"The dead were not counted, not covered, not buried." History of survival and rescue from Mariupol

  • Victoria Prisedskaya
  • BBC News Ukraine

Mariupol

Photo by Getty Images

Each story of survival and rescue from Mariupol reveals new details of the horrors committed by Russia in Ukraine in the XXI century.

In the first days of the war, Russian troops surrounded Mariupol and began indiscriminate shelling of the city with heavy artillery and aircraft.

Water, electricity, gas and communications have disappeared from homes. In the 10-degree frost, people hid in basements around the clock and cooked food on the fire. The bodies of the dead civilians remained on the streets for a long time, and it was difficult to bury them in the frozen ground under constant air attacks.

It was not possible to agree on evacuation from Mariupol. Those who survived the cars and had gasoline, left the city under fire at their own risk through numerous checkpoints of the Russian military.

The port city with a population of half a million is almost wiped off the face of the earth, the death toll reaches tens of thousands.

Many Ukrainians from eastern Ukraine are entering the epicenter of hostilities for the second time.

Iryna Stramousova fled the war in Donbass in 2014. A few days before the Russian attack, she came to Mariupol to help her husband’s mother, who became seriously ill with covid. Her husband and 10-year-old son were unable to leave the besieged city of Ira.

The woman told BBC News Ukraine how the family survived in the city without water, heat and communication under continuous bombardment. Irina also shares her experiences on her Facebook page , she says that this story is primarily about the courage and incredible warmth of people.

I have never lived in Mariupol, but I knew the city well, my husband was from there, his parents lived there. In 2014 we left Donetsk and it so happened that we have never been to Mariupol since then.

We found ourselves in it a few days before the war, because my husband’s mother became very ill. She had severe pneumonia and was hospitalized.

We arrived with my husband and our youngest son by car from Odessa.

I learned about the war from the news on the morning of the 24th. We refueled the car, but could not leave the city because my husband’s mother was very weak.

The next day, shelling was heard, however, Mariupol residents generally reacted calmly, many said, “You do not scare us like that, we have been hearing this since 2014.”

The husband had to stay with his mother, and I decided to leave with my 10-year-old child.

And already on February 28 it became impossible to do it. When we took my mother to the hospital after the weekend, the Ukrainian military did not let us in at the checkpoint near the Metro. I realized that the city was under siege.

There were queues in supermarkets, panic, and then shops began to loot. This impressed me a lot. There was no bombing as such, and the shops were delivered. People grabbed not only food, but also alcohol and household items. It was very unpleasant.

Water

Water was the first to disappear. At first, she disappeared into the apartment and moved to a nearby kindergarten, in the basement of which there was always a queue. For a moment it seemed to me that this was an endless spring – every time there were dozens of buckets in the dark, and the water did not end.

But it’s over. Water from the heating system of the next entrance, and then ours, went into action. Drinking water was stored separately. When it was over, they learned to do “alchemy” on the fire, turning technical water into drinking water.

I did the “alchemy” for at least five minutes, because we never found the source of the intestinal infection epidemic in the basement. Diarrhea, vomiting and fever bypassed all the inhabitants of the basement from the youngest girl and in a circle. Water was needed again, a lot of water.

Brave people walked to the spring a few kilometers from the house. Under fire and in the cold. My husband also went. And then something more valuable than the most expensive champagne appeared in the house. This water saved us.

Photo by Getty Images

There was also sorcery. The soft March snow was easily swept away from the morning street, from the bench. In the dark bathroom, I always turned on the flashlight to see exactly which of the buckets I could wash my hands, the snow could throw an unpleasant surprise.

We were able to wash for the first time only in Berdyansk. Teeth were brushed, and it was impossible to bathe. My hands darkened from the dirt that got into my skin, they were a different color above the sleeves.

Cold

March seemed very cold. This winter – frosts and icy winds. On the street at night – minus ten, in the apartment – minus two.

The walls in the apartments became cardboard during the first week of the war. When the young people went to the basement, the grandmothers remained in the inter-apartment vestibules. Four grandmothers and our grandfather sat in our vestibule for endless days and nights. They chatted, sang songs, remembered their youth, drank tea.

Grandmother Raya and grandmother Valya slept at night sitting at the entrance, wrapped like ghosts in blankets, putting their heads on each other’s shoulders. Our posts. In opaque darkness – a serious obstacle. It was difficult for me to decide which of them was better to wake up so as not to scare.

So they stayed together in Paradise’s apartment. They say, “we will not perish, everything will be fine.” I recently learned, all is well. I don’t stop thinking about them all the time.

Food

When the gas disappeared, my son became responsible for the fire. After several noisy days in the shelter, the men happily and enthusiastically cut down dry poplars. It was the first day when embarrassed and scared people came out of each other’s apartments and started dating.

The tree was felled, sawed with a chainsaw, and we were able to gather firewood.

My ten-year-old son never came home from work hungry. He carefully placed the wood in the hearth, where something was roasted, boiled, and smelled delicious in a black smoky pot. He was always treated and praised from the heart.

Photo by Getty Images

Caption to the photo,

Residents of Mariupol cook on the fire

Prepared buckwheat, rice, pasta. At home, the man’s parents had pickles and jams. Neighbors have canned food. They cooked a large pot of soup for several apartments.

We didn’t go hungry, of course, but I still can’t eat bread and potatoes, we didn’t have them.

Aircraft

I have been living in the war for almost three weeks and I can’t believe it. I cook over a campfire, I run in the entrance, from wall to wall, I smoke with Natasha from the third floor. We take turns crying over each other’s shoulders, as in childhood, sharing secrets, trying to tell about all the guys we liked for the last 30 years.

At night, during the heavy shelling, which was already spit on from the basement – still nowhere to run, we still felt the house jump. All the houses nearby jumped up.

An air bomb hit the neighboring 14-storey building. In the morning, someone brave saw and told what happened. Half of the house disappeared, the kiosk next door flew into the sky and hung on a tree.

Photo by Getty Images

Caption to the photo,

Consequences of the air bombings of Mariupol

After that, when we heard the roar of the plane, we immediately hid. Like a movie about war. In black and white cinema. In black and white March. Icy and tough.

Among the cigarette and fire-lit porches, there was one thing that made me immediately realize what was happening.

The plane was flying. He dropped a bomb on the drama theater, which hid people, Mariupol, refugees from Sartana and Volnovakha, next to which on the asphalt in large white letters was written “children.”

Direct hit by an air bomb. A thousand people. Only those who were under the stage survived. Small. I will never forgive the Russians for the drama theater. Part of me stayed in this charred house.

Photo by Getty Images

Caption to the photo,

According to the latest data, 600 people could have died in the Mariupol Drama Theater

If it weren’t for aviation, Mariupol would have survived, they wouldn’t have entered the city. I saw fragments of air bombs, they are thick in the hand. When an air bomb hit the house next to us, half of it remained.

I hope I don’t have to go to the bomb shelter again. And if necessary, never in common. Better – your basement.

Basement

The first time in the basement was not so cold. We chose one room where 12 people later hid. We took all the warm things there. The man found the door where my son and I slept.

It was calmer in the basement than at home. We chatted with neighbors, played cards. They were lit first with candles and then with lamps made of cloth and oil.

I almost never left our yard. Only once did we find out that Kyivstar is hosting somewhere in the next quarter. We ran there to call my mother and eldest son, who didn’t know if we were alive at all.

There were days when we did not leave the basement at all due to heavy shelling. One day we all got rotavirus in the basement. First children, then adults. My son was sick, he was bored, and we were constantly running to the apartment to the toilet, and it was very dangerous.

Death

Most people died from shrapnel wounds while standing in line for water or cooking at home.

A man from the next door died when he went out for water with a kettle. He lay with the kettle for a long time.

Neighbors decided to bury him and asked for help to dig a pit, because the ground was very frozen. A woman lawyer from our entrance said that this could not be done, because there were no documents or death certificates.

But later he was buried, like many other people, right on the street.

Photo by Getty Images

When the Russians and the “Dnipro” entered our area, it became quieter, the shelling was far away, and I began to leave the yard, “catching” the telephone connection.

There were bodies of people everywhere that no one cleaned. Only a few of them were wrapped up, and I thought it was probably their relatives who took care of them. The Russians did not count the dead, did not collect documents, did not bury people.

To count the dead in Mariupol, you can take approximate numbers and multiply them by any number greater than one. Nobody counted anyone. He did not cover or hide at once, did not collect documents. People just lay in the streets, and we passed them.

Escape

When the shelling in our part of the city subsided, we started discussing leaving with our neighbors. Our car survived, and we had gasoline, which we managed to refuel on the first day of the war.

We were joined first by seven cars, then people joined us. In the end, we went in a column of 18 cars.

The streets we used to leave the city were completely broken, every second or third house was bombed and burned down, buses and equipment were burned. Very scary.

When we left Mariupol, there were also many dead people near the Russian checkpoint. They were in a car a few meters from the checkpoint and on the ground.

The Russian military walked by, ignoring them. These people in uniform seemed more dead than the dead, because that was their reality.

Photo by Getty Images

When the shelling took place, not all people in high-rise buildings hid in basements. We knew that the city was badly damaged, but what we saw was unimaginable.

We drove to Berdyansk for 12 hours. We had no food at all, kept on crackers all the time. After spending the night in Berdyansk, the next day we left for Zaporizhia.

This part of the journey was very difficult and dangerous. There were many Russian servicemen, Chechens, V-marked tanks, broken vehicles and mines on the roads.

Already near Zaporozhye we had to turn off the road to go around the broken bridge. We went through the village of Kamenske, which was literally razed to the ground. There were no people there, only animals wandering among the destroyed houses and burned cars.

Author of photos, photos from personal archive

Suddenly our column stopped, there was a stretch on the road, and we had to call the SES from Zaporizhia. People with children began to get out of cars, all tired, half of the cars without windows, children wrapped in blankets, it is impossible to leave the roadside because of mines.

Eventually we got to Zaporizhia, saw Ukrainian flags and heard the Ukrainian language. We managed to refuel and went on to the Dnieper.

Life

I used to think that it was not scary to die, and that this may not be our last reincarnation. But in Mariupol I realized that I wanted to live. I really wanted no one to die.

I talked to people a lot, I watched them a lot. I wanted to cry – I cried, I wanted to shout – I cried. Probably helped me not to go crazy.

This story is mostly about people. I will remember them all my life, even though I only knew them for a few weeks. I saw a lot of human relationships, a lot of humanity.

Irina and her son went abroad, her husband joined the army. Russian soldiers lived in her house in Irpen, but the house survived.

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