The first days of war: The teenager under siege
On 24th February Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, unleashing a new European conflict that would swiftly destroy large swathes of the country and leave thousands dead. This story is taken from our series on the first days of the Ukraine conflict
24th Feb 2022
We spoke to several people from Ukraine and Russia whose lives were thrown into disarray by the outbreak of war. This article is one of several pieces on the first days of the Ukraine conflict we published in issue 46 of Delayed Gratification, which can be purchased at our online shop.
The teenager under siege
How Maria’s life in Mariupol fell to pieces after 24th February
Shortly after 16-year-old Maria awoke to the news that the invasion had begun, Russian forces began the indiscriminate shelling of her area of Mariupol on the south-east coast of Ukraine. “I heard explosions all day from artillery strikes falling in my neighbourhood and people were in a panic. I was terrified of the explosions, they were like a nightmare,” she says. “Nobody knew what to do. My parents didn’t know, my teachers didn’t know, we were all just very scared. We didn’t even know where to hide.” Fighting broke out over bread and bottled water in local shops.
By early March the Red Cross was describing the situation in Mariupol, already largely reduced to ruins, as “apocalyptic”. Russian forces deliberately shelled telecommunications, electricity and gas infrastructure in an effort to demoralise the local population and hinder attempts at resistance. Maria’s parents and neighbours had to gather firewood to cook on a makeshift stove made from breezeblocks. Water had to be collected from a nearby stream. “We hid in the basement of our apartment building throughout the shelling and every time [my parents] went outside to make food or collect water it was terrifying,” says Maria.
With no internet or phone connection, Mariupol residents had almost no access to information. “Everything was just rumours,” Maria says. While people outside the city heard through news reports about proposed “green corridors” of evacuation (which ultimately never materialised), locals were in the dark, both figuratively and literally. In the basement where Maria’s family and neighbours hid from shelling they had only candlelight.
On 21st March, Maria’s apartment block was hit by a Russian shell. “When I heard the explosion I ran into the corridor,” she recalls. “The entire entrance was filled with smoke and people were shouting for help. I heard a terrible scream which I first thought was from a human, but then I saw that a piece of shrapnel had hit my dog, Milly. She was in agony, whimpering and screaming, and she later died from her injuries. I then saw my father and was relieved that he was alive, although he had been hit in the leg by a piece of shrapnel.”
Nobody knew what to do. My parents didn’t know, my teachers didn’t know, we were all very scared
Maria says at least four of her neighbours were killed in the bombing. “I saw my next door neighbour walking aimlessly around the corridors in anguish,” she says. “She came into our apartment and was crying terribly… Her husband had died. We went down to the basement with her and her young son who was not yet aware of what had happened. In the basement she didn’t react to anything anyone said.”
The next day, Maria’s family fled the city. “Two men came and said that we were being evacuated,” she recalls. “We ran upstairs to our apartment and bundled some clothes together into bags. We ran out of the building into the street. There were seven [of us] in a little car, and all I could see was the shelled-out windows of the building, and [the body of] my neighbour dead on the ground next to the ground floor window… We were all crying. He was only 35 years old.”
The family’s drive out of Mariupol was extremely dangerous. With no Russian-mandated humanitarian route out of the city, there was no guarantee that they would reach safety. They had to pass a number of checkpoints set up by soldiers of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a Russian proxy group. Maria’s father was taken into custody and transferred to a filtration camp, where evacuees are interrogated about their political allegiances. There have been reports of awful conditions and even torture at these camps. “We didn’t hear any news about him for six days,” Maria says. Eventually, after days of worry, her father was transferred out of the camp and was able to join the family at their new location.
After Maria’s family eventually arrived in another part of Ukraine (for reasons of safety she doesn’t want to disclose where), supportive friends and family have helped her to adjust to her new reality. Her hometown, however, has been reduced to a shell, an eerie testament to the brutality of the invasion. Maria tells me that she has friends who were killed by shrapnel from artillery fire: “They were really cool people and had plans to do things with their lives,” she says. “But now they are lying under the ground.” Maria says she also witnessed civilians being targeted, recalling how Russian snipers took potshots at a family friend for fun as he tried to bury his father.
Perhaps more than any other Ukrainian city, Mariupol has become emblematic of the chaos and destruction unleashed by Vladimir Putin’s invasion. By late May, shortly after the Russian conquest of the city had reached its grim conclusion, local officials estimated that at least 22,000 of the city’s residents had been killed in the first three months of the conflict alone. Many more had fled the once-thriving port city on the Sea of Azov.
On 16th May, after more than 80 days of bombardment, the final few Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol were evacuated from Azovstal, a vast steel plant on the edge of the city that became a bastion of resistance when all other territory was lost. The surrender of Azovstal, which was a major employer in the city and where Maria’s family worked, signalled the end of the bloody siege. A few days later Russia declared that Mariupol, now an urban wasteland, had been “completely liberated”.
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