Escape from hell: Women of Mariupol tell their stories of living under occupation and escaping the siege

27 April, 02:04 PM
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Destroyed residential buildings in Mariupol (Photo:Pavel Klimov / Reuters)

Destroyed residential buildings in Mariupol (Photo:Pavel Klimov / Reuters)

On April 22, invading Russian forces announced that they had conquered Mariupol and now fully control the Ukrainian port city in the Donbas, 90 percent of which they destroyed over the course of the two months’ siege.

Although more than 2000 Ukrainian soldiers still control the industrial district of the AzovStal steel factory, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the operation was a success for the Russian army.  

Mariupol used to be a major Ukrainian export and industrial hub – a port city of more than 400,000 people on the Sea of Azov. In 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine, it failed to occupy Mariupol mostly because of strong local resistance, and the Azov Regiment.

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Since March 1, Russian have made Mariupol one of their main targets. Ukraine has already managed to evacuate more than 100,000 residents from the besieged city, but Russia has forcibly abducted than 80,000 Ukrainians, including 5,000 children, from the city, President Volodymyr Zelensky has said.

More than 22,000 civilians have been killed. Russian troops have been reported to be collecting the bodies, burning and burying them in mass graves to cover up their crimes.

Some 120,000 people are still trapped in the city, on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. They have no food, no clean water, no electricity, or stable mobile connection. 

The Ukrainian government demands that Russia open humanitarian corridors directly from Mariupol, to save at least the women and children still trapped there. But the Kremlin continuously refuses to let Ukrainian convoys come close to Mariupol.

Instead, the Russian occupiers are urging desperate residents to flee to Russia.  During a United Nations meeting in March, Russian representatives claimed Mariupol residents choose to go to Russia voluntarily.  But dozens of Mariupol residents that the New Voice of Ukraine has spoken to, say it is “a choice without a choice”.

People are forced to live in basements with little to no food and water under constant shelling, and in a total informational vacuum.   Many Mariupol residents no longer understand who is shooting at them. They are so exhausted by hunger and constant threats that the first person who offers a path to safety and some food becomes a friend. 

Russians keep saying that they’re unwanted in Ukraine and in Europe, while in Russia they will be met as “brothers”.  While some people chose to go to Russia to stay with their relatives, others are taken there by force.

In Russia, most the abductees are given 10,000 rubles ($129) in financial assistance, and some food.  Those who have their own money often choose to go to Georgia, or to the EU through Estonia, or return to Ukraine.

Those, who don’t have enough money to leave, are forced to stay in Russia, where the authorities resettle them to the regions far away from Ukraine. Some are sent as far as the Russian Far East.

On April 23, Russian media website vl.ru reported that 308 Mariupol residents had been brought to Nakhodka, a town in the Primorsky Kray district, on the coast of Pacific Ocean.

At the same time, the Russians aren’t banning people from returning to Ukraine at their own risk.

While Mariupol is often closed for entry or exit without warning, some days, they allow people to leave for unoccupied Ukraine using their own cars.   

On the way from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhya, those who manage to flee have to pass more than 20 enemy checkpoints, wait in line for days, and go through a humiliating “filtration” process.   

The New Voice of Ukraine spoke to two women who managed to escape from Mariupol. Here are their stories:

Maria Vdovychenko, a 17-year-old refugee from Mariupol, takes a selfie near the volunteer center
Maria Vdovychenko, a 17-year-old refugee from Mariupol, takes a selfie near the volunteer center "Good Morning, we are from Mariupol" in Dnipro / Фото: Maria Vdovychenko/Facebook

 Maria Vdovychenko, 17-year-old high school student.

 Before the war, Maria lived in Primorsky district of Mariupol, with her father Oleksandr, her stepmother Natalia and her 12-year-old stepsister Nelli. Vdovychenko was a student and worked at a local church to help her family. 

“We were never rich,” she recalls.

“Six years ago, my mom Natalia was diagnosed with polyneuropathy. We used to spend most of our money on her treatment.”

Vdovychenko’s biological mother left her soon after she was born. Her father took care of her until he met Natalia. She has become the mother that Maria had dreamed of. And Oleksandr adopted Natalia’s daughter, Nelli. Together they created a loving family, which identified as religious. Maria’s passion was to play the bandura, a type of Ukrainian folk string instrument, similar to a lute.

That all ended on Feb. 24, when Russians began massively bombing Ukrainian cities and towns.

“At 0400, Mom ran into our room and cried: “Wake up and pack your stuff. The war has started!” Vdovychenko remembered.

Both girls did not believe their mother at first, who had been trying to persuade her family that Russia would invade, a week before the Kremlin began its full-scale war against the country.

“I could not believe her until I heard explosions,” Vdovychenko said.

But her family didn’t manage to escape from Mariupol during the first days of the war. The city was closed for entry due to the constant shelling.

“My city went crazy. People became vicious, they were trying to survive. Looting started almost immediately. The streets became dangerous,” Vdovychenko said.

Her family just did not know what to do and where to go. Like many other Ukrainians, the Vdovychenkos just packed their bags and stayed home.

Russians were constantly shelling the city from land, sea, and air.  During the heaviest fighting, the family hid in their bathroom.

“We read that it is the safest place in an apartment,” she explained.

“But in the beginning of March, we got tired of it and decided to live in the hallway instead. The windows around us were shaking. And we were just lying there with our eyes closed, trying to sleep.”

But one day a Russian missile struck the roof of their building, breaking most of the windows at once.  Vdovychenkos heard screaming from all over their building, and soon after, were forced to fight their way into a basement shelter.

“Because of her disease and the stress, Mom could not walk anymore, so we had to carry her,” Maria said.

That is how most of Mariupol’s residents began living underground. Mobile networks disappeared in the beginning of March, cutting off their ability to stay updated about the state of the rest of the country. Rumors spread from basement to basement and became the only source of information for many people.

“We had to live in total darkness and cold,” Vdovychenko shared.

Maria Vdovychenko poses for a photo with her bandura (Фото: Vdovychenko/Facebook)
Maria Vdovychenko poses for a photo with her bandura / Фото: Vdovychenko/Facebook

“We had only a relatively small piece of bread that we shared between four people. It was freezing cold outside, but at least we could melt snow and ice to have some water to drink.”

She lost track of the days during that period in the basement, while Russian missiles were hitting the house above her head.

Around two weeks later, on March 17, the family understood they had to at least try to leave the besieged city. 

“We were so devastated and exhausted,” Vdovychenko said.

“Dad said it was enough. We either die here of hunger, buried under the rubble, or we die right there outside. But we would have at least a small chance to get out and survive.”

That day, the family left Mariupol, just to be stopped right outside the city by the Russian proxies of the so-called DPR puppet authorities. 

“They just threatened us with guns and told us to go to Mangush and then to Nova Yalta,” Maria said.

Nova Yalta is a small resort village on the Sea of Azov, 36 km south of Mariupol. There, Maria’s family spent several days blocked in an old Soviet resort.

“They just told us we were not allowed to leave because they were cleansing Yalta of ‘Nazis’,” Vdovychenko said.

“They promised to give us some food. But they didn’t. We managed to buy only two loaves of bread at a local market.”

Only in the beginning of April were the Vdovychenkos allowed to leave Nova Yalta for Zaporizhzhya. 

“However, they said the only way for us to leave the territory of Russia was to pass the process of filtration,” she recalled.

“That is how we first discovered that all settlements around Mariupol had been occupied.”

They had to wait in line for filtration until 2300 that day.  

“My mom could not walk, so they let her stay in the car,” she said.

“And my sister was too young for filtration. It starts at 14. So, they took me and my father to a cabin.”

According to Vdovychenko, during filtration, the occupiers scan passports, ask about people’s political positions, check their smartphones, social media, and even the search history of Ukrainians, searching for at least something that proves a person has pro-Ukrainian position - signifying, to the Russians, that this person is a “Nazi.”

“I deleted my social media profiles and some contacts,” she explained.

“But I had taken some pictures from our trip and had notes about the evacuation on my phone. This didn’t look suspicious, and they let me go back to the car. But my father had no time to do so, and just cleared all his data on his phone, as that was easier. That is why they decided he was hiding something.”

Vdovychenko’s father Oleksandr returned to the car 40 minutes later.

“We knew we couldn’t leave without him,” she said.

“But there he was, slowly walking to the car. Only a bit later did he tell us that they beat him, trying to find out what he was hiding.”

Oleksandr still needed to drive the family through more than 20 checkpoints on the way to Zaporizhzhya.

“At some point, I saw mines set up on the side of the road,” Vdovychenko remembered.

“I warned my dad, but he said that he couldn’t see them. That’s how we discovered that the (invaders) had beaten him so much that he’d started losing his sight.”

For the rest of the trip, the family had to pitch in to help drive, since if Oleksandr had made a mistake, the whole evacuation column could suffer. On the road and during checks on numerous checkpoints, Maria said she saw Russians dragging people out of their cars and sending whole busses full of people in an unknown direction. She saw soldiers taking away people’s food and warm clothes.

“On April 6 or 7, we reached safety,” she recalled.

“When we saw a checkpoint with a Ukrainian flag waving over it, we started crying.”

In Zaporizhzhya, the Vdovychenkos finally received medical aid. Oleksandr Vdovychenko was diagnosed with optic nerve atrophy, a condition that can eventually cause blindness, if not treated.

“Since then we’ve been traveling around Ukraine to get my father medical treatment,” she said.

“His sight still can be saved, so we are collecting money. After all he went through for us, I can’t let him down.”

Natalia Demysh hugs her 21-year-old son Yuriy (Фото: Natalia Demysh)
Natalia Demysh hugs her 21-year-old son Yuriy / Фото: Natalia Demysh

Natalia Demysh, 40, accountant

Before Russians brought the war to Mariupol, Demysh worked as a chief accountant at a local firm that produced metal widgets for the AzovStal factory.

She lived in the Skhidnyi District on the Left Bank of Mariupol.

“We could see the highway to Taganrog (in Russia) from our kitchen windows, and my mom used to say if Russia invades, our house will be on the frontline,” Demysh said.

“And she was right.”

The war came to Demysh’s home for the first time in 2014, when Russian proxies tried to occupy Mariupol at the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Back then they did not succeed, and Ukrainian forces threw them out of the city.

From her window, she could have seen glow of fires and hear the sounds of combat in Shyrokyne, a village 23 kilometers east of Mariupol. In January 2015, Russians shelled Demysh’s district, killing dozens of people.

“That is when I decided my son Yuriy should move to his father, my ex-husband,” Demysh said.

“I stayed at my apartment with my mother.”

Since then, Yuriy has lived with his father. Despite the divorce, Natalia kept up good relations with her ex-husband. Together, they presented Yuriy with his first car when he turned 21. She re-married to Dmytro, a widower who lived in the same building. Her family grew even more as she established good relations with her ex’s relatives, and her new husband’s three kids.

“But our happy life turned into a horror movie on Feb. 24,” Demysh said. 

Destroyed residential building in Mariupol, where Natalia Demysh's son Yuriy used to live with his father until both were taken to Russia (Фото: Mariupolnow)
Destroyed residential building in Mariupol, where Natalia Demysh's son Yuriy used to live with his father until both were taken to Russia / Фото: Mariupolnow

Early in the morning of the first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion, she opened a window and saw a car driving around. Through a megaphone, the car’s driver was asking people to take their belongings and leave the district.

That morning, she went to work to retrieve her documents and even managed to have a cup of coffee while waiting for her husband Dmytro to pick her up.

“We met in lines at a pharmacy, where he was buying medicine for his dying wife and I was buying medicine for my mother,” she remembered.

“Grief united us, and in 2018, we got married."

That day, Dmytro seemed frightened. He said they had to leave, immediately as their district was under fire.

“Skhidnyi district was filled with smoke, like the pipes at AzovStal,” she said.

“We had to circle around to get to our street. Fires were burning everywhere.”

In the yard near her house, Ukrainian soldiers were screaming: “Leave now! Hell is coming!”

She only managed to take her mother and her youngest stepdaughter. The family fled to the Zakhidnyi district of Mariupol. Her husband’s parents sheltered them in their apartment. The city was already in a panic. People were standing in huge queues at ATMs and gas stations. Shells were hitting buildings over their heads.

“People saw soldiers entering the city and began panicking,” Demysh recalled.

“Prices went up. People were grabbing everything they could from the shelves.”

“My son Yuriy was separated from me,” she explained.

“He stayed in the left bank, in an apartment with his father – my first husband Oleksandr and his family of four people. They were not planning to leave the city, hoping this madness would end soon. Yuriy didn’t even go down to the basement until the Russians had begun bombing the city from the sea.”

The bridge that divided Natalia from her son was first blocked off, and then mined, by soldiers.  

“My husband’s son, Kostya, also was stuck on the left bank,” Demysh said.

“Kostya just married a woman, a refugee from the (occupied Ukrainian territory), last year,” she told NV.

“Her family chose to move to pro-Ukrainian Mariupol from Dokuchaevsk (a Russian-occupied part of Donetsk Oblast).”

Both families were very friendly. Demysh is proud of the fact that her ex and her current husbands have become good friends. 

“Yuriy’s father, my ex Oleksandr, served in the Ukrainian army,” she said.

Natalia's nieces Bohdan and Yaroslava, their mother lost in the besieged Mariupol (Фото: Demysh)
Natalia's nieces Bohdan and Yaroslava, their mother lost in the besieged Mariupol / Фото: Demysh

"He had pro-Ukrainian views and before the war, he used to work at Azovstal.”

The residential building where her ex and her son lived burnt down on March 27. The Russian army was taking all those who survived to the occupied settlement of Novoazovsk. They took Natalia’s son and ex there as well. Natalia actually spoke to her son on March 1, when Yuriy called and said that the neighboring house that was shielding him, from Russian missiles had collapsed, and now their building has become a target.

Natalia and her husband managed to evacuate through a humanitarian corridor to Zaporizhzhya on March 29.   

“I got his next call on April 2,” she recalled.

“The connection was so bad I could not understand what he was saying. But just hearing his voice…I was so happy and I was crying and telling him I love him and want to hug him.”

But a few days later she got another message from him: “Mom, they are taking us to Russia by force.”  After that, Yuriy disappeared, until Natalia got another message that he was on a train. After that, there was silence for a week.

“I managed to call him recently,” she said.

“He and his father were sent to Semenov, a town of just 24,000 people in the Nizhny Novgorod

Oblast of Russia, more than 1500 kilometers away from Mariupol,” Demysh said. The Oblast is at the very edge of European Russia.

“He said he can only see forests and snow around him,” she explained.

“The Russians housed them in some wooden cabins. Volunteers feed them three times a day. No one gave them any choice. They were just sent there.”

Natalia began looking for ways to save her son and ex-husband from Russia. That is how she discovered that the Red Cross, an international humanitarian organization, only tracks wounded Ukrainians. Volunteers from Ukraine can only help reunite families evacuated to Ukrainian-controlled territory. And the emergency numbers for Russia and the puppet authorities don’t even work.

It emerged that Natalia was not the only mother in her family that had been separated from her child. Her 12-year-old and 9-year-old nieces had also disappeared in the besieged city.

“They were with my brother,” she told NV.

“But he disappeared. And their mother was taken to the occupied Novoazovsk, along with all their documents. She was searching for them, crying, but got no help.”

Her sister-in-law, Yevhenia, attempted to receive special permission from the occupiers to go back to Mariupol and search for her children.

“The occupiers are the new rulers in our poor city,” Demysh said.

Only after April 22 did Yevhenia get permission to re-enter Mariupol, and managed to find her children, both alive. However, Natalia still has not been able to contact her brothers. 

“We’ve managed to evacuate my husband’s daughters, Polina and Nastya,” Demysh said.

“My other relatives are in Mangush. My elderly mother is in occupied Berdiansk. Every time she calls me, she cries and asks me to save her.  There is not enough food left, no cash in Berdiansk.”

Demysh now lives in Dnipro, looking for ways to reunite her extended family. She no longer thinks about her destroyed apartment, and her life.

“All I want is for my family to reunite and I want them all to be safe and alive,” she says.

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