“Listen to the voice of Mariupol” is a series of stories of people who managed to flee from the besieged Mariupol. We continue the series with a conversation with Khrystyna, who left the city with her husband and their dog on March 15. At first, they settled in a dacha on the Bilosaraiska spit (33 km from Mariupol), but after the arrival of the “DPR” people on the spit, the family moved further.
Khrystyna is originally from Lviv. She was born and raised in Halychyna. She traveled a lot in Ukraine and found her new home by chance. First, Khrystyna fell in love with Mariupol, and then with a local man, whom she married. The couple got a blue-eyed husky and dreamed of a quiet life in the rapidly-developing city, right up until February 24. And then there was the blockade, the shelling, the shelters, the rush to pack their backpacks in a matter of minutes, the checkpoints. And the journey to safety, a thousand kilometers long, which took the couple two weeks. Khrystyna believes that soon she will still be able to return to her lost home, Mariupol, to help rebuild it after the war has been won.
I was born in Lviv, but I have been constantly traveling since I was a child. So, once, I decided to go to Mariupol. This was in October 2018. When I went there, I didn’t know it was by the sea! I imagined that there was just a factory and a lot of high-rise buildings where the factory workers lived. But I moved, fell in love with the city, and stayed there. I went for one day, then returned home, packed up all my things, and moved just a week or two later.
Mariupol is young. It is constantly evolving. The city is getting better every day. In Mariupol, they are trying to make it a city for people and about people. A lot of effort has been put into making it a tourist city, encouraging people to visit again and again, to see its beauty with their own eyes. When I saw the city’s development plan for the next few years, I firmly decided that I wanted to stay there for the next five years. Because those plans were just fantastic. The city was going to be a real gem.
On February 24, my husband and I were traveling by train from Odesa to Mariupol. They stopped us at eight in the morning and said that the train was not going any further because the war had begun. We were given a choice, either to travel onwards to the city on our own or take a bus to Polohy and be evacuated from there. We immediately said that we would definitely be going to Mariupol since we had left our dog there with friends.
When the electricity, heating, and water were cut off in the city, we immediately moved to the corridor in our apartment. We moved everything we needed there, made it into a living space, and pretty much did not go out, even into the rooms. Except when it was completely quiet — then we could run into the kitchen and get something to eat.
We were completely isolated. Before March 4, I was still somehow able to recharge my phone with a power bank, so I could try to get some signal, but after that the telecommunications towers stopped working. So we basically had no connection at all. I was most worried about those who were worried about us. Because when I’m at home, I know I have at least a minimum level of safety. But I didn’t have the opportunity to tell my family and friends that I was alive. So all they could do at that time was to keep checking whether my building had been hit.
We left Mariupol on March 15. In the morning, our neighbor ran up to us and started making a fuss: “Why aren’t you leaving? There’s a humanitarian corridor!” So we got ready in just a few minutes. We left in two cars: the neighbor with four people in his car, and six more passengers in the second one. This way, we went to a dacha in the Bilosaraiska spit (29 km from Mariupol — ed.).
When we finally arrived at the spit, I can remember I started crying. Tears of joy. My husband got out of the car and said, “Oh, our flag, that’s good”. He relaxed. In general, the early days there were like manna from heaven, because we had come back to civilization, where lightbulbs glow, where radiators are hot, and where you can put a plug into a socket and charge your phone. Or put the kettle on to boil water, without even needing to use the barbecue!
The “DPR” (“Donetsk People’s Republic” — ed.) people came to the Bilosaraiska spit on the third day of our stay there. It was morning, about 8 or 9 o’clock. We went to the boiler room to top up the coal, have a smoke, and work out our plans for the day and what we would do next. Our girls went to the store. They came back and said that the Ukrainian flag at the nearby lighthouse was no longer there. It had been removed. Then I went into hysterics.
About a week later, the “DPR” people began to let in cars that delivered bread. I saw how happy people were: “We bought bread, how amazing is that? A loaf of bread — it smells so good, it’s so soft!” I looked at them and realized that this was just a handout so that people would take kindly to them. The Russians also went to the shops and told the locals that if they wanted to trade, they would set up deliveries for them, but they would need to switch to rubles and install terminals connected to Russia. And then I understood that was it. I said we needed to take the first car we could find and leave.
Someone passed us the contact details of a man — a driver, who lived either on the spit or in Melekine. Basically, somewhere nearby. And he was ready to go if we would pay him. When we called him, he agreed and said that we could take our dog. He also added that we had to pay three thousand hryvnias for the journey to Berdiansk. We were like, “What?!” We asked if we could pay with a bank card if we didn’t have any cash. He agreed, but said we would have to pay 25% more. It was simply extortion. But we had no choice.
When we arrived in Berdiansk, the first thing we did was go to the sports complex and join the queue for the 134th bus, I think, or the 136th. But when we got out, a volunteer drove up to us and said: “If you want to go, get in my car — I’ll take you to the ring road outside the city. And then you’ll change to a bus and go further.” So we got there without waiting in line.
Before the checkpoints, my husband told me not to say a word in Ukrainian until we got to Ukrainian-controlled territory. It was a stretch of road where I was really afraid to speak my own language. I was afraid of provoking them. When we arrived at the last checkpoint before Vasylivka, the driver came inside the bus and said that we would be spending the night there because the checkpoint was no longer working and would not let us through. So all the buses were parked at a ruined gas station. We slept right there on the bus, wherever we managed to find a place to sit. The next morning, around 8 o’clock, all the buses lined up to go. But they stopped us again and said they wouldn’t let us through. We were like, “Why?” They said they wanted to be given a fuel tanker in exchange for letting us pass. People’s lives in exchange for fuel.
Now I’m in Lviv, safe. But I never thought I’d be afraid of the sound of an airplane. Today I heard one landing — I was shaken, and immediately started to cry. Because at that moment, you don’t understand what’s going on. You think: has it come here too?
But still, I believe I’ve hardly been through anything at all. I feel like I got off lightly. I feel guilty every time I see what happened in Bucha and Irpin. During the blockade in Mariupol, I cooked with my neighbors in a big pot, collected rainwater, melted snow, walked my dog, and sat and listened to shells falling somewhere nearby. And in the meantime, those shells were falling on people. And I, sitting in the hallway at home, didn’t know what was really going on around me. Only two days after I left Mariupol and connected to the internet, I saw the place I had left behind.
My husband’s cousin told me how a tank ran over people in front of him. Those people were almost dead, still twitching, but after the tank, there was nothing left of them. He also saw friends’ homes destroyed. He saw bombers approaching, a house flying into pieces. He went round hospitals looking for his friend. He saw all those mutilated people.
Now I want to volunteer and help others. We went to the train station and asked what we could do for them. But when you say that you’ve come from Mariupol, they tell you they will do everything for us first, and that we need to sit down and relax. And you sit down and realize that you can’t rest. You need to ground yourself. You need routine. In the end, we found the headquarters of a volunteer organization. There we were told that we could join their ranks to coordinate people at the station, telling them where to go, how to get there, and where to ask for help.
My home is in Mariupol. As soon as I start thinking about it, my first thought is: my home is lost. I still hope to get back there. But it will no longer be the city in which I lived and loved. It will just be a flat plain. Everything will have to start again from scratch. This will no longer be my Mariupol. It will just be a memory that torments you.
The most beautiful picture I imagine when I remember Mariupol is a panoramic view of the city from the water tower. From there, you can see the left bank, the Illich Steel and Iron Works, the central district, the sea, and the drama theater. You can see everything from there.
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