A shorter version of this article was published in the Scottish Sunday Post on March 27.
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Alla and her family arrived in Congaz, Moldova on the night of March 22 wearing her grandson Vova’s hoodie and sweatpants. He had thrown away her only clothing – a pair of pants, a shirt, and a sweater – during the three weeks they spent locked away together in a bomb shelter in Mariupol.
“I’m in Pampers,” Alla said, her voice cracking.
Her grandson Misha called her at five in the morning after the bombing started on February 24 and told her to get ready to leave. Alla did not imagine what was in store, did not even pack underwear. “How little you have,” her grandson said when he saw her.
Alla has suffered before. She was born in 1935 and was not yet six when WWII started. Her mother looked after her and her two sisters alone while her father was on the front; her family then survived the famine of 1947.
She moved to Ukraine from Russia in 1960 when she married a Mariupol Greek. For 36 years, she worked as an inspector in a crimping shop at an Automated Technological Complex. In 2020 or 2021 – she cannot remember exactly which year – Alla’s whole family came down with Covid; her daughter died. Her husband, who had been terribly ill, passed in 2021.
Alla and her remaining family first sheltered in the sports club Olympic Sport, on the bank of the Azov Sea next to a church, that her daughter and son-in-law founded. When the bombings got worse, they moved underground.
There were twenty-five people in the small basement room where they sheltered, and because they could not go outside, they used plastic bags for the toilet. Alla can barely walk, and when it came her turn to relieve herself, two young men would lift her above a bucket. “In front of everyone,” she said.
Crying, Alla explained how they had no light or water – they gathered it from the heating system. “It was brown, this water. They filled up [anything they had], let it settle.” She slept on a wooden board covered in knots, her spine rubbing against them. “There must be a wound, how it hurts…”
The family is now sheltering temporarily in the ethnic hotel Gagauz Sofrasi in Gagauzia, a Russian-speaking autonomy of Moldova, in what must be an extravagant shock after being confined for so long. The compound, run by Anna Statova, is embellished with handmade crafts, rugs, and embroidery up to one hundred years old.
Statova has been hosting Ukrainian refugees since February 25. At 5:30 in the morning, the hotel’s security guard called to request she come outside to meet guests. Statova was surprised because normally, security calls her children first if someone arrives at night. “If he calls me at 5:30, then it means that there’s a serious problem that my children can’t solve.”
When Statova emerged, the parking lot was full. “People were crying, falling [to the ground], asking for a place to lie down.” Waves of people came for the next several days as she and other community members organized aid, distributed food, and placed refugees who exceeded the hotel’s capacity in private homes.
Statova spent the night of March 22 with the refugees from Mariupol, offering what psychological support she could. “But I’m just one person,” she said. The group did not sleep at all that night. “They wanted to express their pain, their resentment, their lack of understanding.”
“The boys told me that for $2000, they bought potatoes, food, firewood, and there were one hundred people in one place for three weeks. They took turns preparing food, and the biggest problem there… light is nonsense, but without water…”
People began to venture out for water and saw that the surrounding block had been blown up. Over those three weeks, one woman they were living with died; others began to get sick. They had no idea how to explain to the children why they were living underground.
“When [they] had already seen that those people who were preparing food, [that] the whole family was torn apart in front of the house where [they] were hiding, and then [when they] left for water and one person did not return, [the refugees told me that they] made a decision. ‘We get ourselves together, and anyway at our own risk, we can stay and probably live, or risk leaving,’” Statova recounted.
The group took a night to think about it and watch what was happening close by; it was apparent that soldiers were shooting in the territory. Regardless, they decided to leave. They took three cars and ended up in Gagauzia.
Alla’s home has been blown up, but her grandsons have been keeping it from her, Statova said. She warned that it should not be communicated to Alla.
Denis Hulai, 24, fled Mariupol with his family – his parents, his brother, and his grandmother – on the morning of March 20. While in times of peace, it might take a little over three hours to get to the city of Zaporizhzhia, they were on the road for almost 36 hours.
Conditions in Mariupol are dire, desperate since the bombing began. “Prices soared for food immediately, for fuel too, looting began at some point on the third day,” Denis said.
Quickly adapting to the shelling, he and his family only sheltered in their basement when bombs dropped within a kilometer of their home. They would go more often at night, knowing they needed to sleep but might not be able to react in time. They lived in a private home, and so were able to get water; there was enough food in his district until the third week of war.
“In private houses, people still have wells, springs, and stoves with which they can cook food and warm their homes, while residents of apartment buildings do not have such things. People literally collect water that flows down drainpipes, [from] rain and snow that had begun to fall from the beginning of March. They burned fires at the entrances [of the apartment buildings] and cooked food on them with the same dirty water, made tea and coffee from it.”
“Marauders stole the food [in the city], and the shops that remained intact were somehow still selling [goods] using reserves [of stock] that could not be replenished due to the enemy ring around the city. The Russians did not let humanitarian aid into the city and are still not allowed to, as far as I know.”
“But, in general, those who managed to steal their own food in the early days or who had cash to buy it had supplies for at least two weeks. It was also possible to resort to bartering with various kinds of outcasts like alcoholics or homeless people and exchange cigarettes and strong alcohol for food.”
While before the war, Mariupol was “one of the most beautiful and modern cities,” Denis said, it is now “just terrible.” Corpses have been lying in the streets in front of his house since March 8. When possible, citizens of the city bury their dead in parks and public squares.
“When we were leaving, I drove almost all over the city except for the left-bank district. There were corpses in the streets and absolutely everything was destroyed. There were bursts of machine guns on Kirova Street, the city center was shelled from artillery,” Denis explained.
The trip out of Mariupol is harrowing, and people often leave on foot. Denis witnessed several families walking at the first Mariupol checkpoint. Buses also take refugees from Mariupol, but because there is no cell service or internet connection in the city, many people do not know that there are evacuations. You can still find cars to drive out of the city, but the glass in the windows might be blown out.
“We drove in a column and a shell fell literally 100 to 150 meters from our car. [There is] a huge the amount of destruction, people walking with bags to the checkpoint, a lot of homeless people, various marginalized individuals, a huge amount of burnt military equipment, a crazy number of cars smashed.”
“You need to drive quickly and carefully so as not to run into anything sharp and be left without a car. At the same time, you need to be very careful and have time to either accelerate or slow down. And [you need to] be sure to hang white ribbons on the car and write that civilians [are inside.]”
For those with cars, fuel is extremely scarce. “You had to either buy it in the very first days of the war or try to exchange it with someone for cigarettes,” Denis said. Russian soldiers would also sell it at 60 hryvnia (approximately $2 USD) per liter after Berdyansk.
At the checkpoints, men are forced to undress. Russian soldiers check the fleeing Ukrainians for tattoos, weapons, and bruises on their shoulders to determine whether they had been fighting. The bruises are a sign that the men may have been firing rifles. “They have a special dislike for the fighters of the Azov Battalion. If they see tattoos and symbols worn by nationalists, then this person is unlikely to be able to leave Mariupol,” Denis said.
Though his family was generally able to leave the city without problems, they had to hand over some food and drink to Russian soldiers who are “apparently poorly fed.” They do not take everything, Denis said, but they also check evacuees’ cell phones and force them to “delete everything.” Denis could not send a single picture of the destruction he had witnessed.
Denis and his family made it to the town of Dnipro, in the center of Ukraine, by the night of March 24. They are staying in a hostel. They do not know yet where they will go, but they will move on after March 27.
As of March 25, Alla and her family are still in Congaz. When they arrived, they had only thought of fleeing; now, they must make plans for where they will go next.
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Featured Image Credit: “File:Ilyicha Mariupol.jpg” by Olegzima