KYIV, Ukraine – They met in high school but became friends a few years later after meeting on a dance floor at a Ukrainian nightclub. Married in 2001, they lived in a dormitory community outside Kiev, in an apartment 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 van. They shared a country house with friends, and Mrs. Perebyinis was a dedicated gardener and an avid skier. She had just returned from a ski trip to Georgia.
And then, late last month, Russia invaded Ukraine and the fighting quickly moved to Kiev. It wasn’t long before artillery shells crashed into their neighborhood. One night a shell hit their building, prompting Mrs. Perebyinis and the children to move to the basement. Eventually, as her husband was away in eastern Ukraine to care for his ailing mother, Ms Perebyinis decided it was time to take her children and run away.
They did not succeed. Ms Perebyinis, 43, and her two children, Mykyta, 18, and Alisa, 9, and a church volunteer helping them, Anatoly Berezhnyi, 26, were killed on Sunday as they walked rushing over the concrete remains of a damaged bridge. in their town of Irpin, attempting to evacuate to Kiev.
Their luggage – a blue wheeled suitcase, a gray suitcase and backpacks – was strewn near their bodies, along with a green carrying case for a small barking dog.
They were four of many who tried to cross that bridge last weekend, but their deaths resonated far beyond their Ukrainian suburbs. A photograph of the family and Mr Berezhnyi lying bloodied and motionless, taken by a New York Times photographer, Lynsey Addario, summarizes the indiscriminate slaughter by an invading Russian army that increasingly targeted heavily 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 on Twitter, from messages from Ukrainians.
Bursting into tears for the only time in the interview, Mr Perebyinis said he told his wife the day before he died that he was sorry he was not with her.
“I said to him, ‘Forgive me for not being able to defend you,'” he said. “I tried to take care of one person, and that meant I couldn’t protect you.”
“She said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going out.'”
After she didn’t, he said he felt it was important that their deaths be recorded in photos and video. “The whole world should know what’s going on here,” he said.
The Perebyinis family had already been displaced once by the war, in 2014, when they lived in Donetsk in the east and Russia fomented a separatist uprising. They moved to Kiev 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 after the fighting began. He had even rented them rooms in Poland, Mr. Perebyinis said. But his wife delayed his departure due to uncertainty over how to evacuate her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease.
Work colleague Anastasia Avetysian said SE Ranking had provided emergency funds for employees to be evacuated and Ms Perebyinis, as chief accountant in Ukraine, had been busy in her final days disbursing them.
“We were all in contact with her,” Ms Avetysian said in a phone interview. “Even when she was hiding in the basement, she was optimistic and joked in our group chat that the company should now do a special operation to get them out, like ‘Saving Private Ryan’. “
But behind the jokes lies a period of expectation and intense worry, Mr Perebyinis said. Her son, Mykyta, started sleeping during the day and staying up all night, watching over his mother and sister. When there were sounds of fighting, he would wake them up and the three of them would move down a hallway, away from the windows. “My son was very stressed,” Mr Perebyinis said.
Last Saturday, after two days in the basement, they made a first attempt to evacuate. But as they were packing their van, a tank drove past on the street outside. They decided to wait.
The next day they were up and moved around 7am. Tetiana Perebyinis had discussed the plan in detail with her husband. She and her two children and her mother and father, who lived nearby, were joining a religious group and trying to evacuate to Kyiv and then get to safety from there.
They drove as far as they could in Irpin, but Ms Perebyinis was then forced to abandon the van. They set off on foot towards a damaged bridge over the Irpin River.
To escape, they had to cross a hundred meters of exposed street on one side of the bridge. As Russian forces fired into the area, many tried to take cover behind a brick wall.
Mr Berezhnyis, the church volunteer, who had earlier evacuated his own family but had returned to help others, was with Ms Perebyinis and her children when they started rushing to the other side.
Overnight, Mr Perebyinis had tried to monitor his wife’s location using a tracking app on their phones. But that showed nothing: the family was in a basement, with no cell reception.
Around dawn, he said, he saw a ping, showing them at their home. But nothing showed them in motion. Cell phone coverage had become too patchy in the city.
The next ping from a location on Mr Perebyinis’ phone came around 10 a.m. Sunday morning. It was in Kiev Clinical Hospital No. 7. 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 message on Twitter saying that a family had been killed in a mortar strike on the Irpin evacuation route. Shortly after, another Twitter post appeared, along with a photo. “I recognized the luggage and that’s how I knew,” he said.
When the mortar shell fell, the family and Mr. Berezhnyi were about 12 meters from the crater left by the mortar. They had no chance. The explosion sent a shower of hundreds of jagged metal shards. Their bodies collapsed in the muddy street next to a World War II war memorial in Irpin. A plaque on the monument read, “Eternal memory to those who fell for their country in the Great Patriotic War.”
Ms Perebyinis’ parents were behind the mother and children and were not injured. They are now hosted by Mrs. Nedava, the godmother. The next day, a snowstorm blew over Kiev. The suitcases, one of which had been opened by the explosion or opened later by passers-by, lay covered in snow in the street next to bloodstains. It contained only clothes: a pink child’s tank top, sweatpants, yellow and blue child’s socks, apparently for Alisa.
When asked to describe his wife, Mr. Perebyinis slumped in his chair. Ms Nedava said she had a “light” spirit, often joking and brightening up a room.
“We were married for 23 years and renovated three apartments and we never had a fight once,” Mr Perebyinis said.
Mr Berezhnyi had 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 telephone interview.
When the mortar attack began, with shells first falling a few hundred yards away, Mr Romaniuk said other church volunteers saw Mr Berezhnyi running to help Ms Perebyinis. “He took his 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 has Covid-19. 19. After the start of hostilities, the crossing point was closed and Mr. Perebyinis was trapped to the east.
To return to Kyiv from separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine after the death of his family, Mr Perebyinis traveled to Russia and flew to the city of Kaliningrad, crossing a land border with the Poland. At the Russian-Polish border, he said, Russian guards questioned him, took his fingerprints and appeared ready to arrest him for unclear reasons, although he was eventually allowed to continue. .
He told them, “My whole family died in what you call a special operation and we call a war. You can do whatever you want with me. I have nothing more to lose.”
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Lviv, Ukraine.