”I never thought I would take human remains from my almost dead husband.” Evacuation, filtering, FSB interrogations and the desire to return to the city — three stories from Mariupol

Author:
Iryna Lopatina
Team:
Dmytro Rayevskyi, Yevhen Spirin
Date:
”I never thought I would take human remains from my almost dead husband.” Evacuation, filtering, FSB interrogations and the desire to return to the city — three stories from Mariupol

Getty Images / «Babel'»

There are more than one million Ukrainian citizens in Russia. The occupiers call it an "evacuation." And human rights activists and international organizations call this forced deportation. Itʼs prohibited by the Geneva Convention. Cases of deportation of Ukrainians from occupied cities and towns to the territory of the aggressor state may in the future become trials in international courts. However, it will be necessary to prove that people were taken away against their will. For the most part, those who survived the constant shelling had no choice. Mariupol has been under attack since the beginning of a full-scale Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, the city was under blockade since March 1, and the shelling stopped only on May 20, after the last defenders left the Azovstal plant. In almost three months of fighting, the occupiers destroyed about 95% of the buildings. It is difficult to count the number of victims — the bodies are still under the rubble, the death toll could be much more than 20 thousand. Hundreds of thousands of people left the city. Many Mariupolians have been deprived of the opportunity to travel safely to the unoccupied territories. The only way for them to survive was to take buses to Russia. Olena, Svitlana and Roman from Mariupol told Babel journalist Iryna Lopatina how they escaped the war, what happened in the filtration camps, how their smartphones were checked, about FSB interrogations, and how they got from Russia to Europe and through Crimea to Georgia.

Olena

I have lived in Mariupol for 24 years, and I know every corner of it. My apartment was near the Drama Theater on Kuindzhi Street. My father lived near the Azovstal plant. On February 24, 2022, my husband returned home and said that Russia had attacked Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other Ukrainian cities. But in the center of Mariupol it was still quiet, only explosions were heard on the outskirts.

My husband offered to go to my father, because our apartment was on the fifth floor, and my father had a private house with a basement. At first, a half-year-old son and I went to spend the night with our father, and returned home during the day. But it was getting worse every day — even in the city center there were explosions, in the area of the Kirov market the shell hit the school, it was so close to me. Therefore, in early March, we moved to live with my father completely.

On March 2, the cellular connection disappeared. Somewhere on the sixth of March the gas was turned off. About 35 people of all ages already lived in my fatherʼs house at that time. He was in the restaurant business, so we had food supplies. That was enough to feed ourselves and 25 other neighbors throughout the blockade of Mariupol.

My father and other men built a fence in the yard from chairs and benches, lit a fire behind it and prepared food there. Our area was constantly bombed, there was not even an opportunity to go to the neighbors. Although there were almost no neighbors left — the area was turned into “minced meat”, only our house and a few more remained. 3 or 4 shells hit our yard. Due to the constant shelling after March 10, we moved to the basement, only to go up to the toilet. It was very cold — all the windows were broken and we covered them with carpets. There was constant darkness in the house, people were walking with flashlights. My son was in shock. The hardest part was keeping the kids in the basement because they wanted to play. My child is very active, sometimes I had to go outside for a couple of minutes.

Mariupol, June 2, 2022.

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We had no information. Ukrainian radio disappeared, and the “DPR” station appeared immediately. It said that the "liberated" areas of the city already had food and gas. It was said with the aim that the city stopped resisting. My brother went for water and saw that everything around was mined.

In mid-March, I was able to catch a broadcast on television — it was Radio Liberty. It was said that people tried to leave the city at their own risk. But we didnʼt have enough petrol, we all got colds, my aunt suffered a microstroke in the basement, and I performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on her. It was a complete horror. We were afraid to evacuate and thought that now everything would be over, some information would appear, and we would leave peacefully. But the shelling just never stopped.

Soldiers came to our yard. First, the Ukrainians, who asked us to hide them and show them the way through other houses to Azovstal. Then came Russian soldiers who were firing right from our yard, throwing grenades. The explosions shook the floor and the entire basement.

Since March 28, Russian soldiers have been stationed in our area, and the shelling has stopped. We started to go outside our house and yard to find out at least some information. Kuindzhi Street became like a sieve. A shell hit my apartment, it burned down. My sister and I went to the Illichivsk district of Mariupol, where my mother lived. We didnʼt found her, only saw the ashes from her house. It was later when I learned that she had been evacuated a few days earlier. And my brother heard about the option of leaving Mariupol via Nikolske, from there people could go to Rostov. We also heard that people can go through Berdyansk to Zaporizhzhia.

Some of our relatives went to Berdyansk, and we waited until they returned with food and information. But three days later, only the driver returned and said that there was no way from Berdyansk to [free] Ukraine due to fighting in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast. My relatives were turned back, they decided not to return to Mariupol, and immediately went to Nikolske.

The problem was that we no longer had cars: they were destroyed by a shell. My brother still managed to find the car — completely broken, without a windshield, just wheels and trunk. Russian soldiers said the next day Mariupol would be completely closed to entry and exit. We were scared, and 30 minutes before the curfew we quickly put our belongings in our gig. Some of the relatives, mostly older ones, stayed in Mariupol, as they didnʼt want to leave the house and the city. And young people and children went to Nikolske. At checkpoints our documents and belongings were checked, men were undressed and looked for tattoos.

The filtration camp in Nikolske was a two-story school. It was completely full, people were sleeping on the floor. However, there was no clear information on where people were being taken and how long the filtration would last. People were just afraid and did what they were told. We spent the night in a house which my brother found, it had broken windows and no heating. In the morning we registered for filtering. We were told that after we register, a bus will come to us and pick up a certain number of people. Those who underwent filtration could register for evacuation to Donetsk or Rostov.

The occupiers take Mariupol residents from the territory of the Azovstal plant to a filtration camp near the village of Bezimenne on May 6, 2022.

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While my husband was trying to understand these procedures, some buses approached us and the drivers said that they were going to Rostov without a need to wait for the filtration, there will just be a border check. And after registration we had to wait a long time — out bus was the 50th in the queue for filtration, and only two or three were processed per day. We understand that we will wait at least another two weeks for the filtration. And we had no clothes, no money, no food, and a lot of small children. So we decided to get on buses that were taking people to Russia without filtration. We told others that they can go without filtration. But people were often so afraid that they decided to stay and wait for filtration. The buses did not say where they were going, Russian soldiers were sitting in them. Two hours passed before the buses filled up.

We were escorted — at the beginning and end of the convoy there were cars with special signals. Some said that we would be taken to Taganrog, others said that they would leave us in Rostov, but we didnʼt care. We were taken to the customs, where we stayed for 17 hours. The whole road from Nikolske to Rostov instead of 3.5 hours took 25 hours. At the border, people started shouting, children were crying, we had a lot of animals on the bus. Due to this noise and scandals, the Russians did not interrogate us for long, they only had a short 15-minute interview selectively with several men. My husband and brother were interrogated.

We were taken through metal detectors and taken to Taganrog, where we were left at the bus station. Our relatives have already took us there. People who had no relatives were pointed to the train and ordered to board it. It turned out that the train was going to Kazan.

I did not want to stay in Russia because itʼs morally difficult to stay there. It was important for me to leave. So I went to Estonia. I learned how to get there from Ukrainians who had previously been evacuated this way. My brother and his bride went first. My husband and child and I repeated their route with stops at relatives to recover a little from the experience in Mariupol.

At the crossing of the Russian-Estonian border, the FSB interrogated us. Men were asked if they were acquainted with Azov Regiment, what was their attitude to the Russian authorities, why were they leaving Russia. But still they let is go.

In general, we really liked Estonia. But living with a neighbor like Russia is no pleasure. I decided to go as far from Russia as possible. Germany was chosen because it had the most favorable conditions. I am very scared to return to Ukraine, everything I had is now burned down. Where will I go? Maybe I will find a job and get back on my feet in 2-3 years.

An elderly woman sits on a bench in the yard on Kuindzhi Street in Mariupol, May 31, 2022.

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Svitlana

I am originally from Horlivka, I once came to Mariupol to have a rest. Driving past Azovstal, I was struck by the scale of the plant. I wanted to move to this city and work here. And my dream came true — I got married in 2010, moved to Mariupol and worked at Azovstal as a switchwoman on its railways.

February 24, 2022 began with the siren sounding at the plant in the morning, and explosions began to sound in the suburbs. The management didnʼt tell us anything about the beginning of the war, but simply asked us to go home. My husband Oleksandr immediately asked me to go to Poland with friends. But then everyone expected that there would be a green corridor along which people would be escorted by the Red Cross or the United Nations.

But in fact, everyone who left did this at their own risk. Some succeeded, some were turned back. In addition, men are not released from the country due to martial law, and I didnʼt want to leave my husband. Thatʼs why I didnʼt go to Poland then.

On February 27-28, shops were still open, people were buying something, but prices immediately rose. For example, bread for 17 hryvnias began to be sold for 150 hryvnias. It was good for those who had cash, because ATMs didnʼt work. We lived in the Lyapine village near Mariupol, but to survive we moved to an acquaintance in the city. The shelling began in early March. In a few days there was nothing left around, only ruins and a bare field.

Damaged buildings after the shelling in Mariupol, March 29, 2022.

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My husband died on March 2. That morning, he and his 17-year-old son, Danylo, went to the school to get water. They bought bread for 5 hryvnias from humanitarian supplies, which the authorities managed to bring to the city, I guess, once. Already at home, Oleksandr could not catch the cellular network and he went on the stairs to try to make a call. On the doorstep, he asked me to make him coffee. When I went out for coffee, I saw a stranger standing next to Oleksandr and Danylo. As soon as I returned to the apartment, there was a loud explosion. The front door was just moved out.

I ran to the entrance and saw Oleksandr lying on the stairs, Danielʼs face covered in blood, and of the third man only legs were left. Other parts of his body were on my husband, stepdaughter, and all over the stairs. The explosion broke a gas pipe, and people began to flee the house. Danylo had already recovered from the concussion and went to the apartment. I tried to drag my husband to the apartment, otherwise people would just trample him. However, he was seriously injured and died immediately in the apartment.

Danylo was wounded. I ran to the hospital to save him, but I didnʼt get to it. The shelling did not stop at all and the whole area — from the descent to the sea to Azovstal — was like a desert, there was nothing left. I ran, and the rockets landed next to me. I was thrown by an explosive wave into one of the basements. It so happened that a man with whom I worked at Azovstal picked me up there. The stepson and the manʼs body remained in the apartment.

For four days we couldnʼt go outside due to the growing shelling. In a state of shock, I sat in the corner and ate nothing, other people in the basement did not touch me. Maybe they thought I was crazy.

From there I moved to my acquaintances in the Skhidny neighborhood, in the private sector, near the Veselka park. There I sat in the basement too. I already learned that an acquaintance with whom we lived had arranged for my husband to be taken to the morgue and buried. Danylo was taken to hospital, later transported to Donetsk, where he has a mother and grandmother. He underwent surgery there. I learned this only in mid-April, before that I knew nothing. I sat in the basements for over a month.

In early April, mass shelling of Skhidny began, corpses were lying in the streets, dogs ate them. Now in Mariupol, wherever you go, there is a cemetery everywhere. You go, and there can be ten graves near one nine-story building. People were also buried on the lawns in the central streets. People drank water from puddles, radiators, heating tanks, they melted snow, collected rainwater, cooked food on the street.

Fresh graves in the cemetery in Mariupol, June 2, 2022. The plaque reads: "Unknown, 25-30 years".

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The "new government" of the occupiers did not ban leaving for Russia, one could get on a vehicle and leave. In April, I had no belongings left. Acquaintances went to Russia and took me with them.

First we went to Novoazovsk, where we were filtered. They took my fingerprints, took photos of criminals, checked my phone, and I filled out a questionnaire. Then I was given a piece of paper with which to go on. During the interview, I was asked how I felt about the Ukrainian government, whether I had soldiers in my family, whether I was friends with the military, or whether I was interrogated by Azov people. Such questions were asked: "Did you know that they [Azov] lived in boarding school №2?"

Yes, there was Azov near Veselka park, their base was there. However, this did not affect people. They did not go drunk, did not quarrel with anyone, did not interfere in our lives. I can talk about myself — I did not see anything wrong with them. And we didnʼt cross paths at all, they lived their lives and we lived ours.

Acquaintances somehow agreed that a filtration for us will happen in a day and we didʼt have to wait for weeks for it, I do not know how [the acquaintances did this]. First I was in Taganrog, then in Moscow, then I went to Riga. I have relatives in Ukraine, but I donʼt want to live there. Mariupol doesnʼt exist anymore. I have no relatives in other countries either. My friends invited me to Poland, and I will go there. I will look for a job, I do not want to sit on peopleʼs necks. Although it takes time to recover from everything Iʼve seen. I never thought I would collect human remains from my almost dead husband.

A Ukrainian official takes a child evacuated from the Azovstal metallurgical plant in Mariupol to the registration and treatment site for internally displaced persons in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, May 8, 2022.

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Roman

On the morning of February 24, 2022, the first explosions took place at the airport. I lived near it, or I live, I donʼt even know how to tell now. We lived in the Prymorsky district in a private house. The day before I asked my wife to collect things, documents, clothes, We have two small children. I put them in the car and ran to take my mother. But she said she would not go anywhere and stay with her mother.

We went to the gas station, there were queues already. I managed to fill a full tank of gasoline, on which I drove until March 17. We went to strangers to Starodubivka village, 50 km from Mariupol on the road to Berdyansk. Already on March 2 the village was captured by the Russian army, communication and electricity were lost. Shells flew into neighboring houses. When the shooting started right under the windows of our house, I went down to the basement with the children. The fierce battle lasted for about three hours, and there were shellings for another day or two. Then it became quiet, people began to leave the basements.

Relatives began to come to us in Starodubivka. But the house is not ours, there is not enough space, so on March 10 we moved to the old house of our friends in Urzuf. This is a resort where life was only during the summer season. But in early March, there were already many people fleeing the war. There was no connection with Mariupol. I heard the news from there only from people who managed to get out of the city in shot cars.

On March 15, my sister and her husband and daughter escaped from the city via the Melekyne highway. The next day my relatives came and brought my grandmother, and my mother stayed in Mariupol. On the morning of March 17, I went to the city myself. I drove in from the Melekyne highway, there were still mines lying on the road I had to go around, I saw several burned APCs and tanks. It was relatively well in the area of my house, just several missiles hit it. Dozens of people lived in the basements of our private sector. Our neighbors had 30 people, I had 14 people in the basement with an area of not more than 15 square meters.

Destroyed tank in Mariupol, May 30, 2022.

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These people were still lucky — nearby there was a base with instant food, the owner of which lived on our street. When the shell hit the base, the military first came and looted it, then the police, and then the base owner came and told people that they could take food from there. Water was collected from a ravine nearby. However, getting the water was the most dangerous — because of the shelling it could be a one-way ticket.

I took my mother and a neighbor with his son. I forbade them to take their belongings because I still had to pick up my godmother with her two children, her husband and her mother from Bakhchivanji Street, which I had to drive through half the city. I took up to 10 people that day to Melekyne to the acquaintanceʼs dacha. The same day I returned for another of my godparents, who lived in the 22nd district. But it was difficult to get there due to the shelling, and pillars and various debris lying on the roads. I left the car in the 17th district, came to her and her 2-month-old baby on foot. However, they refused to leave. After long persuasions, I offered to just toss a coin so that fate would decide for us. It fell on the side which convinced them not to go.

But will I go back empty? So I caught the cellular network and opened Facebook, which had many requests to pick up people from Mariupol. I found a woman with three children who was in high school №2. In addition to them, I took three other people from the gymnasium and took them to Melekyne. In general, I visited the city 4-5 times and took people out, but later they [the occupiers] stopped letting me in.

Children play in a wrecked car in the residential area of Mariupol, May 29, 2022.

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While we were in Urzuf, [the occupiers] started going from house to house to check who was living there. At checkpoints they began to tell that a document about filtration is needed. We passed it in Nikolske. First of all, they filtered the people they took from Mariupol to Rostov and Donetsk. Until then, people lived in the school building. We were on our own transport and approached the filtration point between two buses. As we were with children, they took us without the need to wait in line. The Russians have a questionnaire there: did one fight or did one help the Ukrainian army. They checked tattoos, looked at the phone. I did not remove anything from it, because when I came to Mariupol, I didnʼt take photos. I have 5,000 photos there, they looked through them and thatʼs it. My mother was checked for a long time, her correspondence with classmates was found. But she was released, although she could be taken out after the guys who did not pass the test. Those who did not pass the filtration were put on a bus and taken away.

I was given a funny piece of paper with a wet stamp, written "dactyloscopied" on it, my name, surname, and the date were handwritten. This piece of paper testified that a person isnʼt connected with the Ukrainian army and can move around the territory of the “DPR”.

I immediately took my mother, grandmother and aunt to Rostov and returned to Urzuf for my family. Then some passes began to appear. So in addition to the fact that you go through the filtration, to get to Mariupol you need a separate pass. Then they began to demand a pass to travel between the villages. One checkpoint was running normally, at another there were already problems, someone in demanded cigarettes and vodka, someone — money...

The last time I rushed to Mariupol was on the morning of April 9, but we were banned from going there right near the city. I took my last relatives in Urzuf and went to the Crimea via Berdyansk, Melitopol, and Armyansk. I decided to go to Georgia. There were about 30 Russian checkpoints, the last five in front of the border. They searched the whole car again, I filled out a questionnaire and went for questioning by the FSB. One of their officers found on my phone one message with words "ours is are giving a good lesson to them". He asked: "Do you support Ukraine?" I replied that I support people who remained in the basements without water and food. And he said: "So, did you take a lot of them [from Mariupol]?" I replied that there were 42 people, and he let me go. In total, the road from Urzuf to Georgia took us six days.

I canʼt live in Russia. My older relatives may be able to, and I donʼt want looking at those Russian faces at all. My mother, grandmother and aunt are in Russia now, maybe they will come to me in Georgia. Relatives are waiting for the opportunity to return to Mariupol. Iʼm looking for a remote job in the IT field, and those who are older, what should they do? They will return to Mariupol anyway, to any Mariupol — will it be in “DPR", in Russia, will it have electricity or wonʼt they will live there under any conditions. I think there may be 30 percent of Mariupolians who want to get back there. But I definitely will not live in the occupied Mariupol. Will I be back when Ukraine liberates it? Maybe, but Iʼm not sure. Or maybe the second front will open, and I will come with the Georgian army.

Dandelions in front of a ruined apartment building in Mariupol, May 31, 2022.

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Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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