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My Wonderful Kyrylivka

FILE - People on vacation enjoy the beach at Kyrylivka on the Sea of Azov in southern Ukraine. (Adobe Stock Photo by Denis Chubchenko)
FILE - People on vacation enjoy the beach at Kyrylivka on the Sea of Azov in southern Ukraine. (Adobe Stock Photo by Denis Chubchenko)
My Wonderful Kyrylivka
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Editor's note: This story is one of the winning entries from the "Teach Us about Ukraine" writing contest sponsored by VOA Learning English and GoGlobal.

Kateryna Protasova is a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature. She is from the picturesque resort village of Kyrylivka, on the shores of the Sea of Azov. This is her essay.

For more than 200 years, Kyrylivka was the tourism center of Ukraine. Locals and visitors enjoy the salt air and the beaches of Peresyp Spit and Fedotova Spit. There are recreation areas, children’s camps, amusement parks, horse riding centers, and theaters.

Founded in 1805, the village was named after Kyril Kapustin, the son of the Dukhobors leader. The picturesque settlement is surrounded by water, from the shores of the Sea of Azov to the mouth of the Utlyuk River and the Molochny inlet.

The Molochny inlet is connected to the Azov Sea by a man-made canal built in 1943. The body of water is about 32 km long and 8 km wide. The mud and silt of Molochny are believed to have medicinal properties and are used for treatment by local health centers. It is also home to a wide variety of plants and species. When the water is low, one can walk across the canal as schools of fish swim between one’s bare feet.

Russian invasion

For 10 years, I worked as a teacher of the Ukrainian language and literature at the Azov comprehensive school in Kyrylivka. The 53-year-old school has about 400 students. At the start of the school year, I often took students to the Fedotova Spit to study its flora and fauna and had them write papers about it. It is also a place for morning bike rides to watch the sunrise.

However, that all changed on the first day of the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022.

Kyrylivka was not bombed but villagers could hear Russian aircraft and rockets attacking surrounding cities and villages. There were sounds of automatic gunfire on the seashore and explosions all around the bodies of water.

For their safety, students were sent home on forced vacation. Teachers kept in touch with their parents, hoping the attack would be over in a week or two. Still, there were many airplanes in the sky and armored vehicles on the road.

One morning, after several loud explosions, a row of vehicles filled with Russian soldiers enter Kyrylivka. They went from house to house looking for Ukrainians who fought against Russia in east Ukraine. With the help of collaborators, they took some villagers away. Some were released, but the fate of others is still unknown.

The Russian collaborators became more active in the village during the occupation. I had to be careful in dealing with people, even with those you think you know. It was safer not to meet or talk with anyone. When I met someone, I had to think about what language to use: Russian or Ukrainian.

It seemed as if someone's heavy hand was strangling me to a slow death. During almost four months of living under occupation, breathing became more painful despite the fresh air of the sea.

Communication with my students was the fresh air that gave me strength. We met online and chatted as a group in Viber. In those meetings, I saw how mature, strong, and steadfast my seventh graders were. Near the end of the school year, we also had students from Kherson and other areas joining the classes.

The occupying force also watched over teachers who did not agree to cooperate with them. I shared patriotic notes and photos of kidnapped people in my stories. But I was fearful anytime there was a knock on the door of my house. I remember I was working at home on an assignment for the course "New Ukrainian School: Adaptation Cycle of Basic Secondary Education,” when an armored personnel carrier, followed by Russian soldiers with machine guns, rolled down the street outside. I quickly hid the laptop among my son's toys and waited for my turn to be checked with my passport in hand.

My student “Nataliia” (not her real name) secretly took part in the remote festival "Art Space" reading Serhiy Zhadan's poems. Roman, another student, wrote poems about our defenders, our life under occupation, and the dream of victory. One of the poems was sent to the "Pink Dream" poetry competition this year.

Weeks later, both the internet and Ukrainian television were gone. The village’s mayor, his deputy, and the head of the culture department were taken away to an unknown location by men wearing masks. And the occupying forces installed their own mayor.

Leaving Kyrylivka

I could no longer teach or communicate with students. So, I went to each student in my class to find out if they were holding on or if they were planning to leave. I was especially worried about one student whose disabled grandmother and father were not able to leave.

Among the most valuable things I have are textbooks on the Ukrainian language. I gathered them along with my laptop preparing to leave the village. I warned my son Oleg to keep quiet about our plan to leave.

One morning, holding our breath, we left Kyrylivka.

There were 17 Russian checkpoints from Kyrylivka to Vasylivka. Military vehicles and civilian cars were shot up on both sides of the road. At one checkpoint, a man was forced to strip as Russian troops looked for tattoos and scars.

Near the entrance to Melitopol, was a disabled Ukrainian military vehicle used as a barricade. The streets of the once-bustling city were crowded with Russian military equipment. Heavy vehicles painted with the letter Z, the Russian military invasion symbol, rushed through without regard for the people around them.

We finally reached a checkpoint near Vasylivka where more than a hundred cars were waiting to leave the occupied territory.

We were the 126th vehicle waiting in line that day in June. People who came earlier said that 75 cars will be released at 5:00 p.m. Around us, children played in a broken gas stations littered with garbage. There was a terrible stench coming from the forest. Shots could be heard close by. And armed guards constantly walked between the cars.

My five-year-old son suddenly sang "Ukraine is not dead yet” which brought a chorus of “DON’T SING!” from frightened people from all sides. Had the guard heard it, we might have been punished or would not have made it through the checkpoint.

Our family of four slept in the car that night. Not far from us, Russian forces fired at Ukrainian military positions. It was one of the longest nights of my life. In the morning, somewhere very close to me, I heard a familiar voice. It came from one of my students. For that one moment, it became a joyful and warm reunion.

The second day was even hotter at the Vasylivka checkpoint. There was even more stench and more garbage. There was very little food and drink left. Russian guards seemed to put even more pressure on us. But we finally made it through the checkpoint at 5pm.

We drove through roadblocks, inspections, gray areas, explosions, dirt roads, empty villages, and damaged houses to reach Kamiansk. This is the place where our people are. This is the place where the Ukrainian flag flies. And more importantly, this is the place where I can breathe again.

But I believe that I will return to my village of Kyrylivka. And I will again breathe the fresh air of the Sea of Azov. I will again take in the aroma of the Utlyuk and Molochny waters. And I will teach the Ukrainian language again in our Azov school.

This is Anna Matteo reading for Kateryna Protasova.


About the Writer

Kateryna Protasova is one of the winners of the Teach Us About Ukraine writing contest. (Photo supplied by Kateryna Protasova)
Kateryna Protasova is one of the winners of the Teach Us About Ukraine writing contest. (Photo supplied by Kateryna Protasova)

Kateryna Protasova is a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature. She is from the picturesque resort village of Kyrylivka, Melitopol district, on the shores of the Sea of Azov.


Lesson Plan

Download the lesson plan below for teaching ideas and materials for student activities related to this story.

My Wonderful Kyrylivka Lesson Plan
My Wonderful Kyrylivka - Lesson Plan

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