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


At one point, the explosions got so bad that 59-year-old Halyna was running to the basement every time she added another ingredient to the pot. “Add carrots — run to the basement, add potatoes — run to the basement,” she told me last week in a hospital in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine which has become something of a safe haven in the country.

It is here where Halyna and her daughter, Nataliya, 37, are being treated for the catastrophic wounds they suffered when an explosion hit their dormitory later that day.

“March 15 was a black day,” Halyna said. As the shelling got worse, Nataliya finally convinced her mother and her husband, Andrii, to flee. They were gathered in a room on the second floor, discussing their evacuation plans, when the attack came.

Halyna said she heard a whooshing sound. Her ears started ringing, she was in a daze. The next thing she knew, her face was bleeding and the right side of her body felt like it was on fire. She saw Andrii next to her, he was frantically digging through the rubble, dust and shards of glass. Nataliya was buried underneath, with only her foot sticking out.

Nataliya lost her right eye. She also suffered a fractured skull and broken jaw. The young woman had a broken arm and multiple deep cuts on her face. Her mother was also severely wounded. She showed me the deep, unhealed cuts all over her right side, thigh, knee and ankle.

Two other people were in the room with them at the time. Both were killed. Nataliya’s sons Maksym, 5, and Eduard, 19, were in the basement during the attack and unharmed.

Mariupol, on the north coast of the Azov Sea, has been under relentless attack by Russian forces since early March. Civilians who fled Mariupol have described it to me as hell on Earth; a once beautiful city damaged beyond recognition, its buildings blackened and destroyed by constant Russian bombing and shelling, streets layered with dead bodies, rubble and shell fragments.

It’s not alone. As a researcher for Human Rights Watch, I have spoken to dozens of people who fled bombing and shelling in numerous towns and cities in Ukraine. I’ve spoken with people who feared for their lives, who simply wanted to find safety for themselves and their children, and who told me about the unspeakable violence they have witnessed during this war.

Mother and daughter Halyna and Nataliya at a birthday party in Mariupol, May 2021.

Like countless other people in Ukraine, in a matter of weeks, Halyna’s family had lost their home and everything they had. They very nearly lost their lives.

With no electricity or gas since early March, people in Mariupol had started cooking over open fires near their building entrances. That’s why, Halyna told me, on the day of the attack she was cooking soup outside, in a huge 30-liter pot.

Among the people Halyna had been looking after in the dormitory were at least 50 children and several older people who weren’t very mobile. Nataliya had been trying to convince Halyna to flee for weeks, but she was reluctant because she felt guilty leaving behind people who had no car or other means to travel. “I felt responsible for them,” she said.

After the explosion at the dormitory, Halyna and Nataliya were taken to Mariupol’s Hospital Number 3. It was a horrifying sight, dark and practically deserted, with puddles of blood on the floor. Most doctors and other medical staff had fled. The doctor who stitched the lacerations on Halyna’s face kept pleading with her to hold on amid a dire shortage of pain relief medication. The pain was unbearable, she said, but she knew it was worse for her daughter.

The family spent 36 hours in the hospital, Halyna sleeping on a bench in the hallway, while shelling continued. There were no doctors or nurses to change the dressing on their wounds.

Two days later, on March 17, the entire family rode in Andrii’s car — pitted with bullet holes but still functioning — toward the city exit.

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They went through about 20 Russian checkpoints, Halyna said. At one of the checkpoints, a Russian soldier looked at their wounded faces and asked: “Who did this to you?”

“I really wanted to respond, ‘You did!'” Halyna told me. “But it’s really better to keep your mouth shut when you are dealing with a man with a gun.”

Russian forces manning the checkpoints told the family they could only go to the nearby city of Berdyansk on the southeast coast, currently occupied by Russian forces. But the family was determined to be in Ukrainian-controlled territory and so risked a detour to reach the city of Zaporizhzhia. After receiving immediate medical assistance there, the family took a train across the other side of the country to Lviv, for more substantial care.

Many others though, did not have this option. People who fled Mariupol more recently told me that Russian forces gave residents no choice but to go to Russia or Russia-controlled territory.

Only those who had their own cars or enough cash with them to access alternative transportation could get to other parts of Ukraine, often through dangerous escape routes. Many other Mariupol residents have apparently ended up in Russia — against their will and without a way to leave. Close to 120,000 others remain in Mariupol, according to city officials, but the exact number cannot be verified.

In Lviv, Nataliya spent days in intensive care and has only just started eating on her own. She will need a prosthetic eye. Halyna is in constant pain, she said, but all she can worry about right now is her daughter.

When my colleague and I were leaving the hospital, I saw Maksym wandering through the empty halls of the hospital. He stopped to stare at me, smiled, then lost interest and ran away.

Nataliya and Andrii said they didn’t want Maksym to experience war in his life. When they were still in Mariupol, they desperately tried to shield him, explaining that loud explosions were just fireworks.

“He asked, ‘How come it’s during the day? Why can’t I see them?’ We told him the Russians have come and they launched fireworks. We convinced him for two weeks. Then he realized those were bombs and tanks. But he was very brave.”