war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

‘Mariupol will still be Ukrainian’ – wife of the military

03.05.2022    available: Українською
Taras Zozulinsky

Yulia Beley escaped with children from Mariupol. They lived in the basement, drank rainwater, buried neighbors in the yard. Julia's husband continues to defend Ukraine from the Russian aggressor. The interview was prepared by Lviv journalist Taras Zozulinsky.

– I was born in Poltava, since 2017 I have lived in Mariupol. I have three children. I am married to a military man, a Ukrainian one, a Ukrainian “punisher”. I am not even afraid to say this.

We used to live well, we visited seas often, had vacation on the seas. When my husband was home, we visited Mariupol zoo. We have a beautiful zoo, beautiful parks, Primorsky park is beautiful. We’ve got a good and clean beach. In Primorsky district as well. It is not very clean on the left shore — but one could swim there. People were vacationing with their children.

My children go to school, the older girl went to the fifth grade. Two juniors – one is six years old, Ivanka, she was in the senior group of the kindergarten, and Ida, the youngest — to the nursery group.

I worked until the war started. I used to work as the senior baker of the “Grace” shop, that shop has a bakery. We baked bread. First worked as a dough mixer. Then I became a baker at the great ovens. Then I was made the senior baker. Because I understood my job and loved it. My job is my second life and my second home.

I used to wake up at 4 am – and was glad to do that – and on 5 am I go to work. Well, we lived well. We were content with what we had.

– How did February 24 pass in Mariupol? Were you ready to the Russian aggression? Did you pack your things, emergency backpack?

– Just before the mess, I explained to my kids what to do, how to hide. What wall to lie under, how to cover the head and what to do next. Because my work was 17 kilometers away from home. It took an hour to get there by bus, in general an hour and a half of driving.

My children knew it all, understood it. Today I understand: if I was at work that day, my children would have had few chances of survival.

It all started at night. I am very glad that I was home then. Because all that mess began at half past 2 am. I woke up because there was a powerful shelling. We lived in Vostochny, and a powerful shelling was coming from the direction of Vostochny.

There was a powerful, serious rumbling. The windows of our room look at Shirokino village. And a powerful shelling came from there as well. So I understood that it was falling somewhere nearby. Not far. Maybe, even in the field. The field is about 500 meters away from us. Maybe 800, roughly speaking.

I understand that it is flying our way. I called my husband – my husband was on duty, I wrote a message to him, I wrote, “Something is not right.” And he replied, “You are tired after three shifts. Go to sleep. Everything is fine, everything is as usual.”

But when there was a flash, and it was magnificent. It felt as if somebody turned the lights on in my room. Such a flash! And then an explosion. And the explosion was so powerful that I thought my windows were shattered on the other side. On the side of the loggia.

I phone him and I say, “You know, I haven’t seen anything like it yet!” We haven’t had it.

Since 2017 we live in Vostochny, we’ve had explosions, shelling. Only from that side – far away. Far from us… I always asked my husband – how far are the Russian Grads? He explained that such Grads as they had – back then, it was 2017, 2018, 2019, – it was 40 kilometers away. So – they are even farther away. So – don’t worry.

But I understood that that shelling came close. I phoned him and I said, “Well, do you realize that cannot be true? We’ve never had this.” He listened to me and said, “No, that cannot be.”

He simply did not believe me. He did not believe the things I said. Only later I started to realize it… And he said to me, “You know, I understood that it was shelling from the air. But I could not tell you.” At half past 2 am we underwent an air raid. And none of the people could understand it. The next flash came at 5 am. When the war was officially declared. 

I don’t understand why they need that war, can’t understand what they want to prove, but they won’t have Ukraine. Or Mariupol. Well, let’s see. Mariupol will still be Ukrainian.

On the first day, when there was the explosion at 5 am, with the flash, I woke up my older daughter and said, “Daughter, the war has started.” My husband was already phoning me, telling me to leave. But I understood that I won’t leave. I don’t have a car, don’t have transport. He said, “Take the warm clothes and flee. Leave anywhere.” I understood that I didn’t have cash at all. Only four hundred hryvnias. If I leave, I would need money. I said, “There is a horrible shelling outside – shooting, explosions. It will get a bit brighter soon, I am going to withdraw some money from my card.” Although I understood that I wouldn’t be able to do that.

I started searching for an ATM to withdraw money. Was able to withdraw three thousand in one ATM – there wasn’t any more. Then I arrived to another one… We had a “Silpo” store there. There was a long line there – it was 6 am. So, while I was standing in line, the rain was pouring, and I turned around and saw:  tanks, APCs, our Grads going, a lot of infantry.

Our neighbor brought us to the center of the city. We wandered around there, we did not know what to do. The shelling only came from the eastern side. From the direction of our Vostochny district. It was still safe in the center of the city.

We tried to cross the checkpoints from Mariupol by car. They did not let us leave Mariupol. As the military guard explained to us,"The air was "working hard" at the time, and they were not sure we would survive the trip. I said, “I need to leave.” I show the Poltava residence permit. They said, “My husband is in the military.” "No, I'm not letting anyone out."

We have found the information that the sports complex “Terrasport” was accepting the refugees. People who needed a shelter. We went there. 

Our neighbors went to their friends and we remained there.

  – How did you stay safe in the subsequent days?

– We slept on mats, such big mattresses, and on the floor. It was very cold. Of course, the children were scared. Very scared – because the shelling was there, and the shooting…They were like…”How is dad doing?”

The older daughter held herself together very well. The youngest who was 3 years old – she did not understand it. But Ivanna, she is six years old, she understands, understands a lot… “What about dad? Where is dad? How is dad? What’s with dad, why? Is he alive? Phone him!” She was constantly tugging at me to make a call.

...On the next day my neighbor suggested we make a trip home – to take the animals and stuff. The shelling was already powerful, the explosions were loud. On the way there – a lot of burnt cars, ruined buildings, burnt buildings, some shells directly hit the flats. A complete ruin.

Approaching the entrance, to be honest, I wasn’t even lifting my head to see if our windows were intact. Because we dashed from the car, ducking, and ran straight to the entrance.

Of course, the elevator was not working, so we ran in, took our pets and ran out. From there we were leaving and mines were falling on us. Right on target – in the car, the driver only had time to steer left and right. And even so, while I was screaming “Step on it!”, while he was stepping on the gas pedal, so stressed we were, scared, that while we were leaving, of course, it was very scary and terrifying.

They brought me to “Terrasport” and we remained there until March 1.

On March 1 we were taken by complete strangers. “Terrasport”, that sports complex, posted an announcement in the internet that there were too many people. The thing is that on those days, in late February, Sartana and Volnovakha underwent powerful shelling. And people who were able to leave there started coming from there. Everybody went to “Terrasport” on the road. Everybody needed to go and hide somewhere. So there were too many people. I had to sleep on the floor with the kids. An infection, E. coli, began, some children in the shelter got poisoned, some had a cold. And we realized that there were simply no place for us there.

And “Terrasport” gave an announcement, if anybody could take the people. A man came, Sergey. He had brought his children to Malinovka, 20 kilometers away from, Mariupol.

And he returned home with his wife Oksana, to help the Ukrainian army.

They could not do anything serious, because they were not accepted into the Territorial Defense, their data was recorded and that’s it. He arrived and said, “We are taking you to us. We leave not far from “Terrasport”. You will live with us – we have the first floor, all of a sudden, if something happens – we can go down to the basement.” We went to them. For a couple of days we lived in their apartment. There was still light, communication, and water. There was no heating though. It was very cold.

We also, as it were, prepared food, and it was possible to wash. But Oksana says – let’s get a full bath of water, you never know, just in case. Because the fights were already very serious.

– Have you seen the shelling of the residential blocks?

– On March 3, at half past 6 am, I woke up because there were already hits – the same as back then, on Febuary, 24, at home. And it was falling nearby. We were on the first floor, we could hear it well. There was no light, no water. We took our belongings, plaids, a very good carpet, maybe, even Persian. Srgey said, we should take everything warm that we will need in the basement.

We went to the basement, and the people started arriving from the neighboring entrances, because it was very “hot” on March 3. Not so much because of Grads as because of “air raids”. The “air” was working overtime. The plane was releasing five or six, sometimes twelve mines. Those bombs, they fell, they were so loud, that the slabs were going up in our basement, and we were going up with them. The slabs fell, and we fell later. It felt as if we stayed in the air for several seconds. Such blast waves there were. The serious shelling lasted until March 7. We did not keep in touch with any of the relatives.

– Have you tried leaving Mariupol on subsequent days?

– On March 4 Sergey and Oksana went to the vicinity of “Obzhora”. They learned that the regular people, locals, decided to leave, make a convoy. We ran to the car, entered it, put the “children” sticker, and went to “Obzhora”. There were a lot of cars there. The convoy was huge. And the mortar was working while we were going.

The mortar worked hard. When we went to the center, to “Obzhora” – there were many bodies. Those were locals – not the military. I haven’t seen the military. There were bodies of civilians. Some were covered, some weren’t.

We went there, joined the convoy and it began moving. We were in the beginning of the convoy. Probably, the fifth or sixth car. We did not make it to the “Port City” because the mines started dropping. The mines were falling before the cars. 

And so the cars started avoiding the explosions, the holes. And the mines were falling, the first, second, third. So, brakes! We understood that the fourth mine may fall on our car.

We raised our eyes and saw that two cars were burning in front of us. The ones labeled “Children”... There were women driving them. And children. There were children. And those two cars were burning in front of us…

Those that traveled further were not hit. They swerved – they swerved to the side of the road. And then, just a sharp turn – and they started to leave. Because  mines were falling one after another, one after another.

Sergey understood that it’s all over. He said, “Let’s leave.” He understood – it was all very dangerous. As long as we were going, the mines were falling behind us. It was scary to look back, the only thing I did was covering the children with my body, as much as I could. Forcing them to fold as much as they could to avoid all shards, with God’s help.

... The people burned alive in their car. They could not leave it. When a mine hits a car, it simply explodes and burns. I begged God that the passengers would be simply torn apart before they understood what happened. Prayed it was so. We saw it was all burning. That explosion, such a powerful explosion! Everything falls apart, the windows are shattered.

The first car’s roof was shattered when it was hit. That’s how powerful the explosion was.

And I understand that there was shooting and I Knew that those weren’t Ukrainian soldiers shooting. There were hits by Russians.

– Where did your family hide in the subsequent days? Did the shelling continue?

– We continued to live there, we returned to basement. We did not talk. I realized that we needed to leave, because the shelling was getting closer. The closer were the explosions,. the faster we needed to leave. 

We cooked on the street, on firewood. Because there was no gas anymore. The water was also running low. That is, the supply was low. We thought: what if they give water, what if they give light. We were waiting for humanitarian aid. The police arrived, they brought sweets to the children, some fruit.

–  Where were you getting water?

– When the water ran low, God sent us rain. It rained for two days, it was wonderful!

We gathered water in any buckets, even dirty ones, any vessels we could fill. We filled them with rainwater from the water pipes. Then we drank it. We boiled it, but we did not always drink boiled water. We were boiling it, making tea.

When we ran out of tea, we started breaking branches off of trees. We had a good cherry tree there. Cherry tea is very tasty and good for your health, as one woman told us.

There were many people in the basement with us, with dogs, and we were there with our cat. But we left our parrot in the flat, covered his cage. I don’t know if he is alive anymore… We asked a neighbor to look after him. The people were saving anyone and any living being.

– Did you see the war crimes against the peaceful civilians?

– The homes were burning every day. 3, 4 buildings at once. Only four houses burned in our yard. And one house with five entrances, it was ruined by an airplane bomb and it folded in the middle. That is, from the ninth to the first floor. As we were told, there were people when the bomb fell. Two entrances are standing and one is gone…Just the ruins, that’s all.

The houses were burning, the flames were powerful. There were hits to our house, near the basement where we were hiding. Two Grads fell there, and there was a significant shove.

There was a lot of bodies. We were burying the dead. I personally buried with the men, we buried two soldiers and two locals. They were killed by shrapnel there.

... When I was in the basement, when I saw all those bodies, I realized that I had to keep a passport and my residence certificate  with me. I had it all in my jacket.

There wasn’t good drinking water. To give the children. But we were giving the children this rainwater.

Sometimes  we were going to take water several blocks away. Maybe a kilometer, maybe two kilometers of the road. We were fetching water under the shelling. Did it two times. Then I said – I won’t go the third time. Because it was very dangerous. And constantly falling face down in the mud, and falling next to human corpses – it was very scary.

I went to fetch water, and people went, too. Three men, and I went with them. I took two bottles. One six liter, the other five liter.A nd when we were going back with the water, we were dropping down because there were hits – probably, ten times. Once I fell. A man shoved me, because when a shell is flying toward you, you can’t hear it, you don’t understand it is approaching you. When it is somewhere near, it is whistling “pheeewww”. Boom. Nearby. It is nearby… 

So when, after the first hit on us, we heard it, when it went “bang” – and we already fell.

And I fell on my face right next to an old man. He was dead. And I saw his terrible, broken face. I sobbed all night, I was in shock, I just sobbed, I was hysterical, shocked, I think at least the children did not see, did not hear my tears.

– How did you decide to try and leave Mariupol again?

– We decided to leave when Russian soldiers entered a school near us, two buildings away. I went to the school (we had the National Guard there). And I went to our guys to find out how things were. I was near the school  and saw they were throwing out the dead boys. Our boys.

And I was standing, looking at their uniforms, those white bands…I was shocked, I understood that I couldn’t run back.The soldier looked at me. And I didn’t know what to say.

And he told me, “We have cleared everything here, it is clear. If you want to get out – move towards Volodarsk. There’s a corridor for you. Until 4 pm. Get out, if you want to. Anywhere. Nobody will touch you.”

I quietly turned and left. And I told Sergey we were given a green corridor. The green corridor was only given by “DPR”. Not Ukraine. Although my husband warned me – never use their corridor. But I didn’t have a choice. I realized that it’s all or nothing.

Sergey went to the hospital two streets away from us. There was the “DPR” headquarters there. He entered and said, “Connect me to the main one, I want to learn how to leave.”

Those guys, Russians, told him, “Leave, but before 4 pm. Just put the “children” stickers, that you are not alone, with kids.”

I will tell you one thing: I understood that we were leaving towards “DPR”. And I couldn’t go there – my husband is in the military. I know what Russian soldiers are like, I know that they are complete bastards. And that they will shoot both women and children. They don’t care. They are the dregs of society. They don’t have any values.

I understood that we couldn’t go there. But we had to – what other choice did we have?!

If we remained in Mariupol – I don’t know – we probably wouldn’t have survived.

Every day we cooked food for several families. It was our big “family”. So, I had a small plate and I was feeding my kids with a spoon. I ate what remained. If nothing remained, I only drank tea, what else?

... Began leaving our home – the houses were ruined everywhere, the wires were broken — everything was burned down, there were no windows anywhere. The hospital with people was ruined, half of it was destroyed.

A lot of high-voltage wires were lying around, too. And we were very afraid – although I realized that there is no electricity anyway.

While leaving, Sergey asked a Russian soldier, how we could leave, where the road was – everything was broken.

We did not arrive to Volodarsk at first. We arrived to Malinovka. It is near Volodarsk, about 10 kilometers away from it. We spent two days there, still hearing the explosions. And they were getting closer and closer still. And I asked Sergey to bring us to Volodarsk.

I told, “Bring us there – I will find some way top leave from there.” They brought us to Volodarsk, we spent another day there. There is a school, Russian flags everywhere, Russian soldiers going around.

It was really scary. When I approached a volunteer girl and said, “I want to leave to Mangush.” In response they asked me, “Do you have relatives there? Nobody goes there now. We send everyone to Rostov. If you have relatives or friends in Mangush — because othjerwise nobody will bring you there.”

So – there was no way there. I said that I needed to go to Mangush, because I had relatives in Gurzuf. She told  me, “There is no connection now, but we will find a volunteer who will bring you to a place where you can catch a signal. And you will be able to call your relatives in Gurzuf. They will confirm if you are truly their relative. Only then we will think of something and send you in their direction.”  And so, they force everyone into buses – and to Rostov.

I understood that we couldn’t even spend a day there. But we were sitting, waiting.

I met people who were with us in the basement. They also got to Volodarsk. And they said, “We will also leave for Ukraine. Towards Ukraine – to Mangush.To Berdiansk, and from Berdiansk to Zaporizhzhia.” I “piggybacked” them pleading – please, please!

We had to spend a night in Volodarsk, under their flags. And we waited for the transport – waited for a long time. And he took us at 7 am from Volodarsk – we quietly took our belongings, woke up the children.

The car was designed for 8 places, a small one. And there were 13 of us. And we are all placed there and we leave. I am so grateful to him of course! His name is Vadim. I pray to God that he is ok.

He brought us out. There were many checkpoints. Because we had men in our car, a family was leaving. They were checking the men. They checked very strictly on the checkpoint in Mangush. They even took the fingerprints and photographed them  from various sides. As ifd preparing documents for them  – new profiles. Like, “why do you leave, where are you coming from, where do you go and why?”

And we got to Berdiansk. My husband told me that his fellow serviceman’s wife was left there, so we went there. 

– How do your acquaintances from Mariupol feel about military aggression? — are there supporters of the “Russian world”?

– Many acquaintances left for Russia. A lot of them. They did not have a choice. What do they say? They currently don’t understand how to live. Nobody needs them there. The food is not good, the treatment is not good.

How are the Russians? There are many people who were my friends, whom I’ve talked to, respected, and loved. They turned out to be the supporters of Russia. “Here, Russia came, if Ukraine did not shoot we would not even leave our homes”.

Really: “Ukraine shelled, Ukraine shelled…” And they only say the Russian soldiers save them. Like, it’s Ukrainian soldiers who shell them. Folks, open your eyes, where are you going. What are you thinking?

The people who leave there – to Russia — they don’t understand that they will be conscripted. Conscripted to service. And they will go and shell their native city. 

They don’t understand. I’ve got an acquaintance girl, I write to her: leave Russia, leave. Flee. You realize that your son will be conscripted. – “No one will be conscripted”.

By the way, their relatives are left in Mariupol. – He will go shoot his grandma, his sister.

And she does not understand. “What do you mean, what are you talking about! Of course not!”.

Yulia was able to leave Berdyansk for Zaporizhzhia. And from there – to Lviv. Today Yulia brought three children to Poland. Her husband continues to protect Ukraine from the Russian aggressor.

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