“Listen to the voice of Mariupol” is a series of stories of the people who have managed to evacuate from besieged Mariupol. We continue our conversation series with Kyrylo, who helped provide antiviral medicines to patients with HIV in dangerous conditions.
Kyrylo was born and raised in Mariupol. He is a river and sea captain by training. He is an LGBT activist and a public health project manager, working in HIV prevention. Amid shelling, Kyrylo and an infectious diseases doctor managed to move important medical supplies from the HIV center and organize a distribution point at the doctor’s house, as well as a shelter for 12 people in Kyrylo’s office. On March 16th, Kyrylo had to evacuate from Mariupol. Now he is in the west of Ukraine and is safe.
“When I was leaving, it was a nightmarish; the air strikes had been going on for six days already. It was… for the first time in my life I saw a dead body by my house. My neighbors just covered the person with a plastic bag, the kind you use at a construction site, and put the body neatly in front of the building’s entrance. And I cannot say that people ignored it, no, they did show respect, but there was nothing to be done. People were just standing there, children as well; they were cooking, making tea, trying to survive.
I walked my dog every day. Those are very strange feelings, walking and understanding that the walk in the morning would be completely different from the one in the evening. The city would be different. Somewhere a balcony was hit, somewhere something else happened. It was total chaos. No rules, no laws, nothing was working. You walked down the street and saw people breaking into a store with a crowbar to get something to eat. You couldn’t call the police, fire brigade, or ambulance. If someone needed medical attention, there was only one way to get it: stopping a passing ambulance and asking them to take the person. It was also impossible to call the fire brigade. I remember, we lived close to the “Port-city” [mall]. One day, it took a direct hit, along with a residential building nearby. It was burning for three days with no one to extinguish the fire.
My work came to an end on February 28th. At the beginning of the war I was still working at the NGO “Istok”, as a manager of the HealthLink project in the area of HIV and STI (sexually transmitted infections) prevention among MSM (men having sex with men). We were working with 17 hospitals in the region: we were working towards implementing a systematic approach towards patients with HIV, we gave consultations, provided oral tests. We were teaching people to take care of their health.
Later on, I was contacted by a specialist doctor from our military medical center. She said that it was necessary to transport the medicines, as the shelling was already hitting the left bank at that time. First, we found a car, but the driver refused to go. So I decided I would go myself in my own car. We took almost everything that was in the hospital. We notified people via messenger apps, sharing the address where the doctor was continuing to give patients medication. But, unfortunately, on March 2nd, the signal almost completely disappeared. So, there were very few who could come to receive the treatment.
There were just over 4,000 people in Mariupol who needed these medicines. I’m talking about antiviral therapy, which people with HIV need to live a normal life, as it blocks the reactivation of the virus. We were trying to do something so that people could access them. During that time, some 50-100 persons came for treatment.
When it became unsafe to stay at home, we moved into my office. It was in the central part of the city, near the City Garden. My stepmother and her son immediately moved in as well; also my godmother and her friends with their children and grandchildren. There were twelve of us and two dogs. When we were moving our things there, I forgot the dog food, so I had to go home again. At that time, I had not seen my boyfriend for three days. We could not get in touch with each other. He spent a week living with volunteers at the Emergency Care Hospital. I met him in our apartment, and because of the curfew he stayed the night. We returned to my office together and since then he has been with us all the time. We were lucky to have decided to move that very day, as the next day the building was destroyed.
Before the war, we had an anti-stress room in our office, where you could go and smash some dishes to release your emotions. During the war, we used these dishes to fill the holes in the floor, so that we wouldn’t break our legs. There were even windows with torn plastic film instead of glass. We also had a wall thermometer. It was + 7 °C in the room, and probably even lower in the basement.
Later, the building where we were staying was hit by a missile. It left a hole in the wall. I was just getting inside and got thrown aside by the shock wave. On that day, I was having disagreements with the people we were staying with in the office, as they were allowing the children to go and play outside. I understand that it’s boring for the kids, that there’s nothing to do. But I was trying to explain that we couldn’t be sure of when our building would be hit again. Trying to run and hide doesn’t work. A shell will always be faster than a kid or anyone else.
I heard a lot from my boyfriend and a friend who worked and volunteered at the hospital about the people who were brought there, about children with their mutilated bodies, people with traumatic amputations. People were just dying on stretchers. Children were dying. The hospital was working on generators, the lights could be turned on for only two hours. They even tried to do a direct blood transfusion once, but to no avail. The woman died. Doctors were operating under flashlights. My boyfriend sometimes took my USB flashlight connected to a power bank from home to have at least some light. That’s why I was so tense when these people were so defiant about their children’s safety.
In the evening on March 14th, we were making a collective decision over whether or not to leave. At that point, no humanitarian green corridors had been agreed. The city council announced that you could go only at your own risk: there would be no escort. We took our stuff and left. I managed to run to the doctor with whom I had moved the medicines, and invited her to come with us. So my boyfriend, our dog, my stepmother, her teenage son, the doctor, her daughter, the cat in the carrier and I were in the car.
Now I am in Chernivtsi. I’m starting to process what we had to go through. Sometimes it’s hard to believe what happened. There is even a feeling, you know, like survivor syndrome, of those who have been saved. I understand that I was much luckier than my acquaintances and friends. I know of cases where people did not make it. There are still many people who I have been unable to reach. It is not known whether or not they are alive. But now I have started to breathe easier. I feel that I have the opportunity and resources to help others. Now, in Chernivtsi, my colleagues and I are going to organize a medical and social assistance point. A venue has already been found. At the moment, small renovations are underway to arrange all this.
I can’t forgive them for this. My home was taken away from me. My normal life is ruined. I do not know what happened to my relatives and the people I know. I don’t really care about any material things, like the apartment or anything. Of course, it’s unpleasant. I do not know where to live or what to do next. When I come across footage of what is happening now in Mariupol, it pains me. I don’t know how to react to it.
Many Russians went out to protest, tried to do something. But they did not go for Ukraine, not for us. They went for themselves. They are against the sanctions, scared of what will happen to them. All this is a consequence of what they have been allowing to happen in their country for many years.
I am very concerned that we do not end up like Belarus, where the whole nation simply does not know its native language, does not know its own history, and it’s just awful. I understand that everyone should choose the language of communication which is most comfortable for them, but for me it is unacceptable not to know your native language. My path to the Ukrainian language began in 2012, when I first went to Lviv. I came to the language when I began consciously considering myself Ukrainian. Gradually, from 2015 or 2016, I started using Ukrainian for statements, social media posts, and official speeches, but in daily life I still used Russian. Now I speak Ukrainian and only Ukrainian because of the situation with our country, it is my conscious choice. As Oles Honchar wrote, a person who has no respect for his native language cannot expect to be respected himself.
On the day of our victory there will be a great celebration that Ukraine, Europe, and the whole world will never ever forget. But it will also be a time of great mourning for the people we lost, the cities which were demolished, the people who were injured and those who were disabled. Today our country has become a country of volunteers. We are a country of support and help, where there are no strangers, where everyone is one of our own. I hope that with such motivation, rage, and hatred for the Russian fascist regime, we can only prevail. There is only one possible way for Russia to win this war: if they simply annihilate all Ukrainians, to the very last one.”
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