TORONTO — Ilya Yeresko has spent the last several days sheltering in the mountains of western Ukraine after the Russian invasion of his country began.
The 41-year-old, who runs a Ukrainian salsa band with a Toronto-based woman, says he and many of his bandmates made the decision to flee Kyiv over the last few days as Russian forces drew closer to the city.
“I miss my home. I was born in Kyiv and I lived in the same building for 41 years,” he said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
“On the second day of the conflict, the (Russians) bombed a local military base, small tiny base, across my street, and I saw it on the news that rockets were hitting the place across my street. That was heartbreaking.”
He said his family had been preparing for the possibility of leaving their home for weeks and had their bags packed.
“We were prepared for the worst,” he said.
Last Thursday, Yeresko, his mother, his sister, her husband and their three kids hopped into a small van and headed to a friend’s house in the Carpathian Mountains. The journey was far longer than usual, he said.
“Instead of spending about seven hours on the road, we spent 35 hours. So, it was difficult because the traffic was really heavy,” he said. “We had to go through little villages and towns, because some places were more dangerous than others.”
While most of his band members have left Kyiv, a few decided to stay, including the band’s singer Anabell Chupryna.
She said she stayed in a metro station downtown with her parents overnight Friday evening before returning to their nearby home on Saturday.
“There was no supplies organized by the metro administration, so everyone had something with themselves,” she said over text message.
Chupryna said they went to the supermarket on Monday to get some basics and were met with long lines, and scant bread and meat.
She said her family is not planning to leave Kyiv or Ukraine at the moment.
“For now it’s complicated to leave, We’d need to waste money,” she said. “My family decided to stay till the last possible moment.”
It’s illegal for Yeresko to leave Ukraine due to the general mobilization in the country that bans men between the age of 18 and 60 from leaving. For now, he said he’s working out his next steps.
“I cannot leave the country. And then my next plan would be see what happens,” he said. “It is kind of hard to come back to Kyiv now, but maybe that’s one of the plans for me to come back to Kyiv and help people.”
Yeresko also said he misses his band and the music they played.
“We used to perform every week, always,” he said. “This place has a piano downstairs, so, a lot of people live here, I don’t want to bother them too much, but sometimes I play piano and that feels really good.”
Karolina Patocki, who is based in Toronto but co-leads the band with Yeresko after meeting him in Ukraine years ago, said she’s been in touch with him nearly every day.
“A couple of weeks ago, when it started looking really bad, Ilya and I had a conversation, because we talk like every other day, … about what should happen,” Patocki said in a phone interview.
“He was very clear that he wanted me to keep promoting our music.”
She said their music puts a human face on the ongoing war, which is why the band is releasing a new song on Friday and plans to put out a new album in April.
“Now they have this war, I kind of understood Ilya’s perspective, which is it seems like people through knowing us or through knowing that something like us exists … they’re able to put a more human face on what’s happening,” she said.
Patocki said the band’s goal is to connect with people across the world thorough their songs, which are mostly in Spanish.
“In 2019, we released a song that’s called ‘Ambition,’ so it has an English title, but the song itself is in Ukrainian, and it was inspired by some of the struggles that were going on already,” she said, referencing the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Patocki said she would be happy to help the band members to come to Canada if they are able to safely leave Ukraine.
“It’s illegal for all the men to leave. So, we’re not trying to get them to do anything illegal or anything that’s going to put them in danger,” she said. “Their families that are leaving, of course, if they want to come to Canada then we will try to help and support them.”
Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a statement Thursday that 1 million people have fled Ukraine since Feb. 24.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2022.
Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press