I woke up at 6 am on February 24th with a call from my mum: “It started. Leave”. My husband and I picked up four of our friends and drove to the border. We made it, crossed the border in two days, and settled at my in-laws in France.
But I was born in Mariupol. My family, including my grandpa and two grandmas, lived there their whole lives. When the war started, they didn’t know the city was about to be surrounded.
My grandpa owns a car dealership in Mariupol. Once the war started he drove there and moved the cars to the backyard to hide them from the looters. He spent a few nights in his store, watching the cars. Once Russians started bombing the city heavily, he returned home.
My grandma Tanya is a very strong person. She survived two cancers. There is nothing she couldn’t handle. She nursed many relatives before they passed away due to illnesses or natural causes, and shared their last moments. Many people died in front of her eyes before, so she was used to it.
My grandpa is quite the opposite, he is quite emotional and sensitive. But during the blockade he demonstrated a lot of leadership and organisational skills.
They had an underground parking lot in their building, so he was in charge of managing the food supplies and organising the space so people could live there. There was even a painting corner for kids.
Adults were sleeping in the cars or sitting in the corners. One of the neighbors was bedbound, so grandpa helped to relocate him into the parking garage, and that’s where they all stayed.
I keep thinking of one woman in that parking shelter with two kids. First child was born in 2014 and has lived through the war already, another baby was just five months old. The conditions in the parking were anti-sanitary. There was no water left. Imagine, you cannot even bathe your baby properly or simply wash your hands. People had to gather snow outside when it was freezing cold and fill up bathtubs with it.
Grandma was cooking food for the neighbours on the fire in the yard as there was no electricity or gas since the beginning of the war. They used up all the supplies of the frozen and canned food. Neighbours were coming up to her and asking if everything was going to be alright and she was giving moral support to them all.
People were taking turns sleeping in their apartments versus in the underground parking. They lived like that for two weeks.
Most of the days my grandma was sleeping in the bathroom of their apartment (as it was considered a safer place). The breaking point happened on March 13th, after my grandad convinced her to spend the night in the parking shelter.
My grandparents live on the ground floor of the multiunit nine-story building. There’s one entryway for two apartments on each floor with a shared storage space.
So, their neighbours, a husband and a wife, moved to the storage room for safety and slept there. It seemed the safest place to be because we expected missiles to hit the opposite side of the building or the top.
The wife left the building in the morning to look for some water. When she was gone, the missile hit the flat directly. It went through the yard into that entryway, into our apartment.
The safest place in the building? It wasn’t. The apartment is in ruins now. The husband died under the pebble, and they couldn’t get him out for a long time.
My grandparents’ corridor and bathroom were completely ruined. The stairs of the building from the ground floor up to the third collapsed. People above the third floor couldn’t get out, they were trapped. Some men got together and smashed the wall between the 1st and the 2nd walkup to get people out. Basically, they broke out the hole for people to evacuate.
My grandparents were lucky, as well as the wife of the neighbour who walked out for a minute into the yard. Her face was bleeding with the shrapnel cuts, but other than that, she’s OK. But her husband died.
My grandpa managed to get into what was left of the apartment and took out his collections of photos in the frames. He is much into photography. I loved coming around and looking at the photos of his parents from the 1920s and the story of my family all the way to the most recent pictures of my sister and me. Some photos now have deep cuts on them.
Then, there was that wallpaper in the corridor that my grandma hated. Grandpa put it up a few months before the war: one wallpaper had a Big Ben print on it and the other — Eiffel Tower. A reference to my second home London and my husband’s French roots. We loved coming for a visit there, my grandma would feed us borscht and holubtsi.
Grandpa took the photographs out of the broken frames, found my baby blanket, and an art piece he painted before the war, sort of modernist style, he named it “Mariupol, Blockade.” now. He also packed some clothes and utensils.
Much later, in safety, they realised that a lot of things he grabbed had no use, like one left shoe, some 20-year-old spoons and such.
The building was not safe any more. Everyone moved completely to the parking lot as the shelling continued. Two days after the first shelling they buried the neighbour in the yard, packed up and all the residents of the building decided to leave together. My grandparents took the wife of the dead neighbour with them.
They managed to organise their own evacuation convoy consisting of all the cars of the residents. They escaped the city under the heavy shelling with the street fights continuing around the corner.
On their way they were picking up people who were leaving Mariupol by foot. One of them was a woman with a toddler.
All the residents evacuated safely including the mother of two children.
During this time I realised how important it is to stay in touch with all your relatives, no matter how far up the family tree. My grandpa has family and friends all around Ukraine, so all the way to the border they had people helping them and providing shelter.
The first stop was in Berdyansk. My grandparents have some friends there, who own a zoo. They welcomed them for a couple of days. The owner was spoon-feeding my grandma, who was in a state of shock and didn’t want to eat anything. The next stop was Dnipro, then Uman’, then Ivano-Frankivsk where they stayed at my sister’s boyfriend’s parents.