands. One friend opened an art space and another friend a coffee shop.
Mariupol was evolving right before her eyes — for the better.
Winds of war
Mariupol residents’ lives changed almost overnight, Beskrovna said.
The Russian military had encircled her country.
Vladimir Putin and the Russian military government told the world the build up was for military exercises, but the U.S. intelligence experts thought differently and said so numerous times leading up to the invasion.
“A lot of people left the morning of Feb. 24,” Beskrovna said.
A friend, who had escaped from Donetsk in 2013, called her that morning to say things weren’t looking good, and that he was packing up and getting out because — as he said — “‘this is not going to end well,’” she recalled.
Half of her circle of friends was gone.
Despite the impending doom and tension in the air, people remained divided into various schools of thought, with half laughing it off as if nothing was changing.
Some thought, “‘They bomb a military place, a warehouse … it’s military objectives and will be over soon,’” she said.
But that day, the Russian military began to target sites that directly affected Mariupol residents’ quality of life.
First, they went after the electric grid, the power lines and an energy distribution center — which meant no light.
No more oven, no more coffee grinders; if the laptop is low on battery power, it’s not usable, Beskrovna said.
In an instant, her thoughts became whether there were enough batteries or candles from birthdays or church.
It’s late winter and darkness fell in the afternoon, as did the cold.
During the night, “You walk into the street and everything is pitch black,” she said.
The once-booming industrial city was under siege from shelling and bombs.
Darkness is “insane,” she said. “It feels like you just died.”
Without power, city residents were unable to retain their normal clean look.
People she was used to seeing spiffed up for the work day, young hippy crowds and all her neighbors on their way to work, started looking shabby.
“You go from a normal European person to someone who looks like a hobo very quickly,” she said.
Next to be struck were delivery of natural gas supplies, which meant for those hungry for hot food, oven use was over and cooking had to be done outside in the winter.
“It’s not like you decided to go camping,” she said.
Beskrovna had talked to a friend who had two cars and a cottage with multiple apartments on a different side of town.
Her plan would be for her and her mom to go to this place.
The trouble was her friend’s definition of what was really bad was different from hers.
“I wanted to leave on the second day,” she said.
The Russians had bombed the airport and residential areas.
Her friend thought “‘unless my apartment is no more’ it will be fine.”
Blast heard close
The morning the war began on Feb. 24, Beskrovna woke up from a blast.
“It feels like I am in a war movie Dunkirk-style sitting too close to the speaker and vibrating through me,” she said. Checking Facebook, she saw what was happening.
Her mother and the three cats, with beach bags packed, would go to the friend’s basement — it was a decision that led to their survival in a city where massacres took place.
Living in a basement
Beskrovna and her mother weren’t the only ones who sought shelter there, and the pair found themselves in a situation like a “weird slumber party with a bit of tension.”
The invaders, as she frequently called the Russian troops, gradually cut off any civilization.
Fierce fighting was taking place. From March 7, 8 and 9 — the shelling was overhead. The walls moved. It felt like an earthquake, Beskrovna said, although acknowledging that she’d never experienced one.
“You sit and wonder if this one is going to get you or not,” she said.
Life in the shelter was a challenge. One family had a 3-year-old. At one point, 36 people shared the basement.
Improvisation to remain alive
The men staying there were able to find a manhole cover and use it as the base for a firepit and bricks and a piece of a bridge for the grill to cook on.
They dug a hole and used three doors to provide an outhouse for those sheltering at the apartment.
No running water was available and snow was melted to drink, brush teeth or wash.
“Not being able to complete a task gets to the psyche,” Beskrovna said of living with modern comforts and then abruptly losing them.
She admitted she would cut onions with firmness and determination. “I wanted to complete tasks,” she said. She would sweep the floors and walls so that the children staying there could use chalk to draw.
Without electricity or internet, and all that entails, the average bedtime was 8 to 9 p.m.
Going to bed early also would not use up batteries or candles. “You were exhausted,” she said. “Up by 6 a.m.” to start the day.
Russians cut all forms of communication as a means to demoralize, she said.
What could be picked up was from Russian media or that from the Donetsk People’s Republic. Any information would be listened to and Beskrovna and those in the shelter would believe the opposite. “Zero communication from the outside,” she said.
The Russians also had a list of journalists, including those working for The Associated Press, she said.
Prior to the bombardment, Beskrovna was helping a freelance journalist as a fixer and she believed she had a new mission.
“I can tell what I saw,” she said.
Beskrovna has kept evidence of war crimes.
In the Zoom interview, she held up a piece of shrapnel with edges, tiny pieces meant to fly off and maim and kill.
She held another larger piece of weaponry from a Grad rocket that was found behind a building she was at where the basement was located.
Time to leave
Beskrovna decided it was time for her and her mother and animals to flee and did so, but it was a harrowing journey to Zaporizhzhia.
The drive would involve 18 checkpoints, 16 of which were Russian-controlled.
“I saw vehicles with the Z mark,” she said. “A guy asked me if I was a sniper.”
For the most part, the Russians cared more about the men and not so much the women.
“Women were invisible,” she said.
At the last checkpoint, a Ukrainian said in her language, “Hi, welcome.”
With cellular service available, she was able to text her host foreign exchange family, the Knauths, for the first time in weeks. She was able to tell them she was alive, and her mother and cats were, too.
She and her mother spent one night in the city, hearing that it was too dangerous. The host’s wife had escaped by driving herself and five children to France. After getting some rest despite constant air raids, they boarded an evacuee train that went west to the city of Lviv, near the Polish border. There, they spent two nights in a place hosted by a British man.
He had placed out 16 mattresses for refugees, Beskrovna said. Another volunteer drove them to the border. They walked to Medyka, a checkpoint in Poland, where there is a large refugee camp.
She described having watched such camps provide assistance to the Syrians fleeing the bombing in Aleppo, but never thought she would end up in one. Tents lined both sides of the camp and there were numerous relief agencies such as an International Fund of Animal Welfare group that provided carriers, vaccinations and cages for the cats to get some safe rest.
The refugee camp consisted of all sorts of nationalities, including Chinese who were against Communism, and members of the Red Cross from Egypt.
There, she said, refugees could pick up clothes and socks offered by religious organizations.
Beskrovna’s time in Williamsport was a more pleasant reflection as she decompressed from the journey.
The family she stayed with as a foreign exchange student treated her like a daughter, she said.
In 11th grade, she wanted to take advanced placement calculus and was made a senior in order to take the class, graduating at age 16.
During her time at WAHS, Beskrovna was a cheerleader, and volunteered for Greater Lycoming Habitat for Humanity, and Kids in Need at Trinity Episcopal Church, where she was in the choir.
After school, she would take trips to hike at Ricketts Glenn State Park and go on bicycle treks.
What is next?
Today, as she tells her story to media outlets such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and ABC News, Beskrovna is exchanging texts with colleagues, trusted friends and her American family, the Knauths.
For now, she is staying put, visiting friends and reassessing her next move. But her love of her native country has not waned.
“I’d love to go back to Ukraine and be a part of the revival of my city,” she said.
As the eastern flank appeared to be the next target for the Russian troops, it’s too dangerous to consider for now.
Brave Ukrainian forces are fighting back, she said, but as a civilian — “I feel I would only be a burden.”
Today, she is trying to arrange the proper documentation with an immigration attorney and has considered the option of going to Canada, which offers more direct access and eliminates the more arduous VISA process. In eight hours, one can have legal residency and enjoy immediate beneficial needs such as free health care, she said.
Thousands of Ukrainian refugees are war shocked.
“They will have post-traumatic stress disorder, and may experience irrational behavior. Some may seem aggressive, weird, or do things that can be dangerous such as leave water running or doors open,” she said.
“Help them to recover,” she said.
Ukrainians fleeing the genocide want only to live in peace and to establish new lives.
Her heart aches for Ukrainians who are left behind, many of whom suffer from chronic illnesses and can’t get help. They might have chronic pain.
“I left Ibuprofen . . . How do you survive a war in chronic pain?” she asked.
Many dogs and cats are strays — often seen on video running from the sound of the shelling.
“Americans,” she implored, “find out about Ukraine.”
Atrocities and waiting for word on her father
Beskrovna last spoke with her father at 5 p.m. on Feb. 26.
“His take was to laugh it off,” she said.
He had traveled from western Ukraine and was about to do some laundry.
“I have a good basement,” he said. “If it gets dangerous, I will make it to you guys.”
Trying to hold back her emotions, she said that if he is alive his part of the city has been occupied.
“He is 66 and not in the best health,” she said.
Isolation and criticism
To Beskrovna, what is happening is not war, not a conflict, but genocide.
To the Russians, Ukrainians are a natural construct, she said.
“Nazi-based and to be wiped off the face of the Earth,” she said.
The Russian military has recently destroyed blossoming cities such as Bucha, which used to be the place where those in Kiev would travel and live in modernized condominiums. It was like living in the New Jersey suburbs compared to New York City, Beskrovna said.
On Friday, for example, at least 50 people were reported to have been killed while at an evacuee train station in eastern Ukraine.
She believed it was a mistake in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, that the West did not do more.
“The West should not be afraid to start World War III because Russia already has done it,” she said.
She was critical of the United States’ lack of pushback against Russian President Vladimir Putin during the first and second invasions of Chechnya, Georgia, and said the government must do everything it can to embargo products and companies in Russia.
“They should be treated like North Korea,” she said.
“Dangerous, impossible to change and isolated.”
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