MARIUPOL: YOU DON’T KNOW HOW YOUR LIFE COULD TURN
Eyewitness Story: We Melted Snow and Burned Dictionaries in 2022
Anastasiya*, 27, her husband Volodymyr*, 34, a two-year-old son Oleksandr*, and a Yorkshire terrier Lola* survived almost one month in Mariupol without power, water, gas, or communication and under incessant bombing and shelling. From February 24 to March 17, 2022, this young family was stuck in their cold, dark apartment without food and water amidst fierce urban fighting. On March 16, 2022, their part of town was captured by the Russian Federation troops, and the next day they managed to escape.
Anastasiya’s big brown eyes shine from within with mercy, grief, and grace. Here is her story:
The morning started with an “alarm clock” — usually, the Russians bombed around 4 or 5 a.m. Without the Internet or power, we didn’t have the air raid signal — we used our ears. I chose to stay in our apartment instead of going down to the basement. It was a hard decision.
Everyone else ran to the basement but it was really dusty. The walls were lined with glass wool. I worried that my son could get sick inhaling it. The hospitals were closed; we had no access to any medicine. There was another reason why we stayed in the apartment instead of going to the basement. It’s hard to talk about it.
I was afraid that the house would collapse and we would be dying slowly and painfully under the rubble. I thought: if we must die, it’s better to die quickly.
So, we ended up staying in our apartment, on the second floor of a nine-story building. Our building is partially damaged: the eighth floor got hit when we were still there.
BOMBING AND SHELLING
Once, late in the morning, Volodymyr was cooking on an open fire stove in the yard. Many neighbors were outside boiling water, sawing wood, and cooking. The rocket hit right next to them, between a little garden and a row of cars parked this way so that people could leave as soon as the Russians opened the roads. These six cars shielded my husband and others from shelling but caught on fire. I only came down after they burned down. There was a lot of smoke and soot.
On March 12, two air bombs fell on our side of the street — one landed in the street and another one in the yard. This type of air bomb cuts the building into parts, slicing them, so there was serious damage. Some balconies were torn out and turned inside out in a bizarre way. There were two explosion craters, about 5 meters each.
Another evening, just before the curfew, a shell hit a yard next door. Volodymyr is a paramedic and he considers saving lives his duty. He rushed there, along with a neighbor, to help the wounded. One young man was in agony, choking with blood. His internal organs must have suffered from the shock wave and he had an open skull injury. Volodymyr and his friend tried to rescue him while screaming for an ambulance. It was dark and snowing. The ambulance never came.
THE RULE OF TWO WALLS
Everyone in Ukraine knows the rule of the two walls by now: you find one wall, usually with a window, and then another, and behind these two walls, you make yourself a hiding place. Usually, it is a hallway. So when we heard the plane we would hide in the hallway. My son used to play with his toy plane and, as a part of his game, he asked us to go hide in the hallway.
We’d get up and try to wash up, with whatever we could: the remaining wet tissues, or a bit of water. There was no running water at this point. The heating failed around March 2. On March 5, the gas pipe got damaged by shelling, and from then on it was about +5C (41F) inside. It was -10C (14F) outside. We wore street clothes inside. My little son wore winter underwear, thick pants, a winter jacket, boots, and a hat inside at all times.
Our Yorkshire terrier, Lola, uses the toilet outside so if the shelling wasn’t too bad, I’d walk around the yard with her. If it was bad, I just crack-opened the door downstairs and Lola would run in and out, really quickly.
We used the toilet at home. It didn’t flush so we had a trick and the whole system. We collected snow and melted it: if it sits for a while, it just turns into water, even when it’s cold at home. The rain is better than snow, though. The whole bucket of melted snow makes a quarter of the bucket of water. We had a few tubs: the first one was for washing up, and from there, the water went into the second tub, for rinsing dishes and such. Then, we used this water for the third time: it went into the bucket and we flushed the toilet with it. Other people preferred to go to the toilet outside.
RATS LEFT TWO DAYS BEFORE THE WAR
We had no rats, mice, or cockroaches, by the way. Nothing. Pigeons, sparrows, cats, and dogs. And people.
Funny story: the rats ran from the garages nearby two days before the war. Just left. I don’t know where.
MAKING FIRE WITH ENGLISH DICTIONARIES
After washing up, we usually went down to the yard to make some porridge or boil water in a kettle. If no one made the fire, my husband would start it. Men took turns sawing the trees in the yard for firewood. Our building had great camaraderie. Men were responsible for building stoves and bringing water from the wells or springs which was really dangerous. Women were responsible for finding newspapers, magazines, and books to make fire.
I was planning to learn English during the war as we were stuck at home. I found one tiny dictionary, old and thin, read a few words, and realized that my head was not working in this chaos. And then, one day, I went outside to boil potatoes and found a thick dictionary in a big box with books for fire. The letter “A” was already missing. I thought, “Did you lose your mind?” I took the dictionary home. It is now there, in Mariupol. I hope someone can use it as it is meant to be used.
DRAWING: ONE CANDLE
So we would make tea, or coffee, and keep the rest of the hot water in a thermos. I then played with the kid, trying to keep warm. We’d hide in the hallway a lot when it was especially noisy with the air raids. Then I would fix some lunch in the yard again.
My son couldn’t always take naps because it was so loud: the furniture was shaking and the windows were moving. When he couldn’t sleep, we just stayed awake under the blanket for a while.
So we were just trying to kill time and survive. I don’t know if time went fast or slow. Some days went by in a wink, and others lingered forever. Time went really slow, almost stopped, after dark. And that happened early: it was still winter. So from 5.30 p.m., it lasted forever. We’d light one candle and we would move to the kitchen together, make some Playdough figurines, draw, play, and then we’d move to the living room, together, and over and over again.
Days went by like this. Not so for my husband.
DEAD BODIES OR MANNEQUINS?
My husband had to procure food, water, and clothes — it was so cold and we didn’t really have warm clothes. He even had to find fire extinguishers because some bombs could set your place on fire.
On February 24, the first day of the war, the shops were extremely crowded. The shops closed on February 27–28. After that, people ran out of stock and looting started in supermarkets, corner stores, and markets. When the Russians started shelling the shopping centers, no salespeople were left and men and women picked up food and bottles of water if they could find them.
Some people looted kiosks and exchanged cigarettes and alcohol for food and water. Those were the most valuable items. Canned goods, canned meat, and condensed sweet milk were worth a lot.
My husband went anywhere he could find supplies. A building in the Port City had burned down and when Volodymyr found some food, say, a plastic package with mousse, it would be singed.
He saw burnt corpses, and people with their limbs torn off. It was dark and smoky in the building, and ashes covered everything. Volodymyr tried to provide first aid wherever he could but sometimes he couldn’t tell a mannequin from a person on the floor.
PEOPLE FIGHTING TO DEATH — FOR FOOD
Volodymyr went looking for food in warehouses and the farmer’s market. He saw a lot of horrible things: people fighting to the death for food. He told me, “I knew that a human being is capable of a lot but when I saw this with my own eyes, I couldn’t believe it. It doesn’t register. People were actually killing each other.” The owners of the stores were trying to defend their businesses, and for that, they had perished. I’m lucky that I didn’t get to see it but each day Volodymyr left the house I was saying farewell to him in my mind.
Old people were dying from stress, heart failure, and running out of insulin.
Our 87-year-old neighbor died and his family had to store his body on the balcony. All the ritual services were closed by that time but they got somewhere a special body bag. The body just sat there for days. They were about to bury him in the yard but the ritual services came for him. It was probably the last time that it happened. After that, people had to bury their dead in the yards.
WE WERE FORTY MINUTES AWAY FROM THE MATERNITY HOSPITAL — BUT WE DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT THE BOMBING
We have heard nothing about the maternal hospital shelling on March 9. We were about a 40-minute walk away but no one walked that far; it was dangerous. On March 10, my close friend gave birth at home nearby. She never made it to the hospital — probably, for the best. We only found out about all of this after we escaped.
We had no communication with the rest of the world and didn’t know what was happening outside of our district. From March 2, we couldn’t charge our phones because there was no power. One day, we found a generator in a nearby yard. We pumped out some gas from a car to run the generator and managed to charge phones but it didn’t last long. We just took some photos and that was it.
We had no clue about what was happening in the city, leave alone in the country or the world. It could have been full-scale World War III or Ukraine could have fallen already but how would we know? All we had was just guesses. We left on March 17, the day after the Mariupol drama theater was bombed but we knew nothing about it.
The connection only came back when we arrived at Zaporizhzhia.
WE GOT LUCKY, WE LEFT. I DIDN’T WANT TO LEAVE
There were no buses, no humanitarian convoys. Some people left on foot. Some asked for rides, others stole cars from garages nearby when the doors got damaged by the shock wave from shelling. We got lucky: four cars were leaving so we got a ride. First, I didn’t want to leave. My mom is still there. And it was my home.
CHECKPOINTS EVERY 200 METERS
On the way, there was no shooting but all sorts of military stopped us every 200 meters, sometimes, 500 meters: Donetsk People’s Republic army, Russian army, Chechens. Threatening men with big guns checked our documents and stripped men to look for tattoos, bruises, rifle butts’ marks on their hands, and any signs pointing out that the men served. They were checking phones, too, connected them to the power battery, charged them, and inspected the content. They looked for any compromising materials, correspondence, photos, and subscriptions to patriotic channels. And if you happened to have any of those, they interrogated you. Thankfully, we had nothing on our phones because we didn’t have power and couldn’t use them.
About five days ago, we heard from a friend from a filtration camp. The men went for water and got stopped on the way. A patrol in a car detained them, checked their phones, and checked if the men served in any battalions. They have a special procedure. People can spend up to ten days there. Their passports are taken away but they still have the phones. We have heard that people are being sent to Taganrog and then Sakhalin but we don’t know anyone personally. People who leave for Russia do it out of desperation. Say, they have relatives there or friends who are willing to host them.
SCARY MEN WITH BIG GUNS
I personally didn’t have any contact with the Russian military but our neighbors got captured. It was a joke. (At some point, you reach the state when you just laugh at everything.) These guys went to a well or a spring, to get some water, and bumped into two men with guns sitting in the bushes. The neighbors couldn’t tell them by the uniform: it was twilight. So one said, in Ukrainian, “Death to our enemies!” And the soldiers looked at each other, “What?!” and detained all three of them. Turned out, these were the Donetsk People’s Republic’s soldiers. An unfortunate joke, truly. They had to spend the night at the jail but were released after that.
Volodymyr would bump into the Russian soldiers at the food warehouses. We were getting food there, and so did they. At that point, they didn’t have food, either, or, maybe, they didn’t have enough, I don’t know the details.
Once we drove a bit further from Mariupol on our way out, we saw how exhausted and tired these Russian soldiers were. They cooked something on the fire in the garbage bins, with exhausted-looking dogs running around. I didn’t feel sorry for them. Go back home, why suffer?
MY SISTER IS IN RUSSIA
Overall, before the war, nobody was either extremely pro-Russian or anti-Russian. Neutrality prevailed. Of course, there were people who perceived Russia as an enemy but I don’t even know anyone like this personally.
Most people spoke Russian in Mariupol. We had Ukrainian, Russian, and English classes in school. We didn’t pay much attention to what language we spoke. It has happened so, historically, that we speak Russian. I am fluent in Ukrainian.
I have an aunt and a sister in Russia and we are still in touch. My sister lives in the Moscow region and, of course, offers help, and asks us to come and stay with them but I don’t want to do it. We are used to sorting out life situations ourselves even if they are difficult.
I am alive, thank God, I still have my hands and legs, I think I can find strength and stand on my feet again.
My sister says that about 70–80% of Russians support Putin’s regime but there are people who are opposed to the war and want to scream but are afraid. I understand why they are silent. It’s fear. I have experienced fear during this month. I know what fear is. I understand it.
Recently, I got a text from my classmate, “I am afraid to write to you, I am afraid that you’d hate me.” And I said, “No, you have nothing to do with it. You just live there.” She went to Russia in 2014 because her father was there and stayed. Many friends blame her, for being a traitor and working for the invaders. And I say, this is stupid. You don’t know how your life may turn. It doesn’t matter where you are. Common people are not to blame.
Of course, I do have negative emotions toward people who gave the orders, people who came to Ukraine with firearms in their hands, and those who are still there. Naturally. But… I don’t know. The local people who support this regime are sick. And you know, you don’t take offense if someone is sick. This is not a religious feeling. I will not forgive those in charge. But to blame my sister, my friends, those who write with the words of support and empathy? Why should I hate them? It is their home. I used to have my home. Now, my home is here. Temporarily.
I didn’t get any sense of relief since we had left. I’m monitoring the news, trying to get in touch with my relatives. My mom is still there. We just spoke to her yesterday. Finally, there is some connection. It seems like everything is fine but who knows? I can’t even send any money to her. And who’s going to tell the truth when they are standing right next to you and listening?
The Russians are everywhere now. Only Azovstal stands. Maybe, it still stands.
No one knows how many people are still in the city. It is impossible to count people. When we were leaving, we put up the cardboard with the number: 5. No names, no ages. The first time they recorded our information was in Zaporizhzhia but so many people have left to villages or Berdyansk, or to Russia — no one recorded them. In our building, we had seventy-two apartments; thirty-six in our part of the building, and only about six of them are still occupied. Everyone else has left.
My friend and her family ended up in Los Angeles. They escaped through Lithuania to Paris then to Mexico and then to LA, with their little daughter who caught an infection while they were fleeing through all these checkpoints. They had no drugs and had to treat her with water.
THIS IS OUR LAND. WHY SHOULD WE LEAVE?
We are now in a safe place, in southern Ukraine. None of us has found a job yet. I just had my first job interview this week. My husband can’t find a job as a paramedic but his hobby is carpentry. He found a job opening and sent his portfolio but they wanted some real work experience. The job market is very tough in Ukraine these days. Some companies close and never open. Some business owners only want to hire locals.
I didn’t want to leave my home in Mariupol. I left because my kid started to scratch and I couldn’t give him a bath. I’m joking but it’s partially true.
For now, I would like to have a chance to settle in Ukraine. Rent a two-bedroom apartment for about $200 a month, and split it with another family, the one that we have escaped with. This is my plan.
Why go abroad? Why do we have to leave? Ukraine is our home. This is our land.
I ONLY RARELY HAVE NIGHTMARES
I only rarely have nightmares. Maybe some loud noises or military hostilities scare me a bit. Volodymyr suffers from nightmares and insomnia. Every night, he is up and only falls asleep in the morning. He doesn’t sleep for a long time.
My son is recovering, gradually. He is missing his home, his grandma, and our dog Lola, who stayed with my mom. I didn’t take Lola because we didn’t know what was happening and I was afraid that if we had to leave Lola somewhere I’d never forgive myself. She is at home, and they would feed her if they have food. (We fed her dog food while we still had it and after that, we just shared our own food with her.)
We all want to go back home. [Crying.]
Until the last minute, we believed that we would stay at home for three-four days, and then we will go on with our happy life. I have a feeling that I should wake up any moment now, but nobody wakes me up. The alarm clock just won’t work. I don’t understand how all this could have happened, in our age, in our times. It is improbable. I still cannot believe it.
*The names are changed to protect the identities of people living in the war zone.
ps. As I was doing research for this interview, I stumbled upon an icon and a prayer to the Patroness of the city of Mariupol. I am not religious but the first lines of this prayer struck me. It asks to deliver the people of Mariupol “from the terrible calamities of the great devouring serpent” and from the “machinations of the devil, from enemies visible and invisible, from misfortunes, sorrows and diseases, and all evil.” If you pray, pray for Mariupol.
Read more eyewitness stories of Ukrainian people:
Volnovakha: An Ordinary Family, An Extraordinary Journey
Eyewitness story: Brother and Sister