My 6-year-old girl’s hair turned grey. The story of a family from Mariupol who spent a month in a bomb shelter with 50 people

2 NOVEMBER 2022

Alina, her husband Bohdan and their six-year-old daughter Adelina lived in an apartment in the Livoberezhnyi district of Mariupol. They had a family business, and Alina was fond of photography.

Alina’s parents lived in a house nearby. Her father had a business as well.

In early February, Alina and her daughter went to visit Alina’s younger sister in Krakow. They returned to Ukraine on 22 February. Up until the morning of 24 February, Alina did not think that a full-scale invasion would begin.

She spent the early days of the full-scale invasion with her family in a bomb shelter. Her six-year-old daughter’s hair turned grey because of stress and fear. After a month of living in the blockaded Mariupol, Alina and her family managed to flee to safety in Europe.

The Mariupol resident told her story to Ukrainska Pravda Zhyttia (Life).

This story is told in Alina’s own words.

The first day of the invasion

There were long-standing rumours in the city that there would be a war. We didn’t think it would happen at all, until we woke up to the first explosions at 05:30 on the morning of 24 February. At 05:00 our friend, the owner of a business centre, called us. [At the business centre – ed.] there was a kindergarten, a cinema, and most importantly, a deep, reliable bomb shelter. He said that he had taken his family there. It was only five minutes away from our apartment.

My husband Bohdan immediately took the car and went to refuel it. I started to collect the most necessary things: documents and a change of clothing for the basement. There were a lot of explosions happening outside; it was getting more and more scary.

It reminded me of 2014, and the attack on the Skhidniy (Eastern) District of Mariupol. We didn’t hide in basements then, because we didn’t come under fire; we only heard the sound of gunfire.

The bomb shelter, of course, wasn’t prepared. So we spent the first day arranging it. We covered the floor with movie posters, so dust didn’t rise. People brought pallets and sofas, to make it more liveable.

There were over 50 people in the shelter that night. Some people were sleeping, some were awake; but everybody was afraid of the non-stop sound of gunfire. It was cold in the shelter, even though we turned on the heaters.

In the morning, some people left the bomb shelter, but the majority stayed. We decided that it would be better to stay here for a few days, to wait it out; we thought it couldn’t last that long.

 

The bomb shelter

Stores stopped their work immediately; they were almost instantly looted. People brought food to the shelter: canned food, cereals, porridge.

There were two meals per day; we had very small portions to basically dull the acute feeling of hunger.

50 people lived in the basement for a month. A third of them were four to ten-year-old children. The shelter was about the size of a three-room apartment. By some miracle, we managed not to quarrel and to hold out for a month without any scandals.

The store of food and alternating duties were our salvation: someone looked after the children, somebody cut the food, some got the fire going and cooked, someone collected water.

Everyone tried to get along, because they understood that a war was going on in the streets, and if we started a war in the shelter, we would die

The risk of disappearing or not making it back to the shelter was high. One guy who was with us in the bomb shelter put it this way: if even one of us leaves or disappears, our whole mechanism will stop.

When the electricity cut out, it was freezing cold. We slept in coats, walked around in coats, there was no water or light. In order to somehow illuminate the bomb shelter, we charged ring lamps from car batteries even under Russian attacks.

The guys collected water, even during attacks or under the sound of planes, everywhere they could: from the sump in the hospital, swimming pools, even rainwater and melted snow. We drank it, cooked using it and washed dishes.

We lived on adrenaline that whole month spent in the bomb shelter. We didn’t know whether we would wake up the next day; whether the day would end or not. So, we hoped that when the bomb would strike us, it would kill everyone. At least we could die together, as a family, rather than someone staying alive with injuries and trauma, caught under rubble.

Airstrikes

The office building where the shelter was located was under constant shelling. It was targeted four times with Grad multiple rocket launchers. One of the strikes destroyed half of the building and four cars. Usually, when a plane was flying over, we heard the sound and knew that there was going to be a strike, but somehow it was the other way around: we first heard an explosion and didn’t have time to go down. That day was sunny and spring-like with warmth. Many people came out of the shelters, children were even playing.

The bomb was dropped very close, near the neighbouring building. I don’t know what guardian angel was so protective, but no one was hurt, not even scratched, although the windows in the entire business centre were blown out.

 

My husband and his friend were out looking for water. Fortunately, they had left the shelter wearing helmets, stones could fall from the houses. On the way back, they wanted to shortcut through the yard, but something changed their mind, and they decided to go around the house.

When Bohdan and his friend turned the corner, a shell flew into the yard. My husband said that his helmet flew off, he began to suffocate, his eyes darkened and his body was thrown back by an explosive wave. And then he heard screams, regained consciousness. And together he and his friend ran for help.

It was a young woman screaming: she had gone down into the bomb shelter a few moments before the airstrike, and three children were still outside. All the people who were in the yard died. Among the rubble and in the crater, they were only able to find the body of one boy.

After that day, our children did not go outside even for a second for more than a week.

Leaving the bomb shelter

The airstrikes intensified: we realised that we didn’t have much time left. In addition, food and water were running out. It was increasingly difficult to leave because of the bombing. One day we were bombed every 15 minutes, we couldn’t even go out and make a bonfire.

Every day for a week, we negotiated with Ukraine’s Armed Forces, who were stationed nearby, to guide us through the tunnel under Azovstal. Every time they said: “No, not today, let’s try tomorrow.”

One morning we decided to drive towards the city centre. There were eight cars, a child in each.

We passed the first checkpoint, the second, and at the third were stopped by our Ukrainian Armed Forces, who were twisting their fingers near their temples. They said: “Are you out of your minds, where are you going? There’s heavy fighting in that direction. Turn around and at least go back to your bomb shelter, or if you can, go there (toward the DNR).” And they added that the Russians had already seen the cars, so we should sit down in the shelter and pray that they don’t target us.

We returned to the bomb shelter, went down, sat all around and started discussing where to go, because staying there was not an option.

We drove with the windows open and held out our hands so that they wouldn’t start shooting at us. It was a sign that we were civilians and were going in peace. Otherwise, they would have shot at the car.

Shelter at strangers

My parents had their own house outside Mariupol. When the shelling began, they didn’t want to stay in the bomb shelter and settled in our apartment. When high-rise buildings were targeted a few times, they decided to return to their home.

On the road, they were stopped by DNR military forces, who pointed their rifles and machine guns at them. They demanded that they get out of the car, and dad was forced to undress. Dad had hunting rifles in the boot. He took them out of the house in case it would be looted. So now the occupiers are inspecting the car, and there are hunting rifles. They immediately reload the guns: dad is shouting, that these are hunting rifles, they have bad scopes. The DNR troops examined them, threw away the cartridges, and returned the rifles.

The occupiers were distracted by another car approaching the checkpoint, so my parents quickly were able to get away quickly.

Mom and dad had already agreed to come to the bomb shelter, but heavy shelling began. A couple, complete strangers, invited them to shelter at their home. They said, come to our house. And the house was old, it even had a stove.

That day there was an alleged green corridor in the city. So we wanted to go to our parents’ place from the bomb shelter. But the roads were blocked, there was only one on which you could drive.

In the yard of this unknown house on the side of the road, I saw my parents’ car. We pulled over, started running along the houses shouting, where are the people who came in this car? The people who were sheltering my parents came out and invited us into their house too.

We stayed with them for four days: the first days the left bank was shelled, near the coast. On the fourth day, we woke up to explosions. Our only bomb shelter was the bathroom, because it had no windows. We spent over six hours there without leaving. We sat and listened: would something hit the house?

Orcs [derogatory term for Russian military personnel – ed.] were coming from the sea, but ours were beating them. We found ourselves in the middle of a crossfire. At first, Grad multiple rocket launchers fired, then a street fight began, and bullets just flew around the house.

We put a fur coat in the bathroom for Adele, because she was shutting down from stress [losing consciousness – ed.]. This is how my six-year-old daughter got a few grey hairs on the top of her head.

20 minutes to evacuate

We heard a knock on the door even through the din of the battle being fought outside. Once, then again, more insistent this time. We were scared to get the door: it could have been anyone. Then we heard the person outside speak Ukrainian. My husband crawled to the door and opened it.

A soldier from the Ukrainian Armed Forces pointed to the car in the courtyard and asked whose it was; we didn’t know. Then he pointed to my red car and said: “If you give me the keys, we’ll use it to evacuate those who were wounded.” He promised to return it in two hours; he said they’ll leave the car at the top of the hill for my husband to pick it up.

The battle was raging. When Bohdan went to get the car, my father stepped outside for a cigarette. A moment later he rushed back inside: our soldiers told him we had 20 minutes to evacuate before the mop-up operation ramped up.

We gathered our belongings, but my husband wasn’t there yet. Dad’s already cleared the debris from the car (its windows exploded during the street fighting). Just as we were loading our last bag into the boot, my husband arrived in a great rush, saying we had to evacuate right then. We got into the cars and started driving; the battle was still raging. 

I wrapped my daughter up in blankets and pressed her close to me, as always, to prevent her from seeing the horror outside. The Morskyi Boulevard was lined with corpses. There were dead bodies wherever you looked. Some had their heads cut off, others were completely disfigured.

We decided to go back to our apartment. When we approached we saw an armoured combat vehicle, its gun aiming at our house. We slammed the brakes, exchanged glances and started driving to the bomb shelter instead.

“Mom, is he one of the orcs?”

We got stopped at one of the checkpoints. Our documents were checked. The Russians seemed suspicious, wanted to arrest my dad. Then they decided to interrogate us and one of the officers got into our car.

My daughter Adelia knew what was going on. We explained everything to her: the shelling, the war, the bombs. She knows who Putin is and where the Russian warships ought to go. [When the Russian Black Sea Fleet ships threatened the defenders of the Ukrainian Zmiinyi (Snake) Island, Ukrainian border guards responded with a phrase that has since become legendary: “Russian warship, go f**k yourself!” – ed.]. We have told her the entire truth. I believe that children must know it. It was impossible to give her piecemeal explanations when we were under constant shelling.

Before the Russian officer got into our car, I begged my daughter not to speak: “Adelina, please don’t say a word. I’m begging you, just stay quiet.

But as soon as he got in, she asked: “Mom, is he one of the orcs?” Thank God he didn’t hear her.

 

Filtration

We had to go through the filtration process in order to be allowed to leave the city. There were too many people in the same positions as us, the car queue would take at least a week.

We joined the queue on 23 March. We were lucky that my friend’s grandma lived near Bezimenne [a town where the Russian filtration camp was located – ed.]. The forces of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic captured it in 2014 and the woman left for Mariupol.

The house has not been taken care of or heated for eight years. But it was better than staying in the car in the middle of a field.

Cars weren’t allowed to leave the queue, so my husband and I took turns in our car, or we’d have lost our spot in the queue. Those who stayed in the house used the neighbours’ internet to clean up their phones.

We lived in Mariupol, the Azov Regiment was based there, we knew dozens of Azov Regiment soldiers. We had to make sure there was no trace of them in our contacts and photos, we had to clear our YouTube, Facebook and Instagram history.

Over the course of the next five days, the queue has somewhat advanced, but we were still far from the filtration camp. Then we found out, through word of mouth, that we could undergo filtration at a local police station in Donetsk.

When we got there, they took our fingerprints – in fact the prints of our entire arms, not just the fingers. They took pictures of us, from all sides, undressed us to check for tattoos. They went through our phones, checking my contacts, photos, messages. Then they entered our information into their database and that was it, we were free to go.

“Donetsk People’s Republic” – Russia – European Union

The next morning, we left for the Russian border. We spent 17 hours waiting at the border, then another five at the entry checkpoint. They weren’t in any rush. To be honest, I think they were just bullying and humiliating the people waiting. Most men were once again interrogated and undressed, the Russians checking their bodies for tattoos.

We were going to drive to Rostov, where dad’s old friend lives: he understands the situation and does not support the war. We spent a night at his home, which gave us a chance to catch our breath after everything that had happened so far.

Our next stop was at a hotel in Moscow as we had a long journey ahead of us. Then we drove to Latvia, then Lithuania, and finally Poland.

We spent a month in Poland with my 17-year-old sister. She had no idea whether we were still alive that entire time. All she had was news coverage of Mariupol’s relentless bombing.

Days after we reached safety, we got an adrenaline rush from realising what we’ve been through. We were also hit by a wave of incomprehension: we didn’t know how to keep going, as we’d lost our business and our income, our home had been destroyed.

Adelia, meanwhile, was upset that we left our cat with dad’s friend in Rostov. We saved him, but where would we take him from there? It wasn’t a particularly hospitable environment even without the cat.

 

One night Adelia said:

– Mom, I need Zelenskyy’s phone number.

– Darling, why?

– When the Ukrainian Armed Forces start firing on Russia, I need to tell them not to fire on the place where my cat is.

I’m waiting for Mariupol to be back in Ukraine’s hands. I really miss home.

Viktoriia Andrieieva, Ukrainska Pravda Zhyttia

Translation: Anton Strii, Artem Yakymyshyn, Olga Loza

Editing: Sam Harvey

https://www.pravda.com.ua/eng/articles/2022/11/2/7374580/

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