Bombed from Mariupol to Haifa. The family of new immigrants tells their story. Journalist Vladimir Itkin, who has lived in Haifa since 2018, spoke to a family who fled the besieged Mariupol and repatriated to Israel. The family currently lives in a hotel in Haifa, which was given to new returnees from Ukraine.
The former inhabitants of Mariupol talk about life in the besieged city, the projectiles, the “cleansing”, the bodies on the streets and the specifics of the Russian evacuation.
Told by: Sergei – Ilyich Metallurgical Economist; Sveta – a real estate agent and founder of a small vegan chocolate company, and a student at the Faculty of History of Sasha – Kiev State University.
As far as I understand, since 2014. the life has been bad in Mariupol.
Sergei: It was a bit bad in 2014, but then on the contrary it was very good. But after February 24, 2022, things went very bad. Then, in 2014, they wanted to merge Mariupol with DNR, but it didn’t work out. The university, the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Prosecutor’s Office moved away.
Sveta: The Azov Battalion came to us already in 2014. They were ordinary boys. I personally know many and I know for sure that the instructors who trained them were not just Ukrainians, so by 2022 they were well trained. Well, of course, they are ideological…
What does “ideological” mean?
Sveta: That means they love Ukraine and are ready to fight for it. The fact that one of them raped or beaten someone is ridiculous – I worked as a real estate agent, I found a place to live for many of them, I knew some of them personally, they are nice boys.
Were there any problems with the Russian language? I mean both on the “azovite” side and in the city in general?
Sveta: The whole of Mariupol is in Russian. So I’m telling you, most of the “Azovs” also speak Russian. While I was living and working in Mariupol, I didn’t hear anything bad about them. At the very beginning, when they came to the city and chose their location, there were small problems and people did not want them to be there. But then they gradually settled in, and for seven and a half years we practically didn’t hear from them. There were several abandoned buildings that the city renovated and gave to Azov as a hostel.
Sergei: There were absolutely no problems with communication in Russian in Mariupol. It happened that the documents were translated into Ukrainian and in the shops you were asked to speak Ukrainian. But at the same time, Russian speakers were not harassed in any way. You were contacted in Ukrainian by the municipal authorities, but you were free to answer in Russian. Moreover, salesmen and officials often switched to Russian themselves.
Briefly describe your personal war chronicle.
Sergei: On February 24, I was working at the Ilyich factory. We had two large factories in the city, Ilyich and Azovstal. The radio reported that Russia was attacking Ukraine and troops moving from Donetsk to Mariupol. On the 24th day, the projectile fire began. There was no shooting from very heavy equipment and no aviation. DNR came first, Russia came on the 25th, 26th. They approached from the direction of Berdyansk and experienced no resistance. In short, the Russians blocked Mariupol from Crimea – and from Berdyansk as well as Zaporozhye. DNR came from the north. On the Novoazovsky side, DNR entered with Russia. This means that the city was blocked on four sides.
How does it feel to live in a besieged city?
Sergei: We felt it on March 2, when all communications were lost. We lost communication and the internet, it was not possible to call anyone by phone. Water, electricity and gas were cut off – we had gas heating.
Where did you get your water?
Sergei: We were lucky, we lived in the private sector and we had a well near the house. Such, you know, an old well where the bucket on the chains has to be lowered. And the whole street, with its chains and buckets, came to that well, and then began to come from other streets. The police later came iwith a large tank because they did not have water either.
Sveta: The youngest son, he is nine years old, was calm at first, but then he started to worry and ask when we will leave. And I didn’t know what to tell him. And it was so scary that I decided to keep a diary because I didn’t know if we would survive or not. Really! But the notebook where I wrote in the diary had the coat of arms of Ukraine, so I didn’t take it with me. Because Russia evacuated us and I was afraid they would find it and I would be killed.
Has the work stopped?
Sergei: What are you talking about? On the 24th, a message came that the factories had to be shut down temporarily. On the 26th day, the city was still in movement. On the 27th, of course, there was no more transport and the factories stopped.
Is your real estate business stopped too?
Sveta: Sure, but I had another job, I made vegan chocolate. Production also stopped there, there was no one to sell to. Everything just collapsed.
And there was no money?
Sergei: Money meant nothing. Nothing could be bought. Work on February 25 I changed the night shift and I was still able to go to the store, we took out some money, we thought it was necessary. But there were already long queues at ATMs. At first there were limits and then they disappeared, just all the ATMs were destroyed. At the beginning of March, there were no more ATMs or shops. Shops were slowly being looted. We have different people – some of them simple and also those who lived from salary to salary – in general, they started breaking the windows in the shops.
Did many people take groceries from the shops after breaking the windows?
Sveta: I think so. We didn’t take it because we lived in the private sector. Yes, there were no supermarkets near us.
You probably had supplies in the basement?
Sergei: Unfortunately, we didn’t have a basement. We still had homemade preserves, various canned vegetables, jam that we hadn’t eaten in three years. We had planned to throw them away. We had 6 kg of flour. In the first week, humanitarian aid was still brought in, we had to stand in insanely long queues, some bread and rye were given.
Sveta: So, the connection was cut off, the food started to run out, the fridge emptied and thawed. Well, I spent my supplies sparingly, I’m vegan, I eat little, but they eat normally. Because we had chocolate, we could afford to eat delicious things that others did not have. But then the bread ran out. It was really scary. In general, it all seemed scary, the feeling that “Wake me up !!!”. The husband and son went to visit their mother, it was on the 5th day, so they didn’t know yet that the shops had been looted.
And there were bombings at that time?
Sergei: Of course.
So you went outside and you were shot at?
Sergei: It was after the 5th of March. At first they came to the city limits and just stood there. It was relatively quiet. Ours tried to shoot at them as they approached, but they had not yet entered the city. They responded to the exchange of fire, but not very eagerly. As a result, the eastern part of Novoazovsky was the first to suffer. This, and in addition to the Sartana where the DNA went, also suffered. Russia stood and waited for some order… The house started to cool, we made food right over the fire. Good thing we lived in our house. Firewood was available.
Then there was another problem with matches?
Sergei: We had lighters and matches.
Sveta: You know, the problem is that if a woman lives alone, a grandmother who doesn’t smoke, she has no fire.
Sergei: Well, those who managed to steal cigarettes started exchanging them. But we smoke. And so my sister agreed with one such “dealer” to buy a block of Kent. The man replied that no, he doesn’t need money, he wants alcohol. He doesn’t want vodka, he wants cognac.
And then they started shooting more seriously at the city. Walking became dangerous and we went out when it was more or less quiet and when we felt we were getting to our destination. It was after the 5th of March, that we dared to congratulate our mother and sister.
Were you fired at with rockets, bombs, mines, handguns?
Sergei: We were not afraid of small arms at all. We thought that if you shoot with them, there is nothing special. But the planes are scary. The air guns were later fired when the sabotage teams came in, when the cleanup operations took place, they shot each other there. However, most often, the Russians hit large-caliber weapons in the area of deployment of Ukrainian forces in order to occupy as large a sector as possible. There was no such thing as an infantry. When they entered, they were tanks and armored personnel carriers. And so – artillery, aviation, tanks and mortars just hit the city.
Sasha: Actually, we heard the outbursts of mortars and machine guns many times, but it was far away. In the last days, 17-18 march, when our square was conquered, there were often shooting, even from a pistol. As we were later explained, it was a “cleansing.” But who “cleansed”? Everyone each other. However, the biggest stress was because of the planes.
In general, it could fly there at any time. I visited my girlfriend, it was on the 8th or 9th day. And it bombed in a very interesting way into the wells to deprive people of their water supply.
And so I walked along the well, the well was 20 meters away from me. People stood around it. And then the mine flew to the well, between me and the people, about 5 meters away from me, and did not explode. I stopped and when I realized it wasn’t exploding, I touched my head. There seems to be nothing broken, nothing is flowing, everything is fine, I went ahead. Then we got used to it, on March 12, 13, 15 we were shot at with everything we could except the mortars.
Did you ever thought that you have to have a gun to be safe?
We thought about it, but in connection with the marauders. Because it was clear that the shops would run out of food and then where would they go? But it is useless to defend ourselves against the military, they are armed.
Who were you more afraid of than the military, the Ukrainians or the occupiers?
Sergei: Of course, we were not afraid of the Ukrainians at all. We only feared that the Ukrainian soldiers would bring their shooting point close to our house. There was an exchange of fire between the “Grad” and the Ukrainian armed forces, they moved to other parts of the city – but here, in this place, the missiles of Russian troops flew.
Sveta: If you’re interested, the most terrible moment for me personally was when the plane arrived at three or four in the morning, at dawn. These planes are loud, but during the day they fly higher, but that night it flew out like out of nowhere, so low and so fast, and the sound is so loud and you feel…
Sergei: that it gets hot.
Sveta: Yes, and oh how hot. When it dropped the bomb for the third time, I was already praying that it would kill all of us quickly. And the third time it flew so low that it felt like it was flying over our house. The roar was unreal, my ears ached until morning. Although I had a hat on my head. We slept with hats and hoods because it was very cold.
Some kind of town organisation, did it work in any way?
Sergei: Probably worked in the first week. At least they tried. And then, from March 2, the services no longer worked at all.
The mayor escaped?
Sergei: As far as we know, the mayor left the city of Zaporozhye on the 26th. His deputy in the economic department remained in the city, but he could not do anything due to the constant bombing.
Are you blaming him?
Sveta: As mayor, he behaved ugly. But as a human being, I understand him. There was nothing he could do.
But I understand that he left so that at least something could be done from a distance.
Sergei: We didn’t notice he was doing anything. No humanitarian aid came. It was impossible to evacuate people. Anyone who had a car could evacuate under fire at their own risk and risk. Whoever could break through broke through. And those who, like us, did not have personal transportation, sat and waited for at least some corridor to open to get out of hell, from the projectiles, to leave and take the children to a quiet place where they would not shoot and where they could easily wash and eat, cook on the stoveand not on fire.
Sveta: Wash your hair. At least we had water in the private sector, but it was 5 degrees at home and minus 6 outside. How do I bathe a baby like that? When they were evacuated, all the women were wearing hats and hair was unwashed. We couldn’t take a shower or a bath for 3 weeks. Hair and body were dirty. First we slept in T-shirts, then in sweaters and then in jackets and hats. It started to get colder and was -11c.
In the meantime, things got worse. The Russians and DNRs had already begun to give orders, and they began to enter the city. There were DNR checkpoints in our area. This happened in our last days. We went out of the house at the crossroads and saw – they were standing. They said, “Boys, all is well, we’ve already ‘cleaned up.’ You can’t go there, but you can go there. ” As if they had knocked out the Ukrainian army. Then said I unto them,” What do ye here?” He replied, “Do you think I like to be here? I have been standing outside the city for a month, but my family is in Donetsk, I was drafted into the army, but I do not want to fight here at all. We are here to save you now and go home afterwards! Thank God, my wife and child are waiting for me there. ” And he explained, as they have done it in Donetsk since 2014,… Well, that’s a cool explanation.
Does that mean they were relatively adequate?
Sveta: The ones I saw relatively – yes. I am by no means supporting Russia, but specifically those we saw did not have any atrocities on their part. But we also behaved very correctly ourselves. As we approached them, we had to raise our hands. Wear a white bandage.
Once again, do I understand correctly that you personally do not know about the atrocities?
Sveta: I don’t know about them mocking civilians.
Sasha: Mom, there are rumors that they raped on the left bank. A friend called Anna and said that a girl had been raped in the stairwell next to her. But here’s the thing, she was very upset about Ukraine and said something like, “Get out of here! My husband is in the armed forces of Ukraine. ” We haven’t seen it in person. Heard about it yes, heard.”
By the way, when we went to this evacuation point, we saw a lot of car columns trying to leave, we saw DNR reporters. There was, for example, a Ukrainian car, bombed and overturned. And so the photograph kneeled, photographed it, then photographed the muzzle of the Russian tank pointing at her and drove on.
Sveta: Do you know what I want to tell you? Maybe our family didn’t see it in person, we lived in a good private sector in the area. We had no inadequate comrades nearby to plunder. We practically did not leave home and we did not go anywhere we needed to go. By no means do I want to convey that the girls asked for it. But maybe someone just went to look for food. Maybe someone was in the wrong place, maybe they should have stayed home. Maybe someone went to see their mother or child. So maybe it happened in our area as well.
Where are they did the Russians live, DNRs?
Sergei: They occupied those houses that had received light bomb hits…
Sveta: The one who said he had a wife and a child in Donetsk told me that we, like you, live in a house without windows. Now we cover the windows with blankets, so we understand you, because we also have cold. They’d better go home and warm themselves with their children and wife!
Sergei: The worst time was March 14-16. The Russians went through our area and took it by storm. Ukrainian troops withdrew and firing points on both sides were in the residential sector.
Sasha: I remember how dad and I took a short hike and tried to get to the “Star of Kiev” tower, which was supposed to have internet. We tried to break through. And we went out, and walked one and a half streets, and they began to shoot very loudly. What’s more, both above and below. And shot from something very big. And so we realize that dad and I are on an empty street. And then we see one family running out, about six people, a bunch of dogs and they say they’re from the Balkans, I look closely and see that this is my ex-classmate. They lived near the Balka, next to the cemetery, so that on one side of the Balka were the Russians and on the other side the Ukrainian army, which started a fire using a rocket-unguarded artillery. And two projectiles hit them, and they destroyed the house and the car, and they ran to the grandmother, with the puppies in their hands, practically without things.
Were there many dead in the city?
Sergei: Yes, of course. They just lay on the streets. It was different in different districts. East was the first to suffer. Then the “Ukraine” district on the Donetsk side. And as the Russian forces progressed, that “happiness” began. The first bodies appeared near our district on May 5-6. They were just lying on the side of the road.
The corpses of civilians?
Sveta: Yes, only civilians. There were no soldiers on either side. Corpses lay on the sidewalks and hand-dug graves began to appear along the roadsides. On the 5th or 6th day we started shooting hard, there were planes and tanks and a mine flew to the well where we drew water, in the fourth house on the street of our home the roof flew away, one man was left under it. And then, in fright, we ran to my husband’s mother, who lived in a district that was a little calmer. They jumped out, but they didn’t have time to take anything. I mean, we had the necessary things, documents and passports collected. So when we were with my mother, our house was hit directly and some of our documents burned down.
What was your biggest trip?
Sergei: The biggest trip took place on March 17, when the DNR had already set up a checkpoint in the kindergarten next to us, and my son and I went to see if my mother and sister were alive. We asked the DNRs if we could do it or not. They allowed. A “shipment” had fallen near the mother’s apartment because a wave of rockets had torn the front windows of the house. When we arrived, she asked us to fix them so that the wind wouldn’t blow them out more. We supported the windows with piles, tied them with wire. That day, my sister said that the Russians had announced an evacuation, saying, “Leave, for if you do not leave,then blame yourselves.”
Were you forced to leave?
Sergei: No. Not us. But people wanted to leave. Believe me, in such a situation it doesn’t matter – where, the main thing is to get out. If Ukraine takes us away, we would be happy to go. However, Ukraine did not organize any trips. Or they weren’t allowed to do that, I don’t know. I can honestly say that private transport was driven out in columns.
Sveta: When the DNR arrived, they were only taken out to Russia, and then we found out that there was a point on the outskirts of the city, near the entertainment center, where the evacuation buses left. And we decided to go to Russia. My sister lives in Taganrog. It was necessary to go there on foot, directly over the corpses.
It has recently been said that ten thousand have died.
Sergei: That’s too little. Probably forty thousand. We just saw them lying on the side of the road. But the number… difficult to determine. We do not know how many of them burned to death.
But anyway, ten thousand doesn’t seem like an exaggeration to you?
Sergei: It’s an understatement. My son and I, when it was our longest walk on March 17, came to my mother and learned that an evacuation was imminent. And then – our babysitter raised the oldest child, so she lived closest to the place that suffered the most on our side, they were shot and bombed. We wanted to know if she was alive or not, maybe she needed help. We went to her and then we saw the corpses lying between the houses. But the worst part is that in the green part of the city – where there are lawns, trees – there are graves, many graves. And how many people are in these graves, no one knows, do you understand? There could be many deaths, as 80-90 percent of the houses were severely damaged. And 70 percent burned to the ground. Somewhere the house was burnt, somewhere there is a hole in the wall, somewhere half of the house is gone. Here, for example, my mother’s house was hit, so after the fifth floor she no longer has a house, but the house had nine floors.
Were Russian projectiles more than the Ukrainian projectiles ?
Sergei: And Ukraine did not shoot us at all. The only complaint is that they sat in the living quarters and were able to attract fire. And so, of course, Russia destroyed almost the entire city. What’s the point of Ukraine bombing its city?
Sveta: If they say the “Azovs” shot at the locals, that’s bullshit!
Sasha: My girlfriend’s grandfather died. He just froze to death. He lived on the left bank, and on March 2, his house was hit. And already on March 19, when we left, we learned that he had frozen to death, an 85-year-old man. That’s when Russia started shooting ships and houses on the left bank in mid-March.
The father of my father’s friend died, not far from us. We went and wanted to find out what happened to him, he is from Novosibirsk, by the way. They do not have the middle wall of the house, it was hit by a projectile, the tank shot and the man was covered under the ceiling. His wife was lying at her neighbors house with a brain concussion.
Sergei: So 10 thousand is a very underestimated number. The number of victims is unclear. When did the exact number of victims begin to be understood here, for example in Butcha? When they started cleaning up the rubble. And it is completely unclear what will happen if Mariupol is taken back or conquered. When DNR enters, I am afraid that “nobody” died, they are “cleansed”. In general, only those allegedly killed by Ukraine are declared dead. They are not telling the truth.
There are also these terrible mobile crematoria…
Sasha: I don’t know about that. All I know is that when Russia occupied my aunt’s territory, Russia immediately began to show itself as an alleged liberator, distributed red caviar and opened access to food bases. They began to bring humanitarian aid.
Did you take the food from the Russians?
Sasha: We lived in the private sector, took nothing and didn’t go there at all. But my mother and sister accepted it, it seems. But I’m sorry, people haven’t eaten in three weeks, they will get food food from anyone. We thought that in a few more weeks, we would start catching rats and dogs so that we could also accept Russian food. And besides, the baby has to be fed. You can’t explain to a child that there’s nothing to eat, sit down and be patient.
Did it happen that there was nothing to eat?
Sasha: No, our mother shared everything equally, so everyone was slim and beautiful. During the day we had one cake, the diameter of a bowl of soup, we ate it in fours.
So, in the direction of Berdyansk, was there a place you could come in and they evacuated you there?
Sergei: Now I’m going to tell you about the evacuation procedure. When DNR occupied our sector and we broke through to my grandmother and aunt to find out about the evacuation, I was told that Stary Krõmi, 8-10 km away from us, was being evacuated by bus to Volodarski. We didn’t believe this information at first and decided to go see it with my father so as not to take my grandmother and little child along because the road was long. And we passed the checkpoints, there were several checks. They checked on me and my father, I had passports, whether we served in the Ukrainian armed forces, looked at tattoos for membership in the army. But they had bruises on their shoulders caused by machine guns.
Sasha: We walked into this evacuation point through several checkpoints, walked through the city, saw bombed equipment, craters and corpses. Then we went through the checkpoints and went to the gas station. We walked for an hour and a half. We arrived, there was a gas station where Russian buses were refueling. We asked if the evacuation would take place and when would it actually take place? We were told that it would be from 8 o’clock until it gets dark.
Sveta: I asked if it would be possible to know in more detail where the evacuation is taking us? And the soldier with the oriental face, the Buryat, apparently, barked, “To Russia, woman!” I say, “Well, okay.” We had few things, especially since, as I said, our most important suitcase burned down.
Sasha: I carried a computer bag with me all the time. And I brought Tefillin and siddur from Mariupol. In the most difficult situation, when the plane was flying low, I put on my tefillin and prayed. And I somehow got over it. The stress was just huge. I’m not a believer, but there I don’t know how I would have survived without it. It was really the so-called. “Must have”.
Sveta: Actually, yes, everyone is trying to save themselves as well as they can, for example, I wrote a diary. I described every day. My parents are in the Vinnitsa region, my father had a stroke and the worst was the lack of communication. We did not know what was going on all over Ukraine, we thought that the same thing is going on everywhere.
Sasha: We were evacuated on the 19th. We drove for about an hour and arrived in Volodarsk. A well-equipped soldier came in and asked, “Are the Nazis travelling? If so, come out and we’ll beat you. ” Everyone, of course, laughed awkwardly so as not to provoke a comrade, and then he said goodbye, “Well, have a good trip.” In Volodarsk, which is controlled by DNR, our passport data was copied, we were asked where we would like to go, whether in Rostov, Taganrog or Voronezh, and we were sent to sleep at a music school. We were fed there – porridge and apple – and put to sleep on chairs. They brought us a heater and it was a joy. In addition, the telephone connection was weak.
The next day we waited 8 hours for the bus to Taganrog. People were fighting to get a seat. Thank God, we didn’t fight. We drove for quite a long time, about 7 hours, in peacetime it would have been only an hour, but now we drove bypasses, people were unwashed, the woman next to me had a bullet wound.. imagine. But we were used to it. The main thing is that we drove out. Then there were two border checkpoints – our own, which we drove through quite quickly, and the Russian border checkpoint.
Were there other cases like “are the Nazis flying”?
Sasha: Yes, there was. A comrade, a DNR soldier, came and asked, “Is anyone from the Ukrainian armed forces?” Of course, no one said anything. “Is anyone from Azov?” No, no one. “If someone is from “Azov”, then it will be bad for them. They face a military tribunal, a life sentence or execution. But if someone is from armed forces, they can go home to their families. Everything will be fine with them. ”
Azov, by the way, is part of the Ukrainian armed forces.
Sasha: Absolutely recognized part of the Ukrainian armed forces and it is an elite regiment. The Russian media demonized it. In 2014, there were volunteers who really behaved badly, there were also criminals, but they were later removed. In 2016, they were merged with the Ukrainian Armed Forces and everything was done according to all standards.
But now they are completely normal, disciplined and do no cruelty. I have several friends among the Azovs, I don’t want to say anything bad about them, they are normal boys.
By the way, on the 18th day, when my mother and father came to ask about the evacuation, we saw the yellow Bogdana buses and asked the DNRs, “Are they taking us out in those buses?” “God forbid that you are taken out on these buses. Ukrainian prisoners will be taken out with them,”they replied. And indeed, I saw in those buses the guys in Ukrainian chevrons with white wristbands that were taken to Volodarsky in the DNR.
We stood on the Russian border for 12 hours. We were checked there and everything was checked. An FSB officer talked to my father for an hour and a half. It was a long interrogation that went into various reasons. They looked at the phones (both at the Russian entrance and at the DNR exit), unashamedly researching correspondence on intimate topics. There was an interest in the existence of tattoos.
Were the documents seized?
Sasha: No, they didn’t take our documents. The phones may have been confiscated. For example, they found a phone with a photo of Mariupol from my girlfriend’s uncle and took it away. We deleted all photos.
How did Russia receive you?
Sasha: We stood in the waiting room for 12 hours, they fed us porridge again. Without meat. Porridge was their favorite dish, porridge and tea. What a porridge, I do not remember wheat or pearl barley. By the way, there was also almost a fight over it.
We were, of course, in high anticipation, dad was away for two hours. The girls were not specifically interviewed. Refugee status was consistently offered, saying “Receive!”
If you accept refugee status, you will not have the right to leave Russia for a year and your Ukrainian passport will be taken away. We said that we were driving through Russia and did not plan to stay there. Our journey is to either Spain or Israel. In fact, they are very afraid to touch people who are connected to other countries. They asked, where are we going? How do I feel about Russia? Do I support Ukraine or Russia?
And what did you answer?
Sasha: I said, “I support a side that does not bring war. But thank God, everything in my area became quiet. ” You see, it was necessary to talk like that in order not to anger the FSB officer, but of course I did not say that “Russia is our great power”. Of course, we did not want to stay in Russia. How can you stay in the country that attacked you? And so with the help of Taganrog’s relatives we moved to Estonia, from Estonia to Poland and it was already good in Poland. We were greeted by Sohnut, and after a while we flew to Israel.