Ukrainians Fleeing 'Hell' in Mariupol Find a City Free of Russian Occupation, but in Denial

Leaving home under fire, hiding for days without food and water, Mariupol residents recount escaping their Ukrainian hometown under Russian siege

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The refugee center in Zaporizhzhia.
The refugee center in Zaporizhzhia.Credit: Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine

ZAPORIZHZHIA – Spring has arrived in Zaporizhzhia in all its glory. The cherry and apricot trees are blooming, the sun is shining, the streets are packed with people and the cafés are full. The many factories in this industrial city of over 700,000 have recently reopened, my taxi driver tells me. In a small park, with a Soviet tank in its center to commemorate the freeing of the city from Germany in 1943, couples stroll and a retired woman sits on a bench.

If it wasn’t for the roadblocks of sandbags and the billboards calling for the Russians to leave Ukraine, it would be hard to tell that Zaporizhzhia, the provincial capital, is the only city in the area the Russian army never captured. Some 20 kilometers away, the battles are underway – and sometimes, muted explosions can be heard, with residents claiming the firing is by "our" forces. In general, the city seems to be in denial.

The disaster going on around them can be seen only in a few places in Zaporizhzhia: a distribution point for humanitarian aid and a center for absorbing refugees from the south and southeast – Melitopol, Berdyansk and Mariupol. They arrive here in shock, pain, and confusion. Many have no idea where they will turn next. After they receive their portion of buckwheat and chicken and eat their slice of bread, some of them continue on in buses to the nearby nursery school where they can sleep for a night. After that, some will begin searching for a place to stay in the city, but most will head west – often to the border crossings.

Many of the refugees from Mariupol are afraid and do not want to be photographed or to identify themselves by their full names. One woman says she doesn't want to recount what happened to her because she is afraid for her and her family's lives, a few of whom had remained in Mariupol. Their testimony, selected parts of which are reported here, tells a story of horror – one in which there are no heroes, saints, or victors. Only unyielding suffering and pain.

Many of the details are repeated in the testimonies, so Haaretz has chosen to focus on three women – an older mother, her two daughters, and their children – who fled Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia.

The refugee center in Zaporizhzhia.Credit: Liza Rozovsky

‘We were in hell’

Tatiana, Katya and Valentina fled Mariupol together with their children and another relative, who also escaped with two children. All together, they were a family of nine, all of them women and their adult children. They asked not to reveal their last names and not to be photographed.

They managed to leave Mariupol on a bus headed toward the town of Nikolske, formerly Volodarske, northwest of Mariupol. From there they traveled to relatives in the nearby village of Demyanivka, and then spent two weeks in the coastal town of Urzuf on the Black Sea, west of Mariupol – all under Russian control. Now, they have reached Zaporizhzhia.

We were in hell,” says Valentina, who cried almost without pause. “What we saw, what we ate … there was no water, no bread, no one needed us.” Her daughter, Tatiana, added: “Not this side and not that side, there was no humanitarian aid.” For most of the periods of fighting, the extended family stayed on one of the main roads crossing through the city.

A refugee center in Zaporizhzhia on Monday.Credit: Liza Rozovsky

“The soldiers of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ were on our side of the road, the Ukrainians were on the other side,” says Tatiana. “They shot at each other without a break, it flew in all directions.” Katya, her sister, says they were at home from February 24 to March 4. “We hid in the stairwell between the apartments. But when the shell fell under our entrance way, it was very scary, and we went down to the basement of a house that wasn’t lived in yet, which was next to us. We were in this cellar from March 4 to 24. Our house burned in front of our eyes.”

Tatiana: “It was horribly cold. There was no water. We collected water that flowed from the roof, we filtered it to drink. The children got [food] poisoning, they threw up. Everyone who was in the basement got sick. There were unsanitary conditions there, dust. We went to the bathroom in buckets. We went out to empty them, but it was scary because around us was all shooting and explosions. There were tanks, everything. We cooked our food outside, on a campfire. The children collected wood, we were forced to learn how light a fire, we cooked what we could – when there were still scraps of meat, we fried them, we fried fritters, we cooked soup, porridge.”

Katya: “We discovered by accident there were distribution points for water in the city. To receive 16 liters of water, we stood in a line for six hours in below-zero temperatures. The shooting around us continued during this time. We had friends who were able to bring us water. But mostly there was melted snow.”

“The mayor left the city right at the beginning [of the war],” says Tatiana. “In the first days, until the beginning of March, when the electricity was disconnected, they would still fix it. The gas was cut off on March 4, when a gas line next to our house was damaged. Before that, the city services still operated and the mayor still kept in touch – we saw him on the internet. After that he disappeared.”

“They announced a humanitarian corridor. Two cars left from our basement, and they were shot at,” says Katya. “The next day, people tried to leave, and they were sent back. For four weeks it was impossible to leave the city.” Tatiana continued: “A lot of people who were killed laid next to the houses. Innocent residents who were killed for no fault of their own.”

Rubble in the port city of Mariupol, earlier this week. Credit: ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/Rueters

At some point, the buses of the Donetsk People’s Republic began evacuating people in the direction of Nikolske, say the women. They discovered that by accident when they asked the separatist soldiers deployed on their side of the boulevard. When I asked how they left to go to the buses, Iliona – the adult daughter of one of the women, says: “You walk between bodies, through ruins, through burned out houses, electrical wires hanging on the road, everything is destroyed. You walk – and see a house that is simply folded over. Not a single entry is undamaged.”

Tatiana added: “We took our lives in our hands and just walked, together with the children, because we knew that we had to leave there.” Katya says: “On the way, when we saw the door of a house, we would go inside and hide. We didn’t have help. We had no food or water left.”

“I lost everything,” says Valentina. “Everything I earned with my own two hands for all my life. Forty years of work – my apartment, with two rooms, burned."

Piotr Andryushchenko, an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, says the city’s leadership did leave the city in the first days of the fighting – according to the instructions of the regional military administration and because they were at maximum risk if the city was captured. The city's leadership could provide more help in evacuating residents when they were outside the city, Andryushchenko says. In the first days, when the city was not yet under siege, about 100,000 people left it on evacuation trains. Andryushchenko estimates that about 100,000 people remained in the city now.

‘They forced us to go out’

Roman Sukhorukov, 45, left Mariupol with his parents, his wife and his two children. They reached the village of Bezymenne, east of Mariupol, and from there made their way to the city of Novoazovsk. From there, the family continued to Russia and stayed in the city of Rostov, like many other evacuees from Mairupol. I spoke with Roman by phone.

Roman Sokhorokov in Mariupol, last month.

During most of the fighting, Sukhorukov and his family hid in the basement of Maternity Hospital Number Two in the eastern section of the city, known as the Left Bank. This is not the maternity hospital that was famously bombed, although it, too, was hit by shelling. Roman’s wife was a nurse at the hospital, so his family was able to find shelter in the basement alongside those of other staffers and patients. “We wanted to flee from that place as soon as possible, because the maternity hospital was being shelled from all directions,” Roman says. “We left on March 23. On the 22nd, a shell exploded next to my car, which was seriously damaged. Neighbors said that soldiers from the People’s Republic of Donetsk had passed through in the night and said we had one day to evacuate before they ‘cleansed’ the place. That’s what forced us to leave, even though we didn’t want to leave our homes.

“The shooting was coming from all directions,” he says. “On March 2, all we heard were explosions. That night, they started bombing the residential buildings. The market in our neighborhood went up in flames. It was getting closer and closer, and at 5:30 in the morning, they started firing Grad missiles. One of them hit our floor. We barely made it out of the apartment. The shooting was coming from everywhere. The basement of the maternity hospital was also shelled. Apparently, a Ukrainian artillery unit was situated near it and there were exchanges of fire there for two weeks. They also dropped bombs from planes.

A refugee center in Zaporizhzhia on Monday.Credit: Liza Rozovsky

“At first, Ukrainian soldiers were still coming to the hospital and bringing us diesel for the generators, which we would sometimes turn on at night, and for the surgeries as well,” he says. “Two of the women patients who were wounded in the bombing of Maternity Hospital Number Three were brought to us. I carried them on a stretcher. They survived, but one of the babies was struck by shrapnel and was stillborn. After that the Ukrainian soldiers disappeared. For the last week and a half, no one has been here. They must have retreated.”

Roman managed to get his car to work and the family left the city in a convoy of six vehicles. “At the first checkpoint, they stopped us,” he recalls. “They instructed me and my oldest son, who is 19, to get out of the car and take off our shirts – They checked if we had tattoos” – Russian soldiers believe that tattoos of Nazi symbols signify affiliation with the far-right Azov regiment – “they checked my military card, they asked if there were young children in the car, they gave my son Kinder chocolate eggs. They had a whole crate full of them. They checked the trunk and then we were able to drive on, to the villages. There were a lot of military men there, a lot of military vehicles, but it was quiet and people were strolling in the streets. It cheered us up.”

Ruins in Mariupol on Tuesday.Credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV - AFP

“When we got to Bezymenne, we stood in a line to register that was three kilometers long,” he continues. “There were lots of volunteers there who were helping. When I think about that I get a lump in my throat. Grandmothers from the village of Primorska brought us baked goods with cabbage and potatoes. We hadn’t eaten bread for a month, and when I saw these things I nearly fainted. People from the nearby villages are helping as much as they can.”

Eventually, since the registration line was moving too slowly, the refugees settled into a temporary tent city where beds were allocated to women and children, while the men spent the night standing next to a wood-burning oven set up outside. “After we were freezing in the basement, the wood oven was good,” Roman says. “Suddenly there was a cell network too, and you could buy food in a store.”

The line for “registration” (the Ukrainians call it “screening”) in Bezymenne took 10 days to get through, Roman says, but his family eventually managed to get through the process in Novoazovsk, where the wait was shorter. “Everyone says ‘screening.’ There’s nothing scary about it,” he says. “It’s understandable. We are coming and they want to know what sort of people we are. They examine telephones – for pictures and contacts. My eldest son from my first marriage is currently serving in the Ukrainian army. They asked if anyone is serving. I said yes. Everything was fine. They took our fingerprints and that was it.”

Then they spent three more days in line for inspection at the Russian border. The Ukrainian authorities have accused Russia of forcibly transferring thousands of Mariupol residents to its territory. “There is a standard procedure there, and besides that, I think that some FSB people talked to us, and our phones were checked again,” Roman says. “It wasn’t disturbing. They were young guys. I hadn’t deleted any pictures, and that was a good thing, because an empty phone is what raises their suspicion. We did have to wait a long time in line, but they gave out food there, too. We forgot what hunger was after leaving the basement.”

Roman’s family arrived in Rostov and rented an apartment. He now trying to find work and get through the bureaucratic process that will enable them to register as city residents. Roman says they are being treated well by the locals, especially when they hear that they are refugees from Mariupol. He hopes to return to the besieged city soon in order to find his mother-in-law, with whom contact has been lost. “Truthfully – I think no one needs us here. We’re a burden for them,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any point in returning to Ukraine. It’s easier to continue to Europe.

“Our soul is in Mariupol, here everything is foreign,” he adds. “I want to go home.” The question of whether Mariupol will be a Russian or Ukrainian city doesn’t interest Roman, at least not for now. “We have to go back to find my wife’s mother, to see what has happened to our property, to see if there will be a government there,” he says. “To see if there will be life there or not.”

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