How it was to survive in Mariupol

From Mariupol. Photos by Arthur Shevchenko

Artur Shevchenko is a Web programmer. He told me about a humanitarian catastrophe that happened in the middle of Europe in the city of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine. He is 32 years old. He recalled the events of 2014 when unknown people seized power in his city and tried to establish their power. Fortunately, the Ukrainian army quickly liberated the city and did not allow Mariupol to be turned into a ghost town like any other city in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.

Artur and his entire family constantly read the news with great concern. It was very disturbing. But there was no premonition of war. Like the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians, he was convinced that the concentration of the Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders was just a way to intimidate Ukraine into forcing its leadership to make some concessions about Crimea and Donbas.

On February 24, he woke up because of the explosions heard in the city’s eastern districts. It became clear that this was a full-fledged war. He began to chaotically pack his things up: some instruments (multitools, screwdrivers), MREs (a self-contained, individual field ration in lightweight packaging). They wanted to leave the city immediately, but his parents and his wife’s parents strongly opposed it. They had to stay. Heavy shelling began. In the first days, the shops worked somehow, one could buy some food, but then under the constant pressure from the locals, the shops were looted. It was an apocalyptic scene: the police came to defend the supermarket, but the absolutely mindless crowd crashed everything in its way. He especially remembered the woman who ran out with a case of canned food and a toilet brush. A few days later, it became dangerous to be in his apartment in the Primorsky district.

From Mariupol. Photos by Arthur Shevchenko

Artur and his family moved to the basement of one of the houses where people already lived under the regular artillery firings. At that time (from the beginning of the war until the first days of March), the people still had water supplies and food stocks. And the fighting then took place on the outskirts of the city. Artur decided to return to his apartment and saw that a shell had fallen on the neighbouring apartment block and completely destroyed the entire entrance. The bodies of pensioners were found in the ruins of the house. It should be stressed that there were never military units stationed in this city district, only urban development. Therefore, the question of who the Russians shot at remains open.

Artur learned from his acquaintances in the basement that a convoy of cars was allegedly gathering in the centre to leave the city in the so-called “green corridor”. But when they got there, they realized that this was not true. They had to come back to the basement. The shellings intensified with every coming day. Not only the outskirts but also the central districts of the city were already under heavy fire. The programmer noted that when people had enough water and food, they were quite polite to each other, but with each passing day, when water supplies and food stocks were rapidly exhausting, the universal human values were not so important. The first and foremost thing for everyone was to take care of their family. There were also newborns in their basement. Food was gradually becoming a luxury item due to mass looting. Police and the military tried to help the people, but they were busy repelling the attacks of the Russian Orcs. City officials left the city, leaving people to their own devices (the city’s top politicians belong to the pro-Russian party). But volunteers somehow tried to provide people with minimal food and water. However, there was no mobile service or internet, so people did not know anything, including about the so-called “green corridors”.

The Russian Orcs methodically destroyed the city’s infrastructure: they shelled houses, schools, kindergartens, and hospitals. People were shocked by what was happening around them. These days, they do not talk about politics but mostly about food. They ate quite primitively: just pasta or boiled potatoes. Each family prepared food for themselves. They slept for several hours under the sounds of artillery shelling. It was especially difficult for his grandfather to survive, who was 88 years old. People were not optimistic about their fate because no one understood anything, and no one could change that. Water had to be fetched from a well 500 meters from the shelter. At night, the city was dark, the only source of light was fire from artillery shelling and bonfires.

The worst thing was the bombing from the air. Artur and his relatives saw how the plane dropped bombs on the city. These were explosions of a terrible force. The plane was flying very low, so the pilot could see exactly where he was dropping the bombs. Missiles started to hit their bomb shelter. And this place was no longer safe. The windows blew out. And a shell hit the place where people were cooking in the morning. He saw a lot of the bodies of civilians lying on the street… Utility companies were no longer working. At first, the bodies were lying on the streets; then relatives began to bury them in the yards.

On one of the days, a man came to the shelter by car to pick up his children. He said that there was a convoy of civilian cars going to head out of the western side of Mariupol. The people themselves organized into a convoy and drove. It should be mentioned that Artur received his driver’s license only six months ago. The atmosphere in convoy was very nervous: people honked their horns constantly, shouted, and cursed each other. After all, the departure took place under the sounds of artillery shelling. It was difficult to leave those people who did not have a car. The convoy met the first checkpoint of the Russian soldiers. They looked more like homeless people than soldiers because their equipment was of low quality. The Russians were in a depressed mood because they had suffered heavy losses. Ethnic composition was diverse: Russians, Buryats, Dagestanis.

Artur had to spend the night in occupied Berdyansk. He had about 20 litres of gasoline left, which was clearly not enough to go to Zaporizhzhia. There was also no place to get gas in Berdyansk. It was unrealistic to buy it. But Artur still decided to go because there was still no choice. And not far from the city of Tokmak (now temporarily occupied), they ran out of gas. Artur asked an old man to tow him, and he promised to compensate him for possible damage to his car. It should be noted that this man was the only one of the entire huge convoy of cars that decided to help. Everyone else turned their heads away and tried to get off the road so his car wouldn’t get in their way. And they drove, not without problems. It was very scary. Tanks and APCs were burnt down on the roadside. It was clear that there were very serious battles on the way to Zaporizhzhia. Artur saw a convoy of four Russian tanks going to the village and smashing several houses on their way. A Ukrainian checkpoint was near Vasylivka. It was a real sense of relief. Artur’s friend was waiting for him in Vasylivka and brought him 20 litres of gasoline. And as soon as they left, heavy shelling began. One of the cars from the convoy caught fire. People died there. It was a terrifying sight. People just burnt up in the car.

In Zaporizhzhia, Artur and his family ate normal food for the first time in a month and took a shower. They were just burnt out emotionally. They can’t feel anything right now.

Now he is in Khmelnytsky, a city in Western Ukraine, started working, and returning to normal life.

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