Mariupol survivor: My young children asked me if it hurts to die

Kyiv, Ukraine – Halyna, a 28-year-old woman from the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, survived three weeks of Russian shelling with her husband, two young children and dog.

She is currently in Europe, but Al Jazeera is withholding her last name and any other details which could identify her, because her relatives are still in the Russia-occupied city.

Here is her story, in her words:

“We woke because the explosions were so powerful. The windows began shattering and we understood right away that the war has began.

“On the first day, the shelling was far from us, on the city’s other side, but every day, it kept getting closer and in the end, it was next to our apartment building. The shrapnel was flying around and we simply couldn’t leave our basement bomb shelter.

“We were in shock, my arms, feet were shaking, I said, ‘Perhaps it’s not true.’ But then we turned the TV on and understood it was, and that the real, full-scale war had begun.

“The children were scared from day one, of course, scared of this constant bombardment. But when things got real tense, they just convulsed with hysteria in those basements. And they asked questions: ‘Does it hurt to die?’

“My daughter is eight, my son is six.

“Our dog is a small chihuahua. She entertained the kids, distracted them from it all. She played with them, it helped a lot.

“We bought groceries and there was some food in the freezer, some meat, ravioli. That was the only time we went grocery shopping during the war.

“Later, when there was no electricity, no food, we grown-ups went hungry, and the children ate once a day and drank a glass of water between them. We didn’t have normal water. The water was from the river, my husband got it under bullets.

“They switched off the central heating, and it would get to minus 10 Celsius outside. One day, the shelling broke our windows, and the nightmare began.

“Without the windows, it was +1C in the apartment. I spilled water once, and it froze. We didn’t cover the windows with anything, it was so impossibly dangerous to go somewhere, to visit family.

Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from a maternity hospital that was damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 9, 2022. The woman and her baby died after Russia bombed the maternity hospital where she was meant to give birth [File: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP]

“We kept going down to the bomb shelter, until the very last day, the departure. Or we were in the areas between apartments on our floor, if there was no room in the basement. We put blankets on the floor and had a candle, sleeping on the floor for days.

“My husband did everything, just everything so that we survived, so that the children and I wouldn’t die. Food, water, he risked his life to get water together with neighbours.

“The building had nine storeys. It was very vulnerable, yes. All the neighbouring buildings burned down or were destroyed. There were piles of bodies.

“Because the place we were in was an active combat zone, it was constantly under fire. Four shells hit our apartment building when we were in there. One bomb broke out two floors of the neighbouring entrance. Three children and two adults died there.

“I saw shrapnel and held it in my hands. Neighbours collected it. Those were really heavy, tiny pieces, with very sharp ends, really scary. It seems like killing a human with one is so easy.

“Around March 7, our neighbours were killed in the apartment building [next to ours]. They were lying right there, in the courtyard, next to a garbage bin.

“When the massive shelling began, our children withered. They talked very little, they sat around all day and zoned out.

“We spoke to a psychologist. She said the children may have left the war, but the war is in them.

“You can’t express it in words, can’t predict it. A plane flies, and you hear that sound, and it gets closer to you, and you just sit there and pray so that it doesn’t fall on you.

“There was a moment of desperation. We were frozen, we were starving, and I went to our apartment to lie down. The moment I fell asleep, I saw through the blinds these, you know, lights.

“My husband yelled: ‘They were dropping some anti-air defence things, let’s run.’ But the second we stood up, it all fell next to the neighbouring house and our house shook. It was a plane, it dropped four bombs.

“One night, we counted 37 air strikes near us.

FILE - Servicemen of the militia from the Donetsk People's Republic walk past damaged apartment buildings near the Illich Iron & Steel Works Metallurgical Plant, the second-largest metallurgical enterprise in Ukraine, in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, Saturday, April 16, 2022. Mariupol, which is part of the industrial region in eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas, has been a key objective for Russia since the start of the Feb. 24 invasion
Servicemen of the militia from the Donetsk People’s Republic walk past damaged apartment buildings near the Illich Iron & Steel Works Metallurgical Plant in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Saturday, April 16, 2022 [File:Alexei Alexandrov/AP]

“Every neighbour helped one other. They brought water to the elderly, boiled it in the kettle. The war united the neighbours, even those who used to be unfriendly to each other.

“And then there was, perhaps, the scariest moment of the war. We were sitting in the space between apartments in this pre-death condition. It seemed to me that everything would be over now.

“Our neighbour, a woman, was wounded in the face. There was a fight right next to our building, and a piece of shrapnel flew right into her face.

“With all this blood, she was screaming.

“Everyone simply hid, wherever one could, some between the floors, some in the basement. The neighbours cried for help, but no one could come, because it was so scary to simply come out.

“When everything got quieter, some Ukrainian soldiers came. They would pick somebody up, their own or their kin. Our neighbours ran up to them and asked them to rescue the wounded neighbour.

“She was lying at home for about six hours. Half of her face was gone, her skull bones were damaged. My husband and another guy carried her downstairs on a blanket, and the soldiers took her to a hospital.

“I was in touch with her. Because of the time she waited to get to hospital, six or eight hours, she lost sight in one eye.

“A fire for cooking and boiling water next to the apartment building was burning from the get-go. When the situation got so tense that it was impossible to leave, we burned it on the stairwell.

“We boiled water on fire in the morning. When you wake up, it’s cold, you’re so impossibly frozen, you need a drop of warm water and some for the kids.

“Whoever woke up first started the fire. Between 4 and 5pm, there is another fire.

“The real starvation began on March 3. The kids were asking for food, they were always hungry, and we grownups almost didn’t eat.

“I saw with my own eyes that many people looted stores. Although we were hungry, our conscience didn’t let us do that.

“In the end, we left with several neighbours, a simple act of desperation. The neighbours came and said: ‘Let’s go, just anywhere. Whatever happens, let it happen.’

Mariupol
People walk past a residential building heavily damaged during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine on May 30, 2022 [File: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters]

“In 15 minutes, we jumped in the cars and left without a thing. Before the war, my dad bought several canisters of gasoline. Our car remained intact only because it was in a garage. The garage saved our car and our lives.

“We started driving, and since we mostly hadn’t been out, when we saw the city, it was a nightmare.

“This was the first time the kids were going outside and when we ran, bullets were flying around. I asked them to close their eyes so that their little eyes wouldn’t get hurt, told them there were glass shards flying around.

“They did, and I just led them across the pavement among the dead bodies. We got in the car, started driving, and on the way out of the city they saw a man, fully torn apart. Just a torso lying there.

“They reacted horrifically. They didn’t understand at first what was it. Then they did, and went hysterical. Horrified by all that.

“And everything in the city was covered with the letter Z and St. George’s ribbons [that symbolise allegiance to Russia]. We were just shocked, we thought there’d been no pro-Russians in our city, but there were hundreds on the way out.

“There was a line of cars, and the pro-Russians stood there, they kind of organised roadblocks there, one after another, every 50 metres.

“They greeted us with smiles. Gave my hungry kids bottled water from a looted Ukrainian supermarket, gave us a five-litre jar of honey. Some looked like absolute alcoholics.

“Their goal was to check the car. To fully check the people leaving the city, their correspondence, photos, maybe there was something suspicious, something they wouldn’t like.

“What saved us was that we had almost no electricity for three weeks. That’s why they couldn’t check our phones, the batteries were empty. And thank God, I am sure that’s what simply saved our lives.

“There were roadblocks all the way to the town of Orikhiv [100 miles (160km) northwest of Mariupol].

“When we saw the first roadblock of Ukrainian servicemen, we wept with joy. We ran out of the car, hugged them, gave them the honey, and the cans, and the chocolate bars and that water.

“When we and the neighbours reached the town of Nikolske [14 miles (23km) northwest of Mariupol], we drove on alone. The rest went to [separatist-held] Donetsk or to [Russia-annexed] Crimea, or stayed in Nikolske.

People stand amid newly-made graves at a cemetery in the town of Staryi Krym outside Mariupol, Ukraine May 22, 2022
People stand amid newly made graves at a cemetery in the town of Staryi Krym outside Mariupol, Ukraine on May 22, 2022 [File: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters]

“People were confused, people were really scared. Some just sat by the side of the road, they simply didn’t know what to do and where to go. It was all caused by fear, everyone was too scared to drive to Ukraine-controlled areas. On the road, nobody was overtaking.

“The road we took was empty. For some 60 miles, we didn’t see a single car.

“When we entered the first city where everything was normal, quiet, where there was food and shops were open, we wept. When we went to a friend’s apartment to wash hands, I saw hot water flowing, I just wept.

“I couldn’t believe that it was water, it felt so precious, every drop seemed like it was made of gold. The simplest things, absolutely simple things such as water, electricity, central heating, we saw it all like a gift from Heaven.

“We arrived in the eastern city of Dnipro pretty late, got into a hotel, finally took a bath, ate normally. My son said, ‘Mum, this is the world’s best hotel!’

“The kids slept one night and half a day. They came to life, and said: ‘Will there be any shooting here? Are you sure?’

“Now, we are able to talk to my relatives in Mariupol, but they work for it. Those I am in touch with have no electricity. They can charge their phones, but they have to pay 20 hryvnia [70 cents] an hour.

“The Russians started bringing food from nearby villages, there are makeshift markets. One can buy food provided you have the money, as the prices are above average.

“Another problem with food is that the fridge doesn’t work, you can’t store food. Eat once – and that’s it.

“Physically, at this stage, they are feeling bad. Because there are no medical drugs, no quality water, well, no normal food.

“What do they say about the occupiers? Nothing good. The Russians create a make-believe image of normal life, open schools for children and entertainment centres – but the reality is people simply have no water, no food.

“The Russians tried to restart the water supply, but the pipes leaked and flooded mass graves. There was a disaster. Because they did not bury the dead deeply enough, some body parts floated up. My dad saw it, he told me.

“The house they live in now has no roof, just walls. And my apartment – I have none now, because a bomb fell on our nine-storey building.

“We got so lucky.”

Editor’s note: This monologue was lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

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