Heartbreak

Nobody Will Ever Be Psychologically Okay After Surviving Mariupol

Photo: Irina Bg / Shutterstock
newborn holding mother's hand

She was born very small.

Premature childbirth because everyone got sick. Tiny little thing, dissatisfied with everything. These days my sister, despite going through it all, says that she is the happiest person because she has everything.

Now six of us will get back on our feet in Vinnytsia and decide on the next move. No matter the place, there’s no feeling of complete safety anymore. That’s all over.

In Mariupol, I worked at a chain beauty supply store, and my husband was out to sea for a year. Typical port city situation. There were five of us: dad, mom, my two younger sisters (one was nine months pregnant), and me.

The streets

When the war started, small subdivisions and villages outside of the city were occupied rapidly, all at once. Fighting was raging on the routes out of the city, so we couldn’t react, form a column, and evacuate.

When electricity and water went out, people stopped coming to work. Instead, their stores were broken into. People were looting, stealing food and supplies, things they needed and didn’t. Mad Max universe.

Store windows everywhere were covered in blood. People were fighting the looters with fists and stones, pushing one another to get the last bread and water. All that was happening in the midst of shooting, mine explosions, and airstrikes.

Photo: Author

You’d go into a store, and the planes would come. You’d hear rockets whistling, mines exploding. People falling to the ground, covering their faces and ears. My hands were shaking nonstop.

The scariest part was when the gas went out. It was -10°C outside, snowing. All the trees were wet. It’s hard to make fire with that. People started bringing out old tables and chairs to make fires for meals. Other old furniture was burned to stay warm.

People managed somehow to find food and share it with one another. Our family is big. We had to come outside often in order to cook and feed everyone.

There was a bomb shelter next to us, though it was actually basement storage for a gym. When 1,000 people from a nearby village were evacuated and placed there, it was maxed out. The planes would come, and we would run there, but they wouldn’t let us in. They told us to hide in buildings, under fences, anywhere else.

By this point, buildings were already destroyed. We were breathing dust and smoke. The snow was falling mixed with ashes.

Photo: Author

We never knew where the flying was coming from. We heard a loud shot, then whistling. You only have time to react and drop to the ground, open your mouth, close your eyes, and cover your head.

One time my dad and I got caught under fire while we were trying to get some water for the family. Fear made me cry. The first thought is ”we are going to die!” The second, “Good thing I will die fast, it’s better than getting crippled and dying in agony.” But my dad said, “You can’t cry now; you won’t see where to run to.”

I was living through it: every shooting, every day, until March 17.

Buildings

The buildings around us were burning up like a box of matches. How are you going to call the fire department when there’s no connection? How are you going to put the fire out if there’s no water?

When a missile hit a building, people ran. Bedridden or pets stayed and burned alive.

Other old people, who stayed in Mariupol and couldn’t walk or run fast enough, refused to eat. This way, they could die faster and not burden their families.

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At night it wasn’t so scary. Our building had no windows anymore, but the temperature inside was 4°C; in the basement it was 2°C. So, we tried wrapping ourselves in blankets and getting some sleep on our beds. At least one person kept watch and listened at all times. If we heard them yell “plane!” we ran out.

It was scarier during the day. Missiles were flying from everywhere. One spot would get hit with up to five at a time, and the building would explode with people inside.

Our building got hit for the first time on March 5. The shelling from the missile wounded a little girl from the first floor, tearing off her glutes. A woman was brought in from the second-floor walk-up, her legs broken in all places, hanging like spaghetti.

Photo: Author

Ever since I was a child, I’ve always wanted to be a surgeon. I was preparing for it up until the ninth grade. But my parents didn’t have enough money to send me to medical college. I did manage to work at a private clinic as an administrator. Often, I would help the surgeons during operations, sometimes handing them instruments, sometimes just observing the process. I learned this way.

My neighbor, Zhenia, is a surgeon. Together we administered first aid and tried to stop the bleeding. We applied splints and bandages and gave painkiller injections. Then we asked volunteers to transport the wounded to the hospital, which was 500 meters from our building. Those who went there didn’t come back; their cars were shot at, and the guys stayed at the hospital.

Once, at noon, the corner of a neighboring building got hit by a rocket. The shock wave broke windows in the apartment across from ours. The schoolteacher who lived there had her legs crushed to a pulp. Her daughter was shaking and screaming: “Someone help!”

I was close by, so I ran out. Her legs were ripped to pieces, blood everywhere from damaged arteries. She was 87 years old and conscious the whole time.

My neighbor, the surgeon, came running also. We managed to lay some splints and bandages, carried her to the ground floor, and took her to the hospital.

When the cleanup started, the air raids stopped. Russians came in.

Later came the fear and shame. Russian soldiers, after seeing people around the walk-ups, began throwing food and cigarettes at them, right into the dirt, in a degrading way, the same food and cigarettes they’d stolen from our stores. And people took it, like dogs, stuffing their pockets with grain, because it was the only option left.

The hospital

We asked Russian soldiers:

“What about the wounded?”

“Go to the hospital,” they said, “if you are not afraid.”

So, Zhenia went, calling after me: “Let’s go, they need people there.”

What am I going to say, “no”?

On the way to the hospital, we found a pharmacy, which was closed. We stocked up on morphine for the wounded, anti-inflammatory products, some insulin, all needed in the war zone, not your typical over-the-counter stuff. Zhenia knew where to look. We took everything and dragged the bags to the hospital.

The wounded people whose buildings were bombed were in the hospital basement. The hospital itself was pretty much no longer there: no windows, no wards.

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Those who were still alive were sitting next to the half-dead. Nobody had water. The air smelled like dried dirty blood and something burned. Half the people were whimpering, and half were screaming for help. But nobody could help because there was nothing to help with!

One man had his face torn from his skull. They simply put it back with staples, like a staple gun. He was sitting and smoking. The doctor came up to him. I thought he was going to say “no smoking allowed here,” but he asked for a cigarette instead.

My neighbor, the schoolteacher, didn’t make it. The hospital didn’t have supplies for general anesthesia, only local was done. Her heart couldn’t handle it.

Her daughter stayed with the body for three days afterward because of the nonstop airstrikes. She simply couldn’t return home.

Zhenia and I went to the surgery unit. No one was asking for my credentials anymore.

“Are you afraid of blood?”

“No.”

“Let’s go.”

We changed our clothes and started bandaging wounds. I was checking the injured in, disinfecting the wounds with Betadine, assessing the damage, and assisting the surgeon with cutting the old casts, cleaning up the wounds, getting out shrapnel.

Amidst all the work, we forgot about curfew. When we came out of the hospital, Russian soldiers were outside. They told us we weren’t allowed to go anywhere.

We were in a state of shock. Zhenia has a wife and a child at home, and I had my entire family waiting for me. We knew they’d all lose their heads with worry.

So, we took a chance: dropping our jackets in -10°C weather, leaving white scrubs and gloves on, waving first aid kits and white kerchiefs in our hands, we ran 500 meters, hoping we wouldn’t get shot.

When we saw the soldiers, we fell to the ground yelling, “We are doctors, please don’t shoot!”

“Alright, move along.”

This is how we ran back through the district where everything was still on fire, with house pets left behind screaming from buildings that had stopped burning and stood like lifeless boxes.

Lies

Looking at burning Mariupol, we thought: If we got hit this bad, it means that Kyiv is no more, and Ukraine is no more. Old folks’ radios were catching only Russian stations. They were saying all is well in Mariupol, and that most civilians were evacuated. This was not true!

The biggest lie of all was that the earlier bombed maternity hospital had no women in it. It did. Pregnant women and women giving birth. They had their legs blown off because they couldn’t run out fast enough.

Soon, we learned about a cellphone connection by the Kyivstar building in the city center. A huge crowd gathered there.

I went with my pregnant sister. She is not very mobile, and can’t quickly drop to the ground and cover her head. We went carefully, and ran a bit here and there. Then soldiers opened fire in the center. We hid under the stairs, and stayed there for three hours, in the frost, before the shooting quieted down some.

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All we learned was that the mayor requested a cease-fire so that rescue teams could work and fix the damages in two days. But we understood that no one was left in the city to fix anything, and very possibly were all dead.

On the road

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At some point, one of the Russian soldiers noticed my pregnant sister and warned us, ‘‘You’d better leave the city.”

Photo: Author

So, we learned of a humanitarian corridor and left two days later. But those who stayed were trapped in the grinder because Russian soldiers never stopped shooting and bombing the city.

The evacuation was simpler for us than for others. When people noticed that my sister was about to give birth at any moment, they often allowed us to skip lines.

To get to Zaporizhzhia, we had to go through the checkpoint in Berdiansk — which was temporarily occupied by the Russian army.

‘Where are you going?’ They asked.

“Vasilyevka,” we answered. Because if we said Zaporizhzhia, no one would let us out. Russian soldiers were telling us that if we were going to Zaporizhzhia, the Ukrainian army would shoot us there.

We didn’t believe it, took a risk. From Vasilyevka, Ukrainian soldiers picked us and others up in organized columns.

Our online friends and acquaintances helped us out in Dnipro. The man who gave us his apartment went to stay with his friends for three days, letting us use his place.

As we were driving through Ukraine and people learned we’d come from Mariupol, their faces turned white, eyes wide open. Those who’d evacuated Mariupol were considered an anomaly, ghosts who’d lived through hell.

Afterward

After living through what we’ve lived through, I realize that no one in our family is in the right psychological state. We are constantly yelling, turned into something wild.

If we see bread in the store, we have to get it. Any shot, bang, or a siren, and I can’t breathe, I keep thinking: The window is here, I need to drop over there.

You can’t heal from that in a year — or even two, or three. We are going to die with this trauma; it’s a part of our DNA now.

Your priorities change at a snap of a finger. Everything you were running after half your life is now worth nothing. I dropped everything and left. My husband just told me, “God, how happy I am, that you are alive and didn’t get hurt.”

The first thing I ate was bread. I drink water like it’s going out of style and I still can’t get enough of it.

Photo: Author

Legacy

When we came through the big cities, we looked for maternity hospitals right away. Vinnytsia has many prenatal centers. Staying in town overnight, we were supposed to leave for Lviv in the morning.

But at 4:00 a.m., our plans changed quickly; we called a cab and rode to the maternity hospital. I started looking for a place to live in Vinnytsia and found a really nice flat: The owner had left to see her mother in the Czech Republic and left me the keys.

The first words out of my father’s mouth were, “the sixth floor and too many windows, it’s not safe.”

At the maternity hospital, the doctors checked in my sister and did their job top-notch. Local authorities provided humanitarian aid for the baby: clothes, diapers, and such.

Vinnytsia accepted us beautifully. Right now, we need to see our husbands. They will have to get to us after being out at sea. My niece will get stronger, and then we will be on our way. But where? Who needs us?

In Ukraine, everybody helps everybody. We are so strong in spirit that we are ready to give the shirt off our backs to one another. Who needs us abroad?

I don’t know how we are supposed to live now, and how long we have. But if there is a chance to leave a legacy after we’re gone, I’m taking it. Even if it’s just a digital legacy. The internet will keep it forever. That digital footprint will keep a part of my soul, my family, the people who lived through it all, and those who didn’t.

Then no one will ever forget about them.

Demenkova Anastasiia is Ukrainian from the city Mariupol. Recently, she and her family have been fleeing a war that is destroying her country right now. 

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.