oDR: Opinion

Friends sheltered us for free in Mariupol – but landlords are cashing in

Ukrainian journalist Nadezhda Sukhorukova tells of friends and homes lost during her final desperate days in the besieged city of Mariupol

Nadezhda Sukhorukova
23 March 2022, 2.26pm

People walk past a residential building in Mariupol that has been badly damaged, 18 March 2022

Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters/Alamy

Journalist Nadezhda Sukhorukova managed to leave the southeastern city of Mariupol on 19 March, after having spent days hiding in a basement with her relatives.

Posts from her diary of the siege have been widely shared on social media. The name Nadezhda means ‘hope’, which makes the hashtag #nadezhda both a signature and a call for hope.

Yesterday, openDemocracy published the first part of her diary, dealing with her final days in Mariupol.

The three diary entries below were all made on 20 March, the day after she left. In them, she reflects on the three homes in which she sheltered from the bombs, and the friends she made and lost.

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20 March 2022

#mariupol #nadezhda I keep telling myself that I am not in hell anymore, but I can still hear the roar of the planes, still flinch at any loud sound and scrunch up my shoulders.

I’m frightened every time someone leaves to go out. When we were in hell, not everyone who left came back.

Before we left Mariupol, we had been sheltering with our friends Maxim and Natasha in their beautiful two-storey house. Until it was bombed, many other people gathered there too. They would stop by in between the air raids and tell us what they saw on the streets.

A fragile young woman called Ania from a nearby 15-storey building used to come every day. Her parents lived next to a school on Kirov Street and she was very worried for them. She could not move them to her place. Even the distance between two bus stops would be impossible for them. Her apartment is on the top floor. The aeroplanes bombing the city seemed to circle right above her attic.

Each day, during the air raid, Ania would go to see her parents. Bombs would fall next to her with a whistling sound. She would drop to the ground and cover her head with her hands. She was very scared. In peaceful times, the route to her parents’ house was not long, but during the air raids it seemed impossible. Ania would walk it twice, there and back, noticing the changes. Houses that were intact yesterday are ruins today. They had holes cut right through, and burnt windows like black eye sockets.

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Ukraine Russia Mariupol
Ukrainian journalist Nadezhda Sukhorukova escaped the besieged city of Mariupol on 19 March. Her diary describes the horror of watching her home destroyed

I considered her a hero. She would visit her parents and come back to a house on Osipenko Street, to catch her breath before returning to her apartment. She would drink some water, stand in the doorway and be silent. Sometimes she would bring diapers, which were priceless, or some cream for week-old Nikita, my friend’s daughter’s baby son. The newborn had lived in the basement since being born. He looked like a little yellow chick. He desperately lacked sunlight.

Each day, Ania was changing just like the city around her. She was becoming more transparent, and the dark circles under her eyes were growing bigger. She was not eating. She would say: “I can’t force myself to eat – I can’t stomach anything.” She would not tell us what she saw outside on the way: there were children with us and she did not want to scare anyone.

When they started shelling our district non-stop, Ania would visit her parents once every couple of days. I thought she was so fragile and transparent that the shrapnel just wouldn’t touch her. When the missile hit our friends’ house and we moved to another basement, we did not see her. She is still in Mariupol. She does not have a car, she has elderly parents and several cats.

A man carries his belongings while walking along a road past tanks of pro-Russian troops during Ukraine-Russia conflict on the outskirts of the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, 20 March 2022

A man carries his belongings while walking past tanks on the outskirts of the besieged city of Mariupol, on 20 March

Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters/Alamy

I am thinking about how, on 11 March, my friend’s husband was killed. The couple had visited us the day before, and I had hoped that we would meet after the war.

Vitia, my friend’s husband, was a talented cameraman. He was quiet, but he promised that we would meet after we won. He did not manage to keep his word.

The next day, when everything was rattling and clanging, as if someone was cutting a giant piece of glass with an iron saw, we heard the roar of a plane very close by. Children were in the basement, and grown-ups were sitting on a long couch and covering their heads with pillows. I kept my eyes closed. I still don’t understand why. I thought the pillow would save me from the bomb.

At that moment Sasha, Vitia’s 13-year-old son, ran into the house. He shouted: “I am Sasha! They just hit our home. It’s fucked up.” We asked: “Where is your mum, is everyone alive?” He answered that everyone was alive, but that Vitia, his father, was under the rubble.

Soon it became clear that his father would remain under the rubble forever.

Vitia was the best cameraman, a very kind person, a loving father and husband, calm and kind.

And he was lying with a crushed head and an unnaturally bent leg in his flat on the ninth floor.

There was no way to get him out, let alone bury him. Within days, the whole building had burnt down, with Vitia inside it. It had been hit directly by a bomb.

Hundreds of thousands of people are still in hell. Please help them. Tell the truth about my city

In Mariupol, a lot of things did not feel significant. We ate from the same plates, so as not to waste water for washing. We slept on mattresses together, so it would be warmer. We wore hats and ran over to anyone we saw to find out what was happening in the neighbouring courtyard. We forgot that shops existed, that one could turn on the TV, catch up on social media, shower or sleep in a real bed.

Today we found out that fewer than 40,000 people had left the city during the entire blockade. Hundreds of thousands of people are still in hell. It’s harder and harder for them to go through each day. Please help them. Tell the truth about my city.

20 March 2022

#mariupol #nadezhda The main thing is not to go crazy, because the unknown is worse than bombs.

I have a friend named Lyosha, who is still in Mariupol. He could have left, but refused. His children were still in the city. The day before we left, he came to our basement and brought food, because we were no longer going up to the surface.

At that time, our main food was buckwheat soaked in water. We waited for it to swell up, and then swallowed two spoonfuls with difficulty. The children had to be forced. There was no salt or taste to this porridge. Lyosha also brought us porridge, but with pieces of tinned stewed meat. He and his extended family lived at his parents’ house.

It was then that I promised him: “If I survive, I will definitely write about you.” He said: “What are you talking about? You will definitely survive.”

When the war began, we were walking down the stairs from our fifth-floor flat to walk the dog, Angie, twice a day. There was heavy shelling and it was scary to the point that I experienced convulsions.

For several days we struggled with nightmarish horror.

Then we put Angie on her leash and took her to Maxim and Natasha’s house. First we left our dog, then we moved there ourselves.

We lived there for more than a week. I named this house “Noah’s Ark”. The hosts accepted everyone, fed them and kept them warm. They divided the food supplies equally, as more and more people came.

On the first floor, in the hall, under the stairs, there were 28 people. We even had a Madonna and Child in the basement: my friend’s daughter with her baby boy, Nikita, born on the first of March.

We didn’t go up to the second floor. It was dangerous there. Only in the mornings, after terrible nights buzzing with mines and shells, did they run to look out the window at the flag on a tall building in the city centre. It was important for us to know that the blue and yellow still fluttered over Mariupol.

People dig a grave for victims killed during Ukraine-Russia conflict in a street in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine March 20, 2022

People in Mariupol dig graves by the side of the road during a break in Russian shelling, 20 March 2022

Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters/Alamy

In the ark, we could even charge our phones. First from the generator, then from cars. When we were able to get a signal, on the steps of building no.105, people had a holiday.

Under the howling and roar of shells, those who had charge left on their phones called relatives and friends in other cities. It was impossible to get through to other people in Mariupol.

For the first time in a week, I called my son, who is hundreds of kilometres away from this hell. He began to shout: “Mum, are you alive? Is everyone alive?” I didn’t know what, exactly, people in other cities knew about Mariupol, so I began to tell him that we were being bombed, rocketed and killed.

Then several men approached me and asked me to find out how things were in other cities. People didn’t have any information at all. They lived in a vacuum.

My friend’s mum put an enormous pot on her head and waded into the fire to rescue my dog

A guy in a work jacket kept asking: “Is Kyiv ours, Ukrainian?” My son said that everything was fine, that we were fighting, and that the enemy was suffering losses. I repeated every word. The guy raised his fists and shook them at the aircraft humming above us. At that moment, for some reason, I wasn’t scared. At that moment, it seemed that all bad things would end very soon.

And then they began to pour rockets down on us. It was impossible to leave the house. Only Lyosha went for information. He loaded up the internet and flooded us with news. We read it together in the Ark.

He left in the morning to visit his children in another area of ​​the city. To be honest, I thought he wouldn’t come back. Fifteen kilometres on foot under shelling.

But he came back a day later. It was a miracle.

​​20 March 2022

#mariupol #nadezhda Tell me, people, what are you doing? You think you can profit off of other people’s misery? You want to make sure no opportunity to make money is wasted? Rents have become astronomical across all regions. Are you sure that money is more important than people’s lives? Are you sure? My beloved Mariupol citizens still live in basements. Cold basements, with no electricity or water. Their houses tremble from explosions, their life is more frightening than hell, they are losing their loved ones and can’t even bury them.

They share with one another the last of their own medicines, their food, their kindness. People, I beg you, come to your senses! While Mariupol stands, while it’s defending itself, you are safe. Mariupol citizens are tormented, they are suffering, dying under bombs, and you make them pay exorbitant prices?

What are you doing? Who do you want to profit from? I assure you, in two weeks in the basement I have not spent a single hryvnia. There was no way to spend money there. No one tried to forcibly take food from others. Everyone shared with each other. My friends and loved ones, my neighbours and even people we barely knew, helped as much as they could. For free.

We fled Mariupol for the nearby town of Manhush on 19 March. When we arrived, a very good man let us – 16 adults and children, a dog and several cats – stay in his beautiful house. We slept in warm beds, washed ourselves in a bath, ate from different plates, at a properly set dining table. I asked him: “How much do we owe you?” He said: “Who do you think I am?”

Meanwhile another man from his village sold brynza and tvorog [sheep’s milk cheese and soft curd cheese] for 500 hryvnias – to hungry people in run-down, shelled cars, in dirty jackets, with bandaged heads and arms, with children exhausted by sleepless nights. We bought some while we were waiting to go through because we really wanted our children to eat.

Refugees gather in a street as they leave the city during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the besieged southern port of Mariupol

Refugees gather in a street as they prepare to leave Mariupol

Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters/Alamy

A day before we left Mariupol, we were running out of food in our basement. We ate cold buckwheat with water. I was afraid that there wouldn’t be enough for my dog, so I gave my portion to her. For some reason, I was convinced that that would be our last night and I didn’t want Angie to go to heaven hungry.

Our neighbours in the basement shared biscuits with our children, also for free. It didn’t cross anyone’s mind to ask for money for this. It would have been completely absurd.

For ten days a family of four – two adults and two children – welcomed 28 Mariupol citizens in their house. Because their houses were either destroyed by shelling or were in the epicentre of explosions. They fed people from their own supplies, gave them water, a shelter from the bombings. And did not take any money at all. And when this ark was struck by a missile, they took everyone to the basement of their garage so as to shelter from a particularly frightening shelling.

The missile struck the house in the afternoon. First, we did not want to leave our rooms. The sound seemed so powerful to me that I thought our ark would burst into pieces. But it stood. Fifteen people continued to sit, covering their heads with their arms and listening to the whistling and grating sounds on the other side of the windows. After a few moments, neighbours came in screaming: “Are you alive? You have no roof!”

Fire raged over the roofless two-storey house while neighbours and entirely unknown people were extinguishing the flames, fetching rainwater from an old swimming pool, under the shelling of Grads rockets.

Can you imagine this? They risked their lives just like that. They could have asked for payment for their services. Just as those who are profiting off of my friends and neighbours do now. Are you not afraid? Are you not afraid of anything?

My friend’s mum put an enormous pot on her head and waded into the fire to rescue my dog. How much should I have paid her for that? In what currency?

The shelling was horrific during all this time. I was afraid to leave the garage. I was frightened. I turned out to be the most useless person in extreme conditions. I just stood, looked at the sky, and prayed. I had never prayed so much until that moment.

I have a good memory, but at that moment I forgot the words of the prayer. I was just asking: “Dear God, please, let us stay alive. One more day, please. But if that’s not possible, that’s okay. But please do try. I will never hurt anyone again, just don’t kill us, God.”

How much do I need to pay him now for letting me live? What is the price for this in wartime?

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

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