‘I had no choice’: One Ukrainian’s journey out of devastated Mariupol
Mariupol, a port city in southeastern Ukraine, has become the epicentre of Russian attacks, sustaining weeks of bombing that has devastated the city and left thousands of civilians trapped without water, heat, sewage or phone service. Many people, however, have fled the city for Russia, the EU or safer parts of Ukraine. Our Observer, who escaped Mariupol to a remote village in the mountains, told us her story.
Some of the most severe fighting in the Russian invasion of Ukraine has taken place in Mariupol, a strategic port city that lies between the Russian-held zones of Crimea and Donbas. The city has endured weeks of relentless attacks that have ravaged civilian targets and essential infrastructure, creating a humanitarian emergency.
Around 160,000 civilians are still trapped in Mariupol, according to Mayor Vadym Boichenko. Up to 140,000 people, however, have attempted the dangerous journey out of the port city to flee the violence. Some have fled Ukraine for the European Union, some are in other parts of Ukraine and others are now in Russia.
‘I was ready to go on foot, to run out of the city, I was ready to die on the road, but I could no longer stay in Mariupol’
Veronika Tikhonyuk is 19 years old and was a student at Mariupol State University and an aspiring hockey player before the war. She escaped from Mariupol on March 14 with her mother after spending several days sheltering from the ongoing shelling in a basement, and then an abandoned factory, with her family.
For me, it began at 5:30 am on February 24. I woke up to the sound of the bombs and my first reaction was ‘I don’t want to die, please, I want to live, please…’ It was still very dark outside and very dangerous to go to the windows so I just stayed in my bed, totally numb and silent. I felt how my happy life, my dream life was totally destroyed at 5:30 am. And I understood perfectly who was bombing my city, it was totally clear. My bed was shaking like it was an earthquake. I saw the end of my life.
I didn’t make [the decision to leave Mariupol], I just had no choice. On the 14th of March, the situation was already critical and I was very lucky to meet a couple who had a car. They took me with them that morning. I was ready to go on foot, to run out of the city, I was ready to die on the road. I could no longer stay in Mariupol because there was no Mariupol anymore. The city was already burned down, the bombs were continuously falling from the sky right near me. I had no choice and no time to think. Now or never.
I left with only my mom and the couple that took us. It wasn’t a part of evacuation at all, there was no evacuation. We left the city on our own and we totally knew that we could die at any moment. Mariupol was – and is – the hottest place of the war. I just don’t know how to describe it to the people, who, luckily, haven’t experienced something like this. You just know that you can die at any second.
I didn’t pack anything at all, I had just an ‘emergency pack’ that I took to the basement: ID card, band-aids, phone, my glasses… nothing more, not even clothes. I didn’t rescue anything, even my small cat…
Several attempts to facilitate official humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from Mariupol failed in March as Russian forces were accused of targeting rescue convoys and fleeing families. French President Emmanuel Macron said on March 25 that France, Turkey and Greece would carry out an evacuation operation of the southern city in the coming days. However, on March 28, Ukraine said it would not open evacuation corridors as Russian forces had not agreed to grant safe passage to civilians.
#Ukraine The Russian military stopped the evacuation column with residents of Mariupol, which was heading from Berdyansk to Zaporozhye. As a result, a multi-kilometer traffic jam formed near Vasilievka, in which there are ambulances with injured children, Ukrainians say pic.twitter.com/fuWk2j0d4T— Hanna Liubakova (@HannaLiubakova) March 26, 2022
‘It was the most tiring, stressful and dangerous road in my life’
I left Mariupol on the 14 of March at 9 am, I arrived in Zaporizhzhia [Editor’s note: a nearby city, around 200 km to the northwest] only at 10 pm. It was the most tiring, stressful and dangerous road in my life. I spent a night in this city and then we moved to Dnipro [70 km north]. The road was a lot safer than the previous one, so we got to Dnipro fast – in one or two hours. We spent two nights there and then moved to Lviv – the road took us 17 hours [Editor’s note: Lviv is approximately 1,000 km west of Dnipro, a roughly 13 and a half hour journey by car under normal conditions, according to Google Maps]. And then we moved to Uzhhorod [250 km southwest]. So, I got to Uzhhorod only on the 17th or 18th – I can’t remember, I was too stressed and tired.
We were driving non-stop all this time. We had to go around a lot of mines, military enginery including destroyed ones, there were a lot of fragments and debris on the roads, so it was too dangerous to drive fast. In addition, there were a lot of checkpoints along the way, both Ukrainian and Russian. I saw Russians and Russian equipment. Some of the troops asked us for cigarettes. We were very scared, so we obeyed them in all matters. Fortunately, they didn’t do anything with us personally except for searches and checks. But we were just lucky. Many others got under the fire and etc. I don’t know much about others, but I just know that we were very lucky.
Ukraine has also accused Russia of relocating up to 40,000 Mariupol residents to Russia, potentially against their will and without Kyiv’s approval. With the city surrounded and partially captured by Russians, some residents of Mariupol have had little choice but to move to Russia to find food, water and medical care. Russia has denied forcibly deporting Ukrainians.
“I survived a real blockade: there was no food or water left in the city for a long time. When snow suddenly fell in March, we were the happiest because we could eat & drink it,” Veronika Tikhonyuk wrote on her Twitter page.
For Tikhonyuk, escaping Mariupol was necessary to survive, but she still doesn’t feel completely safe.
‘Thanks to volunteers and kind people, I have clothes, essentials and food’
Now I’m in a village in mountains. It’s much safer than Mariupol, but I can’t say that it feels safe. My country is still in danger, I’m traumatised and I will cope with this trauma for the rest of my life. I won’t feel safe anymore. Thanks to volunteers and kind people, I have clothes, essentials and food. My mom and I rent a small house in the mountains, no-frills. I'm trying to find a remote job, volunteer and recover from the traumas that the war left me.
I know for sure that my grandparents’ house (my first home) is burnt down to the ground and [Russian soldiers] are living in my flat (my second home) now – or it’s burnt down too now, I don’t know, nobody knows. A couple of my friends called me recently, but others... still silent. And finally, my family… I know nothing. I have only my mom now, and my dad who lives very far away. I still don’t have any news or info about my family, I lost them, all of them… and my cat too… I don’t know, I just know nothing. Nothing. I can’t find them anywhere…
Russia and Ukraine were set to restart peace negotiations on March 28, against the backdrop of the “catastrophic” situation in Mariupol.
The EU has accused Russia of committing war crimes in Ukraine, particularly in Mariupol where a number of civilian targets have been attacked.