Elena and her four-year-old son arrived at the monastery doors clutching two travel bags and a teddy bear, as they sought shelter from the violence engulfing their hometown of Slavyansk.
More than a month into Kiev’s “counter-terrorism” operation against insurgents in eastern Ukraine, the town of 110,000 people has become the epicentre of the conflict.
“The children scream and cry the moment the shelling begins,” said the 35-year-old Elena, recounting the weeks of sporadic clashes between rebels and the Ukrainian government troops encircling the town.
“We had to spend nights in the basement. How long can anyone live like that?”
A few days ago the Orthodox monastery in Svyatogirsk, 25 kilometres (12 miles) from Slavyansk, made it known it was able to provide shelter for refugees, as the civilian death toll continues to rise according to reporters in the besieged town.
Elena was among a small group of women and children who arrived Saturday at its doors, on board a mini-bus run by emergency medics.
“Were it not for my son I would have stayed there,” Elena told AFP. “But the children find it very upsetting to have to shelter in the basement from the bombing, and the constant sound of explosions.
“There was shooting again when we left the town.”
Officials at the 17th-century monastery were refusing to talk to the media for fear of being accused of taking sides in the conflict, a monk told AFP by telephone.
But around a dozen families are already thought to be housed in its outbuildings, which for centuries were used to host pilgrims with room for up to 1,000 people.
Evacuees will be offered food and shelter for as long as they need it, according to the monastery which is attached to the Orthodox patriarchy in Moscow.
– ‘Shells everywhere’ –
“Many of our friends have left Slavyansk already,” said Svetlana, another of the group of young mothers. “Some have gone to calmer towns in Ukraine, others are with family in Russia.
“But you need money to travel. And I have none. I have not worked for a month. How can people work when they are being bombed all the time?”
Behind her, the small group of children played outside the entrance to the monastery, nestled on the banks of a river in forested countryside, paying no attention to the dishevelled-looking pilgrims nearby.
Ten-year-old Ilya tried to puts a brave face on the violence that has erupted into his life.
“You get used to the shooting, you don’t notice as much after a while, even if it’s still scary.”
But his friend Liza — also 10 — said the fear was still very real.
“When they shoot you don’t know where it’s going to land — that’s what is frightening.”
“We had to leave,” said Elena, her voice rising with emotion. “Children have been killed, and others have been seriously wounded. A young girl had her hand ripped off.
“You don’t always have time to get to shelter when the bombing starts, and the shells can fall anywhere.”
Now the young woman fears for those left behind, the husbands and elderly parents unwilling to leave their homes.
“I told my family and friends I would be gone for three weeks. Of course, I hope things are going to improve, but I don’t think I will be going home any time soon,” said Elena.
At least for now, there is good news at hand, as one of Elena’s party emerges from the monastery to announce that the dozen new arrivals will be taken in, and offered shelter from the storm.