Warrnambool's Olena Naumenkova almost didn't recognise her parents when they arrived in Australia just weeks ago - the horrors of the war they'd left behind in Ukraine was etched on their faces.
"After this terrible tragedy they feel like they have aged 20 years," Olena said. "When I saw them after they came here I hardly recognised them. They were so skinny."
She said her parents, Vladymyr and Valentyna, were terrified when war broke out and their home city of Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine came under attack.
Russian forces had tried to take the city with air attacks and tanks on the ground but they were repelled by Ukrainian troops.
Russian troops then took up positions in nearby villages around Mykolaiv where they randomly shelled the city.
Mykolaiv is one of Ukraine's most important transportation junctions and is home to a major commercial river and sea port.
"In our city, which has a big ship-building facility and water canals, there are bridges that have been raised and this doesn't give them the opportunity to enter the city from the ground," Olena said.
Vladymyr and Valentyna sought refuge in their basement, only going upstairs to call Olena and her younger brother Yuriy who lives in Sydney.
Olena moved to Australia in 2014 where she met her husband Andrei, who is originally from Latvia. They have a two-year-old son Michael, and Andrei's son Alexei, 12, who also lives in Warrnambool.
Not wanting to alarm family, Olena said her parents initially pretended everything was good saying 'do not worry, everything is OK'.
But she and her brother were following closely what was being reported on international news services, and what they heard had them worried for their parents' welfare.
Things got worse in Ukraine. And it was during a video call made under the cover of darkness from the couple's basement, that they all came to the realisation they may not see each other ever again.
Olena's parents had asked her not to call them one particular day, but to wait for them to phone her. But six hours passed without a word.
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She went online to discover their suburb had been heavily shelled and some homes had been hit. A major gas line had caught on fire and people were killed.
"It was a terrible moment, as I realised that it could be them," Olena said.
She later heard from them that they had escaped unharmed but due to the strong explosions, their five-year-old German Shepherd Mars had had a heart attack and was in a very bad condition. He had survived, but only just. This week they got news from their neighbours that Mars had died.
Olena said her parents didn't want to leave Mykolaiv and their home because it's where they'd lived all their lives. But they felt they had no choice when the area again came under heavy shelling.
They grabbed what items they could, including three of Vladymyr's precious artworks and a couple of paint brushes and left.
"There was 15 minutes between attacks and they just decided to go because they realised if they didn't leave then, there was a chance that we may never see each other again," Olena said.
They made a 15-second phone call to Olena to say: "We are leaving, there is no time, we will call later".
"We knew that they were in very big danger, because they could simply fall under shelling and we wouldn't know where they were," she said.
She said as they were trying to get to safety, they heard and dodged passing shells and described it as "red fire and black smoke".
"We were very happy when, at the next stage of their dangerous journey, they reported that they were alive and were moving on," Olena said.
Her parents left Mykolaiv on March 8 and arrived in Australia on March 30 - forced to spend additional time in Romania in isolation after they both contracted COVID-19.
Olena said when the war began, she was terribly scared and couldn't believe what had happened.
She said it was a relief to know her parents had safely arrived in Poland and later when they flew into Australia.
"I felt very stressed. Each morning when I woke up I couldn't believe what was happening. It was like a nightmare. I felt so bad and physically sick when I woke up and turned on the TV each day."
She said they were constantly worrying about Valentyna's sister, their cousins and many friends, including childhood friends she went to school with, who remain in the city.
Olena said their friends and family were hesitant to leave because they had elderly parents, while others simply didn't want to leave their homes.
"We check the news every day and before I go to bed every night I send a message to everyone: 'Are you OK? Are you OK?' And they just talk about how they feel and sometimes the news isn't good," Olena said.
"It's hard for me too. I feel a whole range of emotions like grief, I feel guilty because I'm safe. I'm very sad. We're just crying every day. There's no day without tears."
She said they followed online and television news, but mostly relied on their friends living in Ukraine for information as they described what was happening.
Despite being safely in Australia, Vladymyr and Valentyna, have been struck by the silence. It's taken them time to adjust.
They've spent the past few months anxiously anticipating explosions, forced to endure the sounds of shelling, helicopters and emergency sirens at all hours of the day and night, wondering if they would be the next casualty.
Olena's retired parents, aged in their late 60s, have very basic English. Olena translated her father's words when The Standard met with them this week.
"He said it's very hard to live in the moment and very hard to survive. The situation is getting worse and worse. We just all hope for peace as soon as possible," she said.
"Every day it's people's lives," Olena said. "It's so hard to hear that kids have been killed. At the moment more than 100 children are dead. So many kids have been left without parents, without mothers, without fathers. It just came from nowhere. We were just living our happy lives. It's so terrible.
"You can rebuild but you can't bring people back."
Vladymyr and Valentyna said they feel good in Warrnambool and have been overwhelmed with the warm welcome they've received from complete strangers.
"We are very touched by the sympathy, attention and support of Warrnambool's people," Olena said.
A callout to the community for art supplies for Vladymyr led to many donations and gift vouchers.
Olena said painting was a form of escapism for her father, quietening and calming his thoughts of home as he "dived into his own world".
She said Vladymyr had been painting all his life. He started at the age of three and now retired, spent all his time creating artworks.
"This is good for his soul. It's something he loves to do. It's his passion. My father wants to sincerely thank the wonderful people of Warrnambool for their kindness and generosity," she said. "Thank you very much for all the gifts, brushes, easels, canvas, paints."
He is one of the artists whose work will be exhibited as part of a Ukraine fund-raising art and craft market and art auction at Warrnambool's Mozart Hall on April 30 from 10am, with the auction starting at 3pm.
Vladymyr will donate all proceeds raised from the sale of his works to Ukraine relief efforts.
In a separate event on Saturday, the community is encouraged to donate socks for newly-arrived Ukrainians in the south-west and further afield.
Co-organiser Oksana Walters said while the majority of Ukraine arrivals were women and children, there were also men too.
"With the weather getting colder it will be good to give people something they will definitely use," Mrs Walters said.
"Our aim is to give a new pair of socks from Warrnambool to every misplaced person who comes from Ukraine so all of them will end up with our socks hopefully."
New underwear donations are also welcome. It's on the Warrnambool Civic Green from 11am to 2pm.
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