АвторAuthor: Lidia Bilyk | Translation: Iryna Kovalenko
29 July 2022
Lyudmyla from Mariupol is 33 years old. From March 3, she and her husband, their eleven-year-old daughter, her in-laws, and three hundred other people were forced to hide in the school basement. Their district became one of the “hottest spots” in Mariupol. During 37 days of living under phosphorus bombs and airforce, and right next to enemy tanks that fired at residential buildings, they were able to evacuate on their own to the territory controlled by russia, and from there – to leave for Germany. Lyudmyla’s husband, Vasyl, a well-known fitness trainer in their city, was killed under fire when he went to the store to find juice for his daughter. Parents and Ukrainian soldiers tried to comfort the children by “getting” something tasty for them, even with the risk of losing their lives.
On February 24, shelling began on the outskirts of the city. We lived on Morskyi Boulevard (Sea Boulevard – translator’s note), near the sea, and every day it (shelling – translator’s note) became stronger and closer to us.
We noticed that all stores were bombed immediately, and the infrastructure was destroyed. They fired at pharmacies, then at kindergartens and schools. After the entire infrastructure, they started to fire at residential buildings. At first, we tried to stay at home for the night, but it was impossible, as when there was a lot of shooting, the windows shook, and the child was terrified.
We decided to go to the basement after the apartment in the neighboring building completely collapsed. At first, we went to the basement of one of the neighboring buildings because ours had a cracked foundation, we were afraid it would collapse. Still, it was also dangerous in the nearby building because it was located right next to the road, and tanks were already driving along it.
After a couple of days, we went to the school’s basement near our house. At that time, 300 people were already there.
We had enough food. People who had cars usually brought us frozen fish, meat and liver from broken into warehouses. They gave all this away to people, so there was food.
We prepared food on fire, on grills. One boy made an oven from the school safe and we baked bread in it.
There was a bread factory nearby, shells flew there and all the doors were knocked out. Men went there for flour and sugar. For water, we went to a spring near the sea. But the last time my husband and I went there, we were shot in the back with machine guns by “danaerivtsi” (from a term “DNR” – a fake republic created by Russia in 2014 on the occupied territory of Donetsk region. So representatives of the army of this fake republic, which is financed by russia, are called “danaerivtsi” — editor’s note). Part of the city was already occupied. People were shot near the spring, after that we stopped going there.
We found drinking water at the same bread factory. At first, we thought there was settling water in the canisters, as if in settling tanks, but it turned out there was spring too because no matter how much water we collected from there, it did not run out.
“Thanks to the guys from Azov, we were up-to-date about the news. In the last period of time, it was they who helped us with food”.
We were in the hottest spot of Mariupol. Azovtsi repeatedly came to us in the basement (the separate special-purpose unit “Azov,” also known as the “Azov regiment”. During the russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the unit participated in the defense of the city of Mariupol and in the following heroic holding of the “Azovstal” plant, – editor’s note). We could just drink tea with them and chat.
Also, when there was heavy shelling, we asked them whose tank was firing now: ours or not? This way, we already knew on which side were ours and on which were russians. We also learned how to distinguish what exactly was used in a battle at that moment.
We sat in that basement and were so scared, but the guys (from Azov – translator’s note) came and told us: “Everything will be alright. We will withstand everything, and we will manage all this”, said to us that we would win no matter what. And somehow, it kept us going.
A guy often visited his seriously injured grandmother and a girl from “Azov” who came to see her daughter and mother.
They brought peanuts and sweets for the children and, most importantly, medicine. There were many injured people with us in the basement. This medicine helped us a lot. The children were happy when our soldiers came, they brought something tasty for them. Also, the guys even brought diapers because many people were unable to move, for example, the grandmother of that guy. When the bandages ran out, we had to tear the sheets to make bandaging.
The interesting thing was that while it was colder, no one got sick, even though people were sleeping right on the floor in the basement, and there was still snow outside. People started to get sick when it got warmer. Men went outside to the toilet, and women and children used buckets for that purpose. As long as it was cold, it was fine. But when the days got warmer, a very unpleasant smell appeared. I cannot even imagine how those people who were at the door slept.
Also, the bombs that were dropped on us most likely were phosphorous, but not most likely, definitely, those were phosphorous bombs. Because we saw phosphorus dripping from the buildings. We breathed all that, so imagine what we have in our lungs.
Military intelligence found out that there were fire spotters among us and they managed to catch some of them.
Our soldiers lived nearby us, but the thing was that, apart from them, there were also fire spotters among us.
There was a 15-year-old boy who knew a lot about medical treatment, he ran from person to person and helped everyone, he made bandages. And one day, this guy found some strange stick. We did not understand what it was, but when the guys from Azov came, they explained it was some kind of a flashlight.
They said that if not today, then tomorrow, all of us could be bombed by aviation. We just were lucky the guy found that flashlight. And by the way, when we went out in the evening, we even saw them aiming those lights at the houses. This way, the fire spotters showed where to fire from the aircraft. Ten-story buildings near the school were completely bombarded. There were huge, deep craters from shelling. And ten- and nine-story buildings were burning like candles.
In our basement, two russian passports and dry rations, also russian, were found. These people just quietly sat with us in the basement and were traitors.
From the very first day, I said that I don’t care about anything, any things, as long as everyone stays alive.
It happened on March 27. On that day, our daughter so much wanted some juice and he went to the store to get it, he wanted to buy cigarettes for himself too. There was a shop on Pashkovskyi Street that sometimes was open and you could buy something there. But that day, apparently, the store was closed because he left with a plastic bag in his pocket and was found on the street with an empty plastic bag. He had to go 100 meters to reach our basement.
We didn’t leave the basement that day because of heavy shelling, our parents went and found him on the street. As he was returning from the store, a mine landed, as the military told us later. He was 37 years old. My husband was a trainer in a fitness club, and many knew and respected him.
I could not bury my husband properly. We went and dug a grave, but he is a big guy, an athlete. At first, we hardly got him to the grave and then barely buried him under the shelling. A grave marker was placed several times, but shelling continued, so it was shattered all over again.
He was wearing a watch with his name on it, it was given to him at the last competition.
I feel pain and sorrow for all that happened in my city. When I left, I understood that people in Azovstal were still there, and I felt like a traitor.
I’m already used to gunshots, tanks, and mortars because it continued for a very long time. We sat in that basement for 37 days. When we crawled out of there, we were as dirty as you can only imagine. There were totally unsanitary conditions.
The thing I was most scared of was aviation. Usually, we went to sleep at night and didn’t know if we would wake up tomorrow or not. We woke up in the morning and just hoped and prayed that nothing would be dropped on us. Because sometimes there were such explosions that dust rose in the basement at such an amount, we could hardly breathe.
I don’t know how it happened that the rashists (russian invaders sometimes called like this because of adding russians plus fascists – translator’s note) surrounded us from all sides and we ended up in a blockade. Although ours made them eat dirt in the beginning, they smashed them in Chervone Pole, so they hid in Berdyansk and were afraid to go to Mariupol.
We left the basement after a tank fired at a 5-story building on Komsomolskyi. You probably have seen this video with a tank firing at a five-story building. It happened on April 9, this is building number 10, and right next to it was the school where we were hiding. When that tank arrived, we were there, right next to it. I began to panic, around that place were no undamaged buildings, there was our school that just had to be bombed together with the military, and that was it.
Later, the aircraft flew there anyway, two bombs were dropped on that school when people still were hiding there. How do we know that? Because when we were already in Germany, in Berlin, my daughter saw her classmate there. This boy and his family stayed in the school basement until April 20. (Lyudmyla with her daughter and in-laws left the school basement earlier — editor’s note).
So they told us that there was only one family: mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, and a little boy. Most likely, this family died. Also, some older people could not move on their own or were bedridden.
We overstayed there to such a point that Azovtsi came to us and said we could no longer stay there. So we asked them what we should do. We wanted to go to the Ukrainian side. The guys replied that it was impossible at that time. They advised us to go to the side of the DNR to get out somehow so that, in that case, we would not be killed.
On April 10, we left the school basement. We walked 200 meters and realized that there were more or less undamaged buildings. We were just shocked because there was nothing left near the school.
On foot, we went to the village of Vynohradnyi (an area in the Livoberejnyi district of Mariupol, a former village of the Donetsk region). When we got out of Mariupol to Vynohradnyi, my daughter’s first question when she saw the flags of the DNR was: “Mom, what kind of flags are these?” And I was walking and started crying; she immediately understood something was wrong.
“I quietly answered her so that no one could hear: “These are our enemies, they seized our lands and hung their rags here. But you must be silent. We have to get out of here.”She nodded her head and lowered her eyes”.
From Vynogradnyi, we were picked up to Snizhnyi (a city in the Donetsk region, occupied by Russia since 2014) by my mother’s acquaintances, who passed the filtration on the car, so they already had “DNR” numbers. (filtration or filtration camps arranged by russia in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. In these camps, the russians conduct interrogations of civilians, children included, interrogations are often accompanied by tortures. Many Ukrainians were never able to pass the “filtration”, and hundreds of people still remain in filtration camps, in unsanitary conditions, with poor nutrition – editor’s note). If you pass the filtration on foot, it will take from one to three days, if you use your own car, then it will take at least two weeks.
We went through the filtration in Snizhnyi, it was just terrible. Because they asked such provocative questions. I wouldn’t speak for myself, as I immediately told them that I sat with my child in the basement for 37 days, and because of that, I saw nothing and knew nothing either. So they didn’t cling to me. But my mother-in-law and father-in-law were interrogated for a very long time. They asked whose airplanes were flying over Mariupol. And whose airplanes those could be, tell me please, not Ukrainian ones, that’s for sure.
Men were undressed and checked for tattoos, perhaps because “Azovtsi” have unique tattoos. When we were driving through russia, I restrained myself so much that I could not look at them (at the russians) and let alone communicate with them. We drove, and I cried. I had such a cry deep from my soul.
From Snizhnyi, we went to Rostov (city in Russia- editor’s note). We, women, were allowed to cross the border normally, my stepfather too, but my father-in-law was interrogated for a long time, about an hour. That’s all because he worked in law enforcement agencies and was an investigator in Soviet times. They interrogated him for a long time.
We left russia through petersburg because we heard that it was easier to cross the russian border there. They let us through without any problems, we crossed the border with Estonia, and from there, we went to Berlin.
People are different. Everyone was losing their nerves because nerves give up easily in such an environment. There were different situations. Sometimes we rejoiced together, sometimes we cried, we listened to each other, we talked.
Many people were addicted to russian television, they were zombies. There were pro-russian people among us, and everyone communicated with each other in “bunches”. Some listened to DNR radio, others to Ukrainian. We were all in that together, we know how everything really was. And when watching russian television, how they talk about it, it’s just a circus, it’s just actors.
There were people among us who came out of the basement with us, and then during the inspections, when we were interrogated, documents were checked, these men, weaklings, who sat in the basement, did nothing, then told the russians where and who had remained (deliberately provided russians with information about the Ukrainian military).
Now we are staying in the city of Petersfield, Germany, in a refugee camp. We were given a three-room apartment and financial assistance. We are taking language courses, I need a job, and my child needs to attend school. We are saving our daughter’s life, and we need some perspective.
Чому важливо поширити цю історію?
Якщо українці не розповідатимуть свій погляд на війну в Україні, світ поступово забуватиме про нас. Натомість цим обов’язково скористаються росіяни. Тому не даймо їм жодного шансу.
Why is it important to share this story?
If Ukrainians do not share their views on the war in Ukraine, the world will gradually forget about us. Instead, the Russians will definitely take advantage of this. So let's not give them a chance.
АвторAuthor: Lidia Bilyk | Translation: Iryna Kovalenko