АвторAuthor: Lidia Bilyk | Translation: Lisa Bolotova
17 May 2022
The story of Olena Moiseeva, a 44-year-old from Mariupol, is one out of a hundred thousand stories of people that weathered the terrors of war in the martyr city of Mariupol. Olena’s family had a house in the centre of a beautiful European city. These are the words our heroine uses to describe Mariupol. A survivor of the 2014 events [the temporary occupation of the city by the Russian-backed militia — Ed.], she, like most Mariupol residents, did not expect a full-scale war to be waged in Ukraine, let alone such an atrocious one.
February 24, at 5:30 in the morning, I answered a call from my eldest daughter. She told me the war had started. I went straight out onto the porch to see what was happening. It was pouring, so we didn’t hear anything. It was not until the afternoon that we heard sounds of shooting coming from the left side of the city. We thought it would be similar to what had happened in 2014. Back then, our city had been quickly liberated, so we hadn’t had to learn what it was like to live under occupation. Besides, foreign media kept announcing probable dates of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, but no predictions came true, so we thought everything would be alright. In the first days, the fighting was contained to the left bank of the city. That’s where it all started.
“We were certain that enemy forces would not be able to advance farther into Mariupol because there was a great number of Ukrainian military in the city”
We live in the very heart of the city. Our house faces the building of the Security Service of Ukraine, so we regularly saw many Ukrainian military and even talked to them, asked how they were doing, if they had any news, and things like that. Then the situation escalated. On March 1, the power went out. When it was back on again the following day, we brightened up and thought everything would be okay. But the day after that, we had no power, gas, or water. There were ten of us in our house at first, but after the shut-off, we took in my friend and her kids and so became 13. Back on the first day of the war, my husband and I drove by car and bought heaps of food, which turned out to be enough for all the time we stayed in the city. After the gas supply had been shut off, we cooked in a fireplace.
Till March 16, the fighting in the city went on relatively far away from us, so we even still had windows in the house. On March 17, the house opposite ours took a direct hit from a rocket. It’s just terrible, standing at your place and looking out of the nursery at the fire blazing in your neighbours’ house. Black smoke was billowing into the sky, some stray black ashes were flying into our home, and the flame was the reddest I had ever seen. Three people were killed in that house then, and the explosion smashed all our windows. We heard more blasts later, very close to us. We had no reception and so didn’t know it was a bomb dropped onto the drama theatre. It was a three-minute walk from our house. There were always many people near the theatre because it was where water for drinking and general use was delivered. Vehicles with drinking water stopped in front of the building, and those with water for general use were at the back. The theatre was the destination for those who were waiting for green corridors from day to day, and there were many women with children inside. From that day on, Mariupol suffered round-the-clock air strikes.
Before that, there had been a few times when we would go and check in with granny, but it was no longer possible. Others told us where we could find a mobile phone signal. Back then, there was a place near one of the cathedrals. We went there to call our family, but later we could find no reception either. Once we went to granny again and saw three nine-storey blocks of flats on fire. One of them was right next to the cathedral. Flats from its third to ninth floors were on fire.
Air strikes on Mariupol were ceaseless. And it was nothing like a far-off bomb falling down once a day. We had bombs dropped on us round the clock.
We stayed in the basement, overwhelmingly scared. When the basement is shaking, plaster falls right on your head. And you realise that if your house takes a direct hit, walls will collapse right over you, and you will never make it out of the rubble.
“We feared our house would be hit: if that had happened, we would have never been able to make it out of the rubble. We hung out white cloth near the exit from the basement so that someone could guess there were people there”
March 19 was sunny, and it was silent for two hours. We went outside, lit a fire, and put water on to cook some food. While we were out, shelling started, and we ran back to the basement, but my husband remained on the porch. Then a shell hit the yard. My husband was quick and managed to run back to the basement. The next shell landed just half a metre or so from where we had all been standing and cooking mere minutes ago.
“We are certain it was a targeted strike because a jet flew over us. We have no doubt they were targeting people. It was sunny and the sky was clear, and they saw whom they were firing at. It is a miracle we survived.”
“We were leaving Mariupol on our own accord, at our own peril. We knew we should not stay in the city any longer”
Everyone, either civilians or military, kept telling us that evacuating the city was dangerous because convoys could be targeted. That kept us where we were because we didn’t know some people managed to flee the city. The decision to leave was made on the spur of the moment. We had not a drop of drinking water left, so my husband and I went to the city park, risking our lives. There is a well with water there. Not far from it, we saw a man standing over the precipice and talking on the phone. My phone had 7% battery left, and I managed to call my sister. She told me that people were leaving Mariupol, that it was safe and convoys weren’t shelled. We hurried home and started packing. The shell that hit our yard on March 19 damaged one of the cars, so it couldn’t be used. Our other two cars we left between houses on adjacent streets. Luckily, they were not damaged.
“When we were leaving, we didn’t even have anything to shut in our home: the front door was damaged, with the locks blasted off. Our home was no longer possible to live in.”
We left Mariupol at 3 p.m. and drove through scores of DPR checkpoints [Donetsk People’s Republic is an illegally proclaimed state in the territories occupied by Russia — Ed.]. It was an arduous road. We saw heaps of crashed military vehicles but weren’t sure whose they were because the markings were damaged.
It was especially hard going from Berdyansk to Zaporizhzhia. It used to take three or four hours by car in peacetime, but during the war, we were driving for over 36 hours. Nearing one checkpoint, we saw three hundred cars and buses stretched out in a three-kilometre queue. City residents gave us water from a well and sent two cars of fresh bread from a bakery. Checks were very slow, and we were stuck there till evening. The Ruscists said it was night already so no one would let us through. They knew there were volunteers in Tokmak [the closest settlement to the checkpoint — Ed.]. They suggested that, seeing as we had kids, we ask volunteers to shelter us so as not to spend the night in a field.
We had a warm welcome in a kindergarten. Volunteers had cooked hot soup and bread, and we felt we were welcome there. There were even things to take, whatever one needed. These people have hearts of gold. They were in the occupied territory already. It was warm in the kindergarten. We had forgotten it could be that warm inside.
When driving out of Tokmak, we saw many columns of military vehicles marked with “Z”: tanks, AFVs, and all that. They probably were on rotation somewhere close.
In Zaporizhzhia, we stayed in a kindergarten too. A few days later, we set out for Kyiv.
Two days after we had left Mariupol, some of our friends found a way to reach out to us. I learned that my friend had walked out of the city on foot, under fire. She no longer cared whether she would make it. It’s just that staying there any longer would be an agony. So she just went from the train station to one of the roads controlled by Russian troops.
My friend wanted to evacuate from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia. The Russians told her it would be pointless to go to Zaporizhzhia because, like other cities, it was controlled by their army. They said it was no different from Mariupol and so they were evacuating people to Donetsk instead. I haven’t heard from my friend since. All I know is that she was taken to Mangush by bus and carried to the DPR from there.
We used to live in a beautiful European city. Everyone had this feeling that we would wake up in the morning and everything would be alright. No one could believe that that nightmare was not a dream. Even now, I keep thinking that we will go home tomorrow and everything will be like it used to be. A lot of Mariupol citizens think so too. We cannot fathom what we did to deserve this and want so very much to go back and rebuild our city. We believe in our victory.
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: Lisa Bolotova
“The constant whistling of shells overhead was no longer so frightening, but the night bombing of the city was really terrifying.” The story of a man from Chernihiv who lived through the siege of the city