АвторAuthor: Anastasia Milenko | Translation: Mykhailova Valentyna
23 September 2022
51-year-old Olga Mikheenko from Mariupol retired six months before the war and decided to go to Europe. She worked in Poland for three months and returned to Mariupol only in early February. The war happened when the woman was at home with her daughter. They spent two months in Mariupol – first besieged, then occupied. And despite the difficult conditions, Olga is glad that she returned to Mariupol, because in the most terrible days for many citizens, she was with her daughter. The woman from Mariupol told “War Monologues” about difficult conditions, constant shelling, humanitarian catastrophe, life under occupation, evacuation through Russia.
The war for Mariupol began back in 2014, when volleys of “Grad” rockets and cannons were heard every day somewhere near the city. There were frightened refugees coming to the city, residents of the Vostochny neighborhood on the outskirts survived the shelling, and the rest of the people prepared basements and anxious suitcases. In February, the news on TV was also alarming. We tried to keep all the money at home and a full tank of gas in the car.
On February 24, at 5 am, cannons thundered in the distance. I read in the news that a “special operation” had begun. Classes in schools were canceled, people were dismissed from work. I understood that Mariupol is the “Brest Fortress” of Ukraine. I packed an anxious backpack with documents and valuables, a suitcase with warm clothes and a bag with dry rations. My husband and I managed to buy more cereals and potatoes. There were queues everywhere, people were withdrawing money from ATMs, stocking up on food.
The artillery was fired day and night. On 25 February, the electricity was turned off in our area and, accordingly, the gas heating was stopped. We lived on the floor in the corridor of the house. When the shooting was louder, we hid in the basement.
On 28 February, the soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine drove through the streets of our village on the outskirts, warned us that there would be a defense (active hostilities) and ordered us to go to the city center. We quickly gathered our things and went to my mother-in-law. She lives in a bend of the Kalchyk river – a low-lying, strategically useless place. Her old house saved us. Stove heating warmed us in the cold weather, we always had hot food. In the yard of the house there is a well from which we drank muddy but fresh water. There was also a bathhouse to take a bath.
On 3 March the whole city was left without electricity, water, gas and communication. Since the beginning of March the city was intensively shelled. They did not shoot at the places of military deployment, they just poured continuous fire on it. A huge city, whose residents were all at home, because the evacuation took place only for the first two days. And then we were just surrounded and monotonously killed.
The planes were dropping bombs, guns and “Grad” rocket launchers did not stop. I thought with horror that in this city people are sitting in the cold, they have no place to cook food, no place to get water. They have small children and frail old people.
My mother and sister were hiding on the left bank of the river, cut off from the rest of the city. I prayed that they were alive and saved. A shell hit the house next door and it burned down – there was nothing and nobody to extinguish the fires under shelling. In another house a shell flew into a room and tore apart the owner of the house. All shops were looted, people stole everything – even building materials and power tools.
There were wholesale bases not far from our house. People were taking food, beer, and detergent from there despite the shelling. People died near these bases, died when they went to the river for water, died when they cooked food near their entrances on fires, died when they just went outside to smoke. The neighbors buried the dead people right in their yards, in the holes from the explosions, leaving signs so that their relatives could find their graves later.
The safest place was in the basement of the house. But the shells were flying into the houses, and the basements were covered with the collapsed buildings. People wrote signs in private houses: “There are people alive in the basement”, in case they were hit. White pieces of cloth were hanging on the fences and the inscriptions “There are people in the house, children” stood out.
We went to our house several times. Each time, approaching the house, I prayed that it was intact. Surprisingly, there were windows still on it. There were dead people on the roads, many houses were damaged, power lines were broken.
In the second half of March, the shelling intensified, and the fighting moved to the city. In this agony of war, no one of the warring parties thought about civilians. The Armed Forces of Ukraine unceremoniously placed tanks in school yards, near the drama theater, and took up defensive positions in the entrances of multi-storey buildings throughout the city. Civilians had nowhere to go, they stayed in the basements of the same buildings. The DNR* army shelled the positions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, hitting nearby houses. People fled from the burning houses, they were received in the basements of other houses, helped each other as they could.
*DNR – Donetsk People’s Republic is a breakaway puppet proclaimed within the territory of Ukraine, which is militarily occupied by Russia and Russian-backed separatists.
Those who had transport were leaving the city under shelling, towards Ukraine. In the left-bank district people fled to the outskirts, where they took the buses of the Ministry of Emergency Situations and they were taken to Russia.
The temptation to leave and try to escape was great, but I was stopped by my relatives who were cut off from us on the Left Bank. If I leave, I will not be able to return here soon, and what if my family needs help? Suddenly only my mother is left of the whole family? Or my twelve-year-old niece is left alone, and I am her only relative here? That’s how I convinced myself when I was scared and wanted to run away from the city, saving myself and my daughter.
I was always looking for an opportunity to get to my family on the Left Bank, so when there were calm days I was going to my house, hoping to get through. By the end of March, the fighting had already moved to the city. Some areas were still controlled by Ukraine, others had already been captured by the Russians.
On 21 March, I once again went home, hoping to get to my family. My village was already captured. I felt like I was in an apocalypse movie. All the houses along the main road were smashed to pieces. The road was covered with shell pits and strewn with earth after the explosions. On the sidewalks there were many shell casings from “Kalashnikovs” and grenade launchers, streams of blood that had already coagulated. It is clear that many soldiers were killed in this battle, their bodies were taken away. But no one took civilian bodies. They were lying where they were killed.
Cars with the letter “Z” painted on the hoods drove around the village. I immediately thought of the Sonderkommando (special forces of Nazi Germany – ed.). They took these cars from the local population and occupied some empty houses. They distributed bread and some of the food they found in the houses they broke into.
In late March, a humanitarian center of the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations was opened on the outskirts of Mariupol. They started to distribute rations to the residents of the city. The old people, people with children, walked from all over the city to stand in a two-thousand-strong queue for boxes of food, detergents and a loaf of bread. In the kiosks you could buy food for hryvnia, standing in huge queues. I stood in this queue and listened to the horrible stories of those who survived but lost their loved ones in this war. On the boxes with humanitarian aid was painted the letter “Z” and the inscription “We do not abandon our own”. For some reason, I mentally wanted to add – we only kill them. It was very humiliating to feel defeated, to stand there with outstretched hands waiting for the alms from the enemies. But it was hard to survive without alms.
Throughout the war I did not allow my daughter to go outdoors, to leave the house. On March 30, she asked to go with me to the humanitarian center. I understood that she wanted to see the city, but I did not know whether her psyche would withstand it. We left early in the morning, because we had to walk 10 km. My daughter looked back with horror at the corpses lying on the roads, at the destroyed and burnt Kirovsky district. Suddenly the shelling started. A man fell 15 meters away from us, and his wife started screaming for help. Soldiers of the “Sonderkommando” ran out of the yard and called us to the house. It was a private sauna. “Sonders” spent the night there, and in the morning the Armed Forces of Ukraine hit this point. The soldiers hid us from the shelling, and the wounded man was taken to the hospital.
I sat in this sauna and listened to the soldiers talking. Young guys, students from Donetsk, were telling me about their dreams that night. They were trying to unravel them – whether they would have to die today. Each of them was not yet 30 years old. Later, the soldiers at the checkpoints said that they were all simple miners and workers who had been drafted into the army by force, threatening them with prison.
By mid-April, several defensive areas remained in the city, which were not accessible by security checkpoints. Azovstal separated the left bank of the city from the center. We walked 20 km through the surrounding villages and reached my relatives. I was happy that they were all alive and unharmed. Even their houses remained intact, although without windows. My son-in-law got us bicycles. Later we rode them all over the city.
There was not a single district in the city that was not destroyed. There were burned high-rise buildings in all districts. Thousands of people were left homeless, and continued to live in basements, cooking on fires in the yard. Some of them told me their stories about this war. I will keep them in my heart, as I keep the stories of my grandmother, who survived the occupation of Mariupol in the World War.
By the end of April, the city was already occupied. There was only Azovstal with the Azov soldiers who defended it. Whatever they say about them in Mariupol, I think that the Azov soldiers are real heroes. And they defended their “Brest Fortress” – Mariupol – to the end, in inhuman conditions. I lived not far from Azovstal. The plant was just watered with fire. Not a single minute of peace. They were gassing people out of there. And the Azov people were still standing and standing to the death. I thought with horror how hard it is for them there, how the wounded suffer without help and medicines. I pray to God that they are released from captivity before the enemies finally deal with them.
I also want to tell you about other heroes of Mariupol defense. These are local doctors. They could leave their posts and hide with other people, but they stayed in hospitals for all two months and helped the wounded, practically without medicines, water and food. There were so many wounded that people were lying on the floor in the corridors. Many could not be helped. But many survived, thanks to Mariupol doctors.
Russia launched a mass evacuation of people to Russia and DNR regions in the humanitarian center. Ukrainian volunteers also organized the evacuation of people to Ukraine. When the first internet connection appeared in the humanitarian center, I saw how many of my friends and Instagram followers in Ukraine, Russia and all over the world were looking for me and offering their help and accommodation. I was very touched by their participation.
Due to circumstances, my adult son has been living in Russia for eight years. Because of the coronavirus, we have not seen each other for three years. So I took the opportunity to stay with him for a while, take a break from the war, collect my thoughts and decide where to move on.
My daughter and I left by buses of the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Russia, it was easier. We were brought to the city of Dokuchaevsk, for the so-called filtration. I saw these “liberated republics” for the first time. It reminded me of the 80s of the last century – nothing new was built, everything was old and decayed. Their “freedom” looked miserable. We were kept for three hours in the police filtration, asked all sorts of questions, checked phones, fingerprinted and photographed, as in the movies of caught criminals. Disgusting and humiliating procedure.
The night came. They promised to feed us, but we did not wait for food. We were accommodated in the hall of the house of culture, given mattresses and pillows for common use. We slept right on the floor on these dirty mattresses, covering them with jackets to avoid catching lice. In the morning we were fed with tea and two waffles. We learned that this was the end of the “rescue mission” from the Ministry of Emergency Situations, and then we went on our way. On the Russian border we were waiting for a new interrogation by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation(FSS RF).
We arrived in Krasnodar. Russia is all saturated with propaganda – what a “great mission” it performs in Ukraine. Cars of special patriots are decorated with letters “Z”. These letters are hung on trams and buses. “We do not abandon our own” – advertising posters sound like screams in the head. I wonder who “their own” these fascists found among Ukrainian citizens? The Soviet Union is promoted everywhere: Soviet ice cream, Soviet mayonnaise.
In Russia, I felt the European sanctions on myself – none of my payment cards worked. I got a job as a seamstress. I earned good money, but it was enough only for food. In Russia, you need to work 24/7 to somehow make ends meet. Ordinary Russian people are still kind and trusting by nature, poisoned through and through by Putin’s propaganda. But among this mass of people there are Russian volunteers who help Ukrainians to go to Europe or settle in Russia for free.
They get the victims the necessary things, wheelchairs, carriers for animals… As if these people want to atone for the sins of their country before the Ukrainian people with their “mission”.
I did not want to live in the enemy’s country, listen to their fascist news and pretend that it did not bother me, so I accepted the invitation of my friend from the institute and went to Germany. Due to circumstances, we had to settle first in a refugee camp.
All necessary conditions and sanitary standards for people are created here, 3 meals a day are organized. The camps try to settle people in dormitories, apartments and houses as soon as possible. Ukrainians receive the same assistance as German citizens. Children have already started school, and we got a separate room in the dormitory for five families.
Will I return to Mariupol? If under the control of Russia or DNR – definitely not. I will return only when Mariupol becomes Ukrainian again.
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: Anastasia Milenko | Translation: Mykhailova Valentyna
“In someone else’s house, without a basement, I brought my children to their death – that was what echoed in my head as I was crying my eyes out” – the story of a woman who, together with her children, escaped from occupied Kherson