KYIV, Ukraine — Tetyana Vlasenko was bleeding from 12 bullet wounds to her legs when she begged a Russian military officer nearby for help. His soldiers had opened fire on her family’s car, yet the officer was apologetic as the soldiers gave them first aid.
While she lay there seriously hurt, she recalls him saying, “I’m sorry for doing this but we have an order to shoot everything that is moving, and you cannot imagine how many cars like this we have full of Nazis who are trying to bomb us,” Tetyana, 42, told NBC News on Wednesday from her bed in Kyiv City Hospital 17.
Her husband, Roman, 50, and their daughter, Katherina, 16, were also hit in their legs.
The officer’s comments echoed President Vladimir Putin’s accusations of Nazi elements within Ukraine, his stated reason for invading Russia’s western neighbor. Experts have slammed the allegations as slanderous and false.
Tetyana, a former shop worker, said the Russian soldiers she encountered “truly believe that everyone around is a Nazi.” She added that the soldiers “were all terrified,” and she had spoken calmly with them prior to the shooting.
After their house in the village of Vorzel was hit by a Russian strike on March 2, she said, they stayed with neighbors before deciding to leave the community just outside of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv.
The family had already fled from Kremlin rule in Crimea after Russian forces annexed the peninsula in 2014, her husband said.
After driving up to the checkpoint at the end of their street, Roman, a former business consultant, said he asked the soldiers whether they could keep moving. “They asked him what his nationality was and why he spoke Russian so well,” Tetyana said.
“They were surprised that we spoke Russian amongst each other. My husband said, ‘We have a free country here, everyone speaks whichever language they like,’” she added. “And I said, ‘Your brains are full of Putin propaganda crap. There are no Nazis here.’”
They were waved through but got less than 40 feet before their car was fired on, Tetyana said.
She added that she was “naive” when she “saw the bullets tearing through the glass and metal into the car.”
“I started to show them documents and saying there were kids,” she said.
She briefly heard Katherina screaming in pain. “I remember the bullet coming through my knee and my bone,” the teenager said. “After this I lost consciousness.”
Roman “started to shout that they killed our daughter because she lost consciousness,” Tetyana recalled.
Their 8-year-old son, Igor, was the only one who escaped unscathed, because Katherina had covered him, Roman said.
Roman added that he called one of his neighbors, who shouted at the soldiers when he saw what had happened, before helping to transfer them to the hospital where they are recovering.
“I don’t know how we survived,” Roman said, sitting in a wheelchair at the foot of his daughter’s bed with his head in his hands.
“I feel huge, huge guilt for what happened because I made this decision to risk the whole of my family. I will have to live with this for the whole of my life.”
Richard Engel has been NBC News’ chief foreign correspondent since 2008.
Marc Smith is a foreign producer for NBC News, based in London.
Henry Austin is a London-based editor for NBC News Digital.