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Story of a Mariupol Resident Who Left the Occupation, but Returns to the Front-Line Towns and Villages for the Sake of Others

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Since February 24, Mariupol has been terrorized by airstrikes and artillery fire. A few days after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, the city was virtually encircled. Water, electricity, and heating began to disappear from civilian homes. There was practically no phone or internet connection. 

Our military bravely held their ground despite the enemy’s encirclement. But by the end of April, Russian troops had blockaded Mariupol defenders at the Azovstal plant. The city of Mariupol was thus fully occupied.

Some of the survivors continue to share their stories and give testimony about the Russian war crimes (see Bihus.Info channel for one such story). We will now tell you about a man who not only left Mariupol but also helped others survive there. And continues to do so in Ukrainian-controlled territory.

“My kids were playing a big game their dad made up for them. We hide on the count of one-two-three and fall to the floor.”

Artem and his family (his wife and two small children) met the full-scale war in their apartment on the 9th floor on the left bank of Mariupol:

We met February 24 at home. Like many people, we weren’t expecting this. The first week there was gas and electricity. There was shelling, but it was more on the outskirts of the city. But then it started to escalate gradually. The planes took to the air, they started leveling the city…”.

A few days later the family moved to a relative’s house in the center of Mariupol, Novoselivka district: “There was a problem with water supply. But it was good that it snowed. I found the old bathtubs, the snow collected in the bathtub and we thawed it. We filtered this water, it’s just that I’m a fisherman, and I had Sterillium [disinfectant] on hand. You drop it in the water and you can drink it. So if it wasn’t for the snow, it would have been rather problematic…”. 

The private house had its own advantages – a basement and the ability to cook outside.

“My dad and I got out of the basement, put the water on, and while we waited for it to boil, we sat in the basement. When it boiled, we ran out, threw the pasta/porridge in, and it was cooking in there. 

One day I went outside, and I thought I’d put the kettle on. I came out, I heard a plane flying by. I thought for sure it was going to fly by. But it didn’t turn out the way it was supposed to, an air bomb landed across the street. An entire two-story house was destroyed. The debris flew so… and they were so big – pieces of the foundation, I didn’t think it could fly like that,” recalls Artem.  

The man immediately decided that he was going to volunteer and help others. Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Artem had a construction company and a business in Mariupol. After organizing with his friends, also local businessmen, they started delivering food to the residents. They delivered food and water to centralized bomb shelters as long as it was possible: “It lasted about a week because then it was not just dangerous, but impossible. There was active fighting, there were [rounds] frying from just everywhere. 

The shelling did not stop. Despite claims by Kremlin propagandists that the Russians were only destroying military targets, they were in fact committing war crimes. They deliberately destroyed the city – shooting at hospitals, kindergartens, and schools. They killed civilians and destroyed their homes. 

While in Mariupol, Artem repeatedly witnessed deliberate shelling of residential neighborhoods.

“One day I was standing with my father in the afternoon and I hear a Grad [MLRS] start shooting. It seemed far away. And then I heard the whistle and I realized that it was near. And then a Grad shell came and hit… there was a summer kitchen made of mudbrick. It was very close to it. And if [the shell] had exploded, we would have been gone for sure. But it fell down and it didn’t explode. The wall just cracked and cracks went all over this kitchen,” this is one of the worst memories from Mariupol that Artem mentioned.   

It was getting dangerous to stay in the city any longer, so on March 20, the family decided to leave. First, they went to Melekino (a resort village on the sea coast 20 km away from Mariupol), where they had a dacha. They stayed there for about another week:

  • There was even electricity and Internet! But we realized that the situation was getting more complicated there as well, as the Russian military started going around checking houses. They were doing some kind of “filtration”.
  • Did they come to your house, too?
  • Yes. Here’s how it worked, they would come to a street, there are about 20 houses. They go into each house, they look at the documents: who you are, what you are. They check for tattoos. A quick questioning: who, where, why? I don’t have tattoos, so it was easier for me. But those who had them, even just ordinary and unrelated to anything, received a harsher treatment, so to speak. 

While the family was in Melekino, Artem also helped the locals there together with his friend, who had an electric car. They drove people who didn’t have a car and tried to escape on foot to Mangush.

According to Artem, the Russians set up a so-called filtration post at Mangush, where they carefully checked everyone leaving the occupation zone: “When we were already leaving, we saw a queue of about 500-600 cars. I asked people how long is it taking. They said: “Three or four days.” Suppose you’re standing on the highway, in a car. Ninety percent of the people have no food or water. And there was a very big problem with fuel, there was none at all. When we ran out, I had to buy some for 700 hryvnias [~$19]  per liter.”

In several cars, Artem and his family, parents, and friends took a detour down a dirt road.

“There were about 5 checkpoints on the way to Berdyansk, but these checkpoints were more or less appropriate. They saw that the family and children, did not search through our belongings – they checked the documents, asked a few questions, and let us on. There were already Russians in Berdyansk, there was also a checkpoint, but a more serious one, with professional soldiers. We passed it and then drove to Tokmak,” Artem described the road away from the occupation zone.

At the entrance to Tokmak, Artem and his relatives were stopped at a checkpoint, and they were prohibited from going further to Vasylivka. They were explained that there was an ongoing shelling there and were told to settle here.

“We entered Tokmak and I was both amazed and frightened at the same time. Our cars were battered, there was no glass, everything was in shambles, like all the people from Mariupol were, probably that’s why no sooner had we stopped, than people came up to us and offered to shelter us, offered us food and water.”

Artem and his family and friends settled in a hotel. By the way, the owner of the hotel hosted the displaced people for free. By that time, the city had communication, television, stores, and even markets. 

In a few days, the family left for Zaporizhia, and then they went to Khmelnitsky.

Already in the controlled territory, Artem met with friends who had also left Mariupol, and they decided to continue helping people. Their charitable foundation, Tviy Oberih Nadiyi, has been delivering humanitarian aid – food, medicine, hygiene products – to frontline towns, cities, and villages for several months now: “Because of the proximity of the frontline to these settlements, delivery is very difficult. Therefore, most stores don’t work, and those that do work charge 2-3 times as much. These prices are simply too high for most people to afford food.”

So, after leaving the occupation, Artem and his friends regularly return to the Donbas. And recently they went to the Kherson Region, where they came under fire. They had to hide in trenches with our military from Grad rockets. But fortunately, everything turned out all right and the humanitarian aid reached the people, and the volunteers returned home unscathed.

Some people care for volunteers and help them. For example, a place was offered for a warehouse in Dnipro to shorten the route. Their charity organization receives donations for humanitarian aid from European charitable foundations, Ukrainian businessmen, and just ordinary people. Some people donate food, while others donate fuel. Anyone can join in. If you want to help or if you need help, please contact the official pages of the foundation on social networks – Facebook and Instagram.

P.S. Later, already in Ukrainian-controlled territory, Artem learned that his parents’ apartment had burned down and was partially destroyed, while his own had survived, but was pillaged, same as his relatives’ house in the city center.

We asked if Artem planned to return home after our victory. Artem, without hesitation, replied, “I’ll probably be the first to go back. I’ll be going back home, I’ll be rebuilding it. The team we’ve assembled will be the first to fly there to help with everything. I am sure that the city of Mariupol is a Ukrainian city!”.

ANASTASIYA USENKO

This article was produced by Bihus.Info as part of the program “Supporting Ukraine’s Regional Media in Times of War” with the financial support of the European Union and the Foreign Ministry of the Kingdom of Norway. The content is the sole responsibility of Bihus.Info and does not reflect the views of the European Union, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

The village of Lukashivka is located near Chernihiv. The population is just over three hundred. There is a church of Ascension, built at the end of the 17th century, a couple of stores, a medical clinic, and several farms around. Nevertheless, after the beginning of the Russian full-scale invasion, Lukashivka became a settlement of strategic importance, because it gave a "firing point" to the regional center. And it was this small village with Ukrainian soldiers that gave the enemy a days-long battle, which allowed the defenders of Chernihiv to regroup. 

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