A resident of Mariupol is telling how she found civilians killed by a sniper

Denys Volokha

Olena Yakhontova recorded her departure from Mariupol to the dashcam. All pictures are provided by Olena.

On the second attempt Olena Yakhontova was able to leave Mariupol with her three children. The kindergarten in which she used to work is leveled. Chechens live in her house and give the flats to everyone who wants them.

 — Olena, tell me please, how old you are and where do you stay now?

 — I am 39 years old. I have lived in Mariupol for all those 39 years. Currently I am staying in Zaporizhzhia oblast, Avgustynivka village.

 — Can you recall, please, what was the first day of the war in Mariupol, February 24th?

 — Between 4 and 5 AM, I don’t remember the exact time, we woke up because there were two significant explosions. I was on the bed and I was, as they say, lifted in the air along with the bed. It began. In general we were used to quiet explosions somewhere. And it was something unclear, well, later we turned the TV on and there was the report that the war started. That’s it. My junior son’s birthday was on February 23. We were celebrating fine, nothing predicted [the war]. At all! We attended the kindergarten on February 23. It was all well, and we woke up with the news.

 — What was your reaction, did you prepare for this?

 — No, I was not prepared for that at all. And I don’t think one could be prepared for that at all. The first thing I consciously did automatically was to pack all my documents in the separate backpack: Everything that I had. And put it near the exit. And I was sitting there, waiting, because my husband… I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this — because I am so intimidated already. My husband serves in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. So there’s that.

 — Where was your husband then? At the beginning of the war.

 — He was in his combat brigade at the time. We were alone with the children. We went out alone with the children as well.

 — Did you think to leave at once, since the first day of the hostilities?

 — Not at first. But my husband, when we could still phone each other, he told us to leave – we have a car. Leave. But all our acquaintances and parents thought that it would be several days and it will all be over. No! It was not limited by several days.

 — And when your acquaintances told you: “A few days and it will be over,” what did they mean?

 — They all thought it was not true — that there will be a few explosions in the outskirts, and it will all be as always. Meaning, nobody believed it was a full-scale war.

 — When did you realize that you had to leave the city?

 — We tried to leave twice. The first time was on March 5, based on the hearsay. But we tried to leave, there were four cars, mine was the fifth. And my brother has punctured a tire, and the convoy simply left us and went without us. We could not even understand where they are. We got to the city center, wanted to leave towards Zaporizhzhia, but nobody let us through. We hear that everything is loud, everything is exploding. My parents live near the railroad station, not far from the center. We went to them, spent a night with them, back then they had everything: their own house, water. And on March 6, around 5 am, when the curfew ended, we dashed home — 54 Morskyi [Sea] Boulevard. And we sat there, because we realized that we cannot go anywhere, we are not allowed to leave the city as of March 5.

“The civilians are lying there… And almost all of them had either their temple or their head hit. A girl is lying there… I tell my senior son that her face looks familiar. And he says: ‘Mom, it was Veronika, my classmate, she was 15 years old.”

 — As I understood, the second attempt was the successful one, when you were able to leave?

 — Yes! There was the departure, yes! Since Monday we started to ask, because they started to tell us that the bridges are  destroyed and we could not leave. One man from our convoy, there were 15 cars, he mounted his bike and visited two bridges. And he said that one bridge was exploded, and as for the other one – the cars stand around, some burning, there is oil everywhere – that only a small vehicle would fit through. We decided, visited everyone we could, gathered 15 cars, and on Wednesday in the morning, on 6 am, we were all ready. Because there was such situation, we lived in house No. 54, and Chechens have already entered the building No. 60. They were already entering the buildings. It was Sunday. On Monday we started to move. And on Tuesday I was approached by an unfamiliar man, he touched my shoulder and said “You know, we will give you over first”. And that’s it, I haven’t seen that person since. Who was he, what was he… Now I understand why would they “give me over”: my husband is in the military. And that’s it, I panicked. We gathered all that we could, grabbed it and left

 — You haven’t communicated with that man? Haven’t replied anything?

 — No! I was shocked after hearing that.

 — And what do you think, who was he? I mean, was he a kind of a saboteur? A representative of the Russian army in plain clothes?

 — Anything is possible. Maybe, even the neighbors told who my husband is, although we almost never told it to anyone. He always arrived and changed his clothes fully, he never entered our house wearing uniform. So, somebody told. The neighbors, I believe, very “well-meaning.”

 — Tell me please, how did the military treat the civilian population during the time of your stay in military Mariupol?

 — Several times I’ve seen the “Azov” fighters run past our house. Of course, they were well equipped, dressed – with good equipment. In general, I know them because they were located nearby. They were running, training near the sea, that is, we could see it, I saw them and I could already recognize their appearance, who they were. They were running by, shooting towards East. And when I faced them, he (an Azov fighter — ed.) said: “Go, hide, quick.” Well, he said it quickly and ran along. That’s all. That is concerning our guys, Ukrainians. As for those… We were getting water, there was no water. Our house was on the hill. And we had to descend. And there are our houses and the church, finely placed along the boulevard. They’ve got a big well and they allowed people to take water from it. And when we were told that the Chechens entered, the sniper shots have started to sound. One fine morning my senior son, he is 14 years old, 9th grade, we go and there are bodies lying near the well… The civilians are lying there… Almost everyone has their temple or head hit. I realize that it is a sniper, yes? A girl is lying there… I say to my senior son that her face looks familiar — I cannot understand, I’ve seen her somewhere… We gathered water and quickly, because there was non-stop shelling, quickly went home. And he arrives and says: “Mom, it was Veronika, my classmate, she is 15 years old”. Meaning, the girl simply went to get water, and never returned home. That span between our house and the water — maybe 100 or 150 meters. We never went to get water after that. One fine morning we heard the volleys. I don’t know what exactly, but first we heard the hymn of Ukraine, and then the volleys, probably five of them in a row. And then the neighbors told us that “Na Zubok” cafe, house 46, was smashed completely — two entrances were leveled — because the people turned the hymn on and put out the flag. And the house is gone…

“In the evening a neighbor looked out from the window, eighth floor, and was shot in the head.”

My flat is near the sea, my brother used to tell me: “Don’t open the windows and don’t look.” And I needed to look there. I opened and looked, I was curious, wanted to know if there were ships. I haven’t seen ships back then, but I saw a helicopter flying, and in the ravine, in front of the sea, the private sector and there are three streets. Here he flies towards Azovstal to the slag mountain, and accurately hits each house: I could directly see shells coming out from the helicopter and hitting each house… It flew by to the slag mountain, shot every building. Turned around and did the same to the second street. I didn’t understand, why. There is sea nearby, people don’t even have basements. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It was the last day when I looked out. In the evening a neighbor from the fifth entrance looked out, eighth floor, and was shot in the head. We went to the flat, to take that woman and somehow bury her, because it was cold at first, and then it was warm. They brought her down and wanted to bury her. A man, his name was Andriy, and another person who used to work at our Miskvodocanal, he used to always wear the vest “Miskvodocanal.” They went to dig, and there were shots. That man from Miskvodocanal, he was wounded. And Andriy said that they simply put her down and poured some soil over her, and said: “I won’t go burying people anymore, because I am scared.” And then we simply brought the bodies out, well, not me personally,the men who were going out. Simply put them in one place and covered — by a blanket, or a rug, or something else. We realized that it will be warm sooner or later

Each day, in the morning and in the evening, I went out and thanked, as they say, I don’t know whom, that my car was still intact. My senior son always told me: “Mom, why are you going there?” And I went to look if my car is intact, to be able to leave. Because there was a good covered parking lot near our house — it is gone, along with the cars. When we left, the people told us that there was shelling, shooting… We went past, for example, there was a tank with this fine letter ‘Z’, with the shaft bound with a white band. So, they were shooting through the buildings. The regular private houses, residential buildings. And they are so “accurate” that they never hit anything. Meaning, the place where Azov guys were located, they shot the district around it. It was seen a kilometer around how they shot and could not hit them. I’ve seen it: how the houses and people were gone.

My car is very low. When you drive you are afraid to be abandoned behind the convoy. And there is a body lying on the road, and you realize, that you should drive around to avoid it, and the convoy may abandon you if you do. Or you run over that body. You will move along. We drove around them, tried to. I drove and repeated one thing: “Don’t puncture a wheel, don’t puncture a wheel, don’t stop.”

 — Did you have to run over bodies?

 — Yes, I personally ran over a body. Yes. Because my car would not have climbed the curb, like others. I was going with my dashcam turned on. That recording was saved. When we arrived to Cheryomushki (the former name of the Prymorskyi district of Mariupol — editor), there were literally several our servicemen. And I have our little flag, and a video recorder in the car. He approached, “Young lady, please, remove the video recorder,” and that’s all. I took the recorder away, thanked him a lot for reminding me, because I drove automatically, and hid the little flag. And literally 100 meters away there were other people already.

 — How did Russians treat the civilians who came past their checkpoints leaving the city?

 — The first checkpoint that we passed after Cheryomushki, — they simply let us through. One of our cars was broken back then and we had to spread [to other cars] the belongings of those people, we didn’t even notice the first checkpoint. I strongly noticed at a checkpoint that they were not treating us like humans, in Mangush. I bought a car with a technical certificate, the insurance is not issued to me. And he told me that I stole the car, so he will not let me through if I do not have insurance for me now. I tried to explain to him, but I realized that I was not heard. I simply showed him the insurance and said “Do what you want.” I did not want to talk to them politely anymore. And after they were checking me for around 20 minutes, opened the trunk, looked everywhere… “Go.” We went, and the same was repeated almost every kilometer. My brother and I counted, there were 16 checkpoints until Zaporizhzhia.

 — How dangerous was it to go along that route, not counting the Russian checkpoints. Was there shelling?

 — Extremely dangerous. We went along the roads that people passed through before us, not the ones with the asphalt, but the ravines, through reeds, anywhere. Here you go, and there are “Mines” signs, so, it was all scary. We stopped when there was whistling and rumbling. We realized that there are loud explosions somewhere nearby.

 — Is there anything else that you remembered during your departure from Mariupol?

 — Yes! Exactly from Mariupol. I was already found here by the persons who were there. I understand, there were phone calls from Ukrainian numbers. And they introduced themselves: “Senior Commissioner Shaliyev”. “Who are you? Where are you?” and similar questions. I asked who was calling me, whom was he calling, whom he was. And they disconnected. And there were three such calls, only with different names. So I realize the families where the men go to war, they find them. And when we approached Tokmak, for example, on 4 pm, we were stopped by the people who lived there, to prevent us from driving at night. There were Buryats on the last checkpoint, as they said, back then we did not know what that meant and who are they. They offered our entire convoy to spend a night. Some were let into a kindergarten, some took people in their homes, fed us. It was all fine. In the morning we started moving out.

We needed to repair a tire. Two RF soldiers with white bands approached me personally. Why did I remember that? Because one of them was wearing black female Uggs and a female sweater under his coat or jacket. And he begins telling me something. And I am like a hedgehog already, I don’t need discussions, leave me alone! And he said once, I turn my head — “I don’t understand you,” he told me again, then he suddenly left, another one approached. And he said with a fine accent, “We are North Ossetia.” I won’t even recall it all. My car has tinted windows. “Remove the tint.” I say: “I am a girl and cannot do anything, if you need something – take the car, remove the tint, if you are like that and need everything.” And he looks in the car and says “Oh, you’ve got three children.” And in the convoy there are cars without children. “Place your children in other cars so that they would not touch you”. He brought me a tape, I taped on the “Children” signs. And we went. And I hear someone hitting our car and running after us. “Stop!” I lower my window. I insulted them as much as I could. And he says “You know, go faster, maybe they won’t hit you.” Or that the Buryats arrived, he said that in his manner. And so we went.

We arrived to the final checkpoint — the tattered men stood there. Those weren’t military, those were tattered men! He stands, munches a green apple, and you know, when you lower the window and he spits because he speaks with an accent, because he is Russian. “What do you have there? What do you transport? Who?” and similar questions. He looked at the certificates of my children, the documents for the car. “Open the trunk, open the rear doors!” As then say, looked through the car, but at least didn’t mention the tint. Our route to Zaporizhzhia took two days.

 — Did you speak to Russian military or other formations directly in Mariupol? Maybe, they visited you in the basement?

 — They did not arrive to the basement. I had a situation of another kind. I was phoned, the caller introduced himself as my parents’ neighbor. They said they had my mom’s bag and documents, that my mom died. Our house, they even said the number, I think, 22. Late March — early April. That my father escaped somewhere and my mother died. And they asked for money for sending me the documents… I did not give the money and those people disappeared.

 — So did your mother really die?

 — Yes.

 — I sympathize with you. And in general, I understand that it is difficult to talk about all these things, and about the death of your son's classmate. I have a question: have you tried to explain to yourself, or how can you even explain that snipers are targeting civilians, perfectly understanding who they are, especially children?

 — First, I could not even realize at all, how is it possible in 21st century, that the peaceful civilians are dying. It was probably some kind of shock at first, and then I got a thought, that they are training their accuracy. They are having fun. But the life cannot be returned.

 — Perhaps in this way they are trying to intimidate civilians or the military, or the whole of Ukraine — as a people, as a nation, as a country?

 — Well, it is true that they are trying to intimidate us. Look, we spent 21 day in the basement, we only conversed within our building. Some said that Ukraine abandoned us, that we would never get to Zaporizhzhia. That we are surrounded. That they said in house No. 60 that we could only leave to Novoazovsk through Lyapine (a former name of Vynohradne village in the east of Mariupol, — auth.), to go down from the hill.

 — You said about the tanks firing at the residential building, similarly, how can it be explained?

 — They were standing between our house, No.56, and No.54, and shot towards the plant, towards the stadium (sports complex “Azovstal” — auth.). We saw that. Whatn tanks those were — those were specifically dark green tanks with letter “Z.”

 — Was it a kind of chaotic fire and as a result civilian buildings suffered, were there targeted hits on houses?

 — I didn’t see concerning the civilians, it flew, and probably, far. But there were literally 3 or 4 shells, it turned around and went somewhere quickly. It was two or three times when they went to the same place to shoot.

 — Tell me, what was life in Mariupol like during the war?

 — Everybody hides, everyone is scared. People cook at barbecues, at bonfires. They disassemble the benches to survive, to make a fire. You don’t open a tap to gather water, you drive and get it. Because walking to a well is dangerous. People survive as they can. Some went to a ruined store. I had food for children, my youngest son is 4 years old, I shared with my neighbors because they had a seven months old girl. People helped each other as much as they could. Survived like this. Mostly you go to sleep around 7 or 8 pm, and between 3 or 4 am to 8 am there is boom-boom-boom…

The first shell that hit our house, it was on March 2. I was standing near the entrance, and a man who was smoking nearby said “Whistling!” and opens the doors, shoves me in the entrance, goes up himself and tells me “Stay here!” There were two hits — one to a flat on the first floor and the second one near it. Then our light went out. Gas as well. And our life only went (points a finger up)… We could mark the days with chalk. When our flats ignited — everything we could, men poured water from the heating system, and more or less put the fire out. But the first three floors burned down. Then our life ended at all. Then the men brought a generator from somewhere, they got it, a great catch! And then the hunt for gas started, and gradually, once every 2 or 3 days, when it was more or less quiet, we tried to charge our phones. Although there was no connection, but we hoped to hear a familiar voice. And we lived like that.

Three floors of Olena’s house on Morskyi Boulevard, 54, burned down after the artillery strike.

 — On March 2, Mariupol also lost all contact, and from what you said, I understand that you had no information about the possibility of leaving the city to evacuate. And you really tried to collect and disseminate this information through hearsay. There is a lot of evidence that the Russians are forcibly deporting or misleading Mariupol residents into the territory of the occupied parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Crimea, or Russia. Do you know anything about this? Maybe you have relatives who were taken away in this way?

— Look, personally my godfather, Oleksii Tyshchenkp, he is currently in Lithuania. Their nine-story house on 16 Morskyi Blvd. was shelled and destroyed completely. We left in another direction and didn’t know what happened to it. But since his house and car were destroyed completely, they were left empty-handed.And at some point between the episodes of shelling they were approached by soldiers wearing white armbands who explained that “you will not pass to that side, you have only one way — to go on foot to Novoazovsk.” An armed person — okay, we go. Because back then we only wanted to survive. I was lucky to have a car. We went on 16th and we didn’t know whether we’ll make it. They got to Novoazovsk, passed some kind of filtering etc. They called me when they were in Moscow. And they said that they didn’t know how to leave, because they are not let through. And the connection with them disappeared for literally two weeks. They called when they had already entered Latvia. No, to Lithuania, I mistake these countries a little.

“We had an old cat, the explosions made his heart pound. One morning it simply did not wake up.”

 — And did they tell you how this filtering process went, how they left, how they were treated, what they saw?

 — Well, firstly, Russians are very angry at us — that we arrived, that they have to share. They were placed in some kind of barrack. They were told “For now you will live here.” As for why they delayed — they have two dogs, French bulldogs, one was wounded. And they treated it. One fine day people arrived and said they are called, I don’t know, maybe to KGB — something like that. Seemingly for a conversation. Then my godfather Olexiy said it must be a questioning. That is, they were asked what is there specifically in Mariupol, where are specific… families of the military, how can one get in touch with them, even on the territory of Ukraine. Now this shocked me. They connected their phones, put a wire in and checked something. I don’t know anything else. But they had a hard time leaving, Russia did not want to let them go at the border. They say: “We left the Russian checkpoint and simply ran so that other people would take us, to not be returned.” They left like that.

 — Do you maintain any connection with your relatives or friends who remained in Mariupol?

 — They say that I need to stand in line to get a Phoenix card. My father, if he is alive, he used to work as the main electrician in the second City Hospital. Maybe, he went there and he is alive, I don’t know, there is no connection. All the lists of people receiving humanitarian aid, where you can see the names, he is not in them. In Viber, Telegram there is a group “Railway station,” I look, my parents’ house is No.47, and No.45, No.43, No.48 — they are gone, Those houses are gone. I don’t think that everything is ruined all around and my house stands. Unlikely… With those explosions… We had a pet — a hairless cat that lived with us for 15 years, a good old cat. These explosions made his heart pound, and one morning he simply didn’t wake up. Everyone worried and the cat worried. It’s not a human life, but it’s a cat. We went outside, buried him and moved on…

 — I think that as a resident of Mariupol, you still remember what happened in the city since 2014. Maybe you can recall something from what you remember?

 — In 2014 I lived in another district, in the city center. Back then I had two children and I remember how the police precinct was burned in the city center, there were shootings — because it was literally 150 meters away from the house where I lived. And it was scary, you hear sirens. But we didn’t believe, we had to see it with our own eyes. But it, you know, ended soon. Later you go up and see those buildings… It is scary!

 — What did you do before the start of the invasion and what do you plan to do now?

 — I have a large family; my youngest son is 4 years old. I was in the official child care leave, I worked in a kindergarten and I consider myself to be working there, at the moment also. When we left on March 16, I went past my Kindergarten in the center of the city, it is 43 Gretska [Greek] Str. It is gone. There is no building. Completely. Although my building was pre-revolutionary, there were nurseries, there were children up to a year old. Later there was a health center. It is gone, too. So, that building survived the war, but did not survive the “peace”, who knows which one. And as for my plans… Maybe, survival. I’m gonna wait for my husband because it is scary… I am thankful to my friends who provided shelter. Meaning, in 21st century, being 40 years old, we are homeless. I cannot even choose another polite word. We are hobos. We were accepted in the village, I did not expect that people could be so kind, understanding and helpful. Like that. We were registered with school, because the senior son is in ninth grade, I understand that he needs to have something. We are finishing, we have written an application, we have received a certificate of temporarily displaced persons. But when something rumbles somewhere, even if someone drops a bucket — my youngest child runs to me, he is shocked, cowering: “Mom, I’m scared.” We will be afraid of the consequences for more than a year. Good thing it is summer now, but I don’t know what happens next. I believe in victory but I don’t know… My flat, my house… What’s next… It is scary.

The children had to constantly spend nights in the basements.

 — Do you know what happened to your building, is it still intact?

 — Yes! The windows are shattered in one room and something else is shattered. Chechens are now in our entrance and they give flats to people who don’t have flats. Enter and live… They live on the first floors. And in our kindergarten, across from our entrance, literally 50 meters away — they have central headquarters there. But the fact that they give away flats, it was texted to me by a neighbor, with a video, he arrived to see our flat, he was in another district. He was able to charge his phone somewhere and recorded it. There we go now… He said he would want to go to his flat, but he was told: “Look and go away, we live there now.” That’s it. We don’t have anything.

 — What do you feel towards the Russians now?

 — I can only say one thing. Since the beginning of the war — I have cousins, an aunt here — nobody phoned, nobody asked how my family is faring, how are we. I only feel hatred towards them and I curse them all. Because after I’ve seen a 15-year old girl who hasn’t really seen life, lying there with her head shot… It isn’t normal when children die. When I left, literally on March 20 or 21, my sister wrote to me in Instagram that she is ashamed. But she couldn’t help me. I posted in my stories that all my relatives from Russia may follow the Russian warship. I don’t have any relatives there anymore.

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