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Evgeniy Pavlyuk
War diary: “No one fully believed that this was all for real. And there came the first mine”

In a series of his posts, Yevhen depicts how he and his family lived in Mariupol and managed to get some food amid constant shellfire. He talks about tank-on-tank engagements right in front of the bomb shelter’s entrance, about landing air bombs, and looters

A shall landed in the neighbouring yard, right into the wood fire – one man, who was cooking some food for himself and his people, had his foot torn off and his skull pierced

28 March 2022. Mariupol

A terribly long way from the bomb shelter back home. Eight building entrances. Outgoing artillery fire seems to be heard from the field behind the neighbouring houses and towards the city centre. Incoming shells fly by, right above our heads. Small-arms shooting is heard on the next street, and the icing on the cake – a combat drone or a plane, the sound of which is bringing death.

There are two jerry cans with water at home. Forty people in the basement are waiting for it. Nobody cares there are some algae at the bottom of the cans. Nobody cares that it is some technical (non-potable) water, as everyone is thirsty

It is vitally necessary to take those risks for your own children, for other people’s children in the bomb shelter, and for the elderly. There is little water left, and it feels as if it is on the other side of the city, while in fact it is just eight building entrances away from you.

For now, the car and the flat have been destroyed. The front line has just passed through us. To survive this and not to die from cold, hunger, thirst and shrapnel, it takes boundless courage in children and women, as well as big balls of steel in men.

29 March. Outbreak

As soon as I heard some loud noise from the incoming artillery shelling within the city boundaries, on 25 February, I decided that we leave our house, the windows of which overlook the National Guard garrison, and go to my parents who live near AS-2 (bus-station no. 2.). My reasoning was that if the so-called DPR (unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic) attacks military facilities from the side of Skhidnyi city district, AS-2 area is located in a completely different part of the city, and we will be absolutely safe.

Only a week later I realized how wrong I was and how, in a way, right I turned out to be, at the same time.

As early as at 5 o’clock, we were dressed and ready to go. We had packed our suitcases two days before the outbreak of the war. We seemed to have a hunch. At eight in the morning, I was standing in the queue of about 200 people near ATB food store to buy some things, part of which would not be even needed later.

Two hours of hustle and bustle for some cereals, stewed meat, canned food, pasta, matches, Mivina, and more. Eighty percent of this will then be stolen by Romani people, whose large mob will storm the evacuation bus from Volodarsk, disregarding families with small babies. My love and respect to them.

We packed the trunk of our KIA Rio car with food, worth UAH 2,000, by a third. Later, the car will be destroyed by a mine. Internally, we felt that it took us just a fraction of a second to quickly bring down the most necessary things from the fifth floor and to get the children into the car.

Now our life will never be the same as before. Visits to the gym, going to work, development, calm and quiet life, non-shattered nerves, refurbishment in our new flat, buying a car, everything ended off in a moment

Now we were at my parents’ home, in a flat where I had been born and raised, in a district where I knew every stone, which would soon turn into burnt ruins. Completely safe, at that moment.

The first three days, we even slept on the bed. I worked during the day, and at night-time, I listened to every distant explosion. My eyes scanned the city forum/chat 24/7. We monitored the news from Kharkiv, Kyiv and Odesa with unfailing regularity.

The feeling that things happening in the biggest cities would not come to us was gradually fading away, and anxiety began to supplant hope that Mariupol was not the main goal of this war after all.

No one fully believed that this was all for real. And then the first mine landed in the yard...

30 March. The bomb shelter. Acquaintance.

We bought a lot of food, but far not all the items came in useful to us. When the first mine landed, we still continued to run from the kitchen to the corridor to hide for several more days. There was still gas and electricity supply, and in order to cook some meals we moved around crouching through the flat to avoid a shell fragment or a bullet coming through the window.

We cooked various sorts of food and basically ate well. Later, when in the bomb shelter, the menu changed significantly, but we cannot say it really changed for much worse.

On 3 March, the district came under the first carpet bombing, which seemed a terrible and severe shellfire to us. As it turned out later, the worst was yet to come.

We packed our things in 15 minutes and in another 10 minutes, we were in the bomb shelter.

The bomb shelter turned out to be the technical premises of the former ATS (automatic telephone station/exchange) in the basement of an ordinary five-storey building, and at the time of our arrival, it was about 80% occupied.

A huge wood-fired grill was immediately organized in the yard, as well as the hunting for firewood to keep up the fire.

Almost immediately, we found the best people in their field. One guy showed himself in collecting firewood, another man showed his talent in making a fire and maintaining it. He also turned out to have a large stock of cannabis, that is why he was as calm as a lion and had an exceptional philosophy that even Jason Statham would envy in wartime.

When the military took a break, the cooks with numerous pots, frying pans, fish in foil, kettles and other simple utensils started to come out. Here we met with the guys who had been staying here for several days.

A little later, a shell landed in the neighbouring yard, right into the wood fire – one man, who was cooking some food for himself and his people, had his foot torn off and his skull pierced, but we learned about this a couple of days later...

31 March. The bomb shelter. Routine

In the first days, we saw some shoplifters. Those were people pushing huge carts in front of them, packed full with various goods from hypermarkets. Among them, one could notice some TV sets, Lego sets, as well as bras with panties. We asked them what it was for. The war will end and then it will come in handy, they answered.

Those guys made far more than one (shopping) tour and most likely stuffed their flat full with new consumer goods. And you know what? The photo shows their corner flat. People also said that such shoplifters were later rained by shellfire from Grad rocket-launcher right in the hypermarket. Well, you see, karma in action.

Speaking of the grocery stores’ looting in order to survive, according to the rumours, the stores were broke open by some men in camouflage clothes without any insignia. They would take the most necessary things and then would let in the crowd mad with hunger.

I will not write if I took part in this, but during almost all the three weeks of our staying there, we had frozen chicken wings fried, boiled, and steamed. Perhaps, we stocked them earlier. I do not remember it after my injury.

In general, trying to get some food under an exchange of artillery fire is a hell of an action. You never know where it will fly to, and whether you will remain alive in the next second. But you just must scout around, flat-out, as you have two pensioners, two children and a wife to take care of, the latter being overwhelmed while organizing this “camp”.

Then, after the warehouses with frozen food products, which were almost completely taken out by people driving a big green Ural truck, we decided to feed those who were unable to either get, or cook any food themselves, because there was a stock of dumplings in the warehouse that would suffice for several months.

The way to the base was through a barricade of several dozen burned-out and mined city buses and a road littered with unexploded mines and fragments of tanks, howitzers and other armoured vehicles. We had at our disposal only a manual forklift (a large cart on small wheels, on which loaders transport packages of food in supermarkets), rough physical strength of our men, and fifty people in need in the bomb shelter.

The guys said that they were often stopped by the military and interrogated (where, to whom and why), but as soon as they found out that everything was being done with good intentions, they let the rumbling stagecoach go its way.

At first, generous people brought huge carts of food to the bomb shelter so that its tenants could take the necessary amount of potatoes, oil and cereals. However, when young people, who were able to go and get some food for themselves and their family, started to take advantage of it, and while staying in the basement, they would take a couple of big bags of food, hiding them in the corners, free shopping spree was over.

In fact, the question of foraging for something was always a sharp one – some people covered a way of ten kilometres to wholesale bases to get some food and water, others went to some shops to find some clothes, as well as to kiosks with cigarettes. But there were also some people who were busy with some daily chores, and they received everything for free.

The daily routine can be broken into several stages. For me it is easier to describe a typical day from the very morning.

You get up at four in the morning. You need to make a fire, a place for which was set up on the steps of the building entrance, because there was a mine-fall on the street. At times, it was shelling from Grad multiple rocket-launcher, from minus 300 – at the moment the projectile hit the building, to plus 1700 – at the time of a land mine explosion.

For that, you needed to remove all the ashes from a previous-day fire with a shovel and kindle a new fire. It is great if people prepared some firewood yesterday. If not, then from the very morning, you need to break some small tree branches for kindling of a fire, and need to saw some tree trunks with a handsaw to keep up the fire.

Dismantled shopping trolleys from Silpo food store served as a grill grate. One could easily place two kettles and three middle-size pans on them. The walls from the curb stones worked perfectly as heat retainers.

When the fire is burning, you need to prepare the dishes – to wash the pans, bowls, forks and cups left from yesterday. To save water, we washed the dishes once per three days, and then once a week.

The first kettle was filled with water poured from thermoses, which were previously prepared for the night-time food. This water was boiled. The next kettles, there were usually three of them, were filled with some water prepared in advance.

There was a bunch of different ways how to get water. We collected rainwater, collected and melted snow, searched for some buckets filled with water and left in the ATS offices for cleaning by cleaning staff, brought some containers with water from our neighbours’ semi-destroyed flats, with some algae inside. We also collected some technical (non-potable) water from the pool in the nearby sauna, and from the heating main.

We needed a lot of water, as there was only one toilet bowl for 200 people in the bomb shelter, and far not everyone wanted to flush it. Sometimes, the level of solid matter in it was above the level of that toilet bowl’s seat. For that reason, I dubbed it a “shit demon” and never used it, preferring some alternative solutions – garbage bags and an empty wine bottle.

In the morning, those garbage bags were thrown high up and down into a huge landmine crater. The act symbolized my attitude to all this.

Sorry for the details.

A water filter-absorber helped us to relieve the situation with water. It was used to the max, sometimes filtering the same water five times in order to somehow protect the child’s organism from various troubles. We did not filter the urine, but in the last days, we recalled the movie Water World very often, as the reserve of water we had was depleting at lightning speed.

Spoiler – one of the routine practices was staying on duty in front of the entrance to the bomb shelter in order to warn the military that there were children inside it. Bullets often hit the front door, and one of them even tore the hat of one of the duty men by ricochet.

An air bomb crater. Its depth is about the height of two adult men. I do not have the slightest idea why the pilot did not like our road crossing. Most likely because tanks drove along it, right in the yard of our bomb shelter, and at four in the morning, they fired into the dark unknown, and then hid from the incoming artillery fire among the buildings

2 April. The bomb shelter. Routine 2

After lighting the fire and washing the dishes, it was necessary to boil the kettle in order to refill the thermoses, which were meant for making some food for our youngest [kid], and pour some hot water into oatmeal for others.

In the end, breakfast was at around 12 o’clock, lunch – at 16 o’clock, and dinner when necessary, if it was necessary, of course.

Until 8 March, when the situation was still relatively calm, we cooked outside. It was fun and there was even a queue in the yard for cooking on fire.

Nobody lost optimism; everyone believed in the soonest favourable outcome of the situation, because all the guys from the territorial defence units, who came to visit their relatives, said that we would not surrender Mariupol. We believed it. We believed until the very last moment.

On 9 April, a “magician flew in on a blue plane” and dropped down huge land mines onto the road crossing, ten meters from our house, and to the neighbouring yards (as the guy with a stock of cannabis told us). Our fireplace moved to the stairs of the ATS building. Luckily, the windows on the second floor were blown off and the draft was excellent. In addition, the smoke from the fire was going out through the window and the enemy thought that the building was on fire and there was no point in shelling it.

After the land mines, two buildings, no. 21 and our building no. 19, partially burned. The cars in the yard turned into piles of scrap metal. Absolutely all the windows of these buildings were blown out, and the facade along my flat’s riser moved some ten centimetres off.

To say that everyone in the bomb shelter was scared means to say nothing. Children were crying in chorus, women were praying, men were looking at the cracks on the walls and were trying to figure it out how many more hits our cosy basement could take. The forecasts were disappointing.

The dust stayed up in the air for almost a day and everyone was wearing facemasks. We packed everything we needed into our hand luggage and, just in case, and without hiding it, were waiting for the building to collapse. Fortunately, it did not happen. The building survived several direct and a couple of hundred indirect bomb hits.

The district was blanket-bombed with vigour. Not a single house survived. All of them were affected – from those partially burned to some building sections completely destroyed from top to the bottom.

We felt every incoming shelling attack with all parts of our bodies – literally the entire building was shaking, and our souls and nerves were shaking in unison with it.

We felt the quintessence of the entire district’s pain.

Any attempts to get some water and food were out of the question, and we focused on arranging our lodging.

In the afternoon, we usually made a foray. On the second floor, there was a labyrinth of the remaining ATS infrastructure and various offices, but the windows were two meters high, which made our prowling around very difficult – we could be shot at from the right side, from the school building, and on the left, snipers nestled down among the remains of residential buildings, hiding their deadly toys in the openings of broken windows.

Some people foraged for spirits, others – for some household appliances. We hunted for wet wipes, coffee, tea, sugar, medicines and water. While the first named items were in abundance, there was only a miserable amount of water. In total, we found a couple of buckets with water where a tasteless cleaning mop was rinsed, but I was still happy even with this. A ten-month-old rosy-cheeked baby was waiting in the basement. She could not be deprived of vivifying water in any way.

And batteries. They made our life much more comfortable. We foraged for them and brought them from all over the area – a cigarette lighter for a car with two USB inputs was attached to them. This provided our phones with some blazing energy.

My father attached pieces of LED strip to other batteries, which made it possible to keep the last two candles for later use (later, I gave them to one very old lady, who was accommodated in a tiny room that was absolutely dark even during daytime).

In one of the rooms, I found small 20 ampere-hours batteries and left them for later use.

We planned to trade the sources of light in exchange for water, but it never came to that.

After our midday forays, the dinner was coming inexorably, which harshly marked the limits of our raids.

After dinner, we hauled the trees that had fallen from the explosions and sawed them into dozens of small logs for next day’s cooking on open fire.

We went to bed, or rather, conked out, when everything was done – everyone was fed with food and water, and firewood was prepared.

There was simply no time to think that “everything was lost” – many of us lived for today, and at most, for tomorrow. There were no plans, no discussions about the future. Plainly survival.

Life tore people out of their comfort zone and brutally threw us into the classic This War of Mine-style survival game, where I had spent far much more than one hour. By the way, this game helped me a lot in a number of different aspects from foraging for various super useful items to organizing the life of the bomb shelter. I will make my son play this game once he has any free time. This is an excellent manual for our reality.

We suffered not only mentally, but also physically. Several guys met with bad luck and a couple of dead bodies were left on the street after air-bomb strikes. One man was unspeakably lucky – only his legs were cut with shrapnel. The ambulance took him very quickly, as if they knew that there would be an air strike coming.

The next day, he came back from Neptune (a swimming pool in Mariupol) on crutches. He was stitched up, bandaged, given some nice jabs and pushed out into the street into harsh reality.

I was also hit in the head by a large wooden door twice when it was smashed out at the speed of light by the blast wave, but I was lucky – I am a marketing consultant and therefore where the brain should be, there is now a list of famous online marketing quasi-gurus, so my cognitive functions were not affected. Well, maybe just a little.

2 April. The bomb shelter. People

At first, all the new people coming to the bomb shelter were very shy, and we were no exception.

Our brave squadron of two families ran into the basement wearing slippers and home robes. And although we lived in neighbouring flats, we were at some sort of enmity with each other – constant unpleasant door opening, occupied parking spaces, noise behind the wall and all those other delights of neighbourly life.

Throughout our exciting stay there, we often supported each other. Our women sobbed on each other’s chests after every next bombing, and the men (me and an 18-year-old cadet of Azov Maritime Institute) united to be able to carry more nice “loot”.

After Volodarsk, our families got lost, but then we found each other in our orthodox Viber messenger.

Some loners from our section of the building were also hiding in the bomb shelter together with us. They did not take part in any public works, but were the first to courageously retreat to the hero town of Volodarsk.

In total, there were 200 people in the basement and more than 45 people in our room only. They all breathed, went to the toilet, performed some functions, that is, they actively resisted attempts to be killed in various ways.

One could immediately identify many typecasts, personalities and characters of many people of different ages and gender. By the end of the second week, the shitty essence or nature of many tenants began to come out to the fore. That triggered conflicts and squabbles. Alliances were built and internal strife inside them began.

The main problems in the teams were because of the fact that some people did more for their cell than others did, and quite legitimately demanded an equivalent return in the form of the scope of work they performed.

For example, one guy hustled and ran around the entire micro-district, foraged for food and water. He was under shellfire at the nearest ATB food store and barely returned alive with one bottle of water, and although young members of his family were preparing firewood for future use, but in his opinion, they did not enough work to set off the risk he took.

The same situations happened to women – some of them scouted the shops and ruins in search of food and water on a par with men, while others, often those younger ones, plainly begged for water from their neighbours, hoping for indulgence and their charisma that basically did not work.

Such people made your mind choose between mercy and the desire to survive, sociality and justice. Sometimes it was annoying to be prowling around the battlefield under mortar strikes, and then give part of your take to a smiling woman.

We all remember some moral dilemmas like “The trolley problem”, don’t we?

A separate story is the breach of some elementary rules of behaviour that can cost you life.

For example:

- queuing up for access to the fire. Some people always tended to jump the queue. Well, although your turn to put your smoky kettle on the fire is as soon as after two pots, but you still sit near the fire and wait for any chance to jump the queue.

- chopping of firewood. If you want to warm up some food or cook something, you must help with preparing firewood. Well, at least to prepare some brushwood, and ideally, to saw some firewood to keep up the fire for yourself. But people just come, put their kettle on the fire and leave. Some “unique” characters could forget about their cooking and disappeared for several hours. Naturally, their pot or frying pan was put aside and then you had to listen to their complaints, “Why the hell it was done.”

- not making a crowd in the hallway. Smoking kills, and not just the smokers themselves. There were from 30 to 200 incoming shell hits in our yard a day, and each time smokers blocked the passage to the bomb shelter. Imagine a 120-mm calibre mine lands in the neighbouring yard and people who are outside are trying, with all their might, to run into the bomb shelter and are stuck in a crowd of those who have not finished smoking yet.

- not blocking the doorway. It is just unbelievably crappy. People scurry back and forth, go about their business. Some of them went to bring some water, others went to get some firewood, and then a cannonade begins, but it is impossible to enter the door. There is a group of women with children staying in the doorway and breathing fresh air.

- not standing near interior doors and windows. A huge heavy door to the battery room was torn off its hinges and thrown at my ill-fated head with insane speed by one most violent explosion. I never managed to clean my cap, because the bleeding was barely stopped with medical glue, and my head was pounding for another day even after two pills of Ibuprofen. I learned my lesson for life, and I even took a picture of the result of my scalp wound with a huge bump the next day.

A picked up “trophy”

A separate story is the toilet. We immediately realized that there would be a problem – one toilet bowl for 200 people meant the consumption of a very large amount of technical water, and we began to look for ways to solve this problem. Fortunately, there was a miraculously opened sauna nearby with a half-full (or half-empty) pool of ultra-chlorinated water, which served as an ideal source of water for flushing tons of excrement.

In Obi (hypermarket), we found some 100-litre plastic containers, put them on trolleys and went to bucket out that stinky water.

After some time, when the water was delivered and poured into a 200-litre barrel, placed right next to the loo, we found that people were plainly too lazy to flush after themselves. I do not even know why. They got water, a bucket was put close by, and every morning we saw the Great Pyramid of Giza towering above the edge of the toilet bowl.

People were not afraid of the possible epidemic of dysentery and other gastrointestinal diseases.

Perhaps the reason was fear – there was a window in the toilet, through which our tired eyes could see a miracle of the architectural art: a school and headquarters, two in one, which was never hit during all this time. At night, people tended not to use a flashlight without having to, so as not to attract the attention of the military.

In general, all adequate people tended to share things among them. The barter or exchange system flourished at its best. One could trade a pack of dumplings in exchange for half a bottle of White Horse. Ready-to-cook belyashi (patty with meat filling) could be traded for a couple of smoked mackerels.

Water and cigarettes remained non-convertible. The former was not exchangeable, as a matter of principle, and cigarettes were sold for as much as 300 hryvnias for a pack. That was unbelievably crappy, but people did buy them.

Well, in general, all the people there were nice guys and after the war I will try very hard to find everyone. We have something to remember, something to cry and laugh about.

11 April

If only you knew how strongly I want to finish my preparations for defending my Candidate Master of Sports in powerlifting in Terrasport Gym, get into my car, come home to our flat, which we bought less than a year ago, make a cup of coffee, cut some carbonade and sit down in my favourite armchair in front of two monitors, delving into a report for my work, where I was promoted just recently.

Our Chihuahua dog called Max would be sitting nearby and begging for a piece. Then our cat, Kunitsa, would come, give him a slap with a paw, climb up onto my knees and curl up on my lap so that I could scratch her furry belly.

Our daughter would fall asleep in her baby crib, Lo-Fi would be playing from a freshly bought amplifier, a brand new robot vacuum cleaner would be humming contentedly in the kitchen, and my wife and my son would be painting another beautiful picture.

At the moment, there is no flat, no car, no pets, no baby crib, and no anything else. Only WE are left. My wife, our two children and me. One could say – you can be thankful at least for that, but no, we will not be able to return all the comfort, cosiness and warmth.

18 April

The other day my wife realized how many times we could have died during our time in a cosy bomb shelter against the fact of dozens of our acquaintances and friends who died.

Death does not choose whether you are rich or poor, good or bad, smart or dumb. Death either throws dice, relying on chance, or reads a book of fate written in advance, or takes those who fall under her scythe, while she walks the streets of the city that looks at her with black eye sockets of its burned-out flats.

I do not really want to wrap my head around it, but I am glad that we did not fall to her bony cold hand. And at the same time, I feel sorry for all those people who felt her rotten breathing.

A lot of our friends died, among them are some senior managers of companies who helped people, some ordinary average people who just cooked some food outside, coaches who helped people become better, and, what was worst of all, children.

People who have not really known life and have not yet set on the path of evil or good. Maybe there would be questions to them in the future, no one knows. History knows one painter and one sambo wrestler who brought an awful lot of suffering to millions of people.

I will always remember the video where a mother bent over the lifeless body of her fifteen-year-old son and kept asking, “Open your eyes, rabbit,” while people with a black body bag were standing and waiting behind her...

Now, when we are in relative safety, I sharply realize why, after each foray for food and water, my mother sobbed on my shoulder and then I gave her drops of Validolum. I cannot imagine how my family would gather over my lifeless body – my wife, children and parents. I cannot imagine their emotions and I do not want to imagine.

I am thankful to my fate that things turned out the way they are – my daughter will be able to feel her father’s love, my son will have a chance to receive an educational slap on the head for another screw-up of his, and my wife will make another reprimand for the fact that I bought beer instead of going to the gym.

I am grateful to everyone for their support and for giving me the possibility to feel like a real breadwinner and, in a way, a hero from a perspective of one local family.

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