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From the dance club to despair: One DJ's journey through war-torn Ukraine with her newborn baby

Business Insider US
Katya DJing at a nightclub in Kyiv before Russia invaded.
  • When Russian troops invaded Ukraine last month, a DJ fled Kyiv in search of safety.
  • Katya spoke to Insider about her treacherous journey through Ukraine with her newborn daughter.
  • "It's like the worst movie you can ever imagine and you're starring in the main role," she said.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider.

In a matter of moments, Katya's life turned from a dream into the worst kind of nightmare — the type from which she cannot wake up.

As sirens ring out each night, she jolts from frightening dreams in a panic, only to realise that the terror persists.

Since Russian troops invaded her native Ukraine five weeks ago, Katya, whose full name is known by Insider but is being withheld to protect her safety, has been to hell and back.

She's endured long nights in a freezing, underground bomb shelter as Russian shelling rained from above; she's fled through uncharted forest roads, uncertain of what may be mere meters ahead; and she's witnessed the depths of humanity's depravity — and generosity.

Katya, 32, spoke to Insider about her perilous, days-long journey to a semblance of safety amid Russia's ongoing assault, highlighting the heartbreaking human toll that Russian President Vladimir Putin's unprovoked war has left in its wake.

Several times during an interview from Western Ukraine last week, Katya described her circumstances in cinematic terms, comparing her life to a film:

"The worst movie you can ever imagine and you're starring in the main role."

While describing her experiences over the last month, she evoked images of World War II horrors and compared herself to one of literature's most infamous war-begotten female protagonists, "Gone With the Wind's" Scarlett O'Hara.

It's a far cry from the "perfect" life Katya was living just one month ago.

Before the war came to Ukraine, the lifelong Kyiv native had spent 10 years as a prominent DJ and music producer. She said she hosted shows all over the world, producing popular dance music with top international artists and regularly working at one of Kyiv's most popular nightclubs, where a loyal audience of locals and foreigners gathered to dance the night away.

In January 2022, Katya became a first-time mother to a baby girl. She and her husband of seven years spent one splendid month spoiling their daughter, buying her everything she could ever want or need and filling their apartment in Kyiv's city centre with baby clothes and formula.

Katya and her daughter before Russia invaded.

"Everything was perfect," she told Insider. "We had everything."

Like most weekend nights, Katya was scheduled to DJ a show in Kyiv on Friday, February 25.

But, of course, that show never happened.

Russian forces rolled into Ukraine in the early hours of Thursday, February 24.

The Kyiv club where Katya was scheduled to perform — along with so much else throughout the embattled country — is now shut down.

A quick decision to flee Kyiv

Katya was already awake when the first bombs rang out in Kyiv around 04:30 that Thursday. She couldn't sleep, she told Insider, plagued by a seemingly prophetic fear that "something bad" was coming.

Russian forces bombarded the capital city almost immediately upon invading, while Ukrainian troops fought to protect it from the outskirts of the city. In the weeks since, Russian troops have aimed to fully encircle and cut off the capital, but the Ukrainian defence has proven strong enough to maintain control of Kyiv.

After a stalled start to the war, the Russian military said last week that the "first stage of the operation" had primarily been accomplished and it would now refocus on "the liberation of Donbas" in the east. But Russian forces have continued to bomb Kyiv's suburbs, Reuters reported Wednesday, despite Kremlin claims that it would scale back the assault to build "trust."

As she heard explosions throughout the city that first morning, Katya said she was struck by a panic attack.

"Nobody's ever prepared for war life," she said.

Danger had arrived. In a flurry, Katya and her husband packed their bags, preparing to escape. Within the first minutes of the bombardment, the family decided to flee Kyiv.

A panicked Katya said she packed nearly half of her baby's extensive wardrobe, as well as all the extra formula they had recently purchased — a decision that would prove to be a life-saving one in some day's time.

But Katya left with only the shoes on her feet and a couple of extra hoodies and leggings.

The family waited for Katya's mother to finish her workday — the last normal one any of them would have for some time — and hit the road by 18:00, where an endless line of cars full of other escapees sat idling. As they slowly made their way out of the capital, Katya said she witnessed staggering lines for gas, cash, and groceries.

"Everyone was in panic, buying water, food, and pumping the car with gas," she said.

In hindsight, Katya now knows that they were heading straight into one of the most dangerous Ukrainian regions, where Russian forces were quickly amassing troops and laying siege. But at the time, anywhere seemed safer than bomb-addled Kyiv.

No light, no service, no food

The family decided to seek refuge at their country home in a small village located fewer than 160 kilometres east of Kyiv, near Bucha and Irpin. The drive to the house, which typically takes 30 minutes, dragged on for four hours.

A map of where the village is located.

When they arrived, they were grateful to find that the electricity was still working.

But the next day, the lights went out. Cell phone service and internet connectivity quickly followed.

"We were cut off from all over the world, not knowing what was happening," Katya said.

Despite their lack of information, one thing was clear: The nonstop shelling and gunfire indicated that her family had flocked not to safety, but toward more acute danger.

As artillery fire pierced the skies upon their arrival, Katya said her family went to a neighbour's underground shelter.

"The sounds were so loud and terrifying that we were just staying in this bomb shelter and praying nobody would enter with tanks," she said.

When the sound of airstrikes momentarily passed, Katya said she and her family returned to their small country home — one of the few houses in the village that used gas heating instead of electricity and could therefore combat the near-freezing temperatures. In the coming days, several other people from the village would come to escape the cold, praying by candlelight for relief as the sounds of shelling inched closer.

Katya and her compatriots had no cellphone connection to get information about nearby Russian military positions, nor could they get updates about the status of the war or the conditions of their loved ones.

They covered the windows with blankets and lived in a total blackout after 18:00 each night, staying desperately silent. And they were running out of food. The only grocery store in the village had already shut down, depleted of supplies.

For the first few days in the village, from about February 25 to February 28, Katya said there were rumours that Polish humanitarian aid would be coming soon. Nobody at the time knew that their village was sitting in the middle of a 30-kilometre Russian-occupied "death circle," as Katya called it.

Maps from Insider and The New York Times tracking the Russian invasion over the last month show heavy aerial strikes as well as Russian occupation in the region where Katya's village is located beginning soon after the invasion.

The Bucha-Irpin area, located to the southeast of Katya's village, was plagued with heavy fighting starting around February 25 and continuing through March. Meanwhile, the town of Borodyanka, located to the north of the village, was hit with repeated Russian shelling in early March, and Makariv, to the south-west, sustained damage and casualties as well, before Ukrainian forces said they retook the city last week.

"Thank God we ordered [the baby's] formula for another month before the war broke out," Katya said. "For no reason, we ordered it before, and thank God, because my milk got dried out."

Katya's daughter outside their country home.

But even amid the increasing hopelessness, Katya said there were small moments of goodwill.

Some people from a nearby village brought milk to give to families with young babies. Another time, Katya and the other refugees were able to secure some bread from a local bakery.

Farmers who lived close by came to the village to trade their starving, dying swine for money. They gave the whole village two pigs to kill for meat — a task the village's men took charge of, Katya said.

She told Insider that she spent much of this time crying. She slept on the floor each night holding her mother's hand and her daughter close to her chest.

A 'death risk' to stay and a 'death risk' to go

Katya said her family stayed in the village for 12 days in rapidly deteriorating conditions and ever-increasing terror.

"You just listen in constant fear that a bomb will fall on your face," she said.

Despite her desperation to flee, the logistics of doing so seemed impossible. With no intel, cell phone connection, or map of the region, Katya said they couldn't be sure where Russian forces were stationed in the area.

Still, it was becoming increasingly clear that staying was not a viable option, either.

"You understand that it's a death risk to stay and it's a death risk to go," she told Insider. "It's like Russian roulette you're playing in a bad movie and you don't know what's going to be worse for you."

Others who had been staying in the village slowly started to make escape attempts, Katya said. Several turned back, bringing harrowing stories of cars pierced by gunfire. Others never returned. Katya still isn't sure whether they made it out or not.

One day, refugees from a nearby town arrived in the village looking for shelter. A woman who had fled her home told Katya the Russian army arrived in her town and gathered all the villagers in one house, taking their cellphones. The troops then started to bomb their homes one by one, Katya recalled the woman said.

It was then that Katya made her choice: She and her family had to leave.

Katya's cousin with her 9-month old baby.

Good fortune on the journey out

But escaping wouldn't be easy.

With the Russian army occupying a vast portion of nearby territory, no safe roads were left in the region. Only the village's locals could inform escapees of forest paths and obscured field roads that might offer safe cover.

Katya said she and her family began compiling what information they had learned from locals and others who attempted to flee — where Russian troops might be stationed one day; what roads appeared to be clear at certain hours — plotting a makeshift escape route on the back of an old USSR map.

The intelligence was helpful, but not perfect. Nobody knew how or when Russian troops moved, so an open road one moment could be patrolled mere minutes later.

Another man in the village helped Katya's family and a separate group of aspiring escapees plan their getaway. He went out on a dangerous reconnaissance mission and came back with stark news: The surrounding territory was encircled, occupied by Russian troops for 30 kilometers in each direction.

Katya and her family couldn't go around the Russian army. They would have to go straight through and pray that they found a secluded road to transport them out without being detected.

The family packed their bags. They deleted every ounce of personal information on their cellphones in case Russian troops captured them. Then, along with another car of people hoping to escape that day, they set off.

The journey out of the occupied zone was tense.

But the refugees found only good fortune on their journey out. Along the way, Katya said they stumbled upon several elderly locals who pointed them in the right direction, offering crucial intel and advice to avoid the Russians.

As they drove, Katya said she saw charred homes and fires burning. At one point, the passengers in the second car, which was close to running out of fuel, had to cram into Katya's car for the remainder of the journey: eight people and a baby stroller cramped together in the small, stressed vehicle.

The only posts they came upon were Ukrainian-manned. Their countrymen directed them out of the region via forest roads, warning them to travel carefully through the unknown territory.

Throughout the treacherous journey, Katya said she could only think one thing: "If something happens [to us], no one would ever know."

Katya and her daughter in the village.

A semblance of safety

The aftermath of their successful escape is a haze, Katya said.

The car full of people arrived at someone's relative's home in a western city. An elderly grandmother prepared a feast, happy for the company.

Katya and her family stayed there one night, relishing in the electricity and warm showers. Then they moved on — once again on the road as war-time refugees.

Three days later, they arrived at a border town in western Ukraine, where she and her family are currently residing. Katya declined to specify the name of the city, still fearful for herself and her baby.

By another stroke of luck, Katya said she and her family were able to secure an available, albeit overpriced apartment, as scores of refugees flock to the once-quiet, small town. Since arriving, she said she's met refugees from Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol, all telling their own tales of dangerous evacuations and heartache.

The city where she now resides feels safer than Kyiv or the village from which she fled, Katya said. There have been no Russian attacks since she arrived, though air sirens are frequent — one went off near the end of Insider's interview with her — a new normal for the besieged Ukrainian people.

It's only been recently, during the relative calm of resettlement, that Katya has begun to process the past month.

"I didn't have time for my postpartum depression and I want it back," she told Insider with a sad laugh.

Having a newborn baby is stressful enough when life is good, she said. But the never-ending fear for her daughter's fate and future compounded the trauma of the last month.

Her baby strictly drinks formula now after the psychological and physical stress of war caused Katya's milk to dry up — a determining factor in her decision to depart the village, she told Insider.

"When we were staying in the village, I realised we only had three weeks' worth of food for the baby and if we can't escape by then, she will die, because I have no milk," she said.

Katya and her daughter.

A changed perspective

Katya's life these days is starkly different from the glamorous existence she previously enjoyed in Kyiv. But war has granted her a new perspective.

"God, we have a roof over our heads and we've got something to eat," she said. "So you just re-estimate your priorities, you change your priorities in life."

Sometimes she thinks about her old life. She frets about the rotting food left sitting in her fridge back in Kyiv. She can't remember if she took the trash out before she left.

But there are, of course, much bigger things to worry about. For example: the future — hers, her daughter's, and Ukraine's.

And despite the horrors she's witnessed, she still has faith.

"I think I'm optimistic," she said. "I think Ukraine will win and we will have a normal life, and we will build our country and we can go home."

"This is the only wish you have when you are living on the run," she added. "You just want to go home."


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