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The story: Everything smelled like death – the story of a couple form Ukraine about surviving the armed conflict

Nikolaj and Natalija came to Montenegro in April 2022, two months after the escalation of armed conflict in Mariupol, where they started their life together, got children and retired. Peaceful, safe and comfortable life was replaced with accommodation in a hotel in Berane which the Government of Montenegro designated as the collective shelter for refugees from Ukraine. In this shelter, they spend time together with several more compatriots, and they try to forget recent history that caused lifelong instability and anxiety.

When asked how did they keep the positive spirit, they replied: „What else can we do…we are lucky to be alive. “

Nikolaj is a retired English language teacher while Natalija is a retired pediatrician. They dedicated their whole life to work with children. Nikolaj was born in Russia but out of his 81 years of life, he lived in Ukraine for 68 years. They have two sons (one of them is still in Kiev) and two daughters – one in Talin, Estonia and the other in Podgorica, Montenegro. Thanks to two of them but also many friends and acquaintances, they survived the war in their country and came to Montenegro. At the time of escalation of armed conflict, the older daughter with a son was spending the vacation with her parents. Nikolaj was experiencing some health issues, he suffered from a heart attack and he was not able to move around easily. Due to this, he and Natalija were forced to stay in their home town, while the daughter went back to Estonia where she lived with her family. At the beginning, they had to hide in the basement of the building where they lived. The apartment was completely destroyed. While hiding, they slept on one chair and as they said with a smile, they often fell down from it. They didn’t have food, clean water, nor electricity. Nikolaj has lost 20 kg in that period.  

When they started to lose hope, their friend who has come to take the body of his mother, took them with him and that was the first time they saw their street, neighborhood, the city, after only imagining and hearing what was happening, while hiding in the basement.

„That moment was shocking for both of us. Everything that was familiar was destroyed – our apartment, the school I worked in, the neighborhood, the grocery stores… Everything smelled like death“ says Nikolaj, while his compatriots who are sitting with us nodded their heads.

„After we left the basement, we spent some time at our friend’s house and then started to look for ways to leave the town… at that moment, this looked like mission impossible. “

Nikolaj says that after spending some time at his friend’s house, they crossed to Russia, then Estonia where they found a direct line to Greece, where they were greeted by their son in law, married to their second daughter, who took them to Montenegro. „You don’t have much time and you don’t think about packing. You just take the basics and move on… It is very nice here; people are very kind and they want to help. Our grandchildren are visiting us. Our daughter works in Mojkovac and she comes often too. We were able to get all the rights in Montenegro. We don’t think about future. The Red Cross helped us with whatever we needed and we appreciate it very much. “

„I was born during the World War II. I couldn’t ever imagine that I would live to see another war. Our survival was very difficult but now we are in Montenegro where we were accepted in a great way” says Nikolaj and adds that „Černogorijans“, as he calls us, are very kind and lovely people.

At the end, he told us that he always stayed positive, prayed and talked to himself that they will survive and continue with their life.“ Those were thoughts that helped my wife and I to survive in extraordinary circumstances“.