‘Mariupol Moses’: A Man Who Took 117 People Out Of The Besieged City On Foot
Oleksiy Symonov is a 44-year-old charismatic host of various events, sports competitions. He says that the most important thing is communication; it often helped him not only to survive attacks of Mariupol, but also successfully take all of his shelter's companians out of there.
— Tell me, please, about the first day of the war in Mariupol. How was it for you?
— The day was hectic. My wife panicked when the shelling started that we had to leave. We didn’t believe that the war will happen. How can one imagine in the 21st century that someone would shell residential areas? It was impossible to imagine. It seemed that they will shoot somewhere and then it will sort itself out — they will leave and start the negotiations. Such was the first day — we did not believe the things happening around.
— And when did you realize that it won’t simply end and you would have to leave?
— I realized that around February 26-27 or so. But I couldn’t leave anymore. I didn’t have a car, and even if I had one — I don’t know whether I would have risked to go knowing that there is already a convoy of occupiers on the route. Probably not. I’m afraid that those who left on February 27 or 28 risked a lot.
— What part of the city did you live in and what happened there?
— Calmius district, around Neptune, the residents of Mariupool know it well. it is near Illich plant. In the first days it was relatively calm comparing to what came next. Later, in March. it hit next to us. And before that we heard the shooting that occurred somewhere in Sartana; it had occurred around March 23rd.
It was loud, it was scary, but now I can analyze it and say: “Eh, it was nothing.” When it happend really close to us, we realized how bad it really was.
— Tell me in general about the life in Mariupol during the war.
— Well, at first it was just scary because they were shooting — we fled to the improvised shelter because the city authorities didn’t prepare any shelters. Then the electricity disappeared, the water, the gas. It helped a lot that for many years we watched various disaster movies. Also the fact that I did well in school where we were taught how to survive the pre-draft training and all that.
We gathered firewood and water, melted the snow, gathered rainwater, gathered food. It was very important to be communicative, because communication is much more important than money that didn’t matter anymore. There were more than 280 people in the shelter. We helped one another, that’s why we survived. Currently other people try to survive there in the same way. They save droplet by droplet, and 140 or 150 thousand more survive in the same way.
— Did you interact with the military in any way?
— We had a military hospital in our district. And for the first week I visited it in my free time and we helped to protect the windows from the shards. We barred them with bags so that doctors could work, because they were not only saving the military — they also helped the civilians who suffered because of the shelling. I witnessed the first missile or a bomb fall on Kirov street when they brought the people. There was such case when we filled the bags and attached them to the windows — and then an old man came to the hospital and said: “guys, something hit my hip.” The doctors looked and found a shard in his hip. Later on, around two weeks ago, I saw a video where the Russian journalists were standing near that window that I covered with bags in the hospital telling that there was Azov headquarters here: “We chased the fighters out of the hospital, they were shooting from here.” I think, “Wow! It turns out, if I didn’t leave, I would have seen the soldiers!” The thing is, our soldiers didn’t shoot back, they were saving people. I know, that before it was “liberated” that on [March] 15 or 18, the entire hospital was quickly evacuated. As far as I know, perhaps to the shelter on the territory of the plant, because now I see whom they search for in the lists of soldiers and doctors and I see the people whom I talked back to in March. My heart grows heavy because of that — these are the people who helped and now they are wanted. They saved a lot of others, but will somebody save them?
I also turned to our Kalmius Regional Department of Internal Affairs — to the police. We helped searching for people the best we could. At that time, they were mostly taking out the bodies rather than searching for survivors. The soldiers helped with medications when we needed them desperately. They gave us what they could. When I watch the news, they tell us that we should take Molotov cocktails and throw it at the tanks < but we didn’t see vehicles belonging to either Russia or “DPR.” We were simply flattened by artillery, air strikes and mortars. We saw the soldiers only when we were leaving the city. Our district was simply tortured, destroyed by artillery. We had five holes caused by air bombs near our shelter. Why five and not six? It is because the sixths bomb hit the transformer box, it fell and there was no hole, a four-meter box was simply leveled. It was around March 13 or 16, because back then the exact date didn’t matter anymore. There was the main task – survival. You survived today – good, you need to survive tomorrow. We planned how to feed the children with hot food, we needed to get water, also look that no marks would appear on the shelter and that the looters wouldn't steal the gasoline from the cars. Between approximately March 13 and 16 it was very “hot” — we were “ironed” for three days, our shelter specifically, because, probably, it could be seen by geolocation. People charged phones and they began to hit us.
— Do you know what happened to your house and the neighboring buildings?
— It is very difficult to talk about the buildings, I cannot say anything, because nobody has connections with the city. As Kuleba said: “That’s it, Mariupol is gone, it is leveled.” However, there are still more than 100 thousand people there, you understand? As long as they live, Mariupol is not destroyed and we need to save people there. It is not important whether the buildings are intact, It is important that the people are still there. The living people who cannot leave, who are not allowed to leave, who are misinformed. It is currently very hard.
— Concerning the fact that they don’t allow to leave. What prevented your departure from Mariupol?
— The lack of information, lack of safe corridors, also the lack of transportation. I have three children and I thought I could not put my children in such danger. We have waited until it got a bit warmer, so that if we go, we would not freeze after the sun sets . Also< we have waited for the shelling to shift away from our shelter at least a bit, to make sure we at least would not be hit like everything around while we are escaping.
‘I had acquaintances who were approached by a bus and the driver told them: “We are going to Zaporizhzhia.” They got in and arrived near Donetsk.’
— There is a lot of information that the Russians bring en masse people to the territory of either Russia or the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. Were you offered to leave? Do you have acquaintances who agreed to that?
— Yes, we were offered, they suggested it in such a nice way, wow: “Go to Rostov, to Donetsk, there’s a bus", — it happened in Nikolsky and Mangush, — "You are expected there, there will be warm food and a place to live, there will be work, everything will be fine.” We called them “Cheerful political instructors”. Those were well-prepared psychologists. When we were in Nikolsky, we couldn’t get away from those “lieberators”: “We will help you, there is food.” I wanted to tell them that we had food, had a house, we didn’t have to go anywhere, we only travelled when we wanted it. However, in Mangush I realized that they are understaffed, they try to enlist and quickly train people to send them to “DPR” or to Russia. Once in the morning a soldier arrived and said: “Well, are you going to stay in this kindergarten for a long time?” We said: “We arrived to spend a night, then to move further to Ukraine, at least get to Zaporizhzhia.” And he says: “Ahh” — his software malfunctioned. At that moment we understood everything. He wasn’t prepared for such answer. He was ordered to recrut those who were there 2-3-4 nights.
We arrived to Mangush on March 22. On that date humanitarian convoy buses were going to Mariupol from Zaporizhzhia, and in the evening they appeared: “Who wants to Donetsk? There is a chance to go!” I went outside to take a look and I thought:“Buses at night, what the hell.” I looked closely and I saw that it was municipal transport from Zaporizhzhia. I phoned the volunteers from Zaporizhzhia and they said: “Yes, Oleksiy, there was our convoy, but they took all buses.” I answered: “Your buses went to Donetsk!”
When I went outside, they gave us what one would call a chance: go or no go. But I knew what would come next. I had acquaintances who were approached by a bus and the driver told them: “We are going to Zaporizhzhia.” They got on the bus and arrived near Donetsk.
— You are so joyous and it is written in your Telegram channel that you are a host of mass events. Tell me please about your life before the start of the invasion and what do you plan to do now?
— Before the start of the invasion I had a very nice life. I had many plans for this year as well. I am not only a host of events, I am also a judge-informant at sports competitions — all-Ukrainian and international. In Mariupol I hosted hockey games as a judge-informant. Also Ukrainian climbing championships, rowing, boxing and basketball were already in the plans. I am also an international speaker and a game master. I teach the hosts and animators to host various events. In addition to the events, I worked with children, I worked and still work with the “Yellow and blue wings” fund, it is a Ukrainian based international fund. Now we are helping many refugees. This help [to displaced persons] and cooperation with “Yellow and blue wings.” are in my plans. As for my main activity which I've been doing for over 30 years, I talked to hosts in Chernivtsi who waited many years for me to come to them. Now I did arrive and we plan to write several “movers” — songs for little children, for kids with disabilities. And now we are emerged in this creative process. We also write materials for animators who still have place to work. With our friends who work as volunteers we still help one another and we keep in touch. The communication is important because it saves people. You all see how Ukrainians help each other. I am in Uzhhorod now. People whom I never knew gave [me] shelter. They are acquaintances of my acquaintances. And it is great that such fine people exist.
— You have already told a bit about leaving the city. Tell me how it happened.
— On March 20 we looked and saw that it calmed down a bit. It also became a bit warmer. On March 21 a boy from our shelter went to recon one part of the district, I went to another one. We saw that they were shelling a bit farther from us. We gathered everybody from our sheletr who wanted to go. I announced that we leave on the next morning at 8 am. Everyone who wants to go should prepare, we will only take what is necessary. Everybody took their belongings and we went quickly, our task was to reach at least Nikolsky or Mangush. This is because we expected the buses to go from there, because one person from the government — the name starts with “V” and ends with “ereshchuk” [Oleksiy means the name of Iryna Vereshchuk, Minister of Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories] — announced that beginning March 15 the rescue buses will go from Mangush to Berdiansk every day. When we arrived to Mangush, I asked the locals about the buses. They said, “Liosha [short name for Oleksiy], since February 24 there wasn’t a single official bus from Mangush to Berdiansk.”
We walked 15 kilometers from Mangush to Komyshuvate and we made it 10 minutes before the store was closed. A small village shop. We rashed to buy water, because we didn’t expect that we would have to walk for so long. We also needed to buy bread. I found the head of this village. He said “I don’t have anything, but you can use our club for a shelter although it is not heated.” To that we said: “the main thing is we are not in an open air.” Then a lady who tended that shop came out and asked us where we came from. We said:“From Mariupol.” She responded: “To hell with the club. I can take 12 people and Lyuda can take five more.” Well, the families gave us shelter in Komyshuvate in warm houses. We showered for the first time in a month. What can I say? I have a second family in Komyshuvate now. In the morning they helped us to move further, gave a ride to all of us. They brought us to Demyanivka and on March 24 we were taken from Demyanivka. From there through bumps and some guerrilla tracks we were brought to Zaporizhzhia. There were 17 or 18 checkpoints of Russians and “DPRers” and finaly we reached Ukraine. We arrived to Zaporizhzhia and were placed in a kindergarten and in the morning we boarded a train. In fact, our group was brought to a separate train car and placed there.
‘Across the 15 checkpoints we have seen the entire Russia: there were Udmurts, Kazakhs and Chechens. The entire spectrum starting from Sakhalin.’
There were 117 of us, 70 made it to Ukraine. Some people went to Rostov, to Russia, because they had relatives or some friends there. Well, everyone has the right to choose. That’s what makes Ukraine different from those who came from Russia. We have a choice. We decide what to do and how to do it. And in all circumstances we remain human.
— How does it look, when 117 people overcome such a jorney? Of course, I made trips to mountains, but those were group of 20 people at best. Wnen 117 travel together such a distance…
— Look, you march vigorously with a backpack surrounded by people and they also walk with backpacks, bags, boxes, with cats, with little children who also hold backpacks and bags. Well, it’s such a big procession. When my friends realized that I’m alive, they wrote: “You are not Symonov, you are Symoses. Bringing people through asphalt deserts.” When you march and it is quiet all around, that's how we went from Mangush, everything is fine. But when you leave the city under shelling — It is very scary. When you say that they are shooting far away and we can go slower, everybody says :“No-no-no!” Both old and young ones say the same. We had both 70-year old people and 5-year old kids.
— How did the military react to the movement of such a convoy, what did they say on the checkpoints?
— Look, in March they still had to look like angels wearing white robes, they were our “lieberators”. We were liberated from our homes, from our life. To avoid provocations they were nodding to us — “pass, pass, you need to go there”. I know that later there was a lot of aggression, but when we were passing, they wanted to look like good guys. “We will help with this and that.” We nodded: “uh-huh, yeah.” We did not have time for talking, and why would we talk to them? What could they say that we don’t know? Nothing. What can they do? They already did to us what they could. They would have left us without roots, without life. We are starting from scratch now and it is hard.
When we passed the checkpoints, we could see which were the Russian ones and which ones belonged to “DPRers.” First, in 15 checkpoints that belonged to Russians, we have seen the entire Russia. There were Udmurts, Kazakhs, Chechens. In general, the entire spectrum, from Sakhalin, probably, from Yakutiya, also Smolensk region [Oleksiy pronounces it mocking a Russian accent].Yakut was a kind of “witty.” But all of them performed their duties, what they were ordered to do. Searching men, looking for tattoos, any information in the phones, checking that there are no calluses on the fingers from shooting. But at least it was clear that there were soldiers who pledged at least some kind of oath to their country. For the last 2 or 3 checkpoints there were DPRers, and it was bullsh**, I am sorry. Marginals with weapons and with rage in their eyes. On one of the checkpokints I was almost shot by one of them, only because I had a callus from the rolling pin. “This is because of shooting!”, - he said and I am telling him: “I was cutting firewood.” Then he shot an assault rifle over my head! I am thankful to the guys who brought me out of there. When we could, we tried to give them cigarettes orsomething else to distract them. You must behave like this — eyes down, yes-yes, no-no, nothng else. Otherwise there was fury and aggression; it iwas very dangerous for you and for those that travelled with you.
So you should listen to your guides — they are people bring you out! And if they say “Don’t say anything,” that means you shouldn’t say anything! Because people who bring you out, they risk a lot. And there are many volunteers who were taken prisoners and released after a week or two — They weren’t punished for what they did, but rather because some of those whom they were taking out either got aggressive or too witty. Soldiers are different, you know. There where soldiers who weren’t given instructions and instead of Mariupol they arrived in the first days to Melitopol with their vehicles. Thist gave our guys a few days to regroup and provide at least some defence to the city. When I saw that on [February] 27 or 28 Russian vehicles entered Melitopol, — I thought “What? Why would they need Melitopol?” And then my friends from Melitopol wroute: “The vehicles entered, passed and left.” I said: “Ah, so they are like Gazmanov, mistake Melitopol for Mariupol.” Because in 2000s, when that acrobat was still visiting, he arrived to us for the Day of the City, went on stage and said “Hello Melitopol!”
— You are saying about attitude on the checkpoints, but have you been a witness of civilians being killed on the checkpoints, or taken somewhere, tortured?
— Yes, people were taken! When our group travelled, one person was taken — they found conversation with soldiers in his phone, and he was taken. I don’t know the subsequent fate of that person.
— Do you know people who were killed in Mariupol? Who died because of shelling, or sniper fire, or a direct attack of the military.
— Of course. Every day I receive data, every day I read, holding my breath, finding the names of my acquaintances. It is very hard when you lose people. I was lucky — my relatives are alive. The father of the people who were with us, died in the yard of his house. A shell fell and that’s it. The man crossed half of the city to visit his daughters before that. They said: “Stay in our shelter!” And he said: “No, I have my house, I need to be there.” It is all very hard.
— Was it possible to do anything to prevent that situation in Mariupol at least in part?
— Of course! Naturally.
— What exactly?
— At least not to say that “we will do everything and nobody will attack us,” but prepare! Instead of inflating their own significance and advertising themselves, they could have simply prepare. Like the plants prepared, for example. The plants prepared for the hot preservation, prepared shelters on their territory, because the plants leaders understood that the war may be avoided but they should prepare. They prepared food rations in the shelters, some water. People still use the supplies they made. And imagine if it was an unprepared shelter… Imagine on the day when it all begins and people arrive, instead of the shelter there is a closed and flooded basement. And nobody knows who has the key. They said “Shelters are everywhere, come.” You know, our Mariupolers are easy to recognize in other cities — when a siren sounds they don’t react. You know why? Because we didn’t have sirens.
— What do you feel now towards the Russians?
— Nothing. Absolutely. Understand this: Russians and soldiers are different people. Russians and their government are different people. You cannot spit hatred, this won’t give you anything useful. There are brainwashed people who shout ”Kill them all.” It is difficult to call them Russians, it is difficult to even call them human. People who urge to kill children cannot be called human. Regardless of where they live, in Russia or in Bangladesh. Or in Somalia, yes? As for Russians — they don’t have a choice. Many of them don’t have critical thinking. Many of them still lack understanding of what is going on. That’s why those who come with war, take up arms — they must be destroyed. This is clear. People who live in their small world — well, people are people everywhere. I don’t have any attitude towards Russians. Pity. They are just a foiled generation. I would wanted to get to that country when it's erased from the map. Although there are fine people there who try to say something — some are scared, some aren’t. But there are too few of them. It is much easier just to turn the box on and listen to what is coming from it.