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Ukrainians connected through Corpus Christi man share stories of perseverance

Posted at 9:41 PM, Apr 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-03 22:49:48-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Ed Lozano is a Moody High School graduate now teaching in Madrid, Spain. As a humanitarian, Lozano feels we’re all connected to what’s happening in Ukraine, but especially him because his friend Nikita Lunyev remains in Ukraine. The two of them gave their account of what has happened since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Days leading up to the invasion Lunyev says him and his friends had a laugh at the idea that a war might actually come.

"Come on," he said. "War in 2022? People are launching rockets, we have high technology, diplomacy and everything. Even thoughts about war it's like, no, it's impossible."

That first day, Lunyev woke up in Mariupol to vibrations in his home and multiple messages from friends checking on him and wondering what's going on. His country was under attack.

Lozano and Lunyev were on a phone call when sirens began going off.

Days at a time would go by before the two could communicate again.

“The last thing I heard was the siren and I didn't hear from him for about two weeks," said Lozano. "Obviously, you think of the worst like God, this guy is gone. Were those his last words?”

Because of the 2014 conflict similar to the present day one, Lunyev suggested his sister and her boyfriend come stay with him in central Mariupol as opposed to eastern Mariupol. He said the eastern part of the city was hit hard in 2014.

After a few days, water and electricity were the first things to be cut off.

“I sent him a quick picture of the masses that were here in Madrid at the demonstration," said Lozano. "He said hey buddy I'm sorry I can’t talk right now because we’re in the middle of another air attack. We’re rushing down to the basement.”

Lunyev said bombers were the scariest part.

“The bomber, he is flying all around the city and what you’re doing is just counting because as you noticed they’ve been launched six bombs per one plane.”

Information was limited as the Russian Military impeded many communications. Lunyev said all they could get were Russian radio stations claiming they were helping Ukrainians.

"Lack of water, lack of food you just feel, all the time, tire," said Lunyev. "You feel, all the time, stressed... It's almost impossible to sleep because Russian forces they have some kind of schedule. They've been bombing city every three or four hours."

He said losing water was the worst part. There was a well they could grab from, but also resorted to gathering spring water and cleaning it of toxins themselves.

Lunyev, his sister and her boyfriend had to spend time in a bomb shelter. He said many buildings in Mariupol had shelters in the basement, but not newer buildings. The shelters were cold and dark. Lucky for them, their shelter had technicians that could create some light and heat using car batteries.

A curfew was in place at 6 p.m. local time. Citizens were told to turn all electricity off if they had it. Lunyev said Russian forces were targeting any signs of life.

Lunyev tried to keep working in the early days of the invasion to earn food for his parents who lived elsewhere. He created a schedule to visit his parents and his sister's boyfriend's parents every three days.

Each trip they made, more and more bodies filled the streets of Mariupol. First responders and military were tied up at hospitals to come take the bodies away. People resorted turning their neighborhood parks into graveyards.

“It’s like terrifying you," said Lunyev. "I still got these images in my head and that’s shocking. People just lying on the street everywhere and no one is moving them.”

Lunyev said this isn’t war, its a humanitarian disaster.

“That’s what I hate most about Russian forces, that they’ve been trying to locate the places where many people gathered all together, like points where you can get water,” he said. "Like schools where there was humanitarian help, like churches and other places."

They had to live like this for weeks.

"It's like you're emotionally exhausted," Lunyev said. "For the first few days you're scared, but after that you are totally emotionally exhausted.

They eventually started seeing a wave of people finding a window to escape the city by car and walking. Lunyev thought they should take their chance too, despite hearing the rumors about people being attacked while traveling.

The three of them left, started walking, with three backpacks and a water bottle.

Along the first part of the trek, a man outside his home, smoking a cigarette, invited them in. There they were able to rest and eat.

"In that moment I understood there were some people willing to help you," said Lunyev. "Just random people around helping you was - that was quite shocking for me. I was not expecting this."

They continued walking the next day in total some 90 km. It equates to walking from downtown Corpus Christi to Riviera. For the next.

For the next few days, the three of them walked or got a ride to nearby towns, able to find shelter for short times. Then they arrived in Berdyans'k.

The city was under Russian control, but Lunyev said buses were available to take refugees elsewhere in the country. Not before everyone was searched by Russian Military. Lunyev said they looked at your clothes, tattoos, anything that would give an indication that you were a part of the Ukrainian military. If they thought you were, you are shot immediately and anyone who is with you.

Not only that, Lunyev said they searched phones and computers.

"They are checking all the private messages, they are checking your instagram, Facebook," he said. "Any uploads you got. They're checking your gallery for military photos. They're destroying and deleting all the files which contains any signs of war. Damaged buildings even if it's your house."

Lunyev was able to have his cell phone overlooked and kept photos and videos. What he saw next really brought out his emotions.

Lunyev said he witnessed Russian soldiers, smiling, delivering food to children. He said they were saying, look we're here to help you and save you while all this was being video recorded. Once the camera was off, soldiers lost their smiles.

They didn't stay in Berdyans'k long. Eventually they were able to get rides up to Dnipro and finally to Odesa. It was the sign of Ukrainian forces that allowed Lunyev to take a breath.

"Ukraine, they were a special blue strip and yellow strip," he said. "So, when I noticed them I was like, we got it, that's all."

Lunyev said Odesa wasn't being attacked as much as other cities. People were walking around, living normal lives. Yet, he still couldn't get any sleep.

"Closed eyes, but your brain is still working," said Lunyev. "It's like you are still like in an alarm state. You're expecting something."

Meanwhile in Madrid, Lozano looked for ways to help in the crisis.

"Watching these explosions and bombings take place, makes us feel very helpless," said Lozano. "And I put myself in their shoes and there's no reason any person should have to deal with it."

Lozano used to rent his home out on AirBnB. So he listed it there and on for refugees only.

He met couple Illia and Alina Shenheliia from Kharkiv, Ukraine. They were on vacation in the Canary Islands when the invasion began and couldn’t go home. All they could think about were their families.

"We couldn't help in any way," Alina said. "This is the most terrifying feeling I've every experienced. The feeling of powerlessness."

Lozano brought them in to stay with him. They stayed for 10 days.

As they entered Lozanos building, they were greeted with notes on all the neighbors doors. They were warm welcomes in the languages of Russian, Ukrainian, English and Spanish.

“I started to settle down and understand that this is really happening," said Alina. "People sometimes, they really can be so nice so responsive and I'm forever grateful for this experience. I would say that this changed my life for sure.”

Lozano teaches English to business professionals. He introduced the couple to his class who were able to help them navigate Spain and find a temporary home.

Their challenge is very few long term apartments are available. They have no documentation with them and proof of income and more is needed to lock down a home.

Luckily for them they found something and as of Friday, they've settled down in Valencia.

What Illia says helped them persevere, was solidarity.

“They supported us," he said. "We felt this solidarity this is very important when we see that people are there for you."

And solidarity is what helped Lunyev push to survive, even when it got mentally tough. It was the motivation to protect his sister and her boyfriend.

“That’s what’s helped us and many other people in that area. Just stay together,” said Lunyev.

Alina's family found safety in Lviv, Ukraine. Illia's mother and brother were able to escape the country. It took them 11 days but they arrived in Spain safely. Illia's father had to remain in Ukraine.

Alina and Illia have an appointment with the Spanish government for documentation, but not until April 22. If approved they'd be able to stay in Spain for up to a year. Alina said that's OK because even if the war ends soon, she's not sure she wants to return home with it being so close to Russia.

Lunyev said he’ll stay in Odesa for about a month before figuring out what comes next, but said no place is truly safe in Ukraine.

Lozano is still offering his home up to refugees that need shelter.

Lunyev anticipates seeking out therapy after everything is over and will encourage his sister to do the same. He said no university student should ever have to witness what she saw.

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