From besieged Kherson to Ballinagh

A Ukrainian family who had to flee their home look forward to a much better Christmas this year after they were reunited in Ballinagh last week.

Jane Pevitsina and her seven-year-old daughter Iryna have been separated from husband and father Vadim since they had to flee their home in Russian occupied Kherson. This time last year Jane and her daughter were living hand to mouth, stuck in Georgia as they awaited the documentation they needed to enter the EU.

They weren’t alone in fleeing. Before the war Kherson had 350,000 inhabitants, but now it’s estimated that only 20% of that figure remain; mostly elderly people unable to leave, and struggling to survive in the remnants of a scarcely recognisable city that continues to be ravaged by conflict.

Russia had been occupying the city since March 2022. The following August residents were cautioned by both Russian and Ukrainian governments they should leave. The tornado of conflict then swept into their city. Fleeing was easier said than done as it required both money and documents. Jane had the further complication that Iryna has been sick with a serious blood infection which causes secondary infections, and had already been receiving treatment for months. Regardless they left Kherson while Vadim remained with Jane’s elderly mother.

Jane left home with the expectation she may well never see her parents again.

She’s proud to say Kherson is in an ancient region of Ukraine, with a rich heritage and language. Her grandfather was a senior engineer from Khazakstan who built dams all over the Soviet Union, including Kherson’s dam. It was a source of great pride for the family. However the dam gained global attention as it was destroyed in conflict unleashing devastating floods on towns and villages.

Jane’s house is destroyed, as are homes of her relatives.

“A lot of houses were soft because they were not made from stones but clay. Houses were destroyed very easily. My aunt didn’t stand up for two weeks from the bed when she saw a video of what happened her house. She is old, and has girls and grandkids and she can’t give anything to them - it’s like her whole life has been destroyed in one day.”

Jane and Iryna had escaped before the Ukraine counter-offensive got underway, first travelling to Rostov in Russia for medical treatment for Iryna, before travelling onward to Georgia where her treatment continued.

Given the surge of Ukrainians in Georgia there was a massive backlog as they waited for documentation to permit them to fly - the epic journey by road was not a possibility for Iryna in her condition. Having arrived in Georgia in August, she had an interminable wait for the correct documents to fly in June 2023. However, her outbound flight was four hours late, and knowing she would missed their connecting flight in Poland, refused to get on the plane as she had no money. She lost the price of the tickets too.

The stress of everything took a toll on Jane’s health, pains gripped her chest and she endured severe fatigue.

“If I washed one plate I then needed to lie down because the pain was very hard,” she says, noting she had no money to attend hospital. Contact with organisations connected to the Orthodox Catholic Church saw a change in fortune for the family.

“I found volunteers from Dublin and they bought tickets for me and Iryna because I had no money for a flat, I had no money for food, my daughter is sick.”

She arrived in Ballinagh, staying first in the communal house for Ukrainians in Ballinagh, before a generous member of the community helped them find a flat in the village. She also notes the help of two Latvian people in generously helping her find her feet.

“Iryna is happy here, the school is great. She loves her teachers - Mary, Julia and Ms Tanya as well as her principal. Here teachers are like friends and that’s great,” says Jane, who was a piano teacher at home.

“I saw a lot of kindness in Georgia, but here it’s really wonderful.”

She says her friends’ garden looks like a colander it’s so cratered by rockets - “and he has three kids!”

Jane is moved by the generosity shown to her family in Ireland.

“It is like a miracle. I can’t imagine that people who don’t know me can do so many things for us - they are very kind,” she says and pays tribute to Ballinagh Community Association, former employee Laura Brady in particular, for providing vital support. “I also felt the incredible support of Elina and Santa, who came here many years ago from Latvia. I can’t imagine how I could cope without them. We were clothed, shod, protected, supported and helped to take the good road leading to a normal future.”

The very morning Jane speaks to the Celt her husband arrived in Ballinagh, ending the family’s lengthy separation.

“I think the place is very good, people are very good. We can start a new life,” she says.

However, war continues to rage in Kherson, and Jane is dumbfounded how her home can be a battleground.

“The conflict is in my garden, it’s in my house - why?”

Can she see any future for Kherson?

“I hope, but the biggest part is destroyed. It took 1,000 years to build that territory, but it has been destroyed in two years of war.”