We were huddled together in the narrow corridor of my father's Khrushchev-era apartment. There were three of us: mom, dad and me. The roar of the enemy plane made me lie on the floor and pray. The first explosion. Our house shook. The second explosion. A dull knock on the door and the rattle of broken glass. My parents covered me with themselves, tears flowed like a river, my hand trembled insidiously, and then I thought: "Is it the end? Is it the end?"
I was born and grew up in Mariupol. I moved to Kyiv when I was 17, but I usually spent my vacation in my native city. In mid-February, I packed my suitcase and went to the sea to "treat my nerves." So I ended up in Mariupol, where I spent the most terrible days of my life, including 23 days underground.
On the night of February 24, I had a dream: the city was encircled, there was panic and fear everywhere. Evacuation buses come to residential buildings. Machine-gun fire and volleys of heavy weapons are heard. I rush around the apartment in search of documents and suddenly wake up. While reading the news, I already knew what headlines I would see. "Why didn't you leave immediately? Why did you stay in Mariupol?" they will ask me later. I did not believe that a dream would become a reality.
In the first days, Mariupol was blacked out - the high-voltage lines were cut. Wireless communication was still available, but soon it also disappeared. The streets were plunged into darkness at night, the heating was turned off - we slept in fur coats and wrapped ourselves in blankets. Later, there was no water and gas. Looters crawled out of every crevice: they looted shops, pharmacies, kiosks. Everything where they could get something. They stole sports balls, children's toys, and crutches. Food was taken out in carts, trunks were packed to the brim. Security tags were shamelessly ripped off from clothes right on the street. On the protective shutter of one of the pharmacies, someone wrote with a red marker, appealing to conscience: "People, we still have to live here."
Photo: Evgeniy Maloletka
We cooked on a campfire. Even then, the Mariupol courtyards resembled living scenery for films about the apocalypse. There were the longest lines for water, and the wholesale market where you could buy vegetables, fruits and cheese was still open. There was no bread anywhere.
Those whose windows were not broken sealed glass from explosions with adhesive tape. And someone hoped in God and put icons on the balconies. Sirens sounded non-stop for several days. And then they fell silent. Forever. On March 9, Russian forces dropped air bombs on the fifth building of PDTU (Pre-Azov State Technical University), two hundred meters away from our house. We survived these explosions when we were hiding in the corridor. The blast wave was so strong that it broke the windows and destroyed the balconies in a neighboring house. We decided to spend the night in a bomb shelter.
Fifth building of PDTU. Photo by Inna Lapina
Stale air, narrow corridors and impenetrable darkness. There were so many people in the bomb shelter that it was difficult to breathe. The elderly were lying on tables, whereas younger people were leaning on walls or sitting on boxes. We didn't have enough room. It was scary to return to the apartment, as the survival instinct told us to look for shelter. We went around all buildings of PDTU. People occupied the first floors and basements. Everyone was angry and scared. We were refused everywhere.
Desperate, we decided to return to the second building and spend the night on the stairs. A woman ran out to meet us and said that they had opened an abandoned bomb shelter. Inside, there were bare concrete walls and floor, and also the eerie cold, which made the blood run cold in the veins. Our neighbors were a family and their disabled daughter. Dad carried the girl in his arms, as the child could not move independently. Her mother affectionately called the girl "kitty." For the "kitty" and her parents, the cold basement became the third shelter. They ran from the 23rd residential neighborhood in Mariupol to their uncle in the "quiet" center, but the war caught them here as well.
People from other buildings also started arriving. The men immediately checked if there was an additional exit in case the main one collapses. None of them remained here. The cold and the lack of any conditions were frightening. We did not close our eyes all night. To keep warm, we walked in circles and talked. It seemed that the night could not get any worse. None of us knew then that we would spend another 22 days underground.
In the morning, the cold overcame fear, the explosions subsided so we ran home. And again an air strike on the city center. And again we are pressed to each other in a narrow corridor, begging God for salvation. Death flew by, but we didn't want to play with it anymore.
We understood that we had no chance of surviving on the fifth floor of a brick Khrushchev-era building. After gathering blankets and folding beach chairs, we moved back to the shelter. This time we were luckier, people kept arriving and security guards from the university opened two more basement rooms near the bomb shelter, connected by a narrow corridor. We occupied the first one, which had no windows. Gas masks were stored on wooden shelves along the walls (later, our room was called "gas masks"), and Soviet-era posters on the walls "taught" how to use them correctly. Fifteen people crammed into a ten-meter room. Four children, eleven adults.
Eight-year-old Olenka and three of her brothers (the youngest ten months old and the oldest 13 and 16 years old), mother, father and grandmother came to the basement after a shell fragment hit their house and pierced the roof above the children's room. My grandmother was there at the time of the strike. Halyna Vasylivna was concussed. Her son retrieved her from under the rubble. They ran to the university's bomb shelter, grabbing porridge for the baby, documents and bags with things. As we were running, bullets and Grad rockets were whistling overhead. When it was completely scary, we fell to the ground under spruce trees.
In the first days, Olenka practically did not speak. She saw the book I had and asked me to read it aloud to her. Sitting in the basement and illuminating myself with a flashlight, I read Balzac's novels "Eugénie Grandet" and "A Woman of Thirty" to an eight-year-old child. Later, we invented a new activity for her - the girl drew with a graphite pencil on the wall. Before the war, she was engaged in dancing, singing and went to an art school. When the first shock passed, it turned out that Olenka is a lively and talkative girl who revealed family secrets to us.
Photo: Evgeniy Maloletka
In the novel that we read with Olenka, a strict father confined Eugénie to her room on a regime of bread and water. At that time, we had not seen bread for more than two weeks. Since the beginning of March, Mariupol has been under siege. In the first days, a humanitarian worker still came to the university, and we got "crumbs": first, we got two boxes with gingerbread and coated peanuts in glaze, then two boxes of canned corn and peas, and once a package of frozen dumplings and 15 chebureks.
Then, in order to survive, we cooked balanda - a handful of cereals (sometimes rice, sometimes millet) or pasta, three potatoes, and canned vegetables were put into the water. We added salt and sunflower oil. The pan was not washed, and there was nothing to wash it with. Sometimes we fried potatoes and pancakes using flour and water, and several times rice porridge came to the rescue. Portions were meager: on the best days, we had a bowl of soup, on the worst days, we had a spoonful of corn per person. Children licked their plates. There were rumors that pigeons were already being caught and eaten in nearby basements.
We found plates and spoons at the university. Bonfires were lit first in the yard, and when the strikes became regular, we did it near the stairs on the first floor.
The older children, Illiusha and Hena, kept a war diary and wrote down what they would eat when they left the basement.
Water was like gold. We exchanged it for something else, we were looking for it, we saved it. The city's water supply company brought water until street fighting started: huge tanks were filled with water, they were installed in the third building of PDTU. Several times men, risking their lives, went to the city park to collect some water from a spring. There were corpses of people with plastic bottles lying on the road – someone did not wait until they came back with water. Rusty slurry flowed from the heating radiators - it was used to wash hands. For this, we also melted the snow.
"I always wondered when I watched movies about the war, why they have such dirty hands, and now I have them too," my mother told me, trying to wipe off her fingers blackened by dust and soot.
Half of city residents have been made homeless
We were some 20 meters from our house. Due to nonstop shelling, my mother and I did not leave the shelter, my father, taking risks, ran to the apartment to feed the cat and brought the remnants of pre-war supplies. Each time we didn't know if we would see each other again. One day he did not return for a long time. Curfew had already started, so we decided to find him. "You are desperate, ladies," someone told us.
We returned three times. When machine-gun fire subsided, we rushed to the road. I couldn't believe my eyes, it seemed that I got into a computer game and was passing the next level. A broken street, burnt-out cars, hanging power cables, glass and window frame fragments everywhere. Fortunately, we returned with our dad to the bomb shelter. It turned out that he heard a shootout in the yard and decided to spend the night in the apartment.
By the way, that was the last time I saw our apartment relatively intact. In a few days, there was already a hole in the roof of the house, one room was completely demolished, and all the walls in other rooms were demolished. Russia made a free "new planning" and joined our apartment with the neighbor's. At the bottom of our hearts, we said goodbye to our home in advance. Every day in the bomb shelter we heard the stories of eyewitnesses about how nine-story buildings with people were burned to the ground, how mortars shelled Stalin- and Khrushchev-era apartments buildings.
Our house. The photo was taken by neighbors in early May
"I close my eyes and see how the house opposite lit up like a match. People on the upper floors ran to the balconies and begged for help", "I can still hear the neighbor's fence screeching on the asphalt, and instead of a house I see ruins." And there are thousands of such stories. "Half of the city was destroyed, half of the city residents have been made homeless," our neighbors said sadly.
In the basement, every next day was similar to the previous one: constant fear, hunger, thirst and cold. Our eyes got used to the darkness, sometimes we didn't understand when night changed to morning. We slept sitting up, the children slept on the shelves where gas masks were stored. Elderly people could not stand it and died - the bodies were taken out into the street and left on the territory of the university. Bad thoughts crept into my head: they would better kill me immediately instead of torturing me.
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