Zaporizhzhya. You can not stay after you escape

People at the railway station in Lviv. Photo Kovalchuk Victor UNIAN

The people of Mariupol pack their bags and leave. Already from Zaporizhzhya. A lesson learned in February taught them to give up when it seemed they could have been patient. The city is under constant bombardment. Multi-storey buildings are destroyed, cars are wrecked, and civilians are killed.

Nikolai Osychenko, who ran a local television channel in Mariupol and only managed to leave the city in March, is now appealing to everyone in Zaporizhzhya on Facebook: “A quick advice from someone who has lived in Mariupol: try to get children and women and the elderly out of the city. The Russians will continue terrorising the city, try to create panic, and not shy away from killing civilians. Infrastructure will be shelled from all points. I strongly recommend that, if possible, you leave the city for at least a couple of weeks.

Mr Osychenko explains why he has come to these conclusions and why it is necessary to act as soon as possible:

“I am doing this because I categorically do not want the people of Zaporizhzhya, especially children and the elderly, i.e. people with weak nervous systems, to live under fire. Over the last week and a half, we have seen that Russia has been shelling Zaporizhzhya more and more intensively and that Zaporizhzhya has become a frontline city like Mariupol used to be. A very large Russian ground force is now concentrated around Zaporizhzhya, with a lot of equipment. And the worst thing for the city is the S-300 missile launchers with modified missiles capable of hitting ground targets. It is these missiles that they use more often at night, but they also use them during the day. What is the problem with Zaporizhzhya? How is it different from other cities? Given that these launching stations are close by, they are in the Tokmak district. The rocket reaches Zaporizhzhya in 30 seconds.

Given that the air defence system does not have time to shoot it down, so Zaporizhzhya usually gets missiles, and then the air raid alert is activated. This means that the people are not aware that something is flying towards them at the moment. That is why there are so many dead people in our houses. So people sleep at night, and S-300s fly into their homes.

Nikolai is still in charge of Mariupol television. His journalists are now recording the stories of Mariupol residents for the museum “Голоса мирных”. But his colleagues will continue to look for witnesses to the Mariupol blockade in Kyiv because Mykola evacuated them from Zaporizhzhya, including his family. They thought they would leave at the end of October, but the war changed everything.

“About a week and a half ago, my intuition started to drive me out of Zaporizhzhya. I didn’t feel such an inner fear even in Mariupol. There I was, calm, but here my intuition told me: “It’s all over. We have to go”. So we left four days ago, I took my family, and on Sunday, I had to urgently pick up my co-workers, their families and their cats, who had been taken out of Mariupol because four rockets had hit close to where they lived. They hit at night when people were sleeping. Windows were broken, and there was a lot of shrapnel, thanks to the fact that everybody was alive, but the cars were damaged. Our service car was completely destroyed. Private cars were badly damaged”, says Nikolai Osychenko, President of Mariupol TV.

Nikolai is also carefully analysing all statements made by the Russian side, especially after the occupiers held a so-called referendum in the Zaporizhzhya region.

“They started making statements that Zaporizhzhya is part of the region that will be annexed to Russia. This means that they are not interested in what the people think. They themselves clearly draw on the maps that Zaporizhzhya is a Russian region. They have stated that until we liberate Zaporizhzhya, Melitopol will be declared the capital of the Zaporizhzhya region. The most important part is the ‘until we liberate’ part. To ‘liberate’ in quotation marks, they must go on the offensive. They are well aware that a very strong multi-line defence system has been built up around Zaporizhzhya over these eight months, and they cannot attack immediately because the boys are waiting for them there. There are a lot of our boys from Mariupol there. They are ready, and they are really ready. But there is nothing we can do about this kind of rocket fire. A few days ago, the Iranian kamikaze drones joined them. That is to say, and they started letting them into the city. So I can see that the situation is going to get worse and worse. They are not giving up their plans yet, so they have to panic internally in order to launch a supposed attack. When the civilian population is panicking, it is not so easy for the military, first of all. Secondly, it is a strike against critical infrastructure because the civilian population will have no electricity, water, heating, or gas. However, they are also influencing the military because they need electricity. This means that they are trying to paralyse the city as much as possible to make a breakthrough later. Already today, Oleksandr Starukh, Chairman of the Zaporizhzhya Regional State Administration, said that mobile and stationary units had been set up throughout the city to combat kamikaze drones. These include large-calibre machine guns, small anti-aircraft guns that will move around the city, and fixed anti-aircraft guns that will be installed at key infrastructure. So now Zaporizhzhya’s residents will always hear these shots when there is a drone attack,” says Nikolai Osichenko.

Thousands of residents have moved from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhya. Now they are in shock,” says Nikolai. For them, this is deja vu.

“In Zaporizhzhya, almost everything is now pressing on the psyche. The central avenue is closed, there is a smell of burning near the central avenue, and there are hardly any people. People are resting at home, and there are not many cars. And it reminds me more and more of Mariupol. Of course, I understand that there will be no Mariupol, and there will be no blockade. But they can make Nikolayev out of it. That is to say, if they come a little bit closer, they can reach the city with the MLRS. And then it will be hell.

I am not calling for everyone to leave. No, I am calling on women, children and the elderly to leave. The men who work in critical infrastructure, in the police, and in the Ministry of Emergency Situations, of course, have to carry on. But women and children should not have to see all this. I have a lot of contact with the people from Mariupol who are there now. Many are leaving, and some have nowhere to go. Nobody is waiting for them anywhere. They have spent the last of their money on rent. And everybody, including those at the bottom, is in shock, in panic, and they do not understand what to do next. There is nowhere to go. Nobody wants to go back to Mariupol, and a small percentage of those who want to go back can’t because Vasilyevka is closed. And I understand that Vasilyevka will not be reopened until there is clarity on hostilities, Nikolai believes.

Those without money are promised help. The women’s association Bereginya helps people to go to Poland. First of all, it is women with children and elderly people.

“We evacuate these people first. We have good relations with NGOs like ours. For example, HumanDok, a social organisation in Warsaw, is working, and now we are organising a flight to Poland again. They help us with accommodation and food. So people are going out and saving their lives,” said Marina Morana, head of the Women’s Association of Beregina.

More than 2,000 people have been evacuated since February,” says Marina Morana. The next flight is scheduled for today. They are travelling by bus. Everything is free. They start in Zaporizhzhya, then travel to Lviv and then to Warsaw. Marina says the only thing preventing the evacuation is the constant air strikes. But you have to leave, she says.

“Not that I’m giving advice. I’ll give you an example. When we evacuated from Mariupol in February, many people said: ‘No – no, I’m a little later. And they didn’t come later. So we must focus and understand that we are living in a new reality, that our reality is war. And if it’s a woman with a child. Many women with children say: “Oh, you know, they don’t let my husband go or something. Oh, I have a house here. But the house is in the past. The child is not.”

Residents of other Ukrainian cities also advise not to be attached to “walls” and bricks. Indeed, it is now much harder to evacuate from there, says Marina Morana.

“Well, for today, but it’s not very possible – it’s Bakhmut, it’s Avdeyevka. There are a lot of requests from Kharkiv. Very many. Unfortunately, we can’t help people leave Kharkiv, and we don’t have the resources. As far as the south of Ukraine is concerned, there is a possibility that the military and the civil-military administration will come to us from the settlements that are now in the war zone,” says the public figure. Ukraine already has more than 4 million internally displaced persons. This is three times more than last year. Millions of citizens have gone abroad and applied for refugee status. They are safe and are learning to live without air raids. Not looking back and not waiting for a blow from the sky.

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