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  • Українці розповідають про пережите під час війни з росією

    Ukrainians talk about their experiences during the war with russia

    Tatyana Chernyshova

    Tetiana Chernyshova: “I want to come back to Mariupol and find my child’s grave”

    Life under fire

    АвторAuthor: Iryna Hyliuk | Translation: Lisa Bolotova

    10 June 2022

    For 50-year-old Tetiana Chernyshova, Mariupol has ceased to be just a city which she loved, in which she lived, worked and raised a son with her husband. Recently, it became her child’s grave. Tetiana and her husband desperately fought for life while taking care of their child with a disability. They watched Russian shells destroy houses, cover the city streets with bodies, and kill hope of rescue in those who survived. The Chernyshov family broke away when they no longer feared death. It was omnipresent to the point of indifference.

    When the war came in 2014, we were living on Mariupol’s Left Bank. Alas, it was the most dangerous district. It was under ceaseless fire. People were dying. We heard Shyrokyne being destroyed.

    What with the chairbound boy with cerebral palsy to take care of, we were naturally very scared.

    When a checkpoint was destroyed near our house, we realized: if we stay, we’ll die. We took the child and drove out of the city to our friends. But when we called them on our way, they never answered, so we went to Berdiansk instead. Maxim’s nanny lived there. I worked all the time, so we had nannies for many years. So we sought help from one of them. 

    We stayed there for three days only. We tried to find an apartment, but no one wanted to let us one because we had a disabled child. It was time for my husband to get back to work, so we headed back for Mariupol. When we were leaving it on Friday, we saw quite a lot of cars driving out of the city. When we were coming back on Monday, there were just as many going back.

    “We came back to stay, despite the fear. We slept with our clothes on in case we had to quickly get out of the house. We worried about our child, too: he was an adult, so one couldn’t just pick him up and run. It all was so awful…”

    We didn’t fathom it could happen again. We didn’t even have our bag ready. The news on TV started featuring the plan of the offensive on Ukraine: Kharkiv, Kherson, Kyiv, Mariupol. And my husband and I stayed at home anyway because we didn’t believe it was true. Everyone on TV was saying it was a lie! And our government too was saying, “Don’t panic!”

    Our child was 27 years old. He was chairbound, and it was very difficult to pick him up. My husband had a heart attack four years ago, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it myself. So we weren’t going to flee anywhere.

    Mather with her son

    Tetiana Chernyshova with her son Maxim

    I stoked up on non-perishables, going shop to shop, pharmacy to pharmacy. I bought medicines too because my son’s life depended on them. He often had seizures. We stoked up on water and fuel and had a power generator. We could have lasted two or three months at home, with no need to get outside.

    “Our decision turned out to be fatal”

    This time, everything started from the shelling of the left bank again. A few detached horses were hit and burnt down. That attack we withstood. 

    Then, nine-story apartment blocks near where we lived were shelled. Half a building was destroyed. But the mayor (who lived on the left bank too) said there was no reason to panic.

    There were lots of messages asking to evacuate the left bank. After 2014, people were wise to this nightmare and didn’t want to live through it again. But the mayor’s post on the website reassured there was no reason to panic and evacuate. He told us to stay calm. Well, we stayed.

    The one thing we did was get Maxim’s things ready just in case: the child needed a lot of medications, some clothes, books, and it would take much longer than five minutes to get out of the house with him. 

    And then we found out that the mayor left the city—all the while there was no reason to panic… And we stayed, reassured that Mariupol was protected by three rows of soldiers all around it. We were told the city was safe. So we ended up in a trap.

    We were astonished. It turned out that many of those we knew left. And no one called us. No one! Just think! This was one of the factors that reassured us too, when we called people and they told us they were at home. Then we learned some were as far as another country.

    “I don’t know why they did it… Maybe they were afraid. Or is it that at war, it’s every man for himself? All that was good and bad about people was sharpened. Friends and family, acquaintances, strangers underwent this sort of filtration, as it were”

    Now, we mostly keep in touch with those who stayed and suffered all that we did too.

    When shells and Grad rockets started falling on the city again, I don’t know how we did it, but we took our son and drove to the center of the city. We took my brother and his wife too. We rented an apartment for them in the house next to ours. This decision turned out to be fatal.

    “And our child’s heart stopped”

    At home, on the left bank, we left some of our food and medicines. When we moved to the new place, I started running around stores and pharmacies trying to buy everything again. But it was way more expensive, and I had to wait in very long lines. We had almost none of our clothes either, except for the jumpsuits that we could wear in basements. I had my documents on me, but my husband only took his passport.

    Our new apartment was on the first floor. We only lived there a couple of days before electricity, water, and heating were cut off and the signal was lost. The child had an exacerbation: he was suffering from severe epilepsy seizures and headaches. We even had to resort to narcotics to alleviate his pain. He developed a risk of cerebral edema. We tried to save him for three days or so.

    That was when Russians came from somewhere around Berdiansk. They started bombing AS-2, which marked the beginning of the district where we stayed.

    Everything’s on fire, smoke rising up, stores bombed to the ground. People plundered them. Everyone became a looter. Looting was thriving. It was scary. It was a harbinger of a collapse: no one would be able to survive for long without food and water.

    The morning of March 4 began with a powerful explosion. We were sleeping, and on the night before, we gave our child a powerful sedative and an analgesic. The blast wave smashed the window. I think the house sort of jumped up and then fell down again.

    It was a five-story building next to ours. The bomb hit it right in the middle and perforated it to the ground floor. It felt like that house was disemboweled… Windows smashed, people’s stuff disgorged, fire raging on. Eight or ten cars burned down near the building.

    “It was clear we were done for. It was the end. When shells like that one fall, no one and nothing survives… And our child’s heart stopped. I don’t know why: maybe he was too scared, maybe, too stressed. On the fourth of March, sweet Maxim passed away…”

    That sent us into torpor, which lasted about a month. Our minds tried to protect themselves from that nightmare. The realization that our child was dead and that we were going to die struck us on the same day. It was terrifying.

    “I still cannot forgive myself that he was just lying there, in the street”

    We didn’t know what we should do with Maxim. Back then, the funeral home Skorbota was still working in the city. But we were wary of going outside because the city was under ceaseless shelling from the Grads, and the pieces of those shells were very dangerous. The taxi depot and the Metro store were bombed all around. Our district was next. They started destroying residential buildings

    Our neighbors were refugees from Shyrokyne or maybe Sopyne. They had already fled the war once in 2014: then, they had left for Mariupol. There was a whole family in the basement: the husband, the wife, their daughter, and their granddaughter. They stayed there almost all the time and begged us not to leave either. They knew what we were dealing with.

    The man told me that while the fighting was ongoing, no one was going to come fetch the body. He told me we should take my son’s body outside. I would not listen. They shut me in the basement so that I would not have an outburst and did it themselves. I still cannot forgive myself that he was just lying there, in the street…

    This is the house where their son died

    This is the house where the Chernyshovs were hiding from explosions. This is where their son died

    When my brother and his wife came to us, they tried to find the police. All under the shelling. They threw themselves under the police car to stop it and managed to get the police to come to us and certified the death.

    Skorbota took our child’s body but transported it to their central storage. They told us they wouldn’t bury him until we get a medical certificate. Getting one was a quest in itself because March 4 marked the beginning of an absolute nightmare. We wanted to collect and bury our son’s body ourselves but were denied. They told us it was impossible to get to the cemetery because of the shelling and they would bury him in a mass grave. 

    Pull yourself together, missus. Your child was 27. If only you’d seen the small children lying here! And in what state! No hands, no legs!

    I don’t know why, but it has been especially deadly for kids in Mariupol. Kids and young people. Maybe because older people are more careful and keep to the shelters, and for kids, it’s hard to stay there all the time. And young people would go to fetch water and food. We saw a lot of their bodies in the streets…

    Now I think I should have collected his body and at least bury him in the yard. It’s just that this thought seemed crazy back then. But that was before March 7. After that, everyone in Mariupol was burying the dead right under their windows.

    “I was convinced we were going to die, but after all we’d been through, I didn’t really want to live”

    Public transport was no longer running because of the shellings. People were afraid of driving, too—besides, there was no fuel. There were fewer and fewer police every day. The citizens of Mariupol were left one on one with their woes, blocked in their houses, limited in their movements, and having almost no stores, pharmacies, or hospitals open.

    Our house was hit more than once. The houses next to ours were hit too. It was an apocalypse. We just sat there and waited until we’d die. Nowhere was safe, neither the apartment nor the basement.

    Once we rushed to my brother to take some things. Right at that moment, they started bombing Mariupol from aircraft. That we survived was God’s miracle: there were dead bodies all around us.

    We would no longer go anywhere alone as every farewell could be our last. Outside, you could have come under fire in urban combat between Ukrainian forces on one side and the “Donetsk People’s Republic” on the other. If you entered the wrong territory, you were shot. That was that. 

    A buildings in Mariupol

    A lot of buildings in Mariupol were perforated by bombs

    After yet another shelling, my husband and I rushed to take our car to another spot so that we could still have some chance to get out. As soon as we got into the car, a shell hit the ground. The car jumped up. There was no room in the underground parking, so we were forced to leave the car near our house. We could not return to my brother. We ran to the basement of the building nearby. We met our acquaintance there and were allowed to stay. Our makeshift bed was made of bricks and boards.

    On the day we moved in there, a guy came from outside and said, ‘Two girls just went outside, on the doorstep, and a shell hit. They burst into molecules…’ There were also men outside cooking. In the morning, we found four bodies covered with blankets.

    It was a nightmare, what was going on with the killings. The wounded often didn’t even reach hospitals. Ambulances often came under fire and never even reached them. People were lying without arms, without legs, and no one was there to rescue them. Everyone was terrified of possible hits. No one wanted to risk it all, and so people just died in the streets because they could not get help.

    In urban combat, men that were alone were often shot. Both sides were wary of the military wearing civilian clothes. So people walked in groups.

    We tried to come back to our apartment. But as soon as we would go out, shelling would start. So we had to come back again. Every day, there were more and more bodies in the streets. I was convinced we were going to die, but after all we’d been through, I didn’t really want to live…

    “It was an adrenaline rush: we all were just going somewhere, fleeing the bombs—and we got out”

    There were rumors going around the city that it was impossible to evacuate. I don’t know who benefited from it, from us staying in Mariupol. 

    I had this pervading sense that we had been betrayed. That we were thrown like a bait, like a bone to be gnawed at from both sides. To have Russian forces concentrate here and allow Ukrainian forces to gain a foothold on other frontlines? To make Mariupol a hero city?

    That’s how I felt. And when I shared my thoughts with others, it turned out many were thinking the same thing. People with radios said Mariupol was not even on the news at first. No one was talking about how we were left without electricity, water, or medications, how we were in trouble.

    People were waiting for a green corridor and a ceasefire. Sometimes, cars would head out and then come back. Head out again, and then come back again. Eventually, the citizens had to arrange a corridor themselves, when they started throwing air bombs on us and we had nothing to lose.  

    “We no longer cared where we’d die, either under the bombs in the city or on the road, shot dead… You see, there was no longer any fear of death, if but a little. Your emotions were dulled and you watched everything as if in a movie. That’s how it felt. Even bodies in the streets weren’t a shocking sight anymore…”

    Then the 12-story building under which we were sheltered for four days was hit. So we ran to the Azov Sea. We spent the night there and saw people leaving the city.

    We couldn’t go to Melekino because the “DPR” militia could take my husband prisoner. We joined those who were planning to leave for Zaporizhzhia. Some managed to get out: one car was shot, but the rest got away. And everyone started coming together to form the convoy.

    The road took us two days. There were lots of checkpoints, all occupied by the Chechens and all. But they didn’t search us because there were too many cars. We slept in Tokmak and Berdiansk and finally reached Zaporizhzhia. We weren’t sure how. It was an adrenaline rush: we all were just going somewhere, fleeing the bombs—and we got out… 

    The grave of Chernyshov's son

    The Chernyshovs hoped that this grave was where their son’s body was buried. It too was wrapped in a pink sheet

    I wouldn’t have left willingly. I feel guilty that we don’t know where our child is buried. The most recent news was that the funeral home didn’t manage to bury our son’s body, not even in the mass grave, because that body storage facility was hit by a shell.  

    “I don’t think we’ll ever know the exact death toll”

    All the people that I have talked to over the phone want to come back. Everyone’s waiting for Mariupol to be under Ukraine’s control. And you know what? Our house on the left bank is still standing! We thought it would be dangerous there, but now it’s occupied by Kadyrov’s men. 

    I’m talking about it now because I’ve regained some of my senses. In the first week, I was just crying every day. 

    It’s so awful, this feeling that you’ve been betrayed, forsaken. They kept telling us we were safe, but in three days, we were in hell. And how many people died! Our friends couldn’t leave because they had immobile parents. Some had seriously ill children and had neither money nor opportunities to evacuate.

    One of my acquaintances among those who also have disabled children, a single father, lost his son Yehorushka. The kid died because he’d run out of antiepileptic drugs and they were nowhere to be found. The boy suffered for a week and passed away on April 23.

    A sick child died without life-saving medicines

    Yehor, who had cerebral palsy, did not survive without essential medications

    We were also contacted by a single mother of Ihor, who has cerebral palsy and a serious mental disorder. She was desperate when she called us: she only had drugs left for two weeks and didn’t know what to do after that. You see, the boy is so aggressive he might even kill her. We’ve been looking for volunteers who might help with the medications.

    The five-story building on the left bank where our acquaintances lived got hit. A 14-year old boy was cooking food with older men, and the woman stayed at home. Boom. The men were torn to pieces, and the boy’s head was the only thing that was found. How will this poor woman live?! She lost her husband and her son at the same time…

    It’s a tragedy. I’m devastated for children. I don’t understand why so many kids suffered. It’s as if our city was damned. 

    And we are not talking about 20 thousand dead, or 25 thousand, as they say in the news, but at least 50 thousand. Or more. Because many people remain under the rubble. Some didn’t go down to basements. Many houses didn’t have basements at all. People were staying in their apartments. They would go out to their corridors to wait out the strikes. I dread to think how many people were burned alive.

    I don’t think we’ll ever know the exact death toll. So many people went missing, so many men went to fetch water and came under fire or were shot. And the locals would just bury them. No one knew where they came from and where they were going. No surnames, no IDs.

    “We were in hell, and no one believed we would get out of there”

    We got out of Mariupol on March 16, and my brother and his wife remained in that hell for two weeks longer. He thought we’d died under the shelling when we went to move the car. And I was sure he died in the fire: their basement was set on fire by soldiers. It was unknown whose side they were on: either they were our guys trying to make Russians jump out of it or Russians or trying to smoke out the Azov soldiers. They were fighting over every single building. Brother told me they had to get outside so that they could breathe. They spent the night outside, with shells flying over them.

    And in the morning, they made a flag out of a floor mop and a white t-shirt and hit the road at their own risk. There were five of them, but because there were two women among them, they got out.

    All that time I was burdened by guilt because it was me who persuaded him and his wife to move to the center of Mariupol. 

    What if we had stayed home? What if we had taken the wrong turn? What If we had done something differently? All those thoughts… How do I live with them now?

    We were in hell, and no one believed we would get out of there… But I want to come back to Mariupol to find my child’s grave.

    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: Iryna Hyliuk | Translation: Lisa Bolotova

    Life under fire

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