“Listen to the voice of Mariupol” is a series of stories of people who managed to evacuate from the besieged city of Mariupol. The series continues with our interview with Halyna, who, while in the besieged city, together with a team coordinated a large volunteer headquarters, which was created based on the educational hub “Halabuda.” Since 2016, Halabuda has also been known as a free space and a center of assistance to the military and displaced people. As hostilities and constant shelling by Russian troops intensified, the “Halabudians” became volunteers again. The team helped about 25,000 Mariupol residents in less than three weeks.
For the second time since the independence of Ukraine, Mariupol has opposed the Russian occupiers. The city suffered first from the “Russian World” in 2014. At that time, Mariupol was under occupation for some time, and after the liberation, the city became a place of refuge for many displaced people from Eastern Ukraine. All these events gave impetus to the development of the city and creation of new social and cultural initiatives. Read more about this in our multimedia story about Mariupol, published in 2017. The Halabuda Free Space became one of such initiatives. For a while, it has been a volunteer hub and later became an educational hub in the developing city.
In March 2022, the “Russian World” came again to Ukrainian Mariupol. As the Russian army tries to erase the city and its inhabitants of the face of earth, activists continue to do everything possible to save people.
Halyna and the Halabuda team
Halyna Balabanova was born and raised in Mariupol. She is a philologist by education who eventually found herself in photography. For 15 years, the girl worked as a journalist and photographer. In 2014, Halyna and a team of like-minded people set up a volunteer center to help the army, displaced persons, and orphans from Marinka who were moving to Mariupol at the time. Later, this place was transformed into a space for educational and cultural projects, business support, and social growth under the name of “Halabuda.” However, on February 24, 2022, after a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, everything changed again, and “Halabuda” became a volunteer center and shelter for many residents of Mariupol.
— I remember very well the day I heard the first shots. It was night. I heard something in the distance in my sleep. But 15 minutes later, a friend from Lviv called me and asked me if I was alright. Then I realized that something was wrong. After that, I went to Facebook — and everything became clear.
From the first day, Halyna and the Halabuda team tried to build a clear plan of action to help the city.
— The first hours were very tense before we all got together and realized that we were here, we were alive. Mariupol’s assets remained in the city, so we began to draw up a plan of further action. At about 4-5 a.m., the locals from Mariupol started to bring us the first food and humanitarian aid because they knew what we had been doing for eight years. They knew we were the first place that could be trusted and helped. The next day we started receiving the first funds in our accounts.
Activists managed to equip a shelter before the active shelling of the city.
— We tried to secure “Halabuda” as much as possible: we made several exits and closed the windows. We were preparing for the worst-case scenario. Although we didn’t want to believe it, we understood that we had to do everything possible. To some extent, it saved us.
Every day, the hub accepted about 2,000 residents who needed basic necessities: food, medicine, hygiene items, and just water, which activists could not always get.
— Mariupol people held up very well for the first week or so. The media had already started saying that the city was under siege, but people continued to go shopping, as usual, not buying thirty kilograms of buckwheat or salt and matches. They continued to live a quiet life, gradually accumulating their reserves. In the second week, heavier shelling began, and the first tanks appeared at the entrance to Mariupol. At the same time, they started shelling strategically important stores, which kept a lot of food and building materials that could be useful during this period. So the panic grew. Then the looting began. However, those who were ethically unable to loot or steal something — came to us.
Being a volunteer center for many years, it is natural that Halabuda continued to unite locals who want to actively help the city since the beginning of the full-scale invasion.
— Our center brought together about 200 volunteers: those who already had experience and people who came and said, “We can’t stay at home. We want to help you. We can just wash the floor or do something else.” During this time, we managed to help about 25,000 Mariupol residents in less than three weeks. Dozens of volunteers were constantly based in our center. And next to us, we set up three shelters, where we housed the people who suffered from the first attacks. They lived on the city’s outskirts and came to us because they knew we were there and we would help right away.
“Halabudians” also tried to help the military: from the beginning, the team interacted with several units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces as well as the military hospital and volunteers.
— The primary task we set for ourselves was to help the army and the volunteers, which have been in Mariupol since 2014. They were the first to come to us. However, we could not immediately cover such specialized needs as thermal imagers or body armor. Therefore, we accumulated all our efforts to meet the everyday needs of the military. In addition, we helped the hospital and the volunteers who worked there. The primary requests from the civilian population were food and drinking water. In second place, there were sedatives and drugs for blood pressure or blood sugar. Unfortunately, we did not have special medicines to help people with HIV/AIDS or cancer. We wanted to help everyone, but we couldn’t.
— Most of all, people enjoyed bread. So as much as we could, we baked bread. ZIL’s first car was completely filled with bread, and half of it went to the left bank, which was the first to be cut off. At the time, there were officially about 20 shelters at the Ilyich and Azovstal plants, but, according to my data, there were more. And each of them had at least a thousand people.
Day by day, the Russian military shelled the city more and more, so it became impossible to stay and work there over time. Halyna recalls that it was necessary to decide on evacuation.
— The last day in Mariupol was the hardest for me, when I didn’t do anything, I was just packing. Because I got used to my routine: at 8 o’clock, I would wake up, walk the dog, and then process the inquiries. And they were endless. At the end of each day, we had a meeting. And then, every night, I listened through walkie-talkies to the conversations of the military about what was happening in the city center.
I left Mariupol on March 16 with friends and two dogs: all of them in a small car during the shelling. Half an hour before our departure, the drama theater was shelled. So when we drove through the city center, we saw smoke. We left through an unofficial checkpoint. And then we learned that BM-21 “Grads” fired upon the column driving in front of us. We were just lucky that we drove there 15-20 minutes later than the others. The distance from Mariupol to Mangush is about 20 kilometers. But it was the longest seven and a half hours of my life. Most of this path consisted of almost a solid column of cars. People were bumping vehicles because others didn’t want to move. And next to them, people walked, sometimes even faster than cars.
I didn’ take much with me. The most important thing was my passport with a residence permit in Mariupol. There was also a camera with memory cards, storing photos from the last eight years with my relatives and friends. Tourniquet, which I did not need on the way, thank God. Push-button phone.
The worst thing for me was when the connection disappeared. It disappeared last – after water and light. It was the last thread that kept us connected with the city. We managed to find several push-button phones. Because people who have used such phones told us that these phones have better connection. I had to remember how to write an SMS. At night, communication was usually rare. I think it was done so the Russians could control the attacks. Because it was mainly between the first and second shots, we could go outside and send an SMS. For the most part, these were short messages: “We are fine, we are safe” or “The shelling is not on us, but somewhere nearby.” And just words of love, support, nothing more. No details.
This phone saved me a lot. So far, there is an additional card in it, and only a few people know its number — about 10-15 people, some of whom are in Mariupol. It is silent for the time being, but I hope it will ring soon.
Another essential item I was able to carry was a watch. My dad gave it to me and said, “someday, when all the gadgets stop working, and you don’t know what time it is, you’ll need it.” It was always with me. When there was no connection and no light, it structured me and disciplined me to start it every morning to understand what time it was.
My friend left me a time-turner from “Harry Potter.” I did not have time to say goodbye to her. It hangs on the suture material we collected for the hospital. If I could use the time-turner to go back in time, then… I think we haven’t done enough in all these eight years of war. First of all, to make locals aware of what is happening and who our enemy is. And also, the time-turner would be helpful to me to have a little more time for the arrangement of shelters in Mariupol. Because obviously, we can’t take half a million people and move them all at once. But we can work for protection. Of course, I cannot deliver air defense or Javelins to Mariupol to protect our air. But I can make it so that in Mariupol, there were not 3 but 30 shelters. It takes time and people.
The work of the hub in the evacuation
Although Halyna and part of the team were able to leave the city, they continue their struggle for Mariupol despite all of this.
— Now I am in Lviv — my second favorite city after Mariupol. From here, I coordinate our team, which has spread all over Ukraine, some even abroad, but they continue to help others. Some take people out, some buy cars and look for drivers. We continue to work as a hub. We were a hub located in Mariupol. And now, our hub is a person who can connect other people with each other. And the social capital that we have managed to earn over the past few years is the most important thing we have now.
But the physical hub was also restored: through the efforts of the team in Zaporizhia, in partnership with Caritas Mariupol, an updated Halabuda was opened, which works with evacuees. Other projects are being developed, too. For example, on April 21, on its Facebook page, the team announced the launch of a mobile drone repair shop.
I want to go back to Mariupol very much…
Halyna Balabanova is looking forward to returning to her hometown, because there are many dear people left:
— I really want to return to Mariupol, whatever it is. I want to touch the sea and even see those factories that we did not like so much. I wish they could work, but work together with the people of Mariupol. My cat Konstantin, who needs to be fed and treated for kidney disease, stayed in the city. And there are some hidden places where I left archives of photos from my childhood. Probably the essential thing left is the photos.
Because memories remain only at the level of some ephemeral thoughts. You can no longer remember your grandmother’s voice, for example, if you don’t have a video. Or what my mother looked like in 1994, when I was 5. So for me, this is probably the most important thing. But in general, I do not care about all objects. If I can get more people out of there, I’m ready to say goodbye to all the photos, that part of my life.
Until Russia dies, I will not feel safe wherever I am. My Mariupol doesn’t exist anymore. There is a ruin, but this is not the main thing. The main thing is that people continue to leave.
My Mariupol is people and the sea. Nobody can take the sea away from me. It will even stay with wars. The people we will take out.
My Mariupol is people who not only walked and drove sick children and grandparents out of the city. They took out animals. They even took out reptiles. Each of them is a hero. For me, the day of our victory is when, if we can not hug, at least we can call those we have no connection with now. That’s first. And secondly, the day when we will accumulate strength and immediately begin to rebuild our cities and ourselves.
Involved in the preparation of the material 20 volunteersSupport the project