Far from home: Ukrainian couple who fled war-torn Kyiv now staying with daughter in Hartsville

Posted April 20, 2022

By Bob Sloan

If Petar and Alla Rusinov seem a little distant when you first meet them, there is good reason.

The Rusinovs, now staying with their daughter in Hartsville, were forced to flee their homeland of Kyiv with little more than the clothes on their backs. Like millions of other Ukrainians, they were left with little choice after the Russian Army invaded the capital city in late February. Their lives, once peaceful and happy, have been uprooted and turned upside down by the ongoing war.

Petar and Alla Rusinov left their homeland of Kyiv, Ukraine on March 3 with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Sitting quietly side by side on the living room couch, Petar and Alla wait for me to ask them questions. They speak very little English. Their daughter, who was born in the Ukraine but left 20 years ago and moved to America to pursue college, serves as an interpreter.

“It is absolutely heartbreaking,” said Alla when asked about having to leave their home, family, friends and country. “The Ukraine is such a beautiful land with such beautiful, peaceful people. Why the Russians would want to destroy it I have no idea. It is so very sad.”

“I never in a million years thought something like this would happen,” admits Petar. “My colleagues and I never thought we would find ourselves in danger. In one day – 24 hours – we lost everything.”

Petar, 72, and Alla, 70, have been married for 42 years. For 30 years Petar has worked as an emergency room doctor in Hospital No. 7 in Kyiv. He was still working long shifts in the days before he and his wife decided to leave. Alla was a history teacher for more than three decades before she retired several years ago. The two of them lived on the third floor of a 16-story high-rise condominium in the northern part of Kyiv near Bucha.

“We lived a wonderful life,” said Petar when asked about life prior to the invasion. “It was a quiet, peaceful life. We were very happy. No problems. We were very comfortable.”

Petar said he remembers watching the news in the weeks before the bombings began on Feb. 24.

“We were watching television and everyone was saying there could be, there might be, it’s a possibility,” he said. “President Biden said war would start in less than a week, but nobody believed him.”

Now more than a month later, he still has a hard time believing it.

“One of my closest co-workers has two brothers who live in Russia,” said Petar. “His sister lives in Russia. How can a brother attack another brother who lives in Kyiv? It’s unimaginable. We never believed it, even though there were warnings out there.”

The War Begins

The story of how they were able to get out of the country is rather astounding, but probably no less astounding than that of other Ukrainians who were forced to flee. They consider themselves fortunate, knowing that many had no choice but to remain or had no other place to go.

Alla said she and Petar woke up on the morning of Feb. 24 and saw on the television news that the war had begun. Petar immediately called his boss at the hospital.

“I asked him ‘what help do they need?’ and he said ‘We know nothing right now,’” Petar recalled. “I got dressed and went to the hospital anyway.”

Between Feb. 24 and March 2, Petar worked long shifts at the hospital every day. He said special military vehicles would continuously bring in the injured and the bodies. His job was to assess each case as they arrived and assign them a color code based on the extent of their injuries.

“It was not pleasant, but it is what I am trained to do,” said Petar.

A curfew was enforced on Feb. 26 following heavy bombing in Bucha. Alla spent her days in a small bomb shelter with 40 or 50 other people.

“It was small and crowded,” she remembered. “It wasn’t much. We listened to bombs being shot down by air defense missiles. We could hear windows shattering.”

At night, she and Petar would remain in their home. Alla slept in the  bathtub while Petar stubbornly refused to sleep anywhere but in his bed. Both would sleep fully dressed.

“I will never forget hearing the air defense shooting down rockets and helicopters,” said Petar. “You could hear it and know it was very, very near.”

Alla and Petar both remember paint marks on buildings that signaled potential bomb sites. The paint would glow at night.

“The Russians would paint them to show what was to be bombed,” Alla said. “If it was glowing, we would put dirt on it trying to make it so that it could not be seen.”

The Decision to Leave

The Rusinovs eventually made their decision to leave. On the morning of March 3, Petar and Alla woke up early, packed a few things in the trunk of their tiny Fiat and left for the Romanian border to the south. They drove out of the city with several colleagues, creating a convoy that they felt would be safer.

“It was very hard,” said Alla, tears welling in her eyes. “I cried and cried. No baby pictures. We left everything. All that we worked for all of our lives. It was very sad.”

“It was very, very painful,” said Petar.

Petar said it took them three days to reach the Romanian border. They slept in their car and ate what they could.

“We were stopped several times at checkpoints where there were tanks,” Petar recalled. “I saw a helicopter shot down. I will never forget it.”

Once at the border, it took an additional 24 hours to make it through the border crossing and into Romania due to the sheer number of cars waiting to evacuate.

“The Romanians treated us with so much kindness,” remembered Alla. “They were all welcoming us and asking what can we do to help you. They were giving away food and clothing to those who need it. Such kindness.”

On March 8 the Rusinovs headed north to the airport in Sofia, Bulgaria where they had booked a flight. Petar was able to leave the car with a friend of a friend. They boarded the plane for a 10-hour flight to the United States with just a handful of items.

During a layover in Vienna, Austria, officials said Alla did not have her second required vaccine– which she in fact did have – and Petar was unaware of her location for several hours. Officials were finally able to find the required documentation and Petar and Alla left for the U.S.

Arriving in America

They arrived at the airport in Charlotte, N.C., at 10 p.m. and were greeted by their daughter and her family.

“We were exhausted,” said Alla. “Happy seeing grandchildren, but exhausted. It was a happy moment. We can smile about some of this now, but before all we could do was just cry. It is still sad.”

The Rusinovs are still trying to adjust. For the first weeks, Alla found herself continuously watching the sky.

“I think about home a lot,” she said. “I miss it terribly.”

She said the quietness is hard to get used to.

“It’s so quiet,” she says. “We are not accustomed to the country. Kyiv is a big city and things are always bustling.”

“This is very curious to us,” Petar admits.

It’s particularly hard for Petar, who lived a very busy life as a doctor. Now he finds himself with little or nothing to do nearly every day.

They are staying in a living space above their daughter’s garage, giving them at least a little privacy. The local Presbyterian church is helping them install air conditioning.

They find themselves reluctantly watching the television news.

“We watch because we want to know what is going on, but it is very hard,” said Alla. “It makes my heart cry.”

Petar said he has great respect for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and how he has handled the war. He did not always think that way.

“To be honest, before I didn’t take him serious at first,” admits Petar. “The first day of the war, however, I saw that he was a real man, and a real president, and definitely the person to lead the country.”

“He is a great man,” Alla said.

An Outpouring of Support

The Rusinovs are very grateful for the outpouring of support they have received in Hartsville.

“The truth is I didn’t expect to be welcomed this way,” said Petar. “People have been so wonderful here.”

“Random people whom you have never met before welcome you,” Alla adds. “They want a hug, ask what they can do and say they will pray for us. They are so thankful that we are here. The kind words mean so much.”

For the mean time, the Rusinovs are doing the best they can to adjust and to take life one day at a time. Their hearts, however, remain thousands of miles away in a city and country they love so dearly.

“I can imagine going back, but I don’t know,” said Alla. “Our future is so uncertain.”

Petar is much more certain on his desires.

“I want to go home,” he said without hesitation.

The Rusinovs and their family would like to thank some of the very special people who have generously donated to them and helped them in adjusting to life in Hartsville and the United States: The Thomas family, HCF Church, the Hodges family, Quality Auto Office Girls Team, First Presbyterian Church, St. Luke UMC, the Downey family, Fourth Street Baptist Church, Fork Creek UMC, the Worley family, Empire Audiology, the King family, the Logan family, the Lee family, First Baptist Church of Pine Ridge, the Smith family, and the Henley family

The Rusinovs have set up a Venmo account at “Peter Alla Rusinov” for those wish to assist them financially.

Bob Sloan serves as editor for Swartz Media, which publishes four weekly newspapers – The News Journal of Florence, The Hartsville News Journal, The Marion County News Journal, and The Chesterfield County News & Shopper.

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