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29 Apr 2022 18:04:16

Natalia Kaluzhskaya, our colleague and parajurist from Mariupol, told what happened to her and her family in the first weeks of the war, and how they managed to escape from the destroyed city.

The illusion of peace and security. Beginning.

On the eve of spring 2022, Mariupol lived its usual life. People worked, the city was getting prettier: authorities cleaned parks, repaired roads and bus stops. Even our beach was cleaned and beautified for the first time. All this gave us illusion of peace and security.

But both I and my family, we foresaw something, something terrible. I even insisted on selling our apartments and moving to Vinnitsa or Khust, where my mother lived and studied after World War II. But this was still in our plans.

Politics and news were always monitored by my husband. And so, on February 21, when Putin announced the recognition of the DPR and LPR within the borders of the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, which means, entirely with Mariupol, we began to collect our «alarm suitcase».

Since we were close to the JFO zone, the war began for us earlier than for the rest of the peaceful part of Ukraine. The sounds of shelling were already heard from the 22nd or 23rd, and they were alarmingly approaching, and it was getting more and more frightening.

On February 25, in the evening, water and electricity were turned off in our 12-storey building. I immediately remembered Vostochny – this is the same microdistrict on the outskirts, which in 2014 was repeatedly subjected to massive shelling (from the Grad and Hurricane rocket launchers. Residents of Vostochny said that before they were shelled, their electricity and water were also turned off. I thought that this was a bad sign, and my husband and I decided to move in with my mother, closer to the center of the city.

We took with us only documents, a pair of socks and underwear, binoculars and a laptop. By that time, public transport was almost non-existent, so we walked, shuddering from each explosion. One explosion sounded very close, later we learned that it had bombed our school.

Mom still had all the communications – electricity, plumbing, heating, gas, there were phone communications and the Internet. We managed to make a sufficient supply of drinking and technical water, my mother had food supplies, and we prepared something else. According to our calculations, food and water for the three of us should have been enough for a couple of weeks.

Following the advice, we blocked the room windows as best as we could and sealed all the panes with adhesive tape. The night was restless: the shelling did not subside, the windows rang, the walls vibrated. We were all on edge, nervous, hardly slept.

On the morning of the 26th of February, a friend phone called and said that rockets fired from the “Grad” had recently destroyed our house. I rushed to search in Internet for news and, unfortunately, the information was confirmed. My husband and I immediately rushed there to pick up the cats, well, and stuff if there was anything left. The picture before us was grim: the house stood blackened, there were no windows in it, fragments of someone’s things, fragments of window frames and furniture lay around.

We could not find cats for a long time, we went around calling them, fortunately, one of them – Aska – came to us, and the other two did not respond. I hope they just hid somewhere out of fear. We left them food and a toilet, and we ourselves returned home to our mother.

On Sunday the 27th, my husband and I managed to go to the AIDS center to get medicines (ART, RRT, hepatitis treatment). There were a lot of people that day. Many came early to get medicines in reserve, as it was not known what the situation would be tomorrow. The work was in full swing, the doctors of the center tried to meet everyone’s needs, satisfying the needs of patients. But the staff was not enough, and we stayed to help the nurses. This evening, an evacuation train was leaving Mariupol for Lvov, perhaps this was our chance for salvation, but we did not make it in time, as we were delayed at the AIDS center.

Street of Mariupol 2022

On Monday, February 28, the connection was lost. Then the electricity went out, and later the gas pipe was pierced by shrapnel. We were left without light, heat and information. That’s how it all started…

Waiting for good news

We had a radio and we found a Ukrainian wave. We listened and listened… hoping to hear good news, but there was still no good news.

 There was a lonely thought in my head: what was that? truth or dream? It was very scary. And only my mother was not afraid of anything – she gave us an example of perseverance and sanity.

Two weeks before the war, my husband was diagnosed with diabetes. He had to complete the examination to be treated. But first our family doctor got sick, and then came the war. And man was left without a doctor’s examination. We didn’t knew if he was insulin-dependent, we didn’t knew what treatment he needed, and that added to the argument for our emergency evacuation. Mom, who was 82 years old, did not want to leave Mariupol in any way, yes, she would not be able to endure the trip.

Therefore, at the family council, it was decided that my husband and I would look for any opportunity to evacuate, and leave my mother under the supervision of neighbors. Neighbors from the 9th floor accepted our offer to move to my mother’s apartment on the first floor, because during shelling it is safer to be downstairs and in general it is easier to survive trouble together. Also, they were running out of drinkable water, and we agreed that we would leave them our food and water supplies.

From that moment on, we purposefully began to look for information about the “corridors” and evacuation. And now, in the near future, the mayor of the city announced on the radio about the gathering in the main squares of Mariupol for the evacuation of residents.

“Green corridor”, which not happened

The gathering was scheduled from 9.00 to 16.00, at which time the shelling was supposed to stop. We had to walk about 10 km to the nearest square. We were going in a hurry, we forgot my husband’s phone and even money. We took only water and not a lot of sweets. The rest of the resources were left to my mother.

There was no public transport, we had to walk to our destination. Despite the announcement of the “corridor”, there was no lull, and shelling continued. Hundreds of people like us walked nearby, there were families with children, old people, and there were more and more of us as we moved towards the goal.

We walked about a kilometer, reaching the executive committee. There was a crowd of people and there were police. Meantime shelling intensified, and we were told that evacuation was impossible, we would have to wait for the next announcement of “silence”. We were asked to go down to the nearest basement for safety. There was no water or food in the basement, only a few chairs and tables. I really wanted to drink, but I endured. We were promised that a bus would come for us soon to take us to the Drama Theater hideout. Honestly, I couldn’t believe it anymore, but the bus arrived, and my husband and I climbed into it. I prayed all the way. We were taken to the city center, but instead of the Drama Theater they dropped us off near the Philharmonic. Having let everyone into the room, they opened the auditorium for us and told us to take places on the floor and on chairs.

I remember how I was lying on the floor, recovering from fatigue, when my husband suddenly appeared with a whole box of food. There were crab sticks, honey and, most importantly, 6 jars of a sweet drink. It turned out that the Ukrainian military was allowed to enter the ATB and take the necessary things – water and food. It was a holiday and a sign to me that there is Someone nearby and He cares about us.

Task of survival

There was no quick evacuation. Until March 14, the Philharmonic building was our refuge and home. At first there were about 400 of us, in the end there were more than 1000 of us, of which about 400 were children.

On the first day, I signed up for the tour. Every day from 6.30 to 18.00, until the curfew began, we tried to arrange our common life. Someone cleaned up. Someone got food outside – usually young people did this, even the soldiers of Azov brought food and shared their rations. Someone cooked – they cooked soups and even once borsch. Food was distributed strictly, dividing it into portions, and water was given out in a rationed way so that everyone had enough. There were three toilet bowls in the building, but they were constantly clogged without water, so, despite the shelling, we arranged two “places” on the street.

Every day there were more and more of us. People came from destroyed houses, confused, in slippers, many were injured. Many were brought in by Ukrainian soldiers. After the shelling of the maternity hospital, we had three women with babies. The soldiers procured a large thermos for them, so that this mothers always had boiling water, and allowed them to take baby food, diapers, etc. from the nearby pharmacy.

Adults reacted differently to the situation and behaved differently. Many were as if in a stupor. Even the doctors who were among us, not all were able to provide assistance to the victims. But, thank God, there were those who did not lose heart under any circumstances and helped others to cope with the crisis. So, one woman, by the way, an employee of the Philharmonic, and her daughter equipped one of the rooms for games and activities with children. There they taught drawing, reading and played with the children.

Only 200 people were fit in the bomb shelter of the Philharmonic. All the rest lived in the main hall and in the back rooms of the Philharmonic. We slept on the floor, on thin blankets, the body could not stand it, everything ached and hurt. After another shelling, our windows lost their glass, and it became unrealistically cold, despite the fact that everyone slept in shoes and clothes. My husband and I huddled on a square meter in the passage next to the radio room – everything around us was pitch dark, stench, and there was no communication or information.

In recent days, food has become sharply lacking. A queue lined up for soup from 8 in the morning, and they gave it out from 14.00, one ladle at a time. In the evening they delivered cookies and sausages to the children. All food was shared so that no one was left hungry. The youth brought everything they could found outside – tea, coffee, cheese – to the “common table”. The old men fell into a sullen silence.

Once, people came running from a neighboring building and said that they had three wounded and that a doctor was urgently needed to remove shrapnel out of them. Our doctor, Irina, was absent at that moment. I remembered how I worked in the dressing room at the surgical room for three years after graduation, and responded. While we were running to the place, everything around rumbled, buzzed, shells whistled, I was very scared. Taking a quick look at the wounded, I saw that one guy had just scratches, and the second had a small fragment sticking out. At first glance, nothing complicated, but when I tried to extract this “piece”, it turned out that this was only the tip of the iceberg, behind which was a huge and prickly piece of iron … The guy kept this shard as a keepsake. They escorted me back, surrounded me on both sides and covered me with their bodies, kissed my hands and thanked me.

I thought it couldn’t get worse. But they started bombing us with 500 kg bombs. They bombed non-stop. People ran in a panic, looking for shelter, we had no places, but we accepted both people and animals. They brought more women with three-day-old babies. It is difficult to describe the whole gamut of feelings that I experienced: horror, pain, despair, compassion and pity.

“Five from behind and two on the front” – a long way to safety

On March 14, we learned that people who tried to leave Mariupol on their own in their own cars managed to get out and they were already in a safe place. One of our women, everyone called her Petrovna, decided to go on car and offered free places to mothers with children. One of the mothers was afraid and refused.

Evacuation from Mariupol

And then Petrovna said to me: “Natasha, there is a place, get ready.” I replied that I needed two seats, but my husband and I are small and thin. She said nothing, and I ran to my husband to collect a backpack.

We took with us a minimum: water and hematogen, alcohol, scalpel, bandage and peroxide, documents and change of clothes. Everything else – honey, chips, tea – was left at the Philharmonic, warning people to take our food.

Without waiting for nine in the morning, five behind and two on the front row of seats in the car, at our own peril and risk, we left. So, along the sea, among mines and abandoned equipment, we drove through a deserted and lifeless city, which was already seventy percent destroyed. We were very lucky, and we were able to escape from this nightmare …

All the way I read a prayer. When the nearest village was about two kilometers away, we ran out of gas. All thoughts to God, help! Our savior (driver Petrovna) got through to people who, without sparing their last gasoline and their engine, dragged us (by trailer) to the Urzuf village. Here our paths with Petrovna diverged.

For the night we were settled in a summer house, with light but no heating. At that time on the street at night it reached minus 10 degrees, it was very cold in the house, and I finally got sick.

Despite the bad health, it was necessary to go further. We decided to hitchhike to relatives who lived in Berdyansk. The girl Nastya with her son, who left Mariupol with us, decided to join us. For two hours, Nastya and I tried to stop passing cars. I offered the drivers money, everything I had, if only they would take us. Someone simply refused, and someone promised to return for us in a few days.

I prayed. And then I saw how a car stoped near Nastya, and after a couple of minutes Nastya waves her hand to us, beckoning us to her. It turned out that the driver Aleksey agreed to take us all for free. I will always remember our hero Lesha and thank God for meeting him.

In Berdyansk, my husband’s mother already took care of us. Nastya and Nikita did recovered and rushed on, but I just needed to rest and heal at least a little. As soon as we got in touch with our friends and relatives, offers of help fell upon us. Relatives, friends, colleagues – everyone called, wrote, invited me to their place, offered housing and material assistance. I am very grateful to all of them for this, in those days it was very important for us to receive such a sincere reaction and support.

Having gained some strength, a couple of days later my husband and I went to Zaporozhye on an evacuation bus. We rode standing for 10 hours, it was not easy, but God helped to get through this.

In Zaporozhye, friends helped us again. They all are very dear to me. This was such a support, at such a moment, which gave strength to live. Separately, I want to mention the doctors in Zaporozhye, who provided us with the necessary medicines in the shortest possible time. Thank you for your responsiveness and understanding!

Today my husband and I are safe in the city of Burshtyn, Ivano-Frankivsk region. I continue to work in the field of human rights, support and advise those affected by the war, share my experience of surviving under occupation, and provide information about the evacuation to residents of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The other day I found out that my mother, along with other residents, was taken from Mariupol to Russia, they seem to be kept in normal conditions, in some kind of hospital, but there is no confirmation of this, since I could not contact her.

I don’t know how much longer this war will last, but I really hope for a speedy peace, I believe that I will be able to see my mother, with everyone who is dear to me and who stayed there…

This article was prepared by Nataliia Dorofieieva for the CO “Legalife-Ukraine”

The publication of the interview was made possible thanks to the support of the Government of Canada within the framework of the Women’s Voice and Leadership – Ukraine project implemented by the Ukrainian Women’s Fund (UWF). CO “Legalife-Ukraine” is responsible for the content of the information. The information presented in this article does not always reflect the views of the Government of Canada and the FFA.