Nadiya was taking her husband’s body from under the rubble by herself. In 13 days after his death. An artillery shell hit their flat on the ninth floor in Mariupol when the man went upstairs to fetch some food.
Nadiya, her two children, her mother-in-law and her father-in-law spent almost one month in the basement. The woman had to sleep with a knife in her hand, scout for food, scraping some bits and pieces of dough from the floor in a destroyed bakery. She also had to put out the fire using urine from the common lavatory in the bomb shelter instead of water. They escaped from Mariupol on the day when Nadiya turned 45 years old.
“All our previous happy life was simply erased,” says the Mariupol resident.
Many events have happened this March. We celebrated our son’s birthday on 27 February in the vestibule of our house, my husband died under the rubble of our flat on 11 March, we marked our daughter’s 20th birthday on 17 March, and I was evacuated from Mariupol on my birthday, on 29 March.
I remember the 23rd of February. It was the most ordinary evening. In the morning, I was going to work, and basically, it was not unusual for me; everything was very mundane. The only thing was that when I got up in the morning and started to wake up the children to get ready for school, there was an evening message from the school (sent by the school administration) asking to prepare evacuation packages for children. We reacted in a somewhat unusual way to this, not all schools sent a message like that. It was for the case if the children needed to be evacuated suddenly. Obviously, we were not ready for this.
When I woke up on the morning of 24 February, my colleagues from Sartana (a village not far from Mariupol) wrote that they had been shelled all night, and it was decided that no one was going to work. After that, certainly, I said that my son... he is 16 years old and my older daughter is 20 years old, we celebrated [his birthday] in the vestibule of our building. I said that he would not go to school because the situation was somewhat worrisome.
Our bomb shelters in Mariupol were all full of refugees. Later, at the time when our area came under bombing, they were all full of people from nearby villages.
This is Nikolske, Sartana and Mangush. People came to Mariupol for rescue, which they did not find there. We went down to the basement of our building when the first shells hit the houses nearby, that is, when we saw that the nearby housing came under shellfire, and we saw some destroyed flats. It was very scary. It was an artillery attack and an air strike.
Not far from us, across the road, there is a large market building, Azovskyi Market. It was hit by an airstrike, and a huge blast wave followed... I live on the ninth floor. We ran out into the stair vestibule, which I had equipped accordingly. I have some photos of it. I tried my best to arrange everything there, even to make it cosy.
When my husband and I ran out, threw a blanket on our children to cover them, and fell on them, the building began to shake badly.
There was a feeling that it was just going to fall apart. After it was over, my husband immediately ran to the balcony and said that we needed to go down to the basement urgently. At that time, looting began in the city, that is, people began to ransack absolutely all the shops. We still could not understand what was happening, while people already began to plunder the stores. We thought that it was horrible, and that we would not have to experience it, but we did practice it. That is, we also had to forage for food later. It was later, when everything was already destroyed, but we together with the children scouted for food in the burned down warehouses, dressed in the clothes that we had been wearing for three weeks. Sorry for the detail, but we did not even have a change of underwear with us.
It just so happened that my husband really wanted to have a fireplace. He always wanted a fireplace, and back in 2005, we set up a wood-fired fireplace in our flat. It was a real wood-fired fireplace, and we always joked that we had it against the possibility of war or eventual fire. We never thought that these words would become true. It was no longer possible to go outside, so my husband would go upstairs to the ninth floor and would cook, heat up water and bring it down to us.
On or around 8 or 9 March, our district came under very heavy shelling, severe shellfire. That is, we were staying in the basements and heard all those airstrikes. We heard how windows were shattering. But our house was located in the middle of the yard, so when all the nearby buildings had been destroyed (a lot of houses were on fire), our building still remained standing as some kind of an island, by some miracle, in the middle of this yard.
On 11 March, we had silence for some time, and before that my children had not left the basement for three days. They simply could not get up. It was such a horror when you don’t hear kids running around. Because children were also staying in the basement. And you yourself, you are just lying, and you do not see any light. You are constantly in a state of some kind of horror. I had some battery-powered Christmas twinkle lights. They were a rescue for us. On 5 March, my husband’s parents came to visit us. Then, they were no longer able to leave our place. They lived in another hot spot, near “Tysiacha Dribnyts” store (“A Thousand Little Things” store), which was under attack for a very long time too. When they came to us, apparently, they did not understand all the horror and danger, as there was no such heavy shelling in their area then. They stayed with us for some time and had to stay on with us, basically, for a long time, until the very end. We managed to bring the mattresses downstairs for them, while we ourselves slept on the blankets on some crushed stones.
On 11 March, it became quiet and my husband came and said that the house nearby was all on fire. That is, a nine-storey building next to us was all on fire, and since we were very afraid that the windows would shatter, the windows were opened in almost all the flats...
Well, basically, many tenants had broken windows by that time, and our windows were broken too, the window frames were damaged. The shelves in the flats fall off the walls. That is, explosions did not let us forget about them. After the airstrike, all the window frames in the houses that were some 100 meters, or maybe 150 meters from the epicentre of the explosion, were damaged. You can imagine that impact force. The entrance doors did not open. That was the impact of those strikes on the buildings.
And on 11 March, he [my husband] ran downstairs and said that if some fire scales or sparkles, and they were flying near the house, as some curtains were burning, all this was burning, so if they fly inside through the windows, we will catch fire, that is, our house will be on fire too. He ran in, dropped us some of the last food items that were in the cupboard, and ran upstairs.
The children stayed in for quite a time. They had not gone out for three days. I already mentioned it. Now they decided to go upstairs to their dad. My daughter said, “I’ll pick up some things, as you never know, what if it really catches fire suddenly. Dad won’t be there all night.”
When they came out, literally two minutes later, we heard a huge explosion – pieces of window glass were falling down.
Our dog, our friend-in-arms, she went through everything together with us... We heard a huge explosion, we heard that glass was falling, and part of the house, parts of the building... Balconies. That is, we heard all that downstairs.
I don’t remember how I ran up to the flap-door, I opened the flap-door with one hand and just started crying to the children. They cried back to me that they were alive, and they ran back to us. At that moment, they were on the sixth floor. They did not make it to the ninth floor. Literally three floors were left. At that moment, a shell from the tank (which was standing at the road crossing) hit our flat, where my husband was. The children were covered with shards of glass, and they ran downstairs in horror.
I was just crying into the open flap-door, “Serhiy!!!” I did not realize that I was just crying into the open sky. There was just a hole looking into the sky instead of my flat, and a hole in our hearts.
As we found out later…, we lay in mental torpor until morning, unable to understand what had happened. My husband was strong, courageous and brave. I thought that he was just going to stay somewhere and would come down to us. I thought so until the very last moment.
Only in the morning I realized that he would not come back. Then, I had to live on without him, survive in the same way, and inform our friends with whom we had no telephone connection. On 16 March, our friends, whom I informed that Serhiy was not with us anymore, came to us for the first time. His parents were with us all this time, and I said, “I will not leave this place until I find him”. Well, they did not allow me, they said, “Nadiya, there’s nothing left there, there’s nothing left. There are damaged walls hanging. It’s very dangerous there.” That is, it was not just a destroyed building. He was buried there under the rubble.
I want people to understand that it is not just a destroyed building.
There was a soul in every home, there was a soul in my house. Those were the children’s photographs, a terabyte, including moments of my children’s births, photos from our wedding, and photos with some other moments of life...
They are already big now, 16 and 20 years old. I will never be able to... I tell my daughter, “Katya, I collected your diaries for a reason. I wanted to give them to your future husband on the day of your wedding, so that he could see how you behaved at school”. I cannot do it. The first baby’s dummies, the first dresses, the first books... It was all kept, and no one will ever return this to me, no one ever. They just erased our memory, our memory was deleted. Then, when there was no shelling in the area anymore, my children and I tried to find our friends. We came under fire in district no. 17, near the market. The market was full of people, as that area was no longer shelled.
We came to the territory of the regional hospital and had a look at our damaged car, which their dad loved. We called it Toruk Makto from Avatar. His car looked very nice. It was sporty, very fast, turbocharged, and he was very proud of it. My daughter was attending a driving training course, and he promised her that they would definitely have a drive on his car together. He was a kiter. He promised our son that this year he would teach him how to kite. There were a lot of plans. We did not believe that this could happen to us.
On 17 March, we marked our daughter’s 20th birthday without her dad. On that day, we went to the warehouses for the first time. Those were the warehouses on the outskirts of the city, near Volodarske Highway, not far from Metro hypermarket. When people take waste bins and go for groceries… That is, they just emptied the trash bins onto the ground and went for groceries with those bins, to get at least something for themselves. Yes, there were those who got only alcohol for themselves, but as I understand, at that time alcohol and cigarettes had become a currency in the city. You could exchange them for something else.
We got it. We went into the warehouse. It was the warehouse of the family bakery. Everything was trampled there. We went out of there immediately, as we realized that there was not much food there. But then we realized that this was dough. We had not eaten bread for a very long time. We collected this dough. It was insanely heavy. The children and I carried it home to make some cakes out of it, as there was no bread. Neither bread nor water was delivered.
My son still says it was the most delicious bread he ever had, because there were some buns with raisins there, there was just dough, some puffs with apples, and there was some kind of bread with spinach. So we cut off some pieces that were trampled on the floor and then baked them. It was delicious. In one of the burned down warehouses, we were just picking up some pate out of soot. Well, what our clothes turned into... Our hands and our feet – you can imagine – at that time we had already been in the basement for two weeks.
On 23 March, no, on 21 March, at night, some strange-looking man moved into the section next to us. He looked into our place. He really did not like that we go to the toilet through his section, although that toilet was there all the time. Obviously, those were just the buckets [used as a toilet].
There was one more experience we went through. One more story from our experience, when a shell hit the first floor and the first floor caught fire. We realized that the smoke was going to the basement and we had nothing to put the fire out with.
It was on the 13th. My husband was no longer with us then. I was running around the basement and we were collecting those toilet buckets with urine in order to extinguish the fire on the first floor. You know, I have never, in any book, ever seen such horror when you run with urine to put out the fire, for us all not to burn down there. Well, this is not normal, a person should not have any such experience, especially children, but there were children there with us.
Everyone knew that the city was full of people. We do not know what happened next, later. Only now I learn, bit by bit, what was happening in the city, in other parts, because I now have the Internet access for the first time in all this period. It is just hell, hell that broke loose.
On 23… On 21 March, we moved out of the basement because that man broke in and started threatening me that he would cut the whole family into mincemeat. He was drunk… The reason was us walking to the toilet through his cell. I had two elderly people with me, my father-in-law and my mother-in-law, and two children.
I slept with a knife in my hand all night, realizing that if something comes to his mind, I would just have to protect them.
In the morning, the father-in-law found a house nearby, which was abandoned. It was partially destroyed, but it was still possible to live in it. We moved into this house not far from our nine-storey building. It became a little easier for us because there was a potbelly stove there. Before that, the military lived there and they brought a potbelly stove there.
We warmed up for the first time in a month, because sleeping at sub-zero temperatures meant that everyone was sick. Naturally, everyone got sick. We warmed up for the first time in all this period, and washed our heads for the first time using a small amount of rainwater. It was so nice, we sat and warmed ourselves near the stove. We even washed our dog.
And on 23 March, we had some fish left. Our neighbours from the ninth floor hid some fish upstairs because it was cold there and it was easiest to keep it there. So I went up to the ninth floor for the first time to have a look at my home. My son went upstairs with me. I looked at all this, took some photos, realized that the walls there folded in, even between the ninth and eighth floors. That is, the roof, the attic collapsed, and partially the floor of our flat collapsed too. Basically, all the walls collapsed.
I could see some fragments of our life. It was scary to walk around the yard and see the remains of our house, just lying in the yard amidst some terrible ruins and rubble.
What I kept was a piece of decorative moulding from the living room. It was just tied in a knot. We also found part of our sofa from the living room near the house opposite to our house, in the yard. There were also parts of our balcony there, and my husband’s shirt, which had been in the closet. I took it off a tree on the third day after his death (it was partially torn, cut through to pieces).
That’s basically all that was left of my home. When we went upstairs, I started taking pictures, and I noticed my son’s behaviour when we were walking around… There was dismay in his eyes. A wall in our flat between the eighth and ninth floors collapsed. He tried to lead me, and I realized that something was wrong…
My husband was lying under that wall. His body was hanging on some things, that is, his body knocked down the wall. He was hanging on some clothes, and I saw his feet. I rushed there. It turned out that my son had found him earlier, a week and a half earlier. He just could not tell us. He was afraid that I would go there and would start pulling him out.
He started holding me and saying, “If something happens to you, do you understand that I will not survive?”
It sobered me up and I asked, “Have you seen him?” He said, “I could not look at him. What if he doesn’t have the head or the arm? I don’t want to remember him like that.”
And I remember that day when he [my son] came back from upstairs. I asked him not to go upstairs. We were sitting with my daughter and joking about something, I don’t remember what. And when I saw that he went out somewhere and then went in, I saw that there was some fear on his face, not even fear. I saw that something was wrong… I came up to him and asked, “Were you upstairs?” He said, “Yes.” “I asked you not to go there.” He told me that our home was gone, that he saw some of the things from the children’s room there, somewhere in the distance, but he did not say anything about his father. I don’t know how much strength it takes at the age of 16 years to bear this pain and not tell anyone.
When I went outside, I came up to the military. Those were the so-called DPR soldiers. I asked them how to get my husband out. I found my husband’s body under the rubble. They said, “It is forbidden, but you should to take photos for the evidence base.” The next morning I pretended I was going to make a phone call. I picked up my phone and went there, upstairs. I approached as close as it was possible, from all sides, to take pictures of my husband’s body. For a person you have known since the age of 15, that is, we have known each other for 30 years, you see the person who died 13 days ago. He died 13 days ago and you see him, it is all so close and dear to you, but everything is torn and everything is smashed. You see the watch on his wrist. I know it had an engraving and the watch was still going. I took the photos and left.
When my friends told us that they could evacuate us, I realized I could not leave him there like that. A day after, in the morning, I took the scissors and checked that no one followed me. I went there, approached the men downstairs. I asked them to help pull him out. They said they were afraid.
I said that if I didn’t come down in 10 minutes, they would need to go up and pull out both of us.
It was scary to go there, but I cut off those pieces of clothing he was hanging on. I don’t know how I dragged him out of there. I pulled him out. It seemed to me that his body became so light. I got him out of there. I talked to him and said goodbye to him. I could not take him down from the ninth floor. I dragged the body to the staircase and covered his face with his hands – they were all smashed.
We had to leave that day. There was no telephone signal in the city. When we were transporting our belongings, the telephone signal appeared at the point we were taking our stuff to. We called our guys and realized that we could be taken out – me, my children and my in-laws. I went back to the house to tell the in-laws to pack and get ready.
And during this time, our neighbours came to them and asked if Serhiy could be buried, because people were scared to go to the ninth floor, although I asked them not to tell anyone. And the parents saw their son for the first time after he was gone.
No one should see their children dead, no matter what age he or she is, at any age. It is not normal for parents to bury their children.
They were upstairs and they wrapped him in a bed sheet. I didn’t even have a bed sheet with me. So we decided to bury him in the yard.
Mariupol looked almost like a cemetery. At first, it was so conspicuous when you walk around in the damaged city, see pieces of broken glass everywhere and graves in the middle of the yards. Even in such conditions, people tried to get some wreaths somewhere in funeral shops and somehow mark the place where a grave was. And then it was everywhere, it was all over the city. Because people die not only from shell fragments, they also die from natural causes, and in such a situation people die from heart attacks. That is why there were graves in every yard. So, we decided to bury him.
The children could not go, and of course, I told them that they should not see that under any circumstances. They were standing near the dug grave, and my in-laws and I went upstairs, took a blanket, and took the body out downstairs.
My father-in-law had heartache attacks several times as we carried him the deceased down the stairs because my husband’s face got uncovered from time to time. Then we brought him downstairs and took a cart. We did not have the possibility to wash the dead body before the burial, to bury him decently. We were not supposed to bury him at this age of his at all. He was strong. He had so much strength… We wrapped him up. I tied him carefully so that the cover would not unfold, put him in the cart and took him away. Well, the place was… We chose a place behind the yard. There used to be a parking lot and some land plots for gardening.
When we got there, some people in military uniform were standing there. A girl came up to me, her name was Daria Morozova. She is the Human Rights Commissioner of the so-called DPR (unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic). She said she was directly dealing with the burials and she could now arrange that my husband’s body is taken to Mangush and buried there as an identified person. I said, “We simply do not have time for this. We will be picked up and taken away very soon. We wanted to bury him here.”
I took a plaque with my husband’s date of birth and the date of his death. She took a picture of it all. She asked me to send her copies of my husband’s documents, which is what I am going to do right now. His body will be taken to Mangush and buried there, and I will know, I will have a death certificate to know where my husband is buried. This is not far from Mariupol, an area under the control of the so-called DPR.
I was standing there and looking at her. While we were talking, I was looking at all those destroyed buildings and asked her, “Tell me, was it worth it at all? Why was this all done?” And she said this phrase in reply, “This is a debatable topic.” And I do not understand how it can be a debatable topic when it comes to killing people? How can this be a debatable matter, really?
I had a feeling that they had come to revenge themselves on us for something. Are civilians really to blame for what happened?
We felt sorry for every child who died in Donetsk. We cried together with them. I have many friends in Donetsk. It so happened that I lived in Mariupol all my life, and my husband lived in Mariupol. But he was born in Petropavlivsk-Kamchatskyi, and I was born in Lypetsk.
Who are you killing, who? Answer this question for me. It is not easy. I don’t know what to call it. It just blows my mind. Who are you killing? We have many friends, now they also called me from Donetsk and asked. I don’t know how to go through it all, how to wrap my mind around this. I understand that I have not acknowledged it yet, because, apparently, my body functions in a somewhat strange way. I talk about it, but I talk as if I am not talking about myself.
We came here, to a quiet place, first after a long time. I cannot get used to silence. We still sleep with Christmas twinkle lights on because we cannot turn off the lights.
I think with horror that spring will come and there will be thunderstorms, while I will never be able to hear those sounds again.
I do not see myself anywhere yet. As I told you, I still cannot understand what it is and how it will develop next. I don’t see myself anywhere yet. I have just been watching a video from Mariupol for two days, and I understand that the city was obliterated, swept from the face of the earth, and that the places we loved are gone. They are no longer there, there is no home anymore. I only have photos of my flat, my husband, and a video that is being sent all over the world now. I don’t know why they don’t see it. The UN has always been there, they have been in our city for eight years. Where are they now? Where is the Red Cross? Why don’t you help, why don’t you put pressure?
People are killed, people are annihilated, and they just don’t notice. The feeling is that there are only numbers and areas of land for people, and most importantly, the people themselves – they are devalued. You have devalued people. I don’t know how this can happen.
I just hope that I can give my children a chance at a normal life and that they will never be scared again, but I don’t know how. It will be much harder for our children than for us, as we lived in different time, more stable time, and I don’t know how our children will endure all this.
At first, we even joked that you would tell your grandchildren about this time, how you hid in the stair vestibule. And I don’t know whether later they will want to tell their grandchildren what they went through. Perhaps, they won’t, so as not to scare them.