These people survived Mariupol. Here are their stories
Three people who have managed to escape the besieged city tell openDemocracy of the horrors they witnessed
Local people often call the southern Ukrainian city Mariupol, ‘Marik’. This affectionate nickname reminds us of the city’s culture, which includes Greek, Tatar, Jewish traditions, as well as an industrial culture, notable landscapes and the coastline of the Sea of Azov.
Before the war, many people from Donetsk would travel the four hours to Mariupol by train, to enjoy the sea views and, let’s be honest, the city’s delicious chebureks, a traditional Crimean Tatar dish made of fresh dough and fillings, which were sold at a small seaside cafe not far from the railway crossing bridge. The city’s remarkable landscapes appear in paintings by the prominent Pontic Greek and Ukrainian artist, Arkhip Kuindzhi. Recently, the local museum named after Kuindzhi was damaged during the shelling. It’s not yet known how many artworks were lost.
Today, Marik is under blockade by Russian forces. We don’t not yet have a clear picture yet of the horrors that have befallen the city. People have had to walk long distances at their own risk to try to evacuate and survive.
openDemocracy asked three people who left the city about their experience of the Russian siege.
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‘We felt like we were cut off from the entire world’. Katya Milka
For four years, Katya and I were side-by-side as we studied at Donetsk University. After graduating, she became the editor of a small newspaper in Donetsk. Katya is short and funny, and has always had a ferocious appetite. For Katya, the war began in 2014. Her parents stayed in Donetsk, while she moved to Mariupol where she lived with her husband, while working at her newspaper. Her son was also born there. Like many Ukrainians, she learned about the full-scale invasion on 24 February, but did not believe that Mariupol would come under attack. She managed to leave the city on 17 March.
We met the full-scale war at home. The air raid alarm sounded two or three times a day. So we went out into our apartment’s corridor and waited there until the alarm stopped ringing. Then, a couple of days after that, the electricity stopped working in the city. My husband’s mother called and told us to come to their place – a private house not far from us. So we went. There were nine of us, including two children – my son and the son of my husband’s younger brother, whose family joined us.
We did not believe war was happening all around the country. We constantly read the news, hoping it would all be over soon. But it only got worse. Soon we were left with no water and no gas. There was no mobile coverage and no internet connection. We felt we were cut off from the entire world.
As soon as the shooting started, we would run to the basement, a small two-square-metre room near the summer kitchen. It was freezing in there. We put two benches and rugs there to make us at least somehow comfortable, and we all sat fully clothed. Not everyone could fit in there as the room was so small; part of our family was still hiding outside. My husband’s brother has a daughter who is one and a half, and she couldn’t spend all the time in the basement. So they came down only when there was heavy shelling, and spent the night in the house whenever it was possible. Later, when the shelling became intense, the children slept on benches, and we sat on small chairs nearby.
Then, the situation got even worse: all the shops were closed and some people looted supermarkets, taking everything. But everyone should understand they had no choice – people weren’t able to buy anything. They panicked and there was a commotion. Only one shop was open, the Zerkalny supermarket. Some locals set up a list to help people buy things. Prices went up. There was no more bread in the shops. Shortly after the start of the siege, people bought up all the sugar, flour and yeast, so that they could bake bread themselves. We had food supplies, but they soon ran out because there were so many of us.
It felt like a humanitarian catastrophe was looming. We tried to feed the children three times a day, cooked them soup, and gave them porridge. Finally, my husband’s father asked me and his other daughter-in-law, Karina, to find a better place to stay with the children so that we’d have a better chance of surviving. We knew there was a shelter in the kindergarten my son attended. We grabbed some clothes and some toys, took some food, and went to hide there. The basement was large, and many families were already staying there. But it was not a proper shelter, it had sewerage pipes and a heating system running through it. Soon our entire family moved there too. Up to 90 people stayed inside, including 30 children of different ages.
The basement was always cold and damp. We were haunted by a feeling of cold. We could never get warm. The children ate three or two times a day; adults often ate once a day, sometimes twice. We cooked on a campfire. Women went upstairs, got things ready and washed dishes; our men would build a fire out on the street, setting up a field kitchen on a wheelbarrow. We cooked borscht, soup and wheat porridge. Somedays, because of the heavy shelling, we had no water at all – we could not go and get any. So our husbands collected snow and rainwater and boiled it. But we didn’t starve. Our men always managed to go somewhere and get food from the Ukrainian military or at warehouses. Once, they brought several boxes of cookies and we gave them out with kompot [a drink made from boiled fruits] to the children. On rare occasions there were sweets, oranges or apples. And the new people who came always brought food with them. We tried to cover a cabbage with rotted leaves in borscht. On some days, we ate mayonnaise or salted semolina with water when there was nothing else to eat. I’ve never tasted anything like this. The men ate gruel.
When we left and drove around the city we saw what horror it had become. Everything was broken, everything had collapsed
We were lucky that the kindergarten wasn’t shelled; but the houses nearby were damaged. When there was no shelling, our men patrolled the street. Airstrikes were horrifying. Every time [the planes came] we thought that our kindergarten would be destroyed. The ceiling shook, and the children woke up and cried. We were all scared.
Once, we went out and saw a dead body on the street. It had lay there for a very long time, a week for sure. Finally, we asked someone who it was. It turned out an older woman had died at home and her relatives had taken her body out into the street, not to have that smell in the house. People kept dying. People buried their dead relatives in the yards around their homes, in their garden, everywhere. Sometimes corpses just lay on the street. It was also scary when the curfew came; it would get dark, and there was no shelling, but there was a burning smell in the city. This silence was terrible.
Sometimes I was able to get online. We immediately called relatives to let them know that we were alive. When it became possible to call someone, we learned that there was an opportunity to somehow go towards Mangush [a town west of the city] and further towards Berdyansk. We weren’t sure what to do. We were worried that we would be shot on the road. But one morning, my husband came and said that we were leaving. He’d organised for other people to leave at the same time, so there were several cars.
We spent most of the time sitting in the basement and didn’t see the destruction that had already taken place. So when we left and drove around the city we saw what horror it had become. Everything was broken, everything had collapsed. There were craters in the streets, burned buildings. It was terrifying.
We drove, and we prayed all the way. We asked the Lord to keep us alive. And I believe he helped us because we got there relatively quickly: we left Mariupol at about ten in the morning and arrived in Berdyansk at three in the afternoon.
‘We watched Russian warships attack the city from our balcony’. Egor Zakharov
Egor Zakharov, a 22-year-old student, spent a little over a month in blockaded Mariupol. His father – the artist Sergii Zakharov, known as ‘the Banksy of Donetsk’, who once spent almost two months in a prison in ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ after satirising pro-Russian fighters – was waiting for him in Kyiv.
On 24 February, my parents called me early in the morning and said Russian troops had entered Ukraine. We didn’t know what to do at that time. I am a student and I lived in a dormitory in Mariupol with my friends. Some of my friends initially left the city, but I decided to stay. At first, there were 19 people on my floor, the seventh floor. By 25 March, only eight of us remained, including two foreigners – a student from Turkmenistan and one from Sudan. After that, we all left the city together.
At first, we spent the nights on the seventh floor in the corridor, assuming the walls would protect us. On 10 March, we moved to the basement, where there were other students and residents from nearby areas who had fled their houses due to heavy shelling.
In those first days, I had no fear. But we became worried something could fly into our building because we saw how the houses nearby had been destroyed. Once there was a powerful explosion in the central districts. The blast wave shattered the windows in our dormitory. Despite everything that happened, we tried to hold on. But some people couldn’t stand it emotionally, as we saw in the basement. One woman shuddered at every sound, even if it had nothing to do with the war. It was difficult to be near this, so we spent only the nights in the basement and spent the rest of the time on our seventh floor. There, we built a stove and cooked food. Sitting on the balcony, we watched Russian warships attack the city from the sea. We saw how planes flew and dropped bombs and the glow from the explosion and destruction. All days were the same.
We were able to go outside in the first couple of weeks. We would go shopping and to fetch water – some shops would sell slightly overpriced food packages (with cereals, flour, small bread, vegetables, sweets, sometimes beans). The very last time we went for water, there were only three of us. The others were too afraid.
Once, we went to the Zerkalny supermarket. There was a long waiting line, and we spent some time standing in the street. The building next to us was on fire. Residents couldn’t put the fire out because there weren’t any firefighters left in the city. After that, the shelling started and increased. One shell landed 50 metres from us. We froze. At this point, it became terrifying. People ran, but we hid behind the store. When the shelling ended, we were finally able to buy some food. On the way back, we saw how our neighbourhood had suffered. There were shell craters. One woman asked if we knew any doctors. A man sat on a bench and smoked silently. He was looking at three dead people who lay beside him. As soon as we returned to the dormitory, the shelling started again.
We came under shelling twice. But I finally managed to leave the city
The Adastra medical centre was not far from us, and the [Ukrainian] military, who were distributing humanitarian aid, allowed us to enter. They had a supply of water and food. We also found a fully charged old mobile phone and a radio. We tried to find frequencies where Ukrainians were speaking but didn’t; we could hear only Russians. Listening to this radio, we heard the Russian military urging Ukrainian soldiers to surrender, and conversations between Chechens. I was able to talk to my father on 24 March. He said I had to leave. My fellow students and I decided to walk. We came under shelling twice. But I finally managed to leave the city.
‘During the war, food is valuable’. Daniil Nemirovskiy
For several days, Ukrainian cultural institutions tried to locate Mariupol-based artist Daniil Nemirovskiy. They had no news for a long time. The artist from Mariupol had been sitting in the shelter of the famous Ilyich metallurgical plant, unable to contact anyone. While he was there, he drew civilians. He managed to take only three drawings when he left.
On 24 February, I was in a residential area on the city’s outskirts with my grandparents, far away from any military bases and units. The war soon came to this peaceful place – the Russians drove Ukrainian forces out. When Ukrainian soldiers returned to take it back, Russians began shelling this quiet neighbourhood almost immediately, and civilians started suffering.
I argued with my grandparents: they didn’t believe that going to a bomb shelter was necessary, they thought it was safe to remain at home. So, when their street was shelled, I decided to leave, but they stayed. Recently, my parents were informed that my grandmother was in hospital with a shrapnel wound.
The city's residents had no information, particularly about any green corridors for evacuations. Our fighters and police officers said they were going to get help from battalions from Zaporizhzhia, a city about three hours away, and we all prayed for them to come. But no one came.
Mariupol is divided into two parts by the Kalmius River: the left and right banks. The Z forces [Russian army] first captured the left bank and began to move on. After that, fighting took place everywhere, particularly in the city centre. And who controlled the centre of Mariupol wasn’t clear.
In early March, I moved to a bomb shelter at the first entrance of the Ilyich metallurgical factory. It is a well-equipped Soviet bomb shelter with two exits; but it’s hard to stay there for more than two hours [because it is so small]. The shelter had four sections, each of which was 4.5x4.5 metres. There were eight people and only four benches in my block. We spent all our time there and weren’t allowed to go out because it was too dangerous outside
Initially, the plant was mothballed for two to three weeks. But the workers didn’t return. We could hear bombs constantly dropping on the factory.
In wartime, food is valuable. We сooked on a fire in the street. In the first two weeks, it was freezing so our food was safe, but a lot of it started to go bad when it got warmer. By 10 March, we had no food and humanitarian aid was not allowed into Mariupol; the city was under siege. One day, police officers broke into some warehouses and shops and distributed food to people. This wasn’t looting. Once, [police officers] brought us nine boxes of sausages without labels or expiration dates. I believe that such large deliveries of food could not have taken place if the police hadn’t helped.
If you want to live, you leave on foot. On 21 March, I left my shelter and walked to the occupied areas, avoiding all checkpoints on the way. I knew buses were regularly leaving for the town of Volodarske [since 2016, the town has been called Nikolske], which is close by [and controlled by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR)]. I met volunteers there. Russian and DPR flags were everywhere. Russians and people from the DPR organise transportation to Donetsk and Rostov-on-Don, but a Russian soldier said that if I wanted to go, I had to undergo ‘filtration’. I didn’t understand what he meant by this. And of course, I wanted to go to Ukraine, though it’s difficult to do so from Volodarske to Ukraine, as there is no direct connection.
Mariupol is still holding out. But day by day, the situation in the city is getting worse and worse: people have less food and water and it becomes more difficult for them to get to Ukraine
DPR forces stole some Ukrainian buses and used them to send people to Rostov without even changing the plates. So I decided to go to Berdyansk, which is controlled by the Russian military forces, but I would say that it’s still Ukrainian. I waited two days for a bus and then eventually decided to make my own way. Finally, I managed to agree a deal with a local man, who drove me to Berdyansk for 750 hryvnias [£19.50]. We passed through four checkpoints on the way, two from the DPR and two from the Russian army, before finally arriving in Berdyansk.
In Berdyansk, even though Russian soldiers met us at the entrance to the city, there were Ukrainian flags and posters of ‘Russian warship, go fuck yourself!’. Almost immediately, I received a message on my phone about an evacuation to Ukraine, which was supposed to take place from a sports complex. I went there, but there were no volunteers, no evacuation, no information.
Only the Russian propaganda radio was working. It said that soon all the city’s television channels would be switched to Russian channels. Ukrainian buses were not allowed into the city itself, so they departed from a place called the Azov Ring [a square at the entrance of the city]. Somehow I found out that 15 Ukrainian buses were to arrive, so I got to the Azov Ring and boarded the first bus. Then there were four more checkpoints, but they seemed less brutal.
Mariupol is still holding out. But day by day, the situation in the city is getting worse and worse: people have less food and water and it becomes more difficult for them to get to Ukraine.
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