Fair-haired girl in poppy wreath. Ukrainian costume, traditional necklace, and bandura [a Ukrainian plucked string folk instrument — Ed.] in her hands. That’s how 17-year-old Mariia Vdovychenko looked in many pre-war photos.
Until recently she lived in Mariupol with her family, was the school president, was learning to play bandura, and used to visit the church with her parents.
All at once, her life had changed on February 24. When the city was being shelled, the house that used to be their shelter became a ruin, and all the food that remained was only a quarter of a fist-sized piece of bread.
Not so long ago, Mariia’s family managed to get out of Mariupol. Along the way, they survived the occupation and the filtration camp.
The following is her direct speech.
On February 24 at 3.50 a.m. mom heard the first explosion, ran into the room to my younger sister and me, and loudly said the most terrifying words, “The war has started. We are going!” Where are we going? How are we going? We quickly filled our bags with warm clothes and food that remained. We thought we could leave. But we didn’t — the city had been closed.
Then the real horror started. People were running out of their houses, trying to buy everything, to withdraw cash, to refuel cars. At the same time, the explosions were heard all around.
At 12 p.m. our house had already been shaking. To which basement should we run? I called the head of the housing cooperative and asked where to hide. He told me that “Our basement was not designed for it, it has windows, it’s being repaired, you can’t go there.”
At that time we still had all the communications. Our food and water supplies were relatively small because we thought it would continue for 3-4 days only.
On the third day of the war telephony, water and electricity disappeared. Later on, gas disappeared too. We realized that the situation was difficult.
At that time, Mariupol was being shelled constantly. The Left bank of the city was being destroyed, blast waves reached even the Prymorskyi District, everything was rumbling.
In our apartment, we covered the windows and put foam rubber between them. We thought it would protect us.
We decided to hide in the bathroom. There were days when we already knew when the shelling would start. Once we heard any noise, rustle, explosion — we immediately ran to the bathroom. Bit by bit it was getting annoying. The hope that it would all end, that we would be saved had gone. After all, what kind of bathroom is there in an ordinary Soviet apartment?
One morning, I don’t exactly remember what day it was, we were all laying down in a single room. We would hear everything shake in the apartment, and something fell in another room.
But we were lying there and thinking: “No, it’s somewhere far away, we don’t believe it’s here.”
The earth started to vibrate, it seemed that the house was jumping up. We ran to the bathroom. At first, it was so silent, as if something was collapsing, and then the shock wave pierced everything from top to bottom. The upper floors of the house came down like a house of cards. Pieces of concrete, furniture, roofing slates, and glass were falling down. People were screaming everywhere.
We managed to get out of the house, my father told us to go quickly to the first basement we could find.
Ice, glass, noise, and shootings were all around, and we were running and thinking: “If only there were stairs to the basement, if only we could go down if only we would not be smashed by a slab.”
My sister ran to the basement first, then me and my parents. We started knocking and heard people whispering inside. Finally, a man opened the door and said that he couldn’t let us in: too many people inside and no space for us. My father didn’t listen to him, pushed him back, and we came in.
There were 20 people inside, our neighbors. One more family with a five-month-old child entered with us. That means if we hadn’t broken in, many families would’ve perished in the ruins of our house.
In the basement, we saw various horrors. People were running out of supplies, they were turning into beasts. They were ready to kill each other only for a sip of water.
There was nothing to cook, we extracted water from ice and snow.
People were jeopardizing their lives, once outside — shell fragments, parts of buildings, and stones were all falling on them.
One day, a shell landed right in front of our door to the basement. The hole was so big as if someone had dug too deep. We thought we would be buried there, the building had already begun to collapse. We were scared it would become our mass grave.
My mother has been suffering from polyneuropathy for six years. It’s a nervous system disease. Due to the stress, she stopped walking, her heart stopped twice. Pharmacies didn’t work, we didn’t have the medicine. The ambulance department facing our basement was destroyed. Dad resuscitated mom as best as he could: artificial respiration, cardiac massage. We had to look for the pills under shelling. We couldn’t lose our mother. In that basement, there were only our hope and prayer. Nothing else.
On the 10th day of being there, we had only one piece of bread left. It was fist-sized. We divided it into four portions. I couldn’t eat my piece because we were starving for too long. It was with me for a long time. I was scared that everything would disappear, and even it would be gone.
People were quarreling, brawling, trying to cast out someone from the basement so that it would be fewer people to feed. There was no kindness, only darkness, and we felt the smell of death.
So it had been for 12 days.
Usually, the night shelling started around 4 a.m. Then there was a little break, and at 10 a.m. the shelling again. But on that day, everyone woke up at 2 a.m. because of the noise unheard of before. We were lying down, trying to fall asleep. A cup on the shelf above me was bouncing. The sound was as if I was lying, and next to me there were four trains moving on each side.
Usually, when they were shelling us a child was crying, someone was praying out loud. But that time everyone kept silent.
Suddenly the earth started shaking, it seemed that everything was falling on us. Plaster and bricks were falling from the ceiling.
I was lying down, thinking, “We will not get out of here. This is my grave.” I had already lost all hope, could neither pray nor hope. “It will end, it can’t be for long. A human suffers for a reason,” I was repeating to myself.
At that moment, I was sure I would die, and I wouldn’t be the only one. My family was lying on the same blanket.
Still, I decided to pray. Asked God to die fast and not to see my family dying, not to see them suffering not being able to help.
We had nothing. No strength, no hope, not even a normal first-aid kit. Everyone knew if it hit, we would not get out of here. Like in the next building where no one got out. The enemy troops forbid rescuing anyone, it was impossible to do.
Since then, I don’t remember how the days had passed. We were upset, hungry, and tired. Once, my father said, “We either will starve to death or will be buried alive or simply killed.” Russian soldiers went inside the basements, checked who was there and threw bombs. When they knocked, we didn’t respond.
One day we heard from the neighbors that it was possible to drive out to Melekino. Dad had an old Zhiguli car, hit by glass and pieces of buildings. We didn’t even know if it would get started, but it did. We were driving under the shelling, Grads. The battles continued, and we had only one goal: to survive, to get out of this hell.
We had almost reached Melekino where there was a so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” checkpoint. We knew that we couldn’t come back, but also didn’t want to move on: if they hadn’t killed us there, then they would’ve killed us here. To the enemies, we are nothing but a target.
We were stopped at the checkpoint and asked where we were registered. “From Mariupol? To the right.” We didn’t know what was on the “right”. Then we were directed further and further. Just like that, a big line of cars and even people on foot appeared there.
Then the “DPR” soldiers told us to drive “down”. We went there, and they were just shooting at the cars and the people.
That’s how we got to Yalta [Donetsk region — Ed.], we’ve been hiding in an old boarding house there for more than 10 days. We didn’t have any food, and we would get water from the well. The cash we had was nothing.centre
“DNR” has just changed the government in Yalta, and they tried to make a good impression. They invited people to tell their names in order to get humanitarian aid. People would do that only to survive, not to starve to death. But they didn’t give any rations — only locals could get them to sell at the market for an unbelievable price later.
In Yalta, there were several shops selling products from Russia. High prices, long queues. With the money we had, we were able to buy only two loaves of bread. We kept and hid them so that they wouldn’t be taken away.
There was a “denationalization” in Yalta as well: soldiers walked from house to house, searching for “nationalists”, “fascists”, as they called it. People were being taken away in an unknown direction, others were killed.
In Yalta, there was the hunger, the cold, and the fear of freezing again. All that we had was fire, water, tea, and those two loaves of bread. The parents decided to leave.
That’s how we ended up in the filtration in Manhush. There were two camps. The first one was for people on foot. They could have been passing the filtration process for more than a month, the queues were insane. People tried their best to save themselves and run away. And there was another camp for those by car.
The camp is not some kind of settlement, it’s just lines of cars. There were 500 cars in the queue in front of us, and thousands more behind.
We were prohibited to get out of the cars, to look for food or water, to go to the toilet. Soldiers walked with guns everywhere, they threatened, checked everything, looked if everyone followed the orders
That filtration camp, as we were told, worked from 5 a.m. till 11 p.m. but in reality, nothing would happen until they all woke up, had breakfast, smoked, called someone, and swapped places.
They don’t care about civilians at all. Every hour two cars or three, if they were lucky, passed through. We’ve been living in the car for two days, waiting for our turn.
That’s how the filtration goes: they have a checkpoint. A car drives in, they check every pocket, glove compartment, trunk, and bag. People have their clothes and what is under them checked. Men get undressed on the street near the cars. They look for tattoos, some kind of marks, shortly, “nationalists”.
Sometimes not all the passengers in the car went through filtration successfully: they could take only the father or mother, and the car must move on. People got confused. Russians had weapons and the people had nothing.
Our turn came at 11 p.m., we were the last car for that day. They let us in, and searched. Mom couldn’t walk anymore because of her illness. She and my sister were allowed to stay in the car: they said that “the filtration starts above the age of 14.”
My father and I got out. 200 meters from our car there was a booth with two rooms. Exhausted people were standing on the street, they had no clothes, and it was freezing outside. My feet were freezing so much that I couldn’t feel my toes.
But they were just walking around, talking to each other, discussing the women they had tortured.
I heard their conversations:
“And that one that didn’t pass, where did you take him?”, one asked another.
“Shot him. I shot 10 people, maybe more. I don’t count, got tired of it.”
One man that had come through filtration, left the room with big scared eyes. He was shaking. He said there was a cruel interrogation, he was beaten up. His wife was not released.
Then it was our turn. I entered one filtration room, father entered another one. They took all my fingerprints, scanned my documents, and checked my phone. They asked provocative questions. About the government, of Ukraine, about my personal views. They tried to find people that love their motherland, that wanted to live normal lives. They were abusing us, humiliating could insult or beat.
They took my passport and saw that I’m 17. They didn’t like me, said I looked like a kid, and they were looking for some young pretty girls.
They pushed me out of there. I was accompanied to the car by an armed soldier.
He was pushing me for “walking too slowly”. I fell and hurt my knee, but I knew: if I didn’t stand up and run to the car, I wouldn’t come back. I ran with all my might.
Mom saw that I was alone. She started to panic — what about dad? He didn’t pass? He’s already dead? He was being tortured? And I couldn’t tell her anything. I sat there and didn't know what would happen next.
But father returned in 40 minutes. We saw him being pushed out. He came out and fell. He tried to get up but fell every time. But he still managed to get to the car.
Father hit the gas, and we started going. There was no straight road to Berdiansk: the bridge was blown up, so we rode through the outskirts and villages. We saw corpses and destroyed vehicles. On the road dad started to have trouble with his eyes — he couldn’t see.
In Berdiansk, we slept in the car. Only their father told us about his filtration experience.
He was asked for documents, his fingerprints were taken, and he was undressed and searched. They started interrogating and pushed him mentally. Firstly, they were pushing him. When they saw that his phone was empty, the questions started: “Why is the phone empty? What are you hiding? We don’t believe you!” And then he got a hit in the head. He doesn’t remember by whom, how, and with what exactly. He remembers how he found himself out on the street. Because of that beating, my father lost his sight, and we had to move on.
There were 27 checkpoints on the road from Berdiansk to Zaporizhzhia, and at each one, they checked documents, and cars, and asked if we were filtrated. They would take the remained food and warm clothes, asked for cigarettes, and even asked for drugs and alcohol.
We were driving, and there were battles near us. Something flew under the car, exploded, and the car bounced. Father said not to worry — maybe it was a firecracker. But we knew there are no firecrackers at war. The road was hard. We saw destroyed houses, anti-tank mines in the middle of the road, tanks with “Z” marks in the yards, burnt bodies along the road, and crashed cars. The forest was burning around us.
At dawn, we arrived at Orikhiv, Zaporizhzhia region. Ahead of us, there were stone blocks, the anti-tank hedgehogs, barbed wires. It felt like it was easier to breathe, and then we saw the Ukrainian flag in front of us.
At first, we were scared: what if it was a provocation? What if it was one more exam that we needed to pass?
We were stopped. They said in Ukrainian: “Good afternoon! Could you show your documents, please?”
We showed everything, still thinking it was a provocation.
Then they said to us in Ukrainian: “Don’t be afraid. This is Ukraine.”
We started crying. We couldn’t believe that we were safe, that we had found our land. Then we drove to the refugee help center in Zaporizhzhia. Mom received medical care because she still couldn’t walk. Dad was unwell: he couldn’t see. My sister and I were emotionally exhausted. We were broken mentally.
The volunteers helped us to get to Dnipro.
In the city, the father was examined by two doctors, and they had made a conclusion that he had a trauma due to contusion. One eye has a complete loss of sight, and the other one sees as if through a plastic bag.
In order to get qualified medical help, volunteers sent us to Lviv. Here, the father was examined again. We were told that the treatment would be long, hard, and expensive, with a possible treatment abroad.
“We can’t lose our father. He saved us, now we must help him,” said at the end of our conversation Mariia’s mother, Natalia Serhiivna.
April 18 at 6:34 p.m.
Ukrainian Text by Olesya Bida and Mariia Vdovychenko, translated into English by Ukrainianvancouver team — May 2, 2022