Sunday, December 10

My life under the bombs in Mariupol: improvised cemeteries, giant craters and chaos while fleeing

I was born in Mariupol and have spent my whole life in this city. I studied, worked and had a good time in Mariupol. And when Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hired me, I was also happy to do important work. Life was good in Mariupol.

But suddenly it became a real hell.

At first, none of us could believe what was happening, because in our times this kind of thing just shouldn’t happen. We did not expect a war or bombs. We thought that it was only talked about on TV and that someone would stop this madness. When I realized that it was coming true, I felt bad, so bad that I couldn’t eat for three days.

At first, things seemed more or less normal, although we knew that nothing was really normal anymore. But then the bombing started and our world as we knew it ceased to exist. Our lives were intertwined with the bombs and missiles falling from the sky, destroying everything. We couldn’t think of anything else and we couldn’t feel anything else.

The days of the week stopped making sense, I couldn’t tell if it was Friday or Saturday, everything was a long nightmare. My sister tried to keep track of the days, but in my case everything was a blur.

A graveyard in a nursery yard

In the first days, fortunately, we managed to donate some of the remaining medical supplies from Médecins Sans Frontières to an emergency service in Mariupol, but when the electricity and telephone network were cut, we could no longer contact our colleagues or do any work. The shelling intensified every day. Our days consisted, then, of trying to stay alive and find a way out.

How can one describe the fact that a person’s home becomes a place of terror? New cemeteries were rising throughout the city, in almost every neighborhood; even in the small courtyard of a nursery near my house where girls and boys should be playing. How can this past provide a future for our children? How can we bear more pain and sadness? With each passing day you feel as if you were wasting your whole life.

I was touched to see so many people helping others in my city. Everyone seemed to always care about someone else and never about themselves. The mothers cared for their children and the children for them. I worried about my sister: she was so stressed by the bombing that I thought her heart would stop. Her sports watch marked 180 beats per minute and it distressed me a lot to see her like that. I told her it would be stupid for her to be scared to death in the middle of all this.

Over time, he adapted more and instead of freezing with fear during the bombing, he would tell me all the hiding places he could think of. I was still very worried about her. It was clear that he had to get her out of there.

Humanity survives if it stays together

We moved three times to find the safest place. We were lucky in that we ended up staying with an amazing group of people that I now consider family. History has already shown that humanity survives when it sticks together and helps each other. I have seen it with my own eyes and it has moved me a lot.

I was also moved to see how brave people were or how brave they had to be. I remember a family that was cooking on the street outside their house. A few meters from their campfire there were two large holes in the ground from the shells that had hit another family a few days earlier.

I was moved to see how people cling to life and good things. On March 8, International Women’s Day, we decided to celebrate it despite everything. We called the neighbors and they, in turn, invited their friends. Someone found a bottle of champagne and there were even those who made a cake with only half of the available ingredients that the recipe called for. We were even able to put music on for a few minutes. For half an hour, we really celebrate and it feels good to be happy and laugh again. We even joked that this nightmare would end.

But he kept going and it seemed like he would never stop.

chaos on the way out

We tried to get out of Mariupol every day, but there were so many rumors about what was happening and what wasn’t that we started to think we would never make it. One day we learned that a convoy was going to leave, we got into my old car and hurried to locate where it was leaving. We told as many people as we could. Now it saddens me greatly to think of all those I was unable to contact. Everything was very fast and we couldn’t call anyone because there was no telephone network.

The start was a gigantic chaos and panic with many cars going in all directions. We saw a car in which there were so many people that it was impossible to count them, their faces were glued to the windows. I don’t know how they got out, but I hope they did. We had no map and were worried about going in the wrong direction, but somehow we chose the right one and managed to get out of Mariupol.

It was only at that moment, when we tried to escape from the city, that I realized that the situation was worse than I thought. We were lucky to take refuge in a part of the city that was relatively safe, but on our way out we saw a lot of destruction and pain. We saw giant craters between tower blocks, devastated supermarkets, medical facilities and schools, even shelters, where people had sought safety, destroyed.

For now we are safe, but we don’t know what the future will bring. When I finally had access to the Internet, I was shocked to see images of my beloved city in flames and my fellow citizens under the rubble. I read the news about the bombing of the Mariupol theatre, where many families with children had sought refuge. I can’t find words to describe what I felt. I can only wonder why.

We had no choice but to leave many loved ones behind. Thinking of them and all those who are still there is hard to bear. My heart aches with concern for my family. I tried to go back inside to get them out, but I couldn’t. I have no news of them.

many people are lonely

People who are together will have a better chance of surviving, but there are many who are alone. Those who are very old and frail cannot walk for miles to find food and water. How will they survive?

I can’t stop thinking about an older woman we met on the street two weeks ago. She didn’t walk well and her glasses were broken, so she couldn’t see very well either. She took out a small mobile phone and asked us to charge it for her if we could. I tried to do it with my car battery, but I couldn’t. I told her the phone network was down and she couldn’t call anyone even if she had a battery.

“I know I won’t be able to call anyone,” he said. “But maybe one day someone will want to call me.” I realized that she was alone and that all her hopes were pinned on the phone. Maybe someone will try to call her. Maybe my family is trying to call me. We do not know.

It’s been a month since this nightmare started and the situation is getting worse every day. Inhabitants of Mariupol die every day because of the bombings and the lack of means to cover all basic needs: food, water, health care. Innocent civilians face unbearable conditions every day, every hour and every minute. Only a small part of them have managed to escape, but a large number are still there, hiding in destroyed buildings or in the basements of dilapidated houses without any outside support.

Why does all this keep happening to innocent people? To what extent will humanity let this disaster continue?

Olexander is a staff member of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Mariupol. This testimony has been sent by MSF to the media.