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Kilometers of Fear: Story of a Mariupol Family Who Escaped the Occupied City on Foot

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Mariupol, which was effectively wiped off the face of the earth by the Russian invaders, has become one of the symbols of the Russo-Ukrainian war. The whole world was talking about the murders of tens of thousands of civilians, the lives of people without drinking water, electricity, gas and communication, war crimes, Azovstal, and the Drama Theater. 

Each story of Mariupol residents who managed to escape from the horrors of occupation is unique. The family we met in Lviv had to walk five days from the devastated city to the first Ukrainian checkpoint.

“If the Russians come here, I won’t be here”

“Back in 2014, I said that if the Russians come here, I won’t be here. We could not leave, my husband had a car, but it was broken and had been sitting in the garage for years. At that time there were already many people who were evacuating for 15 thousand [hryvnias] per one person. But we didn’t have such money for our huge crew. People said that evacuation buses were sneaking in and taking people to Ukraine, but we did not believe it, when those [Russians] were standing there and they didn’t want anyone to leave,” said Tetiana. 

Photo from Pavlo Kyrylenko’s social media account. Mariupol.

Tetiana’s family: she, her husband and four children, rented an apartment in the center of Mariupol. This is where they met the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. For two months, the family, like other Mariupol residents, was forced to live in the basement under constant shelling by the invaders. All this time they were planning their rescue.

“We have an old lady, my mother, who does not walk well. We did not expect that she would get anywhere at all and were looking for a way to evacuate her. We found a wheelbarrow in the store. Then my husband and I went to the edge of the city to check if it was possible to pass through there. We were not allowed to go through the private sector, because there were their [Russian] vehicles they were firing from. We found a way to get around them. There were bodies lying on the streets and we simply did not want to take our children through that, plus it was still cold. We knew that if we left, we would not know where we would have to spend the night, so we waited for it to get a little warmer,” said Tetiana.

D-Day

On April 16, the family finally decided to leave. On foot, carrying Tetiana’s mother in a wheelbarrow, they reached the city limits. Other citizens had gathered here, near the gas station. Everyone expected that someone passing by car would have a free seat, but the chances looked slim. The family decided not to waste time and moved to the first invaders’ checkpoint. Surprisingly, they were only asked where they were going and allowed to leave. 

Photo from Pavlo Kyrylenko’s social media account. Mariupol.

The first stop was to be the village of Nikolske, about 23 kilometers away from Mariupol. The family was lucky to overcome the last two kilometers to the settlement by car thanks to an SUV driver who was just passing by and offered his help.

Tetiana used to live in Nikolske, and she knew many people there. However, according to the woman, the invaders set up a filtration camp in the village at that time and everyone was scared and not very talkative.

“Everyone who fled Mariupol, they were being filtered there for a very long time, paid for housing, spent the nights in friends’ houses. Fear filled the air. We called a cab for my mother and sent her to the village, because she could not go further. And we kept going, my legs were already bloody with grazes. I did not want to stay near a filtration camp even for a second. It seemed more dangerous to me than going somewhere unknown”, the woman said. 

Having solved the issue with accommodation for the Tetiana’s mother, the family moved on. The next stop was to be the village of Respublika located 11 kilometers from Nikolske. Tetiana’s cousin lived here, so the family decided to try to go there to spend the night with him. A few kilometers from the Respublika, they were caught up by an old Ford. Driving it was a resident of Mariupol, who used to live nearby. The man offered to give the family a ride. In the village, it turned out that Tetiana’s brother had moved to another settlement, so they went there instead. 

After a night’s rest, Tetiana’s family set off again.

Locals played along

The next destination was to be Rozivka in the Zaporizhia Region, just over 20 kilometers away from Respublika. Tetiana’s classmate lived here. 

On the way the family encountered another checkpoint of the invaders. 

“There were still people driving there, they [Russian soldiers] stopped them, asking if such-and-such lived there. And they said: “Yes, she lives there”. There were people with a trailer, they [Russian soldiers] handed us over to them and told them to take us to a friend. We were riding in two cars and in the car the man was driving, they said that the friend had left right away on February 24, because her husband served in the ATO,” said Tetiana.

In the evening, once in Rozivka, the family continued on foot. They spent the night in some village, where the invaders from another checkpoint took them to the house of a local. In the morning they continued walking, but there were no friends left to stay with, and the family did not know where to go. So, they made up a story to tell the invaders that they were going to Polohy, looking for the sister of Tetiana’s husband, and decided to move just along the paved road. According to Tetiana, some villages were nearly extinct, there were almost no people on the streets. As they met some people, the family asked them for water. Locals did not refuse and asked about Mariupol. Almost everyone had relatives, friends or acquaintances there. 

“In the evening we reached the village, there were young guys from the “DNR”, who said: “Why are you leaving Mariupol? Tired of sitting in the basement? We had the same thing in 2014″. And at that moment it was very difficult to hold back. Because all the artillery that is in Russia did not shell you. When you live and breathe smoke, see your city burn, bombed, unable to do anything. All houses destroyed. Their residents unable to get out, because there is no one to rescue them from under the rubble”, Tetiana recalled. 

Photo from Pavlo Kyrylenko’s social media account. Mariupol.

They spent the night in someone’s abandoned house and used a stove to keep warm. Locals, having learned about the visit of Mariupol residents, brought food and again began to ask about the destroyed city. 

Over the blown-up bridge

The next day the family reached the village of Vershyna. It was a difficult journey, continuously going up. At the entrance there was a Russian checkpoint. Tetiana said that it was manned by Dagestanis:

“While we were passing through, we saw all the ethnicities of Russia. They did it very cunningly. My husband was taken to one side, I was told to go drink some tea. Some were asking me questions, others were interrogating my husband. As a general rule, they always separated us like that, but this time, to a much greater extent. They tried to cheat us for money we did not have”. 

The invaders suggested that the husband should go to Polohy alone, find his sister, and come back for the others, but he managed to persuade them to let them all go together.

Near Polohy, the family encountered a blown-up bridge. The husband attempted to walk around its remains, but the wind almost blew him away. There was no way around it; they had to find an alternative route.

“My husband said: “Let’s go under the bridge”. He went down, found a path, didn’t blow up. We unloaded our wheelbarrow, took it down, it went down, it did not explode. We walked along that path side by side, carrying our things. I carried my daughter. The wheelbarrow itself weighs 15 kilograms, the father and the older children carried it up the collapsed stairs, then we loaded back the things, drank some water, exhaled, and moved on”, Tetiana recalled. 

Thus they reached the next checkpoint, already in Polohy. Tetiana said that after checking them, the Russians put them in different cars and questioned them while driving through the village. Ultimately, all were brought to the house of some locals. They spent the night there. In the morning, it turned out that the Russian checkpoint had been destroyed at night. Therefore, they could safely proceed. The next destination was the village of Inzhenerne. 

“We walked and said: “Oh, it smells like Mariupol”. That was a children’s art school burning. Quite a military target, isn’t it. And the further you went, the more it seemed that you would not get out. It got more difficult at the checkpoints, more questions”, the woman said. 

However, the family was lucky. Though not without incident, they passed the penultimate checkpoint. However, the Russians did not really want to let them pass.

“You went the wrong way, you should have gone to the Crimea, to Russia. There is so much work there”, Tetiana quoted a Russian who checked their documents. 

It was again the Russians who took them to the last checkpoint. One of the officers demonstratively ordered the hanging of the flag of the so-called “DNR” there. 

“What, you don’t want to live in the’ DNR?”, one of the invaders asked.

An SUV overtook the family on the way. The driver stopped and asked to help change the tire.

“He asked where we were going. We said that we were going to Orikhiv. He was going to Zaporizhia. We replied that we could go there as well,” said Tetiana.

Screenshot from the Current Time TV’s video. Tetiana’s family in Zaporizhia.

Upon reaching the first Ukrainian checkpoint, the family estimated it took five days to get here, mostly on foot, covering about 150 kilometers. After spending the night in Zaporizhzhya, they took the train to Lviv. All of the relatives made it there as well. Tetiana now makes lace jewelry and knits children’s toys to raise funds for Ukrainian defenders. 

The woman believes that she will be able to return home – to a Ukrainian Mariupol. 

Maryana Sych

This article was created by Bihus.Info as part of the project “EU Urgent Support for Civil Society” implemented by ISAR Ednannia with the financial support of the European Union. The content of the article is the sole responsibility of Bihus.Info and does not necessarily reflect the position of the European Union.

 

In September, the Armed Forces of Ukraine began the liberation of the Russian-occupied territories of the Kharkiv Region. In a successful counteroffensive, the Armed Forces liberated parts of the region. After the general joy of liberation, all the horrors of the occupied territories were revealed: mass graves in Izium and torture chambers in Kupiansk and Kozacha Lopan. Towns and villages destroyed, hundreds killed, thousands injured – each is a testimony to the Russian war crimes committed on Ukrainian territory.

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