“Sometimes hope returns to me. But sometimes it leaves, and I think that we are all going to die,” says Anastasiia Kiseliova, a 40-year-old mother of three, as she walks through the streets of Mariupol, voice-recording herself on an iPhone.
“The city is gone,” she adds, her voice trembling. She bursts into tears seconds later.
Kiseliova’s hometown, Mariupol, once populated by nearly half a million Ukrainians, was razed to the ground by the Russian army. Ceaseless bombardment and shelling didn’t leave a single building untouched, local authorities said. Thousands have already been killed by Russian attacks or even starvation and dehydration, as Russia’s blockade left the city without any utilities, food, or water.
Despite Ukraine's continuous efforts to evacuate Mariupol citizens, over 100,000 civilians remain trapped in the city.
“Every day and night we have spent in the cellar,” Kiseliova says in the video, a few seconds after a round of explosions is heard in the background. “We cried, prayed, and really wanted to survive.”
She will later pass those recordings to the Kyiv Independent during an interview arranged at a Lviv-based beauty salon, where she took her children for skin treatment after finally escaping Mariupol. Her daughter, 17-year-old Kristina, developed acne after experiencing trauma and stress. Seven-year-old Kostya, the son, had irritation on his hands for all the same reasons.
Kiseliova’s district of Mariupol, Prymorskyi, was under attacks from day one, when Russia launched a full-scale offensive against Ukraine on Feb. 24.
“Schools, apartments, private houses, they dropped bombs on everything,” she recalled.
Together with her three children and other family members, Kiseliova spent a week in a cellar under her house.
A large missile hit their property, sliding under the house, but not exploding. Another missile hit their neighbors' yard. The family made a decision to leave, driving over to Kiseliova’s parents.
For two weeks, her husband, who is working abroad, thought that his wife and children were dead. All communications in the city have been shut since early March, meaning that many thousands of Ukrainians with friends and family in Mariupol have no way of knowing if they are alive.
All over Ukraine, the Russian military showed no mercy to civilians and civilian infrastructure, deliberately targeting populated areas.
One time, when around a hundred civilians lined up for bread near a local shop, a missile hit right into the crowd, killing an unknown number of people, Kiseliova said. She saw three dead bodies.
Trying to escape Mariupol on March 17, Kiseliova joined a column of civilian cars that moved towards the outskirts of the city. For hours, she drove her three children, as well as her oldest son's girlfriend, to safety, maneuvering between unexploded missiles and hundreds of mines that were scattered through roads and fields.
At all Russian checkpoints, soldiers seemed to be extremely polite first, Kiseliova said. “They offered us water and bread, as if to make themselves look like liberators.”
Her daughter Kristina quickly corrected her.
“But they smirked,” the girl said. “They laughed at us.”
The next day, as evacuating cars carefully moved through a mined field just outside Mariupol, near an abandoned village of Kamianka, Russians shelled the convoy.
"They shelled cars that had signs that said 'children'," Kiseliova said. "One car was burned down, five people were injured. One girl had surgery performed right in the field."
After crossing into Ukrainian territory, the family eventually made their way to Lviv, a regional capital in western Ukraine that has become the main destination for internally displaced Ukrainians flocking from the east, south and north.
“I didn’t want to leave Mariupol until the very end, until a person was killed in front of me,” says Maria Ruban-Vaskevich, 44, tightly holding onto an icon while sitting at a hostel in central Lviv.
Behind her are her two kids, Vasilisa, 12, and Volodymyr, 11, and a few small bags of clothes. This is all they got left after escaping from besieged Mariupol.
“I was scared that if we sleep in our (apartment) building and a missile hits it, we will be blown to dust,” Ruban-Vaskevich told the Kyiv Independent. When the all-out war began, she and her children relocated to her brother’s household appliances store.
Escaping, she was torn about leaving behind her elderly mother, who couldn’t walk due to injuries and had diabetes.
“When houses began to burn, my brother was worried that our mother might burn to death,” Ruban-Vaskevich said.
So her brother stayed with their mom.
“He had fire extinguishers and a bath full of water,” Ruban-Vaskevich said. If a missile or a shell ignites a fire in their home, he was ready to put it out, he said.
One day, as Ruban-Vaskevich and her family were hiding in her brother’s store, Russian soldiers shot a civilian man, named Viktor, right near the entrance.
“Guys, why did you shoot me for a cigarette?” she recalls Viktor crying, as he fell on the ground. He appeared to simply want to smoke.
At the Russians' request, two young medics came to the scene, but were helpless. The bullet went through his stomach.
“He won't live. I know this smell,” one of the medics said, even though Viktor was still breathing.
As he was dying, he asked Ruban-Vaskevich to collect his documents from his house nearby. The medics would take him to the hospital, the man thought, but that never happened.
Instead, he died in the arms of Ruban-Vaskevich, as she was trying to stop his bleeding with medical tape.
The next day, on March 22, the woman saw a nine-story apartment building burning in its entirety. She also saw three Russian tanks shooting at an apartment block. She knew she had to leave.
“I was scared that they can come at night, rape us, take our kids and kill them,” she says. “We are pieces of meat for them. They hate us. I don’t know what for."
For days, her family walked through the city which became filled with graves, dead bodies, and burning houses. There was a car with a large pool of blood underneath. And a body of a man without arms and legs.
On the outskirts of Mariupol, a column of a few hundred people stood waiting for evacuation. Russian soldiers were putting desperate people on buses to Vedmezhe (Volodarske), a Russian-occupied town in Luhansk Oblast.
Russian soldiers have already deported around 40,000 Mariupol residents to Russia and occupied territories of Donbas, Ukrainian authorities said. Ukrainians are first taken to filtration camps where their personal information is collected. After that, many are sent to distant and impoverished regions of Russia, Ukraine’s intelligence said.
Together with the kids, Ruban-Vaskevich stood in line for 30 minutes, when a stranger came up offering to get them out to Zaporizhzhia, a Ukraine-controlled city where most escapees from Mariupol arrive. Together with three other families, the volunteer drove them to safety.
“We got so lucky,” Ruban-Vaskevich said. “In a month, they turned our life into a horror movie. It’s not even comparable to hell.”
Violetta Tarasenko, a 28-year-old videographer who was born and raised in Avdiivka, a town just a field away from occupied territories of Donetsk Oblast, hasn't cried once since the invasion began.
As she was rolling a cigarette before the interview, she seemed entirely calm and at peace.
“I think I haven't had a chance to comprehend what happened,” she said.
On Feb. 24, Tarasenko got a call from a friend at 6 a.m. He asked her whether she heard any explosions in Mariupol. Startled, she went on her phone, where Telegram news channels told her that her country was being invaded.
Tarasenko’s rented apartment was on the fifth floor of a residential building that stood by a military base. This was an easy target, so Tarasenko went to stay with her friend’s family, whose home was on the first floor, in a different district.
Heating, water, gas, and any other utilities were gone almost immediately. So did the internet and mobile connection.
“We were left with nothing but cold, empty boxes,” Tarasenko said about people’s homes, each and every one of which soon became a target for Russian tanks and missiles.
The Russian blockade of the city left hundreds of thousands of people entirely in isolation.
“We didn’t know that the city was encircled,” Tarasenko told the Kyiv Independent. “No one knew anything.”
“The entire world watched it happen. But we had to talk to people on the streets to see what was going on.”
During the first week of war, Tarasenko’s district was mainly intact. But that relative safety didn’t last. “A week in, they began bombing our area. A plane flew around and dropped bombs on random places.”
“This, the planes, was the scariest thing,” she said.
A few minutes away from Tarasenko was Neptune – a freshly renovated swimming pool complex, which turned into a populated shelter, as well a place to meet, share food and water, and learn any news about the city. On March 16, the Russian military bombed Neptune. The number of casualties, among which are pregnant women and children, remains unknown.
When Neptune was bombed, Tarasenko and her friends were just a few houses away, trying to catch a car to leave Mariupol. After the blast, they took shelter and decided to try again the next morning.
Tarasenko’s group of six was able to jump into four cars that were escaping Mariupol the next day. To safely get through Russian checkpoints, she deleted all social media apps and photos of the city off her phone.
“They checked our IDs and phones,” Tarasenko said. “One soldier took another girl’s phone and stood there laughing, scrolling through her private chats on Telegram.”
“How is Mariupol? Was it bombed pretty badly?” the occupants asked, smirking and faking sympathy. “See what the Ukrainian army does?”
In two days, the group reached Zaporizhzhia, leaving the nightmare in Mariupol behind.
“No one counts the dead there. We buried people in our yard. There are cemeteries in every park. And how many people burned in their homes? How many died of natural causes and just lay in their flats? No one will find them.”
On April 6, Mariupol City Council said the Russian military began using mobile crematoriums to burn the bodies of killed Ukrainians.
Ukraine may never uncover the true scale of Russia’s atrocities in Mariupol.
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