Escape From Mariupol Part 1: Descent Into Hell

“Our Own Houses Would Become Traps for Us”

Part 1 in a 2-Part Story of One Family’s Descent into Hell and Their Escape from Mariupol

Russi Leaks interviewed photographer Sergiy (last name withheld), a resident of Mariupol who with his family and neighbors bore witness to the descent into hell brought about by the Russian’s relentless bombardment of his beloved city, and their harrowing escape. We published some of Sergiy’s photos from Mariupol yesterday under the lead story titled: “Resident Evil: Hellscape Mariupol.” This is Part 1 of Sergiy’s story, which describes the days leading up to the Russian invasion through the descent into total chaos as Sergiy and his family desperately sought a safe way out of the city. Part 2 of his story will describe their eventual escape. This is the story of how Sergiy survived with his family in Mariupol and escaped as the Russians destroyed his city.

Sergiy’s Story

The Reality of War Dawns

On February 24, my wife woke up first from the sound of explosions, but we weren’t scared since Mariupol had been a front-line city since Russian invasion in Donbas in 2014. While we had become numb from such explosions, we understood that war was still possible. Then at 7 o’clock in the morning we woke up and started watching the news. In a minute the full realization that the real war had started came into my head. It affected not only the Donetsk region, but throughout all of Ukraine. I couldn’t believe it, because two days before, my friends asked me “what are you going to do, you see what is happening, they prepare an attack.” But we still felt completely safe. It seemed to us that these were just new provocations and intimidation tactics from Russia, which we thought would lead to nowhere. But on the 24th, everything became clear. I didn’t panic and began preparing for war.

Mariupol Residents Queue up for Water

Our Own Houses Become Traps for Us

First of all, I decided to stock up on gasoline as I figured that the gas supply would end first. I turned out to be right and later this decision saved the life of me and my family as the gas ran out on the second day. I also bought a lot of food, realizing that we should have enough of it to last for a long time.

Initially, we didn’t plan to leave because I saw what was happening in other cities, how people were stuck in traffic jams for days and couldn’t go anywhere, how they abandoned their cars because there was nothing to fuel them with and they just moved on by foot. We didn’t have an idea of where to go because it was unsafe in the whole of Ukraine. I felt myself safe here in Mariupol, knowing how the city was fortified and how we were always prepared for some kind of escalation of the situation. My thoughts were: “I’ll wait in Mariupol now, and if the situation starts to heat up, then at any moment I’ll get into the car with my family and leave.” But no one thought that the situation would turn into hell, that our own houses would become traps for us .

The Terror of Aerial Bombardment

Probably the most terrible feeling was the realization that the city was encircled and that it would become impossible to leave. But looking back, I’ll say that the most terrifying thing of all was the bombing by the Russian aircraft, because this is something that one can’t control, run away, or hide from. It was so random, and looking at the damage that a single bomb left, we understood that the “Two Walls Rule” would not be enough to save one’s life. But at that moment, the most terrible thought was that we could not leave. We wanted to, but we couldn’t do it. This is an indescribable feeling, a feeling of absolute hopelessness.

A Bombed-Out Storefront in Mariupol

Heat and Water Gone

The situation got worse day by day. The fact is, the humanitarian catastrophe wouldn’t have been so terrible if we weren’t be being bombed from the air. At first, the heating was turned off. It was late February, so we slept in the apartment in coats, under three blankets, fully clothed. Then, on March 2nd, we were cut off from water and electricity, but there was hope that everything would be restored. We drew a full bathtub of water to have a supply and I remember how we valued every drop of this water. We drained the water from the tub to wash my 1 year old goddaughter, and using the same water we washed our hands and used it to flush the toilet. The water in the tub soon ran out and things became more difficult.

People continue to live and survive in the city. The human is a creature that can adapt to almost anything: But not to the bombing by aircraft. The situation was heating up every day. We saw in the news how much the suburbs were being shelled and how many people were running from there to the city center. It became impossible to live in the suburbs anymore, because of the constant shelling.

Destroyed Apartment Building Facade

Devastating Airstrikes to Civilian Buildings

On March 8, for the first time, we heard close-flying aircraft and bombs being dropped. You know, I’ve traveled a lot and I know what an airplane sounds like, but the sound of this airplane was incomparable. A terrible howl, and even if a blow was struck somewhere far away the earth just shakes under you. On March 9, we went to look at Myru Street 2, where a shell had exploded and we were in shock. We had never seen anything like it. Walking through the streets of the city, I saw the damage from the shrapnel, but they weren’t so large-scale. A huge crater remained from one shell and the facade of the building was completely destroyed. All the apartments were exposed. It was clear where the bathrooms or bedrooms were. The shell didn’t even hit the building – it just fell nearby and the two concrete facades of the buildings simply collapsed.

Another Bomb-Out Apartment Building in Mariupol

The Airstrikes Becomes Relentless

Hopelessness hit me every time when the airstrikes were inflicted. The first days they struck three times a day. We heard the planes and would ran away to the bomb shelter. We also had already started cutting down trees to make fires and cook food on the grills, and every time we were in the yard and heard the sound of an airplane, we’d run for cover. Although, as we found out later, the sound of the plane is heard much later than after their bombs are dropped. Then, the shelling by aircraft became more frequent, once every three hours on average We knew that if there had already been explosions, we could then go visit our parents on the next street. At that time, our parents had already left their apartment, as a a shell had flown into their apartment, and they moved to their relatives’ apartment.

We visited them to bring them medicine that was difficult to find. We constantly went looking for their medicine. Then, the Russians began bombing every hour. The next morning, as we wanted to visit our parents again, we had just left the bomb shelter when we heard the plane and came back. We waited 5-10 minutes, but it the bombing didn’t stop and we couldn’t get out that day.

Mariupol Residents in Their Bombed-out Apartment

I remember how people were puzzled when I started to prepare a bomb shelter in our house in the early days of the war, because most people didn’t believe that it would be anything serious. But then, people began to join us, residents of our building and even people from other areas. I don’t know how, but I somehow became a leader with my opinions, and many people asked for my advice.

Women and Children in Mariupol Bomb Shelter

I remember the moment when a feeling of hopelessness overcame me. I was sitting with my head down and had no idea what would happen to us in the next few days. I felt that no one understood what was happening to me. It was not like me. I simply understood that if we couldn’t figure out a way to escape in in the next few days, then we would no longer be alive.

A Street in Mariupol

Next Up (Coming Soon), the rest of Sergiy’s story in Escape from Mariupol Part 2: Exodus.