Ukraine war: The first safe stop after the siege

Tens of thousands flee a devastated Mariupol, the coastal city under siege by Putin since February. Many are sheltering here in Zaporizhia

Mariupol invasion Rusia
A child plays in a shelter in Zaporizhia.Albert Garcia (EL PAÍS)
Cristian Segura

After meeting one month ago in a basement in the city of Mariupol in the province of Donetsk, the Smirnova and Marakov families say they will be friends forever. They were together when their homes and life as they knew it were destroyed in the Russian invasion of the city.

Now, along with 100 other evacuees from the war front in eastern Ukraine, they are sheltering in a factory in the town of Zaporizhia. The families share some 10 square meters, with two bunk beds covered in donated sheets and just enough space to fit some luggage, personal hygiene products, children’s toys and a cat.

Yulia Smirnova caresses her son Yan almost obsessively. When he’s not around, she cries quietly; if he is by her side and she can hug him, she stops crying.

Vera is a mother of 10 who fled a few days ago from her village, which is now occupied by the Russians, in the same province of Zaporizhia [Zaporizhia is the name of the town where the families are sheltering in the factory and also the name of the province the town belongs to].

Vera decided to leave when a patrol of soldiers showed up at her house and asked if she could let them have her daughters for a few hours.

Playing ball and shooting a play gun at Vera’s daughters, nine-year-old Yan is a whirlwind and the most active of the 20 children living in the factory. The authorities ask the media not to identify the precise location of the factory, because they fear it could be a target of Russian attacks.

Warnings from Ukrainian authorities not to spread images or information about where people are sheltering only increased with the April 8 bombing of the Kramatorsk railway station in Donetsk, where 56 people were killed while waiting for a train to leave the front.

The Ukrainians say Putin’s troops are spreading terror in order to empty out the territory and occupy it.

Humanitarian corridors have been established out of Mariupol, which has been besieged by the Russians for weeks. At least 100,000 civilians are trapped. Every day, a few hundred are able to leave.

Vladislav Moroko, the Zaporizhia regional government’s director of Information and Culture, says that most of the civilians using the corridors are now arriving from Berdyansk, the second largest port city on the Sea of Azov and 50 kilometers away from Mariupol. Thousands from Mariupol took shelter there, reluctant to move west and hoping to return to their hometown as soon as possible.

Katarina Chernova is the coordinator of the shelter at the factory where the Smirnovs and Makarovs have been living for the last five days. She says the Russian occupiers are imposing new conditions which are pushing many to flee from Berdyansk to Zaporizhia, which is the closest territory held by Ukraine.

“Russia is imposing the use of the ruble and the use of Russian companies for essential services,” says Chernova. Furthermore, Russian soldiers are increasingly breaking into people’s houses, where they “interrogate the inhabitants and take what they want.”

Total conquest: Russia’s brutal offensive on Donetsk province

Yulia Smirnova and Olga Marakova arrived from Berdyansk to Zaporizhia on April 11. Relatives fleeing from Russian-controlled areas agreed to drive them to this city on the banks of the Dnieper river, just 20 kilometers from where the Russians have taken up position. Buses cannot move through the invaded territory, Smirnova and Marakova confirm, as did other Ukrainians consulted by EL PAÍS.

As the new friends weigh up which country of the European Union they will move to, they are certain that they will not return to Donetsk province where Mariupol is located and where the siege continues. There, Russia is waging a brutal offensive in order to conquer the region completely.

Of the siege of Mariupol, two days in particular stand out in Makarova’s memory: March 8, when a tank fired on her mother’s house, killing her; and March 21, when they left the air-raid shelter where they had been living for a week, crowded in with other neighbors. They had no water, electricity or heating, and to prepare their food they had to light fires in the street above. On March 21 a Russian armored brigade stormed in and the soldiers demanded that the neighbors go back underground. The men said that they could not cook inside the shelter because the space would fill up with smoke. The response from the Russians was to open fire: one civilian was killed and four sustained bullet wounds.

In Zaporizhia on Thursday this newspaper interviewed 6 families from Mariupol. All had lost their homes. Anastasia Ocheretina shows EL PAÍS a video recorded on her phone of her apartment destroyed by the impact of a missile. Her eight-year-old son, Vladik, interrupts to show her a stuffed toy and some shoes that he has been given for his little brother, a one-year-old baby. Vladik smiles because they have also given him some pencils and a coloring book. Mother and son are at the refugee reception point set up by the Zaporizhia City Council.

Orechetina is traveling with her two children, her husband, and the latter’s grandmother. They have traveled 200 kilometers through war zones in a convoy of three cars. Each Russian roadblock was an ordeal, they say, for fear that something might happen to the men. The children’s great-grandmother, Galina Federivna, sips tea while sitting in a tent as UN staff and volunteers file past her; in front of her lie panels holding dozens of pages written by hand or typed on a computer. They are requests for information about people, adults and children whose whereabouts are unknown. The last request was posted by a certain Alexander, who is looking for his parents, Dimitri and Svetlana Suslova, residents of Mariupol. He has included their photographs and a phone number.

Municipal buses leave from this reception center for the railway station, where trains leave for Lviv, near the Polish border; a 20-hour journey. Vladislav Moroko says the refugees from Zaporizhia stay here in the center, while those who have fled Mariupol want to get as far away from the front as possible:

“There is a big difference,” says the regional government worker. “The people of Mariupol do not trust that the war will stay on the other side of the Dnieper River. They are more psychologically affected.”

Tatiana Zvyagentseva, 57, waits inside a bus station clutching her backpack with both hands as if for dear life. A cloth bag with her remaining belongings lies at her feet. She left Mariupol for Berdyansk on March 16, when her house was razed to the ground. She wants to get to the west, to where her son lives in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk.

Zvyagentseva doesn’t know if it was the Russian or Ukrainian army that destroyed her home, nor does she know if her parents are still alive - she hasn’t heard from them in three weeks as phones and the internet are not working. She says the first thing she will do is go back to Mariupol, whether the Russians are there or not, to find her parents and get them out of there.

The middle-aged Zvyagentseva also wants to find a new job, as she needs income after working her whole adult life in the human resources department of Illich (named after Lenin), Mariupol’s largest steel company.

Three of her colleagues died during the siege: one at home, another while driving his car, and the third on the street. She says she continues to ask herself the same question, weeks later: Were they even buried?

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