Pushing past grief and fear, two Ukrainian teachers turned their school into a refuge
Svitlana Mukhina's husband used to leave candies for their granddaughters under a toy dwarf at their home near Kyiv.
He's gone now — killed in action last October in the early stages of Russia's bloody campaign to conquer Bakhmut.
But the candies still appear for the girls routinely, as though Viktor was still alive. Mukhina's granddaughters know he is gone, but the treats keep his memory vital for all of them.
"It still hurts a lot," she said in a recent interview with CBC News.
The death of her husband was a personal breaking point, said Mukhina.
Her granddaughters, five and seven years old, have their own rituals. Believing that her grandfather is watching from "the sky," the eldest child reads her alphabet aloud, sitting near a window so he can hear. He had promised to buy her a tablet when she learned to read.
Mukhina, 56 — a teacher with brown hair, a strong face and (occasionally) a stern look — works at a primary school among people who also understand loss. Her principal is from Crimea and was forced to flee after Russia annexed the peninsula nine years ago.
Olha Tymoshenko, 63 — blonde and blessed with a generally sunny disposition — is in many ways completely unlike her friend Mukhina. But a shadow creeps across her face when she talks about fleeing her home and her previous life.
Both women call Kyiv School No. 309 home. The school sits in the Pozniaky district, a residential suburb of the capital.
During last year's Russian advance on the Ukrainian capital, the school became a well-known haven for hundreds of people fleeing the bombardment over several months.
The credit belongs to Tymoshenko, who insisted on preparing for what she saw as the inevitable.
At the height of Russia's push on Kyiv last spring, the school sheltered over 500 people — mostly women and children.
The lives of both Tymoshenko and Mukhina were thrown together before the war, but they remained intertwined by their individual losses and their shared experience in the school's basement shelter.
They had never told those stories, or the story behind the shelter, until they sat down with CBC News in Kyiv just recently.
Tymoshenko, a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature, had been principal of the school in Yevpatoriia, a resort community on the Black Sea coast.
Her school became a centre of Ukrainian resistance, a meeting place for pro-Ukrainian parents and their children.
When Russian authorities started putting pressure on known supporters of the Ukrainian government on the peninsula, she fled and re-established herself in Kyiv.
The year was 2014. It was also a significant year for Mukhina.
That was when her husband of 27 years decided it was his duty to join the army. He saw that a bigger war was coming.
So did Tymoshenko. She began preparing the school to act as a shelter in the summer of 2021, when the first signs of a future full-scale war emerged in the media.
Preparing for the worst
It was a personal initiative.
"We had lots of things to take care of," Tymoshenko said. "We started to organize the building, fixing the question of drinking water for all the people, security measures, etcetera. Organization was our responsibility."
The organization paid off.
Mukhina said she was lost and scared on the second day of the full-scale war — Feb. 25, 2022. A missile plunged into her neighborhood, hitting a nearby building. Mukhina watched it land, then called Tymoshenko, who told her to "grab the kids and go to the school."
Inside the shelter, people slept in the corners on mattresses. Desks were taken down from classrooms and shoved together to form makeshift cots. A stove was set up outside to cook food.
The shelter even had its own security. All visitors had their documents checked to make sure no saboteurs were allowed inside, said Mukhina.
Life eventually assumed a regular rhythm. Even though the situation outside was terrifying, the atmosphere in the shelter was welcoming. Mukhina said people would share food and equipment. Kids played with their phones and with each other.
Classes started online in Ukraine on March 27, 2022 and both women returned to work. Mukhina went upstairs and taught remotely from her regular classroom while continuing to live in the basement shelter.
It was too dangerous to go back home for a long time, Mukhina said. Most of the people remained in the shelter and only went home to shower and return with fresh clothes.
Some families stayed for months.
There are lots of paintings on the concrete walls of the shelter. Many of them depict Ukrainian cities and their symbols. Some of those cities — Crimea included — are now under occupation or have been heavily shelled by the Russians.
"In our school now, we have many displaced kids," Tymoshenko said. "It is a small way to support them. It feels much better, when you can see that your home is remembered, even though you might be far away from your home now."
Mukhina said she is grateful for Tymoshenko's foresight and determination.
"I am very thankful to Olha for what she did," she said. "The basement was ready to accept people during the war time, and we didn't even know she was taking it so seriously and preparing for it."
Both women spoke to CBC News in the shelter, which is now empty. Tymoshenko said it remains ready because the air raid alert "could start any moment."