What happened on the 14th day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Kyiv, Ukraine – They met in high school but reconnected a few years later after meeting on a dance floor at a Ukrainian nightclub. They married in 2001 and lived in a shared flat outside of Kyiv with their two children and their dogs Benz and Cake. She was an accountant and he was a computer programmer.
Serhiy and Tetiana Perebyinis owned a Chevrolet minivan. They shared a country house with friends, and Ms. Perebyinis was a dedicated gardener and avid skier. She had just returned from a ski trip to Georgia.
And then, late last month, Russia invaded Ukraine, and the fighting quickly shifted to Kyiv. It wasn’t long before artillery shells began pouring into their neighborhood. One night a shell hit their building, prompting Mrs. Perebyinis and the children to move to the basement. When her husband ended up caring for his ailing mother in eastern Ukraine, Ms. Perebyinis decided it was time to take her children and run away.
You didn’t make it. Ms Perebyinis, 43, and her two children, Mykyta, 18, and Alisa, 9, along with a church volunteer who was helping them, Anatoly Berezhnyi, 26, were killed on Sunday when they crashed over the concrete remains of a damaged bridge in their city of Irpin and try to evacuate to Kyiv.
Their luggage — a blue wheeled suitcase, a gray suitcase and some backpacks — was strewn next to their bodies, along with a green carrier bag for a small dog, which was barking.
They were four of the many who tried to cross that bridge last weekend, but their deaths resonated well beyond their Ukrainian suburb. A photo of the family and Mr Berezhnyi lying bloodied and motionless, taken by the New York Times Photographer Lynsey Addario summarizes the indiscriminate carnage of an invading Russian army targeting increasingly densely populated civilian areas.
The life of the family and their last hours were described in an interview by Mr. Perebyinis and a godmother, Polina Nedava. Mr Perebyinis, also 43, said he learned of his family’s death through posts from Ukrainians on Twitter.
Mr Perebyinis broke down in tears for the only time in the interview and said he told his wife the night before she died that he was sorry he wasn’t with her.
“I told her, ‘Forgive me for not being able to defend you,'” he said. “I was trying to take care of one person and that meant I couldn’t protect you.”
“She said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m getting out.'”
After she failed to do so, he said he felt it was important that photos and videos of her death were recorded. “The whole world should know what’s happening here,” he said.
The Perebyinis family had already been displaced by the war in 2014 while living in Donetsk in the east and Russia was fomenting a separatist insurgency. They moved to Kyiv to escape the fighting and began to rebuild their lives. When Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine last month, they could hardly believe it was happening again, Mr Perebyinis said.
Ms Perebyinis’ employer, SE Ranking, a software company with offices in California and London, had encouraged employees to leave Ukraine immediately once the fighting began. It even rented rooms for them in Poland, Mr Perebyinis said. But his wife delayed her departure because she was unsure how to evacuate her mother, who has Alzheimer’s.
A work colleague, Anastasia Avetysian, said that SE Ranking had provided emergency funds for the evacuation of staff and that Ms Perebyinis, as chief accountant in Ukraine, had been busy disbursing them in her final days.
“We’ve all been in touch with her,” Ms Avetysian said in a phone interview. “Even as she was hiding in the basement, she was optimistic and joked in our group chat that the company would now have to do a special operation to get her out, like ‘Saving Private Ryan.'”
But behind the jokes lay a period of waiting and intense concern, Mr Perebyinis said. His son Mykyta started sleeping during the day and stayed up all night to watch over his mother and sister. Whenever there was a sound of fighting, he would wake them up and all three would go into a corridor, away from the windows. “My son was under a lot of stress,” said Mr Perebyinis.
Last Saturday, after two days in the basement, they made a first attempt at evacuation. But as they packed up their minivan, a tank rolled past on the street outside. They decided to wait.
The next day they were up around 7 a.m. and set off. Tetiana Perebyinis discussed the plan in detail with her husband. She and her two children, as well as her mother and father, who lived nearby, would join a church group and try to evacuate to Kyiv and from there to a safe place.
They drove as far as they could in Irpin, but then Ms Perebyinis was forced to abandon the minivan. They set off on foot to a damaged bridge over the River Irpin.
To escape, they had to cross a hundred yards of exposed road on one side of the bridge. As Russian troops fired into the area, many sought cover behind a brick wall.
Mr. Berezhnyis, the church volunteer who had previously evacuated his own family but returned to help others, was with Ms. Perebyinis and her children when they began rushing to the other side.
Throughout the night, Mr Perebyinis had been trying to monitor his wife’s location using a tracking app on their phones. But it didn’t show anything: the family was in a basement, with no cell phone reception.
Around dawn, he said, he saw a ping that showed them their home address. But nothing showed them moving. Cell phone coverage had become too sparse in the city.
The next ping of a location on Mr Perebyini’s phone came around 10am on Sunday morning. It was in Clinical Hospital No. 7 in Kyiv. Something had gone wrong.
He called his wife’s number. It rang but no one answered. He called his children’s phone numbers with the same result.
About half an hour later he saw a post on Twitter saying that a family had been killed in a mortar attack on the evacuation route from Irpin. A short time later, another Twitter post surfaced with a picture. “I recognized the baggage and that’s how I knew it,” he said.
When the mortar shell hit, the family and Mr Berezhnyi were about 12 meters from the crater left by the mortar shell. They didn’t stand a chance. The blast sent out a spray of hundreds of jagged, metallic shrapnel fragments. Their bodies slumped onto the muddy road beside a memorial to the dead of World War II from Irpin. A plaque on the monument read: “Eternal memory of those who fell for the Fatherland in the Great Patriotic War.”
Ms Perebyinis’ parents stood behind the mother and children and were unharmed. They are now staying with Mrs. Nedava, the godmother. The next day a snowstorm blew over Kyiv. The suitcases, one of which had been blown open by the blast or later opened by passers-by, lay covered in snow next to bloodstains on the street. It contained only clothing: a children’s pink tank top, jogging bottoms, yellow and blue child-sized socks, apparently for Alisa.
When asked to describe his wife, Mr Perebyinis slumped in his chair. Ms. Nedava explained that she has a “light” spirit, often cracking jokes and cheering up a room.
During their long marriage, Mr Perebyinis added: “We renovated three apartments and never once quarreled.”
Mr Berezhnyi moved his wife to western Ukraine but returned to Irpin to help with the evacuation organized by his church, the Irpin Bible Church, Pastor Mykola Romaniuk said in a phone interview.
When the mortar attack began and shells first fell a few hundred yards away, Mr Romaniuk said other church volunteers saw Mr Berezhnyi running to Ms Perebyinis. “He took her suitcase and they started running,” he said.
Mr. Berezhnyi, Pastor Romaniuk said, was calm and generous. “He was the kind of friend who is willing to help without words,” he said. “I don’t know how God can forgive such crimes.”
In mid-February, before the start of the war, Mr Perebyinis had traveled to his hometown of Donetsk in rebel-held eastern Ukraine to care for his mother, who had contracted Covid-19. After hostilities began, the border crossing was closed and Mr. Perebyinis was trapped to the east.
To return to Kyiv after the death of his family from separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine, Mr Perebyinis traveled to Russia, flying to the city of Kaliningrad to cross a land border into Poland. At the Russian-Polish border, he said, Russian guards interrogated and fingerprinted him and were ready to arrest him on unclear grounds, although he was eventually allowed to travel on.
He said he told them: “My whole family died in a special operation we call a war. You can do what you want with me. I have nothing left to lose.”
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Lviv, Ukraine.