"I prayed to God to die quickly" - a story of a girl from Mariupol
Story of a girl from Mariupol about the war in Ukraine
Mariupol is the city in Ukraine that has suffered the most as a result of the Russian invasion. Heavy fighting in the city is still ongoing, the city is almost completely destroyed. The Ukrainian publication Hromadske tells about the terrible events in Mariupol as witnessed by 17-year-old Maria, who managed to escape the ruined city with her family.
A fair-haired girl in a wreath of red poppies. Ukrainian costume, beads and bandora in her hands – this is what seventeen-year-old Maria Vdovichenko looked like in many pre-war photos.
Until recently, she lived with her family in Mariupol, was the head girl of her school, was learning to play the bandura, and went to church with her parents.
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Her life changed on February 24th. When the city began to be shelled, the house that had been a shelter turned into ruins, and a quarter of a fist-sized piece of bread was her only remaining food.
Recently, Maria’s family got out of Mariupol. On the way, they survived the occupation and the filtration camp.
Maria told the story of her family in one breath. What follows is her direct speech.
“The war has begun. Go get ready!”
On February 24, at 3:50, my mother heard the first explosion, ran into the room with my younger sister and loudly said terrible words: “The war has begun. Go get ready!”. Where are we going? What do you mean go get ready? We quickly stuffed warm clothes and leftover food into our bags. We thought we could leave. But we failed – the city was closed.
Then the real nightmare began. People ran out of their houses, tried to buy everything, withdraw cash, fill up cars. And there were explosions all around.
At 12 noon, our house was already shaking. Which cellar should we run to? I called the head of condominiums and asked where we could hide. They answered me that our basement was not designed for this, there are windows, it’s being rebuilt, it is impossible to go there.
At that moment we still had all the communications. Our food and water supplies were relatively small, because we thought it would all last three or four days.
What can a bathroom in an ordinary ‘Khrushchevka’ flat do?
Two days passed since the start of the war – communications, water and electricity disappeared. Then there was no gas. We understood that the situation is difficult.
Shells were flying at Mariupol all this time. The left bank of the city was destroyed, blast waves reached the Primorsky district, everything rumbled.
In the apartment, we covered the windows and inserted foam rubber between them. We thought it would protect us.
We decided to hide in the bathroom. There were days when we already knew at what time we would be shelled. As soon as we heard some noise, rustling, explosion, we immediately ran to the bathroom. It gradually got boring. There was no hope that everything would end, that we would be rescued. And you know what bathrooms are like in an ordinary ‘khrushchevka’ flat.
One morning, I do not remember exactly when, we were all lying in the same room. We heard how everything was shaking in the apartment, how something was falling in the next room.
But we lay there and thought: no, it’s somewhere far away, we didn’t believe it was happening.
The ground began to vibrate, the house seemed to bounce. We quickly locked ourselves in the bathroom. At first there was such silence, it seemed that something was falling, and then the blast wave broke through everything from top to bottom. The upper floors of the house just fell apart. Pieces of concrete, furniture, slate from the roof fell, glass flew. There were screams from everywhere.
“People were ready to kill each other for a sip of water”
We managed to get out of the house, my father told us to quickly go to the first basement that came across.
Everything was covered in ice, glass, noise, shots, and we were running and thinking: “If only there was a staircase to the basement to go down, do not let us get crushed by a slab”.
My sister ran to the basement first, followed by me and my parents. They started knocking and heard that there were people inside and they were whispering. In the end, some man opened the door and said that he could not let us in – he said that there were a lot of people in the basement and that there was no extra space. Father did not listen, pushed him away, and we entered.
There were 20 people inside, our neighbors. Another family with a five-month-old child came with us. If we had not broken in, then more than one family could have died under our house.
In the basement we saw different horrors. People ran out of food, they turned into animals. They were ready to kill each other for a sip of water.
There was nothing to cook food from, water was extracted from ice and snow.
People were in insane danger when they went outside – fragments, pieces of buildings, stones flew at them.
Once, a mine exploded in front of our door to the basement. The hole was so big that it looked like someone had dug deep into the earth. We thought that we would be buried under the rubble, the building had already begun to collapse. We were afraid that the basement would become our mass grave.
“We only had hope and prayers in this basement”
My mother has been suffering from polyneuropathy for six years. This is a lesion of the nervous system. Due to stress, she stopped walking, her heart stopped twice. Pharmacies were not open, we did not have medicines. The emergency department, which was opposite our basement, was destroyed.
My father resuscitated my mother as best he could and as best he knew – artificial respiration, heart massage. We had to search for medicines under shelling. We couldn’t lose mom. In this basement there was only our hope and prayer. And that’s all.
On the tenth day of our stay there, we had one piece of bread left. It was the size of my fist. We divided it into four pieces times. I could not eat my piece, because we were starving for a very long time. It was with me for a very long time. I was afraid that everything would end and not even this piece would be left.
People quarreled among themselves, they tried to expel someone from the basement so that there would be one less mouth to feed. There was no kindness, only darkness, and we could already smell death.
This went on for 12 days.
“We will not leave, this will be my grave”
Usually night shelling began around four in the morning. Then there was a short break, and at 10 o’clock it would resume. But that day, everyone woke up from a noise we had never heard before – at two in the morning. We lay and tried to sleep. The cup that stood on the shelf above me jumped. It sounded as if I was lying down and four trains were driving next to me on each side.
Usually, when they shot, a child cried, someone read a prayer aloud. At that time, everyone was silent.
Suddenly the earth began to tremble, it seemed as if everything was flying at us. Stucco and bricks fell from the ceiling.
I lay there and thought: “We won’t get out of here. This is my grave”. I was already desperate, I could neither pray nor hope. “It’s over, it can’t be long. Man suffers for a reason”, I repeated to myself.
At that moment I was sure that I would die and at least not die alone. My family lay on the same blanket with me.
I decided to pray anyway. I asked God to die quickly and not to see the death of my relatives, not to see how they suffer, and be unable to help them.
We didn’t have anything. No strength, no hope, not even a normal first aid kit. Everyone understood that if we got hit, we would not get out of there – just like it happened in a neighboring building, where no one survived. Because it was forbidden to rescue them by enemy soldiers, and it was simply impossible.
“Either we will die of hunger, or we will get buried under the rubble, or they will simply kill us”
Since then, I don’t remember how the days went by. We were exhausted, hungry, tired. One day my father said: “Either we will die of hunger, or we will get burred under the rubble, or they will simply kill us”. Russian soldiers walked through the basements, checked who was hiding there, threw bombs inside. When they knocked on our door, we did not answer.
One day we heard from the neighbors that we could go to Melekino. Dad had an old Zhigulis, damaged by debris from buildings and glass. We didn’t even know if the car would start, but it started. We were driving under shelling, Grads. The fighting continued, and we had one goal: to survive, to get out of this hell.
We almost reached Melekino, where there was a DPR post. We understood that we couldn’t go back, but we didn’t want to go further: if they didn’t kill us there, they’ll kill us further along, for the enemy we are nothing, just a target.
We were stopped at a checkpoint and asked to go to the place of registration. “Mariupol residents? Go to the right”.
Where it is – “to the right”, we did not know. From there we were directed further and further. So a large column of cars and even people walking on foot gradually formed.
Then the “DPR” military told us to go “further”. We set off, and they just fired at cars and people.
“With all our money, we were able to buy two loaves of bread.”
So we drove to Yalta (a village in the Donetsk region – ed.), where we hid for more than 10 days in an old boarding house. We didn’t have food, we took water from a well. The cash we had left became nothing.
In Yalta, they were just changing power to the “DNR” (“Donetsk People’s Republic”), and they tried to show their good side. They invited to come with them, give our names and surnames, in order to receive humanitarian assistance. People went to survive and not to die of hunger. But no rations were given there – they were received by locals who sold them at the bazaar at sky-high prices.
There were several shops in Yalta with products were imported from Russia. Prices were high, lines were long. With the money we had, we could only buy two loaves of bread. We took care of them, hid them so that they would not be stolen.
Even then, there was “denationalization” in Yalta: soldiers went from house to house, looking for “nationalists”, “fascists”, as they say. People were taken away in an unknown direction, some were killed.
Hunger, cold and fear of freezing
In Yalta, hunger, cold and fear of freezing came to us again. All we had was fire, water, tea and two loaves of bread. My parents decided to leave.
So we got to the filtration camp in Mangush. There were two camps. The first one was for people who were walking. They could be filtered for more than a month, the queues were insane. People tried with all their might to escape. And another camp was for those who were driving.
The camp is not some kind of settlement, it’s just columns of cars. There were 500 cars ahead of us in line, thousands more behind us.
It was forbidden to get out of cars, look for food, water, go to the toilet. Soldiers with weapons walked everywhere, threatened us, checked, looked to make sure everyone was in place.
This filtration camp, as we were told, worked from 5 am to 11 pm, but in fact – nothing would start until they woke up, had breakfast, smoked, talked on the phone and changed.
They didn’t care about civilians. Every hour or two, and if you were lucky, three cars passed along. While waiting for our turn, we lived in the car for two days.
“Filtration starts at the age of 14”
The filtering is arranged like this: they have a roadblock. A car drives in there, where they check every pocket, glove compartment, trunk, every bag. People have clothes and everything under it. Men are undressed on the street near the cars. They are looking for tattoos, some kind of marks, of “nationalists”.
Not all passengers from the car were filtered: they could take their father or mother away, and the car had to move on. People got lost. They had weapons, but the people had nothing.
Our turn came at 11 pm, we were the last car for that day. We were let in and searched. Mom could not go because of her illness. She and my sister were allowed to stay in the car: they said that “filtering starts at the age of 14.”
My father and I left. There was a booth with two rooms 200 meters from our car. There were emaciated people on the street, they had no clothes, and it was freezing outside. My feet were so cold that I couldn’t feel my toes.
They just walked around, talking among themselves, discussing the women they had tortured.
I heard conversations between them:
“And that one who didn’t pass, what did you do to him?” one asked the other.
“Yes, he got shot. 10 people, maybe more. I don’t know, I’m tired of it already.”
One man who was being filtered came out with huge, frightened eyes. He was shaking. He said that there was a cruel interrogation, he was beaten. His wife was never released.
“They tried to find people who loved their homeland, who wanted to live a normal life”
Next was our turn. I went to one filtration room, my father went to another.
They took my fingerprints, scanned documents, checked my phone. They asked provocative questions. About the government, about Ukraine, about my own views. They tried to find people who love their homeland, who want to live normally. They mocked people, humiliated them, called them names, beat them.
They took my passport, they saw that I was 17. They didn’t like me, I seemed to look too young, but they were just looking for some young girls.
I was pushed out of there. Their armed soldier accompanied me to the car.
He pushed me because I supposedly walked too slow. I fell, cut my knee, but I understood that if I don’t get up now and run to the car, I won’t go back. I ran all the way.
Mom saw me. She began to panic: what happened to my father? Did he not pass? Has he been killed already? Is he being bullied? And I couldn’t say anything. I sat there and didn’t know what was going to happen next.
Father returned 40 minutes later. We saw him getting pushed out. He got out and fell. Tried to get up and fell down again. But still got to the car.
Because of the beatings at the “filtration”, the father lost his sight
Father stepped on the gas, and we set off. There was no direct route to Berdyansk: the bridge had been blown up, so we drove through the outskirts and villages. We saw corpses, broken equipment.
Already on the way, my father began to have vision problems – he could not see.
In Berdyansk we spent the night in the car. There, my father told how his filtration went.
They also asked him for documents, took fingerprints, undressed him, and searched him. They began to interrogate him, pressed him morally. First they pushed him. When they saw that he had an empty phone, questions began: “Why is the phone empty? What are you hiding? We don’t believe you!” And they just hit him in the head. He does not remember who did it, how and with what. He remembers how he found himself on the street. Because of this beating, my father lost his sight, but we still had to keep moving.
There were 27 checkpoints between Berdyansk to Zaporozhye, and at each one they checked our documents, car and asked if we had been filtered. People had their food and warm clothes taken away, they were asked for cigarettes – even drugs and alcohol.
We were driving, and there were battles nearby. Something flew under the car, there was an explosion, the car jumped. Father told me not to worry – perhaps it was a firecracker. But we understood that there are no firecrackers in war.
The road was hard. We saw destroyed houses, anti-tank mines in the middle of the road, tanks with the letter Z in the yards, burnt bodies on the roadsides, wrecked cars. The forest was on fire all around us.
“Do not be afraid. It is Ukraine”
At dawn, we arrived in Orekhovo, Zaporozhye region. In front of us on the road were boulders, anti-tank hedgehogs and thorns. It felt like breathing became easier, and then ahead we saw the Ukrainian flag.
At first we were afraid: is it just a provocation? Is this just another exam we have to pass?
We were stopped. They said: “Good afternoon! Show us your documents, please.
We showed, although we were still unsure if it was a provocation.
They told us: “Don’t be afraid. It is Ukraine”.
We started crying. We could not believe that we were saved, that we had found our land.
Then we went to the refugee assistance center in Zaporozhye. Mom was given medical assistance, because she could not walk anymore. Father was very ill: he could not see. My sister and I were emotionally exhausted. We were psychologically broken.
Volunteers helped us get to the Dnieper.
In the city, two doctors examined my father and concluded that he suffered an injury as a result of a shell shock. He completely lost vision in one eye, and the other can still see, but as if through a plastic bag.
To receive quality medical care, volunteers sent us to Lviv. There, father was again examined. We were told that his treatment would be long, complicated and expensive, and that he might have to go abroad.
“We cannot lose our father. He saved us, now we must help him”, adds Maria’s mother, Natalya Sergeevna, at the end of our conversation.