Listen to the voice of Mariupol — a series of stories of people who managed to flee from the besieged Mariupol. We continue the series with a conversation with Olena, who left the city’s outskirts approximately on March 5-6 (due to her experience, Olena does not remember the exact date).
On February 24, the first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Olena left Mariupol for a village 45 kilometres from the city, with her husband and 6-year-old daughter. But after a week spent under constant shelling, without water, gas, electricity and communication tools, they understood that they had to run as far as possible. After several unsuccessful attempts to leave on their own, it seemed as if there was no chance of getting out. Since the invaders destroyed not only Mariupol but also almost all the infrastructure around, including roads and bridges, they had to leave through the fields, avoiding damaged tanks and human bodies lying everywhere.
— We didn’t believe it until the last moment. No one close to me was going anywhere. We just renovated the apartment. We planned to live in this city (Mariupol. — Ed.). I am a photographer. On February 23, I still had a photoshoot. I kept trying to improve people’s moods because there was a feeling of anxiety, but I wanted to spread good. I said: “It’ll go. Everything will be fine”.
On February 24, at 6 am, my husband woke me up and said the war had begun. He decided to go to work. He told me to pack up quickly. We brought two small suitcases of hand luggage and put two sets of children’s pyjamas in. And mine and my husband’s. Nothing else. We went to the village of Maloianysol (45 kilometres from Mariupol). We were there until March 5-6 or so. There were no communication tools, electricity, heating, or water in a cold house. We thought it was safer there. Like everywhere else in the village, the bomb shelter is a basement with canned goods. We had gas in the stove, but there was very little of it because the gas pipe was damaged on one of the first days. We warmed up by heating the pots until there was a little gas. There was steam while the pot was being heated, so that made the room warm. We also bottled this warm water and put it in bed. We slept in our clothes. We could see our breath.
My sister stayed in Mariupol and didn’t want to leave the city. And she is insulin-dependent; her kidneys fail. And she is there without any medication. I have no contact with her right now. I don’t even know what is better — to be there without communication, or to know that your loved ones are still there, and you can’t help them.
We had several unsuccessful attempts to leave the village: the «DPR» military stood at the checkpoint, turning everyone back. We found out that the convoys would leave Mariupol on the 5th or 6th of March, when they had already left. We thought that someone would leave the next day. But there was no connection. We didn’t even have a radio. So, we were just waiting on the road for the cars to leave. And there weren’t any. Neither way. About three hours later, several cars passed by us. People advised moving towards Zaporizhzhia through Rozivka and Fedorivka.
Tanks began to appear closer to Rozivka. People were lying dead on the road. I put a hat on my daughter’s face , so she wouldn’t see them. She said we would play a game and started making up stories about the houses I saw. At one point, we saw a truck full of dead people. In the open back, uniformed bodies lay just on top of each other. We sped up, racing past burnt-out tanks and houses. We got to the bridge, but it turned out that Russians blew it up the day before. Luckily, the man who was driving managed to stop in time. The locals showed us how to get around. They explained that now everyone drives like that. Then we met a man from the Ukrainian Territorial Defense. He said: “Don’t be afraid, it’s all right. Take a breath. Now you will move to the Ukrainian post, but the next one is no longer ours. And do whatever they tell you to do there”.
When we reached the Russian checkpoint, the military started shouting and waving their hands: “Hide, there will be shooting!” We turned sharply to the side and drove into a courtyard. It turned out that there was a kindergarten in Polohy. As soon as we ran inside, shots rang out. My daughter, who had never cried before, asked: “Mom, will they kill me?”
The locals started coming. When they found out that we were from Mariupol, they began to bring food. We couldn’t eat anything. They kept joking and persuading: “We will be offended if you don’t eat. We’ve just fried cutlets”. In the shelter, we met a woman who was there with her teenage daughter. She offered to spend the night with her and tomorrow move together in the direction of Zaporizhzhia — her mother lived there, whom the woman wanted to pick up. Subsequently, there was another man in a minibus that took people out. There were women with him, one of whom was pregnant , and the other was with a newborn baby. We left in such a column of three cars. The Russians had already entered Polohy at that time. I saw the letter «Z». We prayed all the way. My child learned all the prayers I knew. We were stopped by Chechens to check. It was clear that we should move slowly and not do anything they would not like.
It turned out that there were no roads left to Zaporizhzhia. All the bridges were destroyed. So, the man driving the bus was the first to go straight across the field. And we followed him. I don’t remember how long we drove. All that time, I had a countdown to the day of my daughter’s birthday. It’s on March 14. I kept saying: “Arina, I promise you, no one will shoot on your birthday”.
Now we are in Lviv. My daughter is now afraid of the sound of the washing machine but can already sleep without holding my hand. When we got here on March 11, I felt safe. Only here, in western Ukraine, sirens are wailing. We didn’t have sirens in the village. No communication, no warnings. You just fall asleep and wake up because the whole house is shaking. Tanks pass by carrying massive equipment, destroying the road behind them. And «Grads» are shooting from above. For Arina’s birthday, we found both balloons and plates with unicorns. So, my child had a cake. Although cold, with a rainbow.
While recording this conversation, Olena’s family reached western Ukraine and is now safe.
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