February 3, 2023

Opinion: Escapees from Mariupol tell of ‘hell on Earth’

5 min read

At one point, the explosions became so intense that Halina, 59, ran to the basement whenever she put something else in the pot. “Add the carrots – run to the basement, put the potatoes – run to the basement,” he told me last week at a hospital in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, which has become a safe haven in the country.

This is where Halina and her daughter, Natalia, 37, are being treated for the devastating wounds caused by an explosion at their hostel later that day.

“March 15 was a dark day,” Halina said. As the shelling escalated, Natalia finally persuaded her mother and her husband, Andrew, to flee. They were in a room on the second floor, talking about their evacuation plans when the attack took place.

Halina said she heard a growl. Her ears started ringing, she was dizzy. The next thing she knew was that her face was bleeding and the right side of her body felt like it was on fire. He looked inside, he was recklessly digging for debris, dust and pieces of glass. Natalia was buried downstairs, with only her foot sticking out.

Natalia lost her right eye. He also suffered a broken skull and a broken jaw. The young woman had a broken arm and deep scars on her face. His mother was also seriously injured. He showed me a deep, incurable cut on his right side, thigh, knee and ankle.

Natalia, along with her husband Andrei, lost her right eye during an attack in Mariupol in mid-March at Levi's Hospital.

Two other people were in the room with him at the time. Both were killed. Natalia’s sons Maxim, 5, and Edward, 19, were in the basement at the time of the attack and were unharmed.

Mariupol, on the northern shore of the Sea of ​​Azov, has been under constant attack by Russian forces since early March. Citizens fleeing Mariupol have called it hell on earth for me. A beautiful, unrecognizable city, its buildings blackened and destroyed by constant Russian bombardment and shelling, with corpses, debris and shell fragments lying in the streets.

It is not alone. As a researcher for Human Rights Watch, I have spoken to dozens of people who have fled bombings and shelling in various Ukrainian towns and cities. I have spoken to people who feared for their lives, who sought protection only for themselves and their children, and who told me about the indescribable violence during this war.

Mother and daughter Halina and Natalia at Mariupol's birthday party in May 2021.

Like countless others in Ukraine, Helena’s family lost their home and everything they had in a matter of weeks. He almost lost his life.

From early March, without electricity or gas, people in Mariupol began cooking on open fires near the entrances to their buildings. That’s why Halina told me, on the day of the attack, she was making soup outside in a large 30-liter pot.

The people Halina was caring for in the hostel included at least 50 children and several elderly people who were not very mobile. Natalia had been trying to persuade Halina to flee for weeks, but she was reluctant because she felt guilty for leaving behind people who had a car or other means of transportation. was not. “I felt responsible for them,” he said.

After the explosion at the hostel, Halina and Natalia were taken to Mariupol Hospital No. 3. It was a horrible sight, dark and practically desolate, with piles of blood on the floor. Most of the doctors and paramedics had fled. The doctor who applied the stitches to Helena’s face kept begging her to stop him amid the acute shortage of painkillers. She said the pain was unbearable, but she knew it was worse for her daughter.

The family spent 36 hours in the hospital, with Halina sleeping on a bench in the hallway while the shelling continued. There was no doctor or nurse to change the dressing on their wounds.

Two days later, on March 17, the whole family got into Andrew’s car – which had bullet holes but was still working – out of town.

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Halina said she passed through about 20 Russian checkpoints. At a checkpoint, a Russian soldier looked at their wounded faces and asked: “Who did this to you?”

“I really wanted to answer, ‘You did it!'” Halina told me. “But it’s really better to keep your mouth shut when you’re dealing with a gunman.”

Russian forces patrolling the checkpoints told the family that they could only go to the nearby town of Berdyansk on the southeast coast, which is currently occupied by Russian forces. But the family was determined to stay in the Ukrainian-controlled territory, so they risked a detour to reach the city of Zaporizhiya. After receiving immediate medical attention there, the family took a train to Lviv on the other side of the country for more intensive care.

Although many others did not have this option. People fleeing Mariupol recently told me that Russian forces had given residents no choice but to go to Russia or Russian-controlled territory.

Only those who had their own cars or had enough cash to access alternative transport could often travel to other parts of Ukraine via dangerous escape routes. Many other Mariopol residents seem to have perished in Russia – against their will and No way out. About 120,000 others remain in Mariupol, according to city officials, but the exact number cannot be confirmed.

In Lviv, Natalia spent the day in intensive care and has just started eating on her own. He will need an artificial eye. “Halina is in constant pain, but she can only worry about her daughter at the moment,” he said.

As my partner and I were leaving the hospital, I saw Maxim walking around the empty halls of the hospital. He stopped to stare at me, smiled, then lost interest and ran away.

Natalia and Andrew said they did not want Maxim to experience war in his life. While still in Mariupol, they desperately tried to save him, saying the loud explosions were just fireworks.

“He asked, ‘What happens during the day? Why can’t I see them?’ We told him the Russians had come and they set off fireworks. We persuaded him for two weeks, then he found out they were bombs and tanks. But he was very brave. ”

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