According to official figures, at least 5,000 people died in Mariupol as of March 28. But the real scale of the catastrophe in the recently front-line city will only be known to the world when it is freed from the siege. Today it is difficult and dangerous to leave Mariupol. Therefore, tens of thousands of civilians still remain there. Zaborona journalist Polina Vernygor spent more than a week side by side with those who managed to escape from the real hell – the Mariupol hell. We tell the stories of these people.
Vyacheslav together with his wife, 16-year-old daughter, and 15-year-old son lived on Kurchatova Street in the Kalmiusskyi district, located on the outskirts of Mariupol. It is not far from the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works, where Vyacheslav worked in the cold rolling shop.
He learned about the beginning of the war at work – at first, everyone was told not to panic, but later the management suspended work and closed the plant. The workers were sent home.
At that time, the city had not yet been bombed, but air raid alerts were constantly sounding. When the sounds of the explosions became louder, Vyacheslav decided to move the family to the city center to his mother-in-law with his father-in-law. He himself periodically went home to feed the dog and help a lonely neighbor who had nowhere to go.
His father-in-law and mother-in-law had a stove heating and a gas cylinder, so it was not very cold and they can cook when the gas and heating were turned off. Neighbors, the man recalls, cooked over a campfire outside. Many people took water from the river, boiled it in a kettle, and drank.
Once, when Vyacheslav was at home, their area was actively bombed. The shell hit a neighboring house.
“It was like playing roulette – you sit and wait for the next missile to arrive. When they hit a neighboring house, it simply disappeared. There was a huge funnel and debris – no roof, no walls,” says the man.
When the bombing of the right bank began, Vyacheslav’s family decided to leave the city. However, this was impossible: once the pillar collapsed and blocked the road, the second time the road was blocked by debris. Roads all over the city were strewn with corpses of people – human parts were found elsewhere.
On March 23, Vyacheslav’s family cooperated with neighbors and decided to leave together. They drove in a column of four cars. Together, the drivers kicked aside a brick on the road, trying to clear the place to pass.
“All the streets are littered. There are simply no streets,” the man remembers. “We drove over debris, over a glass, pieces of shells, remnants of metal structures. We drove and saw a man lying at the crossroads – apparently, the man was riding a bicycle. He was lying dead; the bike was a little further. Then we broke out onto the embankment. We drove through the city center, where the fighting took place. I was lucky to pass, the tires survived. From the embankment, we somehow joined a larger column. Later we left the city along Primorsky Boulevard.”
In total, there were five people in the car: Vyacheslav, his wife, two children, and a neighbor. The parents did not want to leave. They said that Mariupol was their home and they would not leave it. Still, Vyacheslav doesn’t give up hope that the old people will somehow be able to get out of there.
The column rode over the sea – that’s how the family got to Mangush. From Mangush there was a queue at checkpoints set up by the occupiers. From there they have already reached Berdyansk – the trip took a whole day. The family spent several days in Berdyansk and moved to Zaporizhia.
Vyacheslav says he still doesn’t know the fate of some of his friends and relatives, but it is already known that at least four of his colleagues who lived in different parts of the city have died. Some of his relatives were taken to the so-called DNR (an unrecognized republic in Donbas) against their will, while others were taken directly to Russia.
The man recalls that it took them several days to at least fall asleep normally. When the shelling began, Vyacheslav’s daughter’s eye twitched and she became hysterical several times. Both of his children simply could not sleep at the end of their trip.
Vlad, 21, lived in the district citizens called Pentagon, which is also considered the outskirts of Mariupol. When the city was bombed, Vlad stayed with his grandmother in Volonterivka, a village near Mariupol, not far from Pentagon. When he returned home, the secondary school was bombed before his eyes. All that remains of it is the basement, where those who hid there miraculously survived.
On the same day, Vlad decided to go to the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works storage facility – there were about 200 people in total. He spent 19 days in the bunker. These days, the guy says, the city has been blown to smithereens. The Azov military helped the people in the bunker with food. There was a diesel generator, so they had some lighting and the ability to charge the phones, but there was no connection. When Vlad was leaving Mariupol, there were still about 150 people left in this shelter – the guy doesn’t know what happened to them. Water and food remained there were enough for only a couple of days.
The day before leaving, Vlad went home to take documents. His district was completely destroyed. A bomb was dropped into the courtyard, and then the houses were shelled with Grads, which caused fires. The maternity hospital and a nearby school were also destroyed. But the locals who managed to survive stayed there – they lived mostly in the porches, cooking, like everyone else, in the yard.
Vlad’s relatives live in Germany. But in Mariupol, the boy had many friends – one of them was shell-shocked, the other, Yuri Kondrakhin, served in the Azov battalion and died heroically. Grandmother and grandfather stayed in Mariupol – they don’t want to leave.
Vlad’s family has a house where grandparents live, and two apartments – both burned down. Vlad also had a car service – it is also burned down.
An acquaintance once asked Vlad to get baby food for her child. He found it and went to take it. Suddenly the shooting started. Vlad was on the bridge at that time – he lay down on the ground and the fragments of the Grads flew overhead.
“I thought, ‘Here I am in time.’ Then the attack intensified and I thought I had nowhere to run. Somehow I ran to the bunker,” the guy recalls. “Another moment that I remembered, probably for the rest of my life, was when the plant’s shops were destroyed by the fighter jets. I thought the Grads were terrible, but there’s nothing worse than a fighter.”
The guy was leaving in his car with the neighbors from the bunker. The day before, they had traveled together to see if the roads were clear. Everything was free, but the next day, when several cars tried to escape from Mariupol, the roads were already blocked.
“We left Mariupol with God’s help. Arrived in Berdyansk, and stayed there for 5 days. Later we decided to move to Zaporizhia,” says Vlad. “On the way from Berdyansk, there were at least 15 checkpoints. We were stopped at one, they said that it was a curfew from 15:00, although it was actually from 18:00. So we slept right there in the car. ”
Dmytro and his 83-year-old mother were staying in an apartment on Myru Avenue in the center of Mariupol a month after the city began to be shelled. The man recalls hearing the explosions on the first day of the war, but they were far away. On the third day, the Internet was down, then the electricity was turned off, and in a few days – mobile communication disappeared. The explosions were getting closer.
“First, they bombed the area where the plant (Ilyich Iron and Steel Works) is located. Then they began to shell more intensely, closer and closer to the center. Once a projectile hit somewhere very close, the house cracked. We decided to go to the country, stayed there for a few days, realized that it is also shooting there, and decided to return home. The windows were shattered at our apartment; the car was blown up in the yard. I have an apartment on the 11th floor. My balcony was blown off and all the windows were completely blown out. I packed up and moved to my mother – she lived on the 5th floor of the same house,” says Dmytro.
Subsequently, the explosions became more intensive, shells exploded under the window. There was nowhere to go. Fortunately, Dmytro and his mother had supplies of water and some food – they cooked first at home, and then on March 6, the gas was turned off in the city so that the houses would not explode when a shell hit them. At first, Dmytro prepared food together with the neighbors in the yard. As the shelling intensified, preparations were made at the porch.
The bomb shelter was in the next house, but the house itself was burned down before Dmytro and his mother returned home.
“My neighbor had a corner apartment, I had an internal one. His rooms were damaged. He showed me the wreckage. They went to the bomb shelter, we never saw them again. The second time I saw his apartment was when the door of the vestibule was blown off and we realized that his apartment had burned down,” says Dmytro.
His old mother did not want to leave the house until the last. She believed that sooner or later the war would end. Although says the man, it was not possible to leave – everything around was burning and exploding. On the twentieth of March, tanks with the letters “Z” began to drive around the city. Russians occupied a school near the yard where Dmytro lived. One morning the tank drove into the yard and started firing on the next 12-storey building. Dmytro and his neighbors jumped out and wanted to run away to hide, but it was impossible to get through: the whole yard was in ruins.
“When we left the house, I did not understand that the house would be burnt down completely. Then we saw there were several targeted strikes to set it on fire. I don’t know what happened to the neighbors, we never saw them again. But I’ve lived there since I was a child, knew the last names and first names of 95% of people there, I knew their dogs’ names. There were no terrorists. They burned it. When we returned home, I realized that the floor in the bathroom had collapsed and the fourth floor was visible from there. I took a bag with remains of canned food, some things, candles, and matches. We took the cat and went nowhere,” the man recalls.
For the next three days, Dmytro and his mother sat in the basement of a house nearby. Then they decided to flee the city. They walked under the shelling and ducked down. Dmytro recalls seeing the occupiers in military uniform with DNR chevrons – they, the man says, felt at home. When he and his mother walked about three kilometers away from the house where they spent the last three days, they saw thick black smoke. Not just one house was on fire, but an entire block.
So Dmytro and his mother reached a group of people who were also going to evacuate. There was a convoy of cars that took Mariupol residents out of the city. People were offered to go to the territory of occupied Donetsk or immediately to Russia, to Rostov. Dmytro found a driver to whom he paid two thousand hryvnias (67 USD) to take them to Rozivka near Zaporizhia.
There they met a young couple with a dog on their way to Zaporizhia. The first night Dmytro could not sleep – it constantly seemed to him that a shell was about to arrive.
“I’m happy that we saved our lives. And I am infinitely glad that we found ourselves in the territories controlled by Ukraine,” says Dmytro. “I know very well the views of people who got to Russia, this is the circle of my contacts. Too many people have been deceived. Material things don’t matter to me. The main thing is what kind of people are around. Let them give me five apartments and tell me to live with those non-humans – I will never live there. They are just barbarians.”
77-year-old Nadiya Mykolayivna also spent the first month of the war in her apartment in the 17th micro district – this is the center of the city. She lived with a 79-year-old sick husband. On the first day, the woman recalls, almost nothing happened except that the sirens sounded. The next day, at about 4 a.m., shells began to fall near the house. Then the fragment hit the next porch.
The couple hid in the storeroom because they could not go down to the shelter: Nadiya Mykolayivna ‘s husband did not walk well, she could not leave him. Their apartment was located on the ground floor. Windows shattered from explosions that night.
“We sat there until morning. In the morning we were already watching – people were coming out. On the next porch, people were buried under the fragments of the walls. And who will dig them up? Nobody digs, it is necessary to use the crane. Then there were a few more such explosions. Every time someone died, “said the woman.
Later, the occupiers came and said that everyone was being evacuated to the nearby hospital. Nadiya Mykolayivna’s husband was helped to reach there by the neighbor. They stayed in the hospital for two days – it was very cold and there was not enough food. Then people decided to go home. A neighbor helped to insulate the windows so that it would not be so cold. At that moment, only five families remained in the house: some died, some left. Supplies were running out.
“When there was snow, we collected it and melted it on the fire. The military was handing out something, so one day I left, stood in line, and got only a small hot dog bun. But just before the bombing, I baked us a big loaf of bread, we ate it in small slices and took great care of the loaf. So almost until the last day I had bread. Every morning we got up, boiled a kettle outside, drank tea and coffee, neighbors brought food from the ruined shops, frozen cutlets, liver, dumplings, yogurt – I fed my husband. And when the frosts were over – our food has gone bad quickly,” says the woman.
On the night of March 24, Nadiya Mykolayivna quarreled with her husband. She covered him with a blanket, and he dropped the blanket on the floor. She started scolding him. In the morning, the bags were collected – the old parents were waiting for their son, who was already on his way to help them leave.
“I go into his room and see he is gone. I ask my neighbor, who lived with us, “Polina, isn’t my grandfather in the hall?” She says no. And he, like Jesus, is sitting on my bed, hiding behind a blanket. I say: “Do you want to lie on my bed?” He said to me: “Yes.” I say: “Well, lie down.” In a few minutes I returned to the room, started shouting at him, but he did not answer. He died,” said the woman.
His body was not touched for a couple of hours. Then Nadiya Mykolayivna called the neighbor whose mother died the other day. Relatives of this neighbor dug a hole in the yard and buried both bodies in the same grave.
“We are lucky. At least we know where he was buried. A son’s acquaintance’s grandmother died. She was taken from the middle of the city somewhere and buried in a mass grave. We will definitely re-bury him when it’s all over. My husband didn’t really understand what was happening, but he constantly said: “I will avenge them for all this.” His words are still constantly spinning in my head,” says Nadiya Mykolayivna.
Then the neighbor volunteered to take Nadiya Mykolayivna to the settlement of Nikolske in the Donetsk region [formerly – Volodarske]. There she was settled for the night in a local house. The owners immediately fed her. The woman remembers the first time she saw borscht and burst into tears – she had wanted borscht for so long. In the morning, her son came, went to the house, and said: “Mom, get up, we need to go quickly.”
“We were trembling to go through every checkpoint. It was scary to say anything. We were silent like fish – not a word,” the woman remembers. “And when we saw our flag, we felt a big relief. We were safe. Finally”.
Before the war, Danyil Nemyrivskyi worked as a lecturer at the Mariupol branch of the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture. He learned about the beginning of the war when his parents called him at six in the morning. The young man did not believe it at first – he had previously read that Russia recognized the independence of the so-called LDNR in Donbas, but the opposition Russian media, which he trusted, said that there would be no war.
“It was the only time I cried during the war. Not even from the fact of the invasion, but that it is like some kind of TV show shown somewhere on the screen. And that this is no longer just talk of a probable war, but I am at the epicenter of it all, I am a participant in it. It made it very sad,” he recalls.
Then the director of the Academy called him and said that there would be no classes. She asked to call the students for whom he was a curator and find out how they were doing. Most students were optimistic, some decided to leave Mariupol on the first day. But Danyil himself believed that young people should be evacuated from the city – they needed it more.
“Mariupol was a front-line city, and during the year and a half that I have lived here, there have been no excesses. So, apparently, I did not even consider the possibility of leaving. Moreover, the first two days were very calm,” he recalls.
In the early days, Danyil bought groceries and went to visit his grandfather and grandmother, who lived in the private sector on Kurchatova Street. In some places, bread was sold for 100 hryvnias (3.3 USD) per loaf. In a couple of days, Danyil decided to bring products to his grandparents again, and that day rockets hit the area, destroying private homes.
He then offered his grandparents to evacuate downtown, but they refused. Danyil’s grandmother was insulin-dependent, and his grandfather could not move on his own. So the man took care of them. He sealed the windows, found the safest room in the house, and ordered his family to sit in it.
In a few days, he tried to visit his grandmother and grandfather again, but the transport operated only an hour a day. Danyil decided to go on foot – then a mortar shelling began. The man went to the bomb shelter, where he lived for two days. He never saw his grandparents again. When he left, he learned that fragments of a rocket had hit the house and his grandmother had been taken to hospital.
At that time, mobile networks were down, as well as the Internet. The only thing that could be turned on the player was Radio Novorossiya, which broadcasted from the occupied territories. However, Danyil says, no one listened to it.
“The district where I stayed – Illichivsky or Kanivsky – was controlled by the Ukrainian military to the last. We have not heard any official information about the evacuation or humanitarian support from anyone,” he said.
Despite this, the man never noticed pro-Russian sentiments among his acquaintances or neighbors in the bunker. Everyone believed to the last that the Ukrainian side would save and help them.
For water, Danyil went to a nearby well. One day a shell hit the well, and several guys were torn apart there. Then water was collected from the pool at the fitness center. Everyone had their own task in the bunker. In the third week, its residents wired electricity to the shelter. They prepared food for everyone at once – some supplies were brought by the military.
“Once we received boxes of frozen sausage, which had no labels or expiration date, some frozen fish, seafood, ice cream. This was enough for three weeks. The people who lived near the bomb shelter had cereals – they also brought their supplies,” says Danyil.
Later, one of the neighbors in the bunker found an area on a hill, where he was catching a little connection – he managed to send and receive several text messages. Thus, on March 22, the bunker learned that the parties had finally agreed on green corridors for evacuation. A group of about 17 people gathered and they all walked to the evacuation point. From there they took buses to Nikolske, and then to Zaporizhia.
“We passed four checkpoints in a row. I think that two of them were of the so-called LDNR, two from Russia. I thought so because each of them listened to different propaganda. Some were looking for punctured veins, and some were looking for calluses from weapons. The checkpoints between Volodarske [now the village of Nikolske], which is now under the DNR, and Berdyansk, which is now under Russian occupation, were much worse than between Zaporizhia and Berdyansk,” the man recalls.
Danyil says that there are traces of shells in every district of the city. He saw people being buried – blindfolded and simply buried in the yard. The man still does not know for sure which of his acquaintances died, because there is still no stable connection.
Lyudmyla worked as a teacher in a Specialized Secondary School №8. The woman recalls that on February 24, acquaintances offered her to leave the country, but it seemed to her that there was no need for that. Eventually, Lyudmyla moved to her brother, who lived in the 23rd micro-district in the city center.
No one believed that war would come to their home. On February 25, Lyudmyla could no longer buy bread. Then she still had electricity in the apartment, so she baked the bread herself. When the shelling began, the woman and her family went down to the basement. It consisted of eight compartments; a total of 25 people lived there. There was gas at home, but it was difficult to cook because of the shelling.
The first bombs fell on the eastern part of the city on February 25. Then the shells hit all over the city. One of them fell into the yard where Lyudmyla lived with her family. The windows in the apartments shattered, and the electricity, water, and gas disappeared from the house. People cooked in the yard, but infrequently – they were afraid of shelling, which did not subside and became more intense every day. Most of them tried not to leave the basement one more time.
A shell that flew into Lyudmyla’s yard tore apart several neighbors: two were killed and one had his arm and leg torn off. Others ran periodically from the basement to help those who could not go down to the shelter.
On March 16, Lyudmyla ‘s brother managed to find a connection in a nearby twenty-story building. A relative from Poland called them. She read somewhere about the assault being prepared by Russian troops on the territory of Mariupol and was advised to leave as soon as possible. Only then did Lyudmyla ‘s family come out of the shelter and immediately decided to leave the city. They drove in three cars – took neighbors, a minimum of things, and pets.
“Only on March 17th, when we were leaving, I saw what aerial bombs had done: our city was burned to the ground. This was horrible. Very scary. It still seems to me that this is a dream, that it will end and I will wake up, return home and everything will be the same,” the woman says.
The bomb fell on the school right above the classroom where she was teaching. There were only three bomb shelters in the city and one was located in that school. When the air raids began, half of the residents who did not have time to leave went down there. Then they were evacuated somewhere, Lyudmyla recalls.
There is still no connection with several students from Lyudmyla’s class. The woman says they were in a bomb shelter. There are also those who were taken with their families to the so-called DNR.
“We pray that it doesn’t come to Zaporizhia, that people don’t even see or hear it, and don’t understand what it is. This cannot be expressed in words,” says Lyudmyla. “We hope that we will return home, that Ukraine will already be there, and not the DNR. Now the DNR citizens and Chechens live in our houses in Sartan (a village near Mariupol). We hope that our house will remain safe and sound.”