The attack on Mariupol came as no surprise for this girl. A few days before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Iryna (her name has been changed) left for Kyiv with a heavy heart. She lost touch with her family and the sounds of continuous explosions near her house in Kyiv forced her to flee the capital as well. Iryna took four days to make her way to Belgium. Two months later, the mobile signal with the village near Mariupol, where her relatives live, was restored. The mobile operator is not Ukrainian, but of “Donetsk People’s Republics,” called Feniks. Iryna talks to her relatives only via the Internet. Now she is 26… She has left her profession, friends, and dreams behind.
Iryna, are you from Mariupol?
Yes, the village is 20km from Mariupol. That’s where my house is, that’s where my relatives live.
Do your relatives still live in this house?
Yes, they live now in occupied territory.
Did you leave Mariupol during the occupation or before?
I left before the occupation. I stayed at my family’s place until 18 February.
Did you know that there would be an occupation, did you feel anything?
Yes, everyone knew that something bad would happen, they foresaw it. Everyone wrote about it. Basically, everyone thought that everything would happen in the Donetsk region, not across Ukraine. I went to Kyiv, I rented an apartment there.
Did you work in Kyiv? What about your work now?
Yes, I worked in an agricultural enterprise that had lands in the Kherson region. Now they are also under Russian occupation. Therefore, there is no work. Although the company legally exists, the sowing campaign was to begin in March and April. We were preparing for that, but sowing did not start.
You had your life in Kyiv, your friends. Is there anyone who suffered from the war?
My friend, with whom I studied at the university; he was a little older than me. When he was cooking meals on the street, he got a shrapnel wound and died.
How did you find out about his death?
His brother started searching for him on the Internet,- I saw those publications. Then, he published information that the guy passed away …
How do your loved ones cope with this situation now?
[It is] Very difficult. They are very upset. The hospital where they used to work was completely bombed. My uncle lost his job. The situation with hospitals in Mariupol is overall critical. There are one or two left but they are also damaged partially. There is no equipment, many doctors [have] left the city.
Do they get any help?
Yes, one of my relatives gets assistance as a disabled person.
From “Donetsk People’s Republic”?
Yes, now from them.
Do you know if there are any protest sentiments against the occupiers in Mariupol?
Basically, everyone wants to go back to Ukraine. They say they lived well. Of course, utility payments increased, but it was good to live in Ukraine. And now it’s bad.
And how do they perceive the occupation: that this is no longer Ukraine but rather “DPR” or Russia? How do people feel about it?
The “DPR” is considered an illegal formation. You can’t even go to the police there, because the “DPR” is lawlessness. Acquaintances say that if you get sick, you have nowhere to go to a hospital, no medical care will be provided. And of course, morale is very poor because of all this.
There are media reports on filtration camps. Has your family undergone filtration?
They say it was very tough. I did not ask for details. Very unpleasant questions were put, the phone was taken away and all social media accounts were completely looked through. They asked: ‘What is your attitude towards the Ukrainian army? Azov Battalion?’ My relatives had to lie because people with weapons were present at the interrogation.
Did they have weapons?
Of course, they had. And when relatives applied for filtration, they were well after 3,000th in the line. That is, the occupiers are in no hurry “to filtrate.” There were active hostilities back then, and my relatives wanted to leave the city and go abroad or to another city in Ukraine. And they asked, ‘Could it be faster? We want to leave.’ And a ‘DPR’ militant answered, ‘Those in need will undergo filtration first. You sleep in your bed. Why should you go through it first?’ They began to argue, saying they need to leave for health reasons. And he told another militant: ‘Bring a gun, they talk a lot here.’ It was as if he was joking, but still.
You say that relatives submitted documents for filtration, what does it mean? Was it their initiative or everyone is required to do so?
This is needed if you want to go somewhere. For example, if you want to go from a village to a neighbouring village or a town. This requires filtration. If you are not filtrated, you won’t be let out anywhere. You won’t be able even to do shopping.
But you go through it once and that’s it?
Yes, only once. Moreover, there are passes. For example, you need to buy food, go to a pharmacy or go to Mariupol or Berdyansk. You need to get a pass every time. It is given for 10 days. You can’t just move through the occupied territory.
Do they come home or are they ordered to go somewhere?
No, it seems to be happening in the premises of the former police station. There are tables, computers. They check whether the person served in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. And if a person served, he or she is taken to Donetsk. The people who were taken away have not returned yet.
Are there any filtration camps?
Those who left Mariupol must undergo filtration in neighbouring villages. It can take several days.
Do you know what happens to those who ‘fail’ filtration or are related to the Ukrainian army?
They are taken to the previously occupied territory, to Donetsk. So far, none of my acquaintances who were taken away have returned. ‘DPR’ militants came in groups holding machine guns, inspected the entire apartment or house, looked in all the closets, and asked if anyone was hiding there. A neighbour used to serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. He was taken away during such a search and transferred to Donetsk. He is under custody there, something is being done there. I do not know.
Is he alive?
Yes, he is alive. His wife calls him, sends him some parcels, food. He was told that he would be released in a month, but almost three months have passed and he is still not at home.
Is it like a prison?
Yes, it is. They also may “sit in a pit.” I do not know what it means. Probably a basement.
Are the occupiers “DPR” militants, Kadyrovites, or Russians?
There are “DPR” militants around Mariupol. In Mariupol, there are Kadyrovites as well.
And what are “DPR” militants’ plans for Mariupol? Are there any ideas about a “referendum”? What do they plan to do next?
People there are in complete isolation. The information comes from social networks, Russian and “DPR” TV channels are broadcasted there. If you have a satellite dish, you can catch Ukrainian channels. The alternative is to subscribe to some channels on social networks. Therefore, apart from gossip, it is difficult to say anything for sure. There is information that children in Mariupol have already gone to school and write “city of Mariupol, Rostov region” on their notebooks.
Are your classmates all right? Did they leave Mariupol or stay?
Most of them left.
Abroad or for Russia?
Someone went to Crimea and Donetsk. Nobody went precisely to Russia. Mainly, they left for Germany and Poland.
There is a lot of information about mass graves in Mariupol. Have your relatives seen them?
I do not know. They go to Mariupol, but do not look at such things specifically.
But there are places where corpses stink a lot, especially where the rubble has not yet been removed.
It is hot these days in Mariupol, isn’t it?
The last two or three days the temperature is already very high, about 30 degrees Celsius. And even cholera cases have already been detected. And that’s why they say that now Mariupol will be closed…, no one will be allowed in and out, so as not to spread it.
But is there clean water, gas, power? Is it already restored?
If there are no damages, power and water supplies are available. There is no gas supply at all. In Mariupol, the situation is a 100 000 times worse than around the city. Volunteers bring water and food to people from villages. They take things to wash at home and then bring them back. It’s all because there is no power, no water, no Internet, no mobile communication. Kyivstar and MTS [Ukrainian mobile operators] may appear at some height in good weather. People cook on fires or barbecues near their homes. And they wash near the Metro store, where the “Ministry of Emergency Situations” brings water. They go there with bottles. I don’t know how they do it in such heat, because everything is broken. No sewage, you can’t wash. It’s just awful. And there are so many people left, as it turned out.
Are there many people left in Mariupol?
Yes, a lot of people are still there. This is especially evident near places of distribution of water and humanitarian aid. And children… There are children in the building where my friend lives. They walk, ride bicycles and scooters. Children adapt better.
Tell us, how did you come here from Kyiv, how did it happen?
On 24 February, I woke up to explosions in Kyiv, in Boryspil town. As far as I understand, this is the first location that was bombed in Ukraine. I immediately called my relatives in Mariupol, Hostomel, Kharkiv. I woke everyone up and said it had started. No one believed me, everyone told me to sleep and that it was just rain. Or military exercises. I said, ‘No, I hear a lot of explosions’. I started looking for something on the Internet and found no information.
At 4 a.m.?
Somewhere around 5 a.m. There was no information yet. And it was quiet in Mariupol. I called my friend, she said those were exercises. And her boyfriend serves in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and he said that those were not exercises. I got scared, I lived in an apartment with a cat. I cooperated with this friend and decided to sit together in Kyiv and wait for it to end. For some reason, everyone thought it would end quickly. No one could believe it was a war. I already collected a go-bag with documents and money. When I went outside, I bent over because the explosions were very loud. I ran to the metro station to travel three stops. We stocked up on groceries, drinking water, filled a bathtub and bottles with tap water. We decided to stay in Kyiv. We did not hear explosions in Hostomel and Bucha, because it is on the other side. But in 3-4 days next to us, there was a tank somehow. It was burned. It was very scary. There were air raid sirens. We ran to the basement of my house. I talked to my parents on the phone. And then the connection was lost. That scared me the most. I thought maybe they are gone and our house, too. I decided to leave the city. It was dangerous to do it by car because people were shot by Russians and this way is not safe for a girl. It took 3-4 days to get to Western Ukraine by car. So I decided to take the evacuation train. Many discouraged me, saying there are a lot of people, everything is packed, people travel while standing. But I took the most necessary things, my cat, and I and my friend went to the railway station. Just the day before, a missile hit it. It was very scary. But, perhaps, not scarier than in Mariupol.
Do you remember exactly when you decided to go? How was it?
I lost connection with my family, and I thought that the connection may disappear in the capital as well. The Internet, power will be switched off and we will have to sit in a basement, waiting for the unknown. And I decided to come here.
How did you get here?
The first try failed, I had to miss several trains. We tried to get anywhere. We took a crowded train to Ivano-Frankivsk. People sat on the floor, even in the toilet. That was in early March. There were mostly women with children on the train. There were very few men. Probably disabled or those who had the right to leave. There was no air to breathe on the train, the trip was very long. I got off in Lviv, spent the night at my friends’ place. The most unpleasant thing was when it was impossible to take a train abroad in Lviv and I decided to go to the border by the Red Cross bus and then cross the border on foot. There were extremely many people on the bus, we were suffocating. Everyone was throwing up on each other. It was very unpleasant.
The bus took us to the border, to Shehyni. And then we went on foot to the border. It was fast. I crossed two borders in two or three hours. We were very well received in Poland. They offered drinks, food, and suggested taking us where we needed to go. The Poles treated us warmly.
How do you feel now?
I have already adapted, people get used to everything. It’s better now.
And what do you expect from the whole situation?
Of course, I expect the war to end soon and I will be able to return home. I’ve never wanted to live abroad at all, only in Ukraine. Built my life, career in Ukraine. Now, it’s dangerous for a girl in Kyiv- I went there to pick up some things. I felt very uncomfortable there. Although I have always loved Kyiv. This is a lovely, kind city. But there are constant air raid sirens, roadblocks, people with weapons. You do not feel safe.
And while you are here, will you study, look for a job?
Yes, I enrolled in school. I will learn the language and eventually look for a job.
Marta Barandiy, founder of Promote Ukraine, editor-in-chief of Brussels Ukraїna Review