Stories that you confided to us
“God was near us”, says Liza (short for Yelyzaveta) as she tells us the story of her escape from Mariupol. They survived by miracle in the bombed and destroyed Drama Theatre. By miracle, some good people helped them leave the city. By miracle, they found some gasoline, which was in great shortage, in order to get to the evacuation site. Liza does not know if she will return to Mariupol, but she definitely knows that “Ukraine means everything for us”.
In fact, it was not as scary as it probably was in some other cities because we already experienced it back in 2014, and this is why we were not very frightened. On 24 February, I went to my work, and in fact, I worked until 1 March. That is, we made a big mistake because we did not pay much attention to it. We thought that everything would be like in 2014, that everything would end in Skhidnyi city district.
Our city, Mariupol, is divided into districts and Skhidnyi is a district from which everything always starts, all the military activities.
I lived in Zakhidnyi district, which is the opposite side of Mariupol, the opposite side of Skhidnyi district. Well, this is clear, and that is why it was not something too horrible for us. But when we were disconnected from life altogether – gas supply was stopped, electricity was cut off – then we realized that we were trapped.
From 24 February to 5 March, we lived in our flat. Then my boyfriend came after me from the city centre, because there was no mobile phone signal. He had to go on foot to meet me because he lived in a hostel, and the police came to that hostel and said that there could be a “green corridor”. After that, we moved to the Drama Theatre.
And when we were running away – me, my mum and my boyfriend – we also took our cat with us. When we were running to the drama theatre building, we can says that shells were simply thrown in our backs, so to speak, because when we were just coming out of the yard a shell landed there. After that, we realized that we had to move on the side of the road. It was much longer, but it was safer as at that time artillery shells landed in the yards mostly.
When we got to the Drama Theatre, we waited for the “green corridor” every day there, but the Russian side never agreed to it, and we lived there until 16 March, until the bomb was dropped on it.
Every time, when going outside, you realize that you accept death at any moment, that you may be gone, but as I say, you still go for it, and you are in such a state that you simply don’t have…
Well, I think it is more a psychological phenomenon that probably blocks what can kill you, those emotions. That is, there is no time now, there is no opportunity to cry, to let off steam. You constantly have a surge of adrenaline, and you must fight for your life all the time. I just don’t know how to describe it.
The only time when I cried in Mariupol was when people left. On 15 March, I felt so lonely, I don’t know why. When everyone was crammed together, I felt somewhat easier; I felt something, well, as if we were holding on together at a certain level. And then I had a nervous breakdown. I fell into a deep despair, because it seemed to me that I would never get out of there, that I would die there.
We were very lucky to be in the basement at the time, because those people who were outside were all injured, and some of them were buried under the rubble, and even the drama theatre… The basement was all around the perimeter of the building, but we were lucky to be closer to the frontal part, to the entrance.
Here is the entrance to the Drama Theatre, and we were right under the entrance. The bomb was dropped right in the centre, so the people who were in the basement, in the central part of the basement, they were all buried under the rubble, and they remained there.
When I was staying in the basement, we felt that… that blast wave from the bomb, but the ceiling was intact, and the walls were intact too. We could not imagine what happened. There was a bloodied man (he had a bloodied face, and as I understand, something hit him) who went down and cried that the drama theatre was gone, that there was no drama theatre left anymore.
We thought that he said that being under a storm of emotions, but when we came out, we saw that there was really no drama theatre building left. We saw only the front wall, the back wall and a huge funnel. We also heard the sounds of another aircraft flying overhead, constant tank rounds that were heard from all sides. I just can hardly describe it.
I heard people screaming. I was also screaming and my eyes were full of tears.
I just screamed in panic. I saw what was happening and tried not to look in that direction, as I knew that there were many people whose bodies just stuck out [of the rubble] by half.
My mum was trying to help. She and some guy were trying to pull out a woman, but they just could not lift that piece of the building. I don’t know, it could probably be lifted with a crane, as it was impossible to do it just with your bare hands. I was standing there, looking at it and realizing that now the bomb would fall again – and that would be the end of it.
This thought was spinning in my head. I could not breathe, could do nothing, as if I was just thrown to the ground. But I remember that after that we ran. We didn’t know where to run, but we just kept running. And I don’t know what stopped us, what made us stop. We probably planned just to run to another bomb shelter, but we stopped on the road and started waving our hands in order to stop some car, and some people took us out of the city.
We were dropped off at a road fork between Melekine and Berdyansk. When we came to Melekine, we caught a phone signal, that is, all our relatives received an SMS.
There were so many tears, so much grief, because everyone thought that we were dead. No one could reach or contact us.
We just stood on the side of the road and thought what to do next, because we had nowhere to go. Our plan was to knock on people’s doors if we could not do anything else. But I think God was with us all that time, because some people just stopped and asked why we were standing there. Our look, our appearance just spoke for itself. It showed that something was wrong, because we were half-naked, with a bunch of rags that we grabbed, some bags. Well, you can imagine what it all looked like. Dirty, because we stayed without water, without anything. We talked to them and they realized our situation. They took us to their place and fed us. We are much obliged to them and will not forget their help.
We were in despair because we could not find anyone who would agree to take us out of there. I called my stage director (I was attending a theatre course in Mariupol then), and she was in Berdyansk at that time. I called her and said that I was just in despair as no one could do anything, and that I urgently needed help. She said that if I find 15 litres of gasoline, people would come for me, well for us, for my family.
I realized that it was simply impossible to find gasoline, because when we went to the fuel station, the only fuel station that had gasoline at all, there was a queue of cars about one kilometre long, and we were without a vehicle, just my friend, my boyfriend and me. Well, we were like some pitiable children. We put a gasoline can in a bag and went to that fuel station via the fields. We were standing there and thinking how to find a solution.
We were not going to be in that queue of cars. People even spent the night in that queue. What did we have to do? Lie down on the road and sleep? Well, my boyfriend went there and said, playing the fool, “Look, is there a queue for people without cars?” Well, we knew that this was a dead plan basically, but in fact, well, you know, it worked. People said, “No, there is not, but you can try to ask some driver.” Well, we came up, as if those cats from Shrek cartoon, and gave the big pity eyes: please, we need somehow… And there was a very courteous man who took us under his wing. He said,
“Okay, but let’s do it so that no one understands what has happened”.
Because even some fights broke out for a place in that queue. Well, we moved on a little bit, joined him in his car and, to cut it short, it worked out for us. We bought gasoline and about an hour later, I called my stage director and said, “I have gasoline.” She was simply speechless, because other people stood in the queue for several days. We called her just an hour later and said, “We have gasoline, everything is fine.” So a man came for us. They had a certain scheme of theirs. Well, in short, we were taken out of there in exchange for gasoline.
We came to Berdyansk, where we finally saw some bread, saw some signs of civilization, some open shops, and we felt a little human there. We needed to sign up for evacuation buses to Zaporizhzhia, but people waited for their turn to be evacuated for weeks. Firstly, because buses were often not allowed to go. I think you heard about it. And secondly, it was very difficult to get there, because many Berdyansk local residents also wanted to leave.
We got a phone call from an acquaintance who found out all this information somewhere. I don’t know who finds anything out there and how they do it. She said,
“If you go out of the city and just run up to the bus in time, you will be able to leave.”
Well, certainly, we rushed, we ran fast and took a taxi to go out of the city. There was also a huge [crowd] there. Well, people almost fought in order to get into those buses. People were just like sardines in a can. There were not only seats for sitting passengers; there was no space enough just to be able to breathe in those buses. However, we managed to get into it; we got a place on the floor. We went off and were stopped halfway.
First, we passed through about 15 Russian checkpoints. That is, there was not even an hour of uninterrupted driving. I do not remember exactly, but I think there were some 53 or 57 buses. Well, more than 50 definitely. And while each bus was checked, every passenger was checked, we stood for an hour and a half at those checkpoints. Well, we covered 200 kilometres in almost two days.
Only 200 kilometres. Russian soldiers handed us their dry rations, well… they just stood there and gave us their dry rations while all that was video recorded on a camera, and of course, mothers whose children had not eaten for almost a day, they went to take them. Well, I understand that they did not have any other options, but it is also clear why it was all done. They filmed us on a camera as we took their dry rations.
I don’t know what kind of news report it was and what they said in it. I just saw a preview where they said how they, sort of, help us, that they are heroes in general, and how much grateful we are for that.
While what we really feel, I don’t know, even “hatred” is not the word for it. I don’t know what could be stronger than hatred, but there is something we have in relation to them, some kind of a special feeling. Then they called a crowd of extras who waved their hands to the tanks they were transporting, and this was also filmed on a camera.
They shouted, “We’ve been waiting for you so much!” Heroes… I think you know what I mean.
I knew perfectly well that it would backlash against me later, that when I settle down and realize, “that’s it, I’m safe now”, then it would break out.
And indeed, from time to time you just sit and remember Mariupol, you know how many people died there, you read stories about the deaths of children, about the deaths of your acquaintances, and you understand that this is not a parallel, not a parallel life. That this is not a movie, that this is not something terrible you made up in your head. But that this is a reality, and that there are many children who have been just growing up and had a great life ahead of them, and this life has just been taken away in some barbaric way. My heart bleeds all the time, and I think… I don’t know how many holes appear in the heart of every Ukrainian when they read this.
A boy from our school died, he was a year older than me, a man – well, a musician, and another boy too. If I find out that someone closer to me has died, I don’t know what will happen to me. I don’t know when I will be able to return to Ukraine, because Mariupol is a separate topic for Ukraine. But if we arrange to live in some other city, we will still try, because Ukraine is our everything.