Hell in Mariupol: a genocide. Napalm podcast, ep. 5. Text version

Yevhen Spirin, Anton Semyzhenko
Hell in Mariupol: a genocide. Napalm podcast, ep. 5. Text version


Napalm is a series of podcasts about photographers, journalists, cooks, pharmacists, servicemen, doctors, saleswomen, and programmers. In short, this is a series of podcasts about Ukrainians experiencing war, about the everyday life of our country, heroically resisting the Russian invasion. We want to hear the voices of our citizens, their stories about everyday and not-so-everyday life, and we want our listeners to hear those voices as well. Oleksandra Gromova used to live in Mariupol. On February 26, Russian troops surrounded the city and began destroying it. Tanks drove to houses where civilians live and fired directly at apartments. At the same time, the city was bombed by planes and Russian ships. The light and central heating were gone. Later, the food disappeared as well. Oleksandra saw how people being buried in the courtyards of high-rise buildings, how they were drinking water from puddles, how the entire neighbourhoods disappeared. She finally managed to leave the city through the occupiers' checkpoints under constant fire.

Hello everyone, this is Napalm. And today we have Sasha, a Mariupol resident. Sasha was able to leave Mariupol, now she is in a safe place. But all these days since the beginning of the war she has been there. And today we will talk to her about what happened in the city. Hello, Sasha. Thank you for agreeing to talk to us. Tell us how it all started.

In Mariupol, as well as in the whole country, it all started on February 24th. Explosions began from the Vostochny district, which suffered [from another attack by separatists] back in 2015.

Itʼs when they shelled the buildings with Grad or Smerch missiles?

Yes. On January 24, 2015, an entire residential area was shelled with the Grad. Many civilians, people who just lived their lives, were killed then. [And now] in the early days, [shelling] just became a usual thing. That is, this shooting is in the direction of the Voctochny, somewhere far away. Sometimes a little closer, sometimes a little further.

Let me ask the other way: when did you understand that the situation gets too bad?

When the missiles were hitting not only Vostochny, but the city center as well.

When was it? On March 3?

No, it was earlier, on February 26-27. Missiles started hitting the city, the areas where I used to live. Where the market and large shops are located. They hit the boarding school. A regular school. On February 28 the electricity went off throughout the city. But it was fixed on March 1st, and was working gor all day long. But on March 2, the entire city was completely cut off [from the electric grid].

Mariupol residents were practically absent in the news until March 10. There were some reports, but nobody understood that there was a humanitarian catastrophe. And we didnʼt know whatʼs going on with you all. Letʼs talk about the situation with food and electricity. What remained in the city on the moment when you left it?

By the time I left, there was absolutely nothing. On March 2, the electricity, water, and communications disappeared after the electricity went off, as the cellular towers had no power supply. Gas disappeared on March 6. Then the missile hit the 5th floor of our apartment building. In the apartment neighbouring ours, the roof was destroyed. Luckily, no one was killed then. And we left the apartment and went towards the shelter.

That is, they are aiming from tanks or artillery at residential buildings?

They shoot in all directions. When I had already escaped into civilization, browsed the internet, I read that it was the National Guard and Azov shelling the city. Like they move around the city and shoot themselves there. [Russian propagandists] write things that won’t fit on any head. And in fact the [Ukrainian] army simply helped us not to die of hunger and thirst. They brought us food to the shelter with 160 people, about 60 of whom were children of different age, starting from 1,5 years. They helped us to survive, and we survived.

The only thing we saw from there was a video posted by Azov, where they distributed bread and water. And this is the only thing that was from Mariupol. What did the city look like when you left?

All this time we were in the Primorsky district. But at some point it was necessary to take the medicines from the volunteer center. We drove through the city center under shelling. And I saw Mariupol. It was like they show in the movies: a parallel reality which sucks. Holes in houses, corpses lie on the ground. Not a single unbroken glass, not a single intact window, not a single house without destruction. We drove past the building of Pryazovskyi State Technical University, our university, and a quarter of the building was just absent. Some guy was making pictures there ― probably, all this was posted online.

I can even tell you who it was ― Eugene Maloletka, he works for the Associated Press, and we also used several his photos. He also left, everything is fine with him now.

Itʼs good.

An acquaintance told me that people were buried in the yard of her apartment building. I understand that all attempts to bury people conventionally stopped under the shelling.

The fact that people buried in their yards is true. Then they stopped doing it. The bodies were simply covered with some kind of blanket, or the clothes of the same person. It wonʼt be possible even to rebuild the city. Just to remove everything with a bulldozer, put up monuments where there are more burials, and build everything anew.

What about local authorities? Were there any actions from them?

Donʼt know anything at all. The only thing is that the light was repaired once on March 1st. Since then we felt no presence of authorities. For example, there were volunteers who brought drinking water ― the company which is called Strumok. These are not the city authorities, these are simply [privately owned] Strumok, which distributed free water to people. In these 19-liter bottles, they even put these seals on them so that they could be transported more easily.

Itʼs hard for me to imagine how they found the chance to do it. And how they drove around the city.

No idea how they managed to do this. But they did. And now I read Mariupol group chats. People still can get water at Stumok factory.

Letʼs talk about the day you decided you need to leave. Because we had a lot of news about the evacuation corridors here.

There were no corridors.

All these corridors didnʼt work, and people just drove away at their own risk?

Yes. The first people left our shelter on March 15th. Until eleven in the morning. They just gathered together, and about a third of the people got into cars. But the cars were half full, a quarter full. People were afraid to leave.

Did they line up in a column? Or how did it happen?

Yes. Later we managed to call one of the women who left, and she said: “Yes, we went in a column, we stood at the checkpoint in Mariupol for a long time.” And she told us which route is better to pick: Mariupol ― Melekyne ― Mangush ― Berdyansk ― Tokmak ― Vasylivka ― Zaporizhzhia. Then we received the same messages from the State Emergency Service on our phones. We had one place where we caught the connection. There were two tiles that we stood on [waiting for the cellular connection]. And we began to receive messages that there is such a corridor.

Is Berdyansk occupied by Russians?


Mangush as well?

Yes, itʼs occupied too.

And Melekine?

We didnʼt get to it. There was a turn before Melekyne.

Tell me how you went from Mariupol to Berdyansk. Were there Russian checkpoints?

We left on March 16th, when we realized that most of people from the shelter are leaving it, and it was impossible to stay there. It was not so terrible to die from a shell than from a raid by some marauders. We jumped into the car of one woman we know and drove off. On Mangush, we saw that it was clearly not our troops there. The orcs have already taken iron number plates for their cars somewhere, with tricolor.

With Russian flag?

Yes, with Russian flags printed there already! I was shocked by this. And these their Z letters everywhere… Okay, Iʼll continue. When we drove into Mangush, there were twenty cars in front of us. And we stood at the checkpoint for a very long time. There were 4 checkpoints along Mangush. The last one was already at the exit towards the Zaporizhzhia highway. We were there for two and a half hours. Just to have these dudes open our passports, look into them. Then to open our trunk, look there. And we drove on.

As far as I understand, there were no men in your car.

No, there were no men with us. We had only women and a child. This, of course, helped us.

Because it seems to me that they did not let pass the cars with men.

They did. Asked a bunch of stupid questions. Some men were searched. And we continued to drive in a small convoy, until we completely lost sight of other cars from it. Someone stayed longer at the checkpoint, someone drove faster. As a result, at some point we drove alone.

Okay, so you entered Berdyansk. How it looked then?

There was a checkpoint in front of Berdyansk. A boy with a little mustache stood there, writing down the numbers of cars in a notebook. Then we turned towards Berdyansk. A Buryat stopped us and says to the driver: "Take your passports and go to the window." She got out of the car, took our passports. “A window” turned to be just a hole in a pile of stones stacked on top of each other. She handed her passports to a person behind a hole. Maybe they took pictures of the data that interested them, or, more likely, copied it in a notebook. Because then the driver drought us a piece of paper and said to write down our phone numbers. Of course, we wrote some fictitious numbers. Call, go ahead. And we drove into Berdyansk. Ukrainian flags hang there everywhere.

Do people go out [on pro-Ukrainian rallies]?

Yes, they have pro-Ukrainian rallies very often. Berdyansk people are in a fighting mood. They are wonderful. When we drove into Berdyansk, I remembered that I had a friend there, a journalist. I wrote her, she named the address of the volunteer center. We arrived there, they found us a lodging for the night with a local woman. There are many places like that. That is, people simply give their addresses, refugees come. And they take as many refugees as they can accomodate.

Tell us about the fuel and gas stations. How did the people there solve this issue?

According to a legend that was in Berdyansk, fuel was brought exclusively for refugees from Mariupol.

You show your passport at the gas station, and they give you fuel?

Yes. You have to show your registration, [and if your address there is in Mariupol] it was possible to get fuel. And, of course, it cost money. The girl who came with us stood at the gas station for fuel from half past five in the morning until two in the afternoon. They gave her 20 liters, but she paid extra to someone and got 26.

People stood in queues for several days, and not everyone got fuel. We were pursued by some kind of luck, I think. And we were lucky that our girl turned out to be very stubborn. She froze everything, but in the end got the fuel.

I canʼt really understand what “several days in a queue” means. How does it look like?

A queue forms for several kilometers, everyone is waiting. Nobody cares about the curfew anymore. Each time it was a new gas station. And it was necessary to somehow find out at which gas station there would be fuel tomorrow in order to get in a queue there from night to morning. Though you would already be three hundredth for this gasoline.

Oh, itʼs better not to be 300th.

Right. Not that word.

How is the situation with the shops in Berdyansk? Is there any food there?

No. There is what was in the warehouse when the war started. They give just one loaf of bread per person. And it can be seen that the reserves are drying up. We visited one small shop, it had Coca-Cola and Morshynska, but no pasta and grains. They are a rare find, similar to gold there now.

There was a moment in Kyiv whan it was easy to find fioe-gras but not bread.

Yes. There were sausages there, we bought a kilo and brought to an extremely kind woman who hosted us, as well as tea. There is no supply of products [to the occupies territories]. Not at all!

There are Russian checkpoints from Zaporizhzhia to Berdyansk, nobody wants to go there even for crazy money. Thatʼs why they donʼt take anything to the shops either.

Yes, they [the drivers] are just afraid to go there. Maybe someone was driving, but they [Russians] just took [the cargo] along the way. While we were driving from Berdyansk to Zaporozhye, there were 20-25 [Russian] checkpoints.

By the way, for how long did you travel from Mariupol to Berdyansk and from Berdyansk to Zaporizhia?

We left Mariupol for Berdyansk at 8 am. Somewhere at 3 pm we arrived in Berdyansk, taking into account all the stops. Then we turned the wrong way.

And what is the distance there? 200 kilometers?

From Mariupol to Berdyansk? 100 kilometers! Even 80. Orcsʼ vehicles are scattered all over the road there. With these Z letters... The locals have not yet took everything whatʼs possible from there. And it was necessary to go around these blockages in the village. And we had only five liters of gasoline, which we simply fired while standing in these lines. We were very worried that we would not have enough fuel get to to Berdyansk.

And then you left Berdyansk for Zaporizhzhia?

Yes, the next day. We left at 7:20 am, along the Berdyansk highway. We stood in line under the checkpoint for 2.5 hours again. For some Buryat in the window to look in our passports again.

I will later forward you pictures of different Buryats that my friends send me. You know, in a style of baked potatoes.

Come on, weʼre discussing serious things here.

Itʼs just about a wish for all Buryats to finish their trip here.

Yes, I think those Buryats have finished it already.

We had a dog in the car ― a small one, American Bulldog. And he was sitting in my arms when we drove up to these Buryats. I was sitting in front, in the passenger seat, and this dog was sitting in my arms. And they [Buryats] dip their nose every time: “Oh, what is it, do you have a dog?” And somehow I picked up and kissed this dog automatically. And heʼs like, "Did you kiss a dog?!" We drove off, and a friend says: “Well, of course [they are surprised:] they eat dogs there, and you kiss him.”

We drove like 7 kilometers from Berdyansk, and every 10 kilometers there were checkpoints. We drove along the highway for a very long time. I opened the map, and the Google map actually shower me where these checkpoints were. There were red strips along the road, where the stops are.


Yes, roadblocks. Though we come closer and there is no roadblock. But the checkpoint is there.

And where the Ukrainian positions started?

The first one was on the outskirts of Vasilievka. Itʼs just a field, and the road goes through it, because the bridge which led directly to Zaporizhzhia was blown up. And there are cars everywhere, they donʼt move. We thought weʼd be standing until tomorrow. People got out of the cars, although it is categorically not recommended to do so, you never know what is lying in the field. We stood for ten minutes. Then the shooting from something very heavy started nearby, everyone fastly got into the cars, the movement started. And I saw a man in a military uniform. I look [at him] and think: "Oh what a faggot, he stole a Ukrainian uniform somewhere," because he walked in a pixel. But a friend said: “I see a Ukrainian flag on him.” We leave this city ― there is a checkpoint, and a huge Ukrainian flag is on it. We just broke into tears, just cried and cried. Does it finally happened?! I just couldnʼt believe we were out of there. And we werenʼt stopped at any Ukrainian checkpoint. We left Vasylivka and drove very quickly.

Many say that when you see the Ukrainian military for the first time in two weeks…

It is indescribable, we sat and sobbed until we reached Zaporizhzhia. Itʼs just like the sun began to shine brighter, everything around is greener, warmer. Because when we left Mariupol and drove into Mangush, I saw a military vehicle with the Z letter painted on it. I almost vomited. In Mangush, we also saw old police cars, “DPR police”. And these Z, Z, Z everywhere

After you reached Zaporizhzhia, you went to Dnipro right away?

Yes. We arrived in Zaporizhzhia, the convoy went to the Metro Cash and Carry hypermarket, where refugees were received. Volunteers, together with the police, filmed the number plates on the cars on camera so as not to write them down in a notebook. After all, we have the technology. Also volunteers wrote down passport data, and we were invited to go have something to eat. If there is nowhere to live, then volunteers do find the place right away. We spent literally an hour in Zaporizhzhia. Then got into the car and drove to Dnipro city.

Is everything calm in Zaporizhzhia?

At the time when I was there, it was quiet. As soon as I left there, a couple of days pass, and I read the news that there is shooting near Zaporizhzhia. Itʼs all very relative, as Vasylivka is also near Zaporizhzhia. And thatʼs where those bastards [Russian military] are. Of course, there will be shooting. We just caught a moment when it was calm.

As you say, the luck is on your side. You planned to leave Dnipro for Uman. Why you didnʼt get there?

We arrived in Dnipro, the curfew began, so we stayed overnight there. Volunteers found us a place in kindergarten. They made us eat even though we didnʼt feel like eating at all. Wonderful people, all are so united, I have never seen anything like this. The people are all friendly, everyone tries to understand all your needs.

Is it possible to restore your city? Or it will be like Aleppo?

I think it will be a completely new city, with new houses. Because now every minute a missile hits something there. We traveled around the Primorsky district [in Mariupol], there was an area where the missiles didn’t hit much. “Didnʼt hit much” is when one or two houses have holes, but the rest are standing fine. But this, again, when we were leaving. And then ships hit the district from the sea. So Iʼm not sure if something is left there now.

I donʼt think the city will have steel mills. They need to be removed from there. And Mariupol has to be a resort center.

In the center of Warsaw there are cozy streets, where it seems that there are houses of the XII century. And then you see the sign that the UNICEF and the UN built them in the 1990s from drywall. Because during the [Second world] war the center was gone.

No, Mariupol will be a completely new city. There is nothing to repair, only to build everything anew. We already had everything beautiful and new before the war. The city flourished. We have not remained at the level of 2014.

It is very sad that money was invested in the city, it became beautiful. The Russians thought they would be happy there. And it turned out that no one is happy. So Russians decided to destroy the city.

There is another problem - the invaders forcibly take people out of Mariupol to Russia. Or first to [the occupied] Novoazovsk. They take away their passports, give them some kind of cards and it is not clear where they are being taken. The stories are different, of course. But the conclusion remains the same: people are not being taken from there to Ukraine.

What they have done is genocide. It simply canʼt be called in other words. About two days before you left, there was information that there would be a corridor to Novoazovsk town. And we wrote everywhere that people shouldnʼt get on these buses, because we donʼt know what will happen there. It is unclear where it is easier to rescue people: from Mariupol or Novoazovsk.

Yes, you are right. I, for example, donʼt know what happened to my grandfather. To lots of my friends who live on the [heavily shelled] left bank [districts of the city], with which there is no connection for a long time. You are already starting to think that perhaps they have already been taken to Russia. How can I get them out of there? I donʼt know.

We hope you donʼt have to get them. Because there will be no Russia. And everything will be fine. Thank you for agreeing to tell me everything. Sasha was with us. She is a resident of Mariupol. It was Napalm podcast, 5th episode. Thank you for listening to us.