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  • The San Juan Daily Star

They died by a bridge in Ukraine. This is their story.


In an image provided by the family, the wedding of Serhiy and Tetiana Perebyinis.

By Andrew E. Kramer


They met in high school but became a couple years later, after meeting again on a dance floor at a Ukrainian nightclub. Married in 2001, they lived in a bedroom community outside Kyiv, 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 minivan. They shared a country home with friends, and Tetiana Perebyinis was a dedicated gardener and an avid skier. She had just returned from a ski trip to Georgia.


Then, late last month, Russia invaded Ukraine, and the fighting quickly moved toward Kyiv, the capital. It wasn’t long before artillery shells were crashing into their neighborhood. One night, a shell hit their building, prompting Tetiana Perebyinis and the children to move to the basement. Finally, with her husband away in eastern Ukraine tending to his ailing mother, Tetiana Perebyinis decided it was time to take her children and run.


They didn’t make it. Tetiana 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 Sunday as they dashed across the concrete remnants of a damaged bridge in their town of Irpin, trying to evacuate to Kyiv.


Their luggage — a blue roller suitcase, a gray suitcase and some backpacks — was scattered near their bodies, along with a green carrying case for a small dog that was barking.


They were four people among the many who tried to cross that bridge this past weekend, but their deaths resonated far beyond their Ukrainian suburb. A photograph of the family and Berezhnyi lying bloodied and motionless, taken by New York Times photographer Lynsey Addario, encapsulates the indiscriminate slaughter by an invading Russian army that has increasingly targeted heavily populated civilian areas.


The family’s lives and their final hours were described in an interview by Serhiy Perebyinis and a godmother, Polina Nedava. Serhiy Perebyinis, also 43, said he learned of the death of his family on Twitter, from posts by Ukrainians.


Breaking down in tears, Perebyinis said he told his wife the night before she died that he was sorry he wasn’t with her.


“I told her, ‘Forgive me that I couldn’t defend you,’ ” he said. “I tried to care for one person, and it meant I cannot protect you.”


“She said, ‘Don’t worry, I will get out.’ ”


After she didn’t, he said he felt it was important that their deaths had been recorded in photographs and video. “The whole world should know what is happening here,” he said.


The Perebyinis family had already been displaced once by war, in 2014, when they were living in Donetsk in the east and Russia fomented a separatist uprising. They moved to Kyiv to escape the fighting and started rebuilding their lives. When Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine last month, they could hardly believe it was happening again, Serhiy Perebyinis said.


Tetiana Perebyinis’ employer, SE Ranking, a software company with offices in California and London, had encouraged employees to leave Ukraine immediately once the fighting started. It had even rented rooms for them in Poland, Serhiy Perebyinis said. But his wife delayed her departure because of uncertainty over how to evacuate her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease.


On Saturday, after two days in the basement, the family made a first attempt at evacuating. But as they were packing up their minivan, a tank rolled by on the street outside. They decided to wait.


The next day they were up and moving by about 7 a.m. Tetiana Perebyinis had discussed the plan in minute detail with her husband. She and her two children and her mother and father, who lived nearby, would join a church group and try to evacuate toward Kyiv, and then get somewhere safe from there.


They drove as far as they could in Irpin, but then Tetiana Perebyinis was forced to abandon the minivan. They set out on foot toward a damaged bridge over the Irpin River.


To escape, they were forced to cross 100 yards or so of exposed street on one side of the bridge. As Russian forces fired into the area, many tried to seek cover behind a brick wall.


Berezhnyi, the church volunteer, who had earlier evacuated his own family but had returned to help others, was with Tetiana Perebyinis and her children when they began to dash toward the other side.


Through the night, Serhiy Perebyinis had tried to monitor his wife’s location using a locator app on their phones. But it showed nothing: The family was in a basement, without cell reception.


Around dawn, he said, he saw one ping, showing them at their home address. But nothing showed them moving. Cellphone coverage had become too spotty in the town.


The next ping of a location on Serhiy Perebyinis’ phone came around 10 a.m. Sunday. It was at Clinical Hospital No. 7 in Kyiv. Something had gone wrong.


He called his wife’s number. It was ringing, but nobody answered. He called his children’s phone numbers, with the same result.


A half-hour or so later, he saw a post on Twitter saying a family had been killed in a mortar strike on the evacuation route out of Irpin. A short time later, another Twitter post appeared, with a picture. “I recognized the luggage and that is how I knew,” he said.


When asked to describe his wife, Serhiy Perebyinis slumped in his chair. Nedava offered that she had a “light” spirit, was often joking and cheered up a room.


Over their long marriage, Serhiy Perebyinis said, “we refurbished three apartments and never argued once.”


Berezhnyi had moved his wife to western Ukraine but had returned to Irpin to help with the evacuation organized by his church, the Irpin Bible Church, said the pastor, Mykola Romaniuk.


When the mortar strike began, with shells landing first a few hundred yards away, Romaniuk said other church volunteers saw Berezhnyi run to help Tetiana Perebyinis. “He took her suitcase and they started running,” he said.


Berezhnyi, Romaiuk said, was quiet and generous. “He was the kind of friend who is ready to help with no words needed,” he said. “I do not know how God can forgive such crimes.”


In mid-February, before the war started, Serhiy Perebyinis had traveled to his hometown, Donetsk, in rebel-held eastern Ukraine, to care for his mother, who was sick with COVID-19. After hostilities began, the crossing point closed and he was trapped in the East.


To return to Kyiv from separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine after the death of his family, Serhiy Perebyinis traveled into Russia and flew to the city of Kaliningrad, to cross a land border into Poland. At the Russia-Poland border, he said, Russian guards questioned him, took his fingerprints and seemed ready to arrest him for unclear reasons, although he was eventually allowed to travel on.


He said he told them: “My whole family died in what you call a special operation and we call a war. You can do what you want with me. I have nothing left to lose.’’

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