Besieged Mariupol: How I Got Out of Hell

Survivor describes heavy bombing, food shortages and intense loneliness of the siege.

Besieged Mariupol: How I Got Out of Hell

Survivor describes heavy bombing, food shortages and intense loneliness of the siege.

A row of buildings destroyed in Mariupol.
A row of buildings destroyed in Mariupol.
The city has come under sustained bombing since the invasion began on February 24.
The city has come under sustained bombing since the invasion began on February 24.
Streets lie deserted after many residents fled.
Streets lie deserted after many residents fled.
Thursday, 5 May, 2022


Institute for War & Peace Reporting

Tatyana Kopteva, 60, was born and lived all her life in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. The mother-of-two worked as an accountant at a metallurgical company, but normal life came to a stop when Russian forces began bombing the city of 440,000. She told IWPR’s Maryna Myronenko how she managed to escape after weeks of living under constant bombardment.

When the Russian invasion began on February 24, people rushed to the shops; the first days saw huge queues. They swept everything they saw off the shelves: flour, sugar, vegetable oil and so on. There was no bread in the shops.

The product most in demand was drinking water. Sellers sold it from large cisterns. I stood in line but when it was my turn, the water ran out. I had to tilt the huge 300 litre canister myself to drain the last 750 ml of liquid.

Remembering the stories about the Holodomor [the 1932-33 famine Stalin caused in Ukraine] my husband and I tried to buy more food. The refrigerator was full: borscht, porridge, meatballs, liver, more than 100 eggs, mackerel.

But not everyone was waiting in line like us.

One day I was surprised to see a man dragging a refrigerator down the street. Later I saw someone carrying a washing machine. I didn't understand what was happening. My husband came home and explained, "People don't buy these goods, they rob shops."

My husband had been to the pharmacy for blood pressure pills, but almost all pharmacies had been looted.

From the window, I could see a sweet shop. People began to rob it too. A neighbour boasted of a trophy - a cake he managed to grab. People stole sugar, and marshmallows, hard as stone, and broken eggs were lying near the store.

Most of all I remember a passenger car with a boot full of expensive French perfumes.

My husband and I immediately decided that we would not steal anything. We felt condemnation - how can you take someone else's belongings?

“There was no one to remove dead bodies from the streets.”

When I was in a shop that was still working, I heard shots and a deafening explosion. The saleswoman's hands were shaking. I ran home and from the balcony saw a pillar of black smoke in the distance. My friend from that area saw several dead and wounded people, and burning cars.

Another friend sent me a text via messenger of a prayer to protect the house. She said that during the bombings in Syria, only those houses where this prayer was recited survived. Every day I copied the prayer by hand and distributed it to neighbours.

Shells began to hit nearby homes, houses began to burn. In the city there were artillery and airstrikes.

Heavily damaged apartment block where Tatyana Kopteva lived with her family.

On March 6 and 7, we were heavily bombed. A plane would fly over, drop a bomb and fly away. Once, something began to buzz and whistle in the air. I ran to hide in the bushes but people reassured me, "Don’t hide. If it whistled, it flew by. One should be afraid when there is a hissing sound."

Three minutes later there was a deafening explosion. My first thought was, "Thank God it’s not for me. Now there will be no plane for half an hour. You'll be alive for another half an hour!”

First, the electricity disappeared, then gas, then mobile communications. You could catch a signal only in the city centre and on the upper floors of houses. Utilities stopped taking out waste, rubbish dumps began to appear.

There was a queue of 400 people at the only water source. Later we found a well, but the water was very dirty. To wash my hair, I collected snow on the street and melted it on the fire.  

There was nowhere to charge the phone. Sometimes it was possible to at least slightly recharge the neighbours’ phone from the battery in their car. I called my daughter twice a day to say that we were alive. To call, I went up to the 14th floor of our house.

The apartment was only eight degrees celsius. I slept in a hat, coat and boots. First, to be warmer. Secondly, to be on the alert and be able to run away if they started bombing. We put plastic bags on our boots to keep the bed clean.

When it was especially scary, I went down to the basement. There were many old people, children and pets there.

But life went on. Common misfortune brought neighbours together: they broke branches and kindled fires to cook porridge and meat, and warm up food. I fried pancakes. A neighbour cooked food on a fire and shouted to people on the sixth floor, “Throw me salt!”

Many corpses appeared on the streets of Mariupol. One guy was standing at the bus stop, talking on the phone. A second later, and a fragment of shrapnel took his life. There was no one to remove dead bodies from the streets. A couple of days on, this man’s body was still lying at the bus stop.

From time to time my husband went on foot to our son, who lived at the other end of the city. The path lay past the slagheap, on which there were snipers. Every time my husband left home, I prayed that he would return. Once my husband miraculously ducked during shelling and the bullets flew past.

The Russians stopped letting people out of the city. It was like living on a deserted island which they were trying to destroy. Cut off from the world, we lived in complete ignorance. The Ukrainian authorities could not provide safe routes for us to get out.

After 22 days of siege hell in Mariupol, we heard that people could leave the city. There were no guarantees of safety, but it was a chance to escape. The neighbours decided to leave in one column. Our car had been smashed by shrapnel the day before. I began to ask neighbours if anyone had extra space in the car. But everyone was taking their loved ones, no one needs strangers.

One mother brought her daughter to those who were leaving and begged, "Someone, please, take my Svetochka! She is only 17 years old. Get her out of here, I beg you!" However, no one agreed and mother and daughter returned home.

When most of the neighbours left, I felt incredibly lonely. It was like a piece of my heart was taken from me. A feeling of helplessness, uselessness - everyone leaves, and you are left alone. You can’t call anyone - there is no connection, and the phone is dead.

My husband and I decided to go to our friend. She had a car, and therefore a chance for salvation. We walked for half-an-hour, I recited a prayer all the time. To the sound of exploding bombs, we ran past destroyed houses, burned-out cars, broken high-voltage wires. Our lovely friend had only one place in the car - for me.

My husband and son stayed in Mariupol. They went missing amid the bombing.

Maryna Myronenko is the pseudonym of a Ukrainian journalist.

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