“Tell us we're alive”
“We're leaving for Marik (that's how Mariupol is called in Donetsk) in the morning,” our escort from the People's Militia of the DPR informed me the night before with a call sign “Cat”. “We have to do everything…” It was the next day, after the entire city, with the exception of Azvostal, came under the control of the Donetsk Republic.
Photo: Lina Korsak
In the morning, at the appointed time, I go down to the hotel lobby. Of the journalists, only me and a colleague from another publication, so we are traveling in the same car.
– This is my sister Natasha, – pointing to a 45-year-old woman standing next to the car, “Cat” explains. – She needs to be taken home to Mariupol.
– Wow, everything is from there, and you there,” I turn to my fellow traveler in surprise.
“Yes,” she smiled, as if embarrassed by the sudden attention. – I have a cat there. I already thought that I was leaving for a couple of days, but I was late. Well, I left the keys for my neighbor to feed her.
The checkpoint at the exit from Donetsk passed without problems, the car of our escort, apparently, is well known to the local military.
We pass a sign with the inscription “Volnovakha”. We stop to stick a white band-aid on the arm and leg. All our servicemen, as well as the fighters of the LPR and DPR, have exactly the same identification marks.
– So there will be fewer questions, – explains «Cat».
We move on.
There is a long line of cars in front of the next checkpoint. We have to slow down too. DPR fighters carefully look at the documents of each passerby, some are asked to open the trunk.
At the entrance to Mariupol, the situation repeats itself.
To meet us, waiting for permission to leave – a large cluster of cars. Looking at the condition of some, one involuntarily wonders: how can this technique go at all – pierced by bullets, pierced by fragments, without a single glass, with twisted iron. Almost all have white rags tied to the side mirrors and the words “Children” on doors or hood. This is how people try to somehow secure their movement.
– Now let's go to the Cheryomushki area, – clarifies “Cat”. – At the same time, look at the city center.
The picture in the center of Mariupol is no less terrible than on the outskirts. Destroyed black high-rise buildings, shops burned almost to the ground. In some places miraculously preserved inscriptions in Ukrainian: “Salon of stiletto sound”, “Clothes”, “Currency exchange”… On the roller shutters of some, there are painted inscriptions “There is nothing”, “Everything is stolen”.
“But this is the same maternity hospital that Russia allegedly bombed,” the driver explains, pointing with a gesture of his head at the multi-colored buildings, with the blackening eye sockets of broken windows. (“Azov” is a terrorist organization banned in Russia. – “MK”).
Photo: Lina Korsak
According to our “guide”, once Cheryomushki was one of the most peaceful and comfortable areas of the city. However, the trouble did not bypass him either.
We drive into the yard. Unlike the center, here we can say that it is quite crowded. On the patch, people lined up for bread are actively discussing something.
– May I say hello through you? – Addresses us, seeing the inscription “PRESSA”, an elderly man who introduced himself as Ageev Nikolai Yuryevich. – Otherwise, relatives don’t know if we are alive or not.
– Of course.
– A big hello to my sister Alexandra Yurievna. I'm alive. Only Sasha, my son is gone. I don't know where he is, I can't find him. March 7, as he left and that's it. I'm waiting, maybe there will be more…
Locals say that the area is already quiet. People on their own begin to put the streets in order, sort out the rubble, sweep away the fragments. They are just worried about the large number of mines and stretch marks in the yards left by the “defenders of Ukraine”.
Everyone tries to walk exclusively on paved roads, so that, God forbid, trouble does not happen. The sappers of the Ministry of Emergency Situations of the Donetsk Republic have already begun demining the courtyards of the city, but, as they themselves admit, there are so many mines here that the work will last for a long time. Only the Russian army helps. International humanitarian organizations do not notice the problem. The West, on the contrary, sends and sends tons of weapons to Ukraine.
– Come on, we'll show you the unexploded “hail” on the playground. The shank just sticks out of the ground, – Nikolai Yuryevich suggests.
We go track after track, peering under our feet. This is one of the basic rules. Second, do not lift anything from the ground. Even seemingly harmless little things can carry a mortal danger.
We stop at a distance. The residents themselves surrounded the terrible discovery with bricks. What-no, but a security measure. Under the windows of the residential building, next to which the hail landed, there are two graves. Exactly the same as I have already seen in the Kirovsky district of Mariupol. Hillocks with wooden crosses knocked together from boards. No flowers, no fence.
Photo: Lina Korsak
– Do not leave the body on the street, – the pensioner sighs .- We tried humanly.
We return to the house. Near the outer entrance, a young woman with a tired face in a dirty gray jacket is cooking something in a charred saucepan on a makeshift stove. Clothes are dried here.
– What have you been eating all this time? – I'm interested in the pensioner.
– Yes, whoever had what they ate. Who has cereals, who has seaming from the winter. We shared among ourselves.
– There were 35 of us in the basement, – a woman joins the conversation. – More precisely, at first there were 50, then two families left. The children are here with us. The youngest is two years old. How can they survive this?
The man says that the Nazis regularly shelled high-rise buildings.
– All the Nazis did this, – not embarrassed by obscene words, the interlocutor points with his hand at the dilapidated buildings.
Nikolai Yuryevich said that before the start special operations «Azov» rarely looked into Cheryomushki. But when it all started, they began to visit regularly.
– They will arrive in a businesslike way on a white Ford: “Something was not working well.” And as soon as they leave – shelling.
We descend into a makeshift shelter. In the weak light of the lantern, the life of the dungeon is difficult to see. Gradually, the eyes get used to the twilight. Right next to the entrance on the wall is a shelf with icons.
Photo: Lina Korsak
Residents say that the basement was hastily equipped. Whoever could bring what they could from home: furniture, blankets, kitchen utensils. The beds were made from wooden pallets. In one of the rooms there is an impromptu children's corner. Here they all hid together for almost two months.
– How did you warm yourself in the cold?
– With blankets. There is nothing more, – the woman answers. – For the children, they warmed the sand, wrapped it in rags and put it under their feet. Adapted, in a word. It also happened that for several days it was not possible to leave the basement to get water. Drinking rain. Thank God that at least it rained. It was terrible. A tank fired at our basement.
Bending down so as not to crash into some pipe in the dark, we make our way into the basement compartment, where a tank shell has landed. A huge hole gapes at the place of his hit.
– The roar was such, they thought, that's all, it will bury us here. For several days, the children only fell asleep on sedatives, crying all the time.
Also, half-bent, we get out to the surface.
– Come on, I'll show you another basement. There were 400 of us there, – offers a young man named Eugene.
– They lived in rooms for 18-20 people, – the man says on the way. – My child was only two months old when it all started. Now it's three and a half. Thank God, a couple of days ago I sent my wife and her little one to Rostov.
– Why didn't you leave yourself? – I'm interested in the interlocutor?
– And who needs me there? – Eugene replies with bitterness in his voice. – No work, no housing. And someone has to put things in order here now.
Photo: Lina Korsak
At the entrance to the entrance there is a home-made stove made of bricks, scattered dishes and off-white women's sneakers left by someone. Despite all the signs of the recent presence of people here, there is not a soul around. This makes it a little uncomfortable. “Cat” pulls out of the PM holster. The city is still full of escaped National Battalion members, who, under the guise of ordinary citizens, are hiding in houses.
– There is no need to be extra careful, our escort repeats not for the first time. We turn on the flashlights on the phones and go down to the basement. Long, in a faint reflection of light, the dark corridor seems endless. On both sides – compartments, curtained with rags – “rooms”.
– Look how many people lived here, – Evgeny moves one of the curtains.
Clothes and children's toys are scattered on the floor among multi-colored blankets and blankets. There are also kitchen utensils and leftover food. It can be seen that the residents fled from the basement as quickly as they settled in it.
Yevgeny says that, leaving the apartments, the Nazis who settled in them, for some reason, set fire to them. Maybe they wanted to destroy the traces of their stay, or maybe because of the constant drug intoxication, they completely lost the remnants of humanity. After all, the Ukrainian military knew for sure about the people sitting in the basement.
The inhabitants only guessed about the fire upstairs when the basement began to fill with acrid smoke, and the plastic pipes located above began to melt. Some began to lose consciousness and suffocate. At first, people tried to break through the wall to create ventilation, but nothing came of it. So they ran out, despite the incessant shelling on the street, who was in what, not even having time to collect personal belongings. Someone didn't have time to run out…
– We have already pulled out several bodies, – the darkness of the dungeon adds even more horror to the story of Eugene. “But it’s starting to get warmer, and soon they’ll start to decompose. To have time to bury everyone.
As a confirmation of his words – a female body lying on the floor in the middle of one of the rooms. The dirty green color of the skin and the swollen belly indicate that the corpse has been here for far more than a day.
– Just imagine, – Eugene continues, – we are ordinary people. Most had no idea how to survive in such conditions. They don't even know what a “Kagan” is. Do you know?
I shake my head.
– “Kaganets” This is such a homemade candle. You take a potato, cut a hole in it, insert cotton wool and dip it in oil. Back in the 90s, I did such things when there was no electricity.
According to the man's story, people provided medical assistance to each other themselves. When the first blows began, one of the neighbors' wrist was torn off.
– I'm not a doctor, I don't know how it's right. I remember from the time of my service in the army that a tourniquet must be applied. So I pulled his hand all night for an hour and a half, then let go for 20 minutes. He still had a hole under his lung, and his legs were cut a little by shrapnel. Then the military came and took that guy to the hospital. Tell me what we did to deserve all this?..
We return to the car. People are crowding around it.
– Please tell our relatives that we are alive, – with hope in their voice, they hold out scraps of paper with phone numbers. – Can you do it?
I nod my head in the affirmative, collecting notes. Goodbye…