“The City No Longer Exists,” Say Mariupol Survivors

The heat inside the train car was as overwhelming as the anxiety. Ukrainian survivors of one of the most brutal sieges in modern history were in the final minutes of their journey to relative safety.

Some took with them only what they had at hand when they took the opportunity to escape from the port of Mariupol in the midst of incessant Russian bombardment. Some fled so fast that their still-starving relatives in the frigid city on the shores of the Sea of ​​Azov are not even aware they are gone.

“The city no longer exists,” said Marina Galla. She was crying in front of the door of a crowded train compartment that was entering the city of Lviv, in western Ukraine.


The relief of getting rid of weeks of threats and shortages, of seeing corpses lying in the streets and drinking melted snow due to the lack of water was overcome by sadness when thinking about the relatives he left behind.

“I don’t know anything about them,” he said. “My mother, my grandmother, my grandfather and my father. They don’t even know we left.”

Seeing her cry, her 13-year-old son kissed her over and over again, offering her some comfort.

According to the Mariupol authorities, almost 10% of the city’s 430,000 inhabitants have fled in the last week, risking their lives in the outgoing caravans.

The memories are still very vivid in Galla’s mind.

For three weeks, she and her son lived in the basement of the Mariupol Palace of Culture to shelter from constant Russian bombardment, deciding to go underground after the horizon was darkened by smoke.

“We had no water, no electricity, no gas, and we were completely cut off,” he said. They cooked meals outdoors with firewood in the patio, even during times of attack.

And after finally escaping Mariupol in order to catch a train to safety in the west, Russian soldiers at the checkpoints made a terrifying suggestion: They had better go to the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, or to the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russia.

It’s a suggestion residents find ridiculous after the Russians on Wednesday bombed a theater in Mariupol sheltering scores of people, including children, and after authorities declared Sunday that an art school in the port where there were hundreds of refugees was also bombed.

During the several-hour train ride, the survivors shared their experiences with other passengers. Even residents of other Ukrainian cities that have been attacked or occupied by Russian troops see Mariupol as an example of horror.

Yelena Sovchyuk, a resident of Melitopol, shared a train compartment with a family from Mariupol. She bought them food, she counted her. They had nothing except for a small bag.

“Everyone who is from there is in deep shock,” Sovchyuk said.

He remembered seeing on the road the caravans leaving the besieged city. “There is a way to distinguish a car from Mariupol,” she said. “They don’t have glass in their windows.”

With enormous disdain, Sovchyuk said that amid the tremendous devastation, Russian soldiers were still encouraging Ukrainians to flee to Russia, saying it was for their safety.

The Mariupol City Council has said that thousands of residents were transferred to Russia against their will in the past week. On Sunday, Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine reported that 2,973 people have been “evacuated” from Mariupol since March 5, including 541 in the last 24 hours.

The train with survivors on Sunday afternoon was approaching the central station in Lviv, a city near Poland that has received some 200,000 people fleeing from other parts of Ukraine. Some Mariupol survivors broke down in tears as they stepped off the train and were greeted by family and friends after spending weeks fearing for their lives.

A mother hugged a tearful teenager at the bottom of the steps. An elderly woman in a scarf was helped off the train and walked away from her in silence. Another one of her stood motionless with her bags, watching the scene behind her thick glasses. Her neighbor, who escaped with her, said that some vehicles that left with them in the caravan were attacked.

With disheveled hair and embraced by her family, Olga Nikitina wept on the platform.

“They began to destroy our city, completely, house by house,” said the young woman. “There were battles on every street. Every house became a target.”

The shots smashed the windows. When the temperature in her apartment dropped below freezing, Nikitina moved in with her godmother, who has cancer and cares for her elderly father. Shortly afterward, Ukrainian soldiers arrived and warned them that her house would be attacked.

“Hide or go away,” the soldiers told them.

Nikita left. The others were too weak to leave. Now, like so many Mariupol survivors who managed to escape, she doesn’t know what became of those left behind.

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