They moved into their dream home with a garden full of flowers. Then Russia invaded and they had to leave it all behind

Ivan Kozakov, (16), his brother, Timotiy, (14), and their mother, Olena, from Ukraine, who have travelled to Cork. Picture by David Conachy

Maeve Sheehan

Life was good for the Kozakovs. Elena Kozakova worked as a state lawyer. Her husband, Serhiy, is a civil servant. Their eldest son, Ivan, (16), was boarding at a military lyceum, their youngest, Timotiy, (14), liked to help his mother at home.

They had an apartment in Kyiv and last November, they bought what Elena calls their “dream house” in a village of Horenychi in the countryside outside Kyiv. It had a large garden, was surrounded by forests and a lake nearby and had a kitchen that was “every mother’s dream kitchen”, she said.

She had her own private room to retreat to. They had two cars in the driveway. After 20 years together, Elena and her husband had worked hard to achieve their dreams.

On February 25, their rural idyll was shattered when on the second day of the invasion, Russian forces shelled an airfield on the outskirts of the town.

“Our nearest neighbourhood was bombed and several houses,” said Elena.

For the next two weeks, fighting raged around the village as Russian forces fought for control of a strategic road on the outskirts of town.

Their neighbours were among the civilians who died. Elena said the bodies of dead civilians were transported out of the village across one of the few bridges that remained intact.

Ivan was in his bedroom upstairs when the shells first hit.

He whistled the sounds of incoming missiles overhead followed by loud explosions, and how terrifying it was, particularly on that first day.

“We went down to the basement, waiting until the sound stops. Then after we go up, and everybody cannot understand what has happened. We are going on the street to see what happened and we see some houses that were destroyed already,” he said. “It was really scary.”

The family spent two weeks living in daily terror.

“The most awful thing is that Russians appear suddenly at night, and you even don’t have time to hide in the basement,” said Elena. They stuck to a strict timetable, turning off the lights at 7pm, sleeping in their clothes, ready to run at a moment’s notice. The shelling cut the electricity and the water supply. Shops closed up.

“It was a big problem to get some water and food,” said Ivan. For days they survived on vegetables and tins of food that were stored in the basement, eating mostly potatoes and soup. They would go out by day to the lake, to take water which they tried to sift and purify in their cellars. “We had to drink such water,” said Elena.

The shelling continued right up until the time they left more than a week ago. There was one route out and the family decided to take their chances. They took the last remaining bridge out of town.

“A couple of hours after we left the village, Russians invaded it,” said Ivan.

At 16, Ivan is two years from the age at which Ukrainian men must take up arms to defend their country. He was due to complete his final exams this year and go to university in the autumn, where he planned to study English, maths and history.

“I am not really scared because I know what to do in situations like this. I know how to behave with weapons. I know how to protect myself, how to protect my friends and family,” he said.

He is devastated he cannot complete his exams. “Now it is a big problem… I don’t know what to do right now with that,” he said.

Elena’s husband heard about Safe Harbour from Ukraine from a colleague. John Dennehy, a tech entrepreneur, and a group of volunteers organised a bus to bring Ukrainian women and children in need of shelter from the Polish border to Cork city. The family had no prior connection with Ireland but seized the opportunity to bring the boys to safety. Elena’s husband stayed behind.

Last weekend in Rzesow, Poland, the night before the bus was to depart on the long-haul journey to Cork, Elena and her sons considered their uncertain future.

Ireland was a foreign country to them. But Elena knew “a little history” and the difference between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Ivan had heard about the pubs, but he had never heard of Bono. “But I will google him, he said. “And I will dance if necessary,” said Elena.

The family’s shock at the cruel and sudden uprooting caused by a war few believed Putin would actually embark upon is very evident.

“I cannot recognise what happened. I think that will come in our consciousness later,” said Elena.

“We lost everything….The most awful part of it for me was parting with my husband. He was like a strong wall for me, and now we are alone here. For me, it’s the most difficult.”

What she most hopes for in Ireland is that her sons will continue their education.

“This is the important thing for me. And if he is able to stay in Ireland without me, I will return to Ukraine. I want to be in Ukraine with my husband and to rebuild my state after the war.”

Last Monday morning, Elena and her sons stepped off the Safe Harbour for Ukraine bus in Cork with about 30 other women and children and one grandfather, to a joyous reception and a support network of volunteers. Safe Harbour organised accommodation for them in a hotel. This week the Kozakovs will move in with a host family in Cork.

Elena has started English classes. Ivan has already won a scholarship with Zartis, a tech company founded by John Dennehy, for an online Digital Marketing diploma with the Digital Marketing Institute. For a boy whose plans to go to university have been so cruelly disrupted by war, the six-month course is a lifeline.

“It is beautiful. It is a good start,” said Elena, speaking from her hotel this weekend.

When they crossed the border from their homeland, the Kozakovs vowed not to look behind.

“You understand that you have to go ahead, and you don’t look back. That is how it is now,” she said.