“I Gave the Dogs Vodka to Keep Their Hearts Going” (Mariupol Resident)
Why tell your story again?
To make others remember, perhaps, what it was like. I can understand people who refuse to talk. Each time the memories come back I can’t sleep properly for a week. Like any negative emotion or recollection, fear brings no joy. Everyone has his or her own experience of what they’ve survived; they all recollect moments of panic and fear. Every second of my life in Mariupol was accompanied by fear.
Can you still feel it now?
Yes. I fully understand the fear of my relatives who waited in uncertainty. The fear generated by uncertainty is very powerful. I also miss my two dogs. They stayed behind and I’m looking for ways to get them out. It’s a terrible choice. It upsets me just to talk about them (Valeria holds back her tears, ed.).
I felt mobilized with all that adrenaline: you need to give all you’ve got. No matter how many people I talked to there, nobody was ill, not a single person–they were in a constant state of stress and behaved like robots.
I had great responsibilities, providing my sick mother and my pets with food.
What was Mariupol like on 22-23 February, on the eve of the war?
I used to live in the Left Bank district of the city, two minutes away from Morskoy Boulevard and only five minutes from the sea. I would walk calmly along the seashore every day with my dogs, winter or summer. I ran my own business and didn’t have to hurry. I had a licensed agency, and that meant work abroad, tourism.
When did the war start for you?
First came a moment of surprise. As yet there was no panic or fear. That was the tactic of war which, of course, was not created by me or, of course, by Mother Ukraine. It simply built up. We had light and water for three days.
The saboteurs came on the fifth day, men and women walking around in black, carrying something in a bag. They simply approached our stores and pharmacies and blasted open the doors or windows. In they went and took the vodka and everything they wanted. Looted the place. And then our guys showed up and started looting, too. The locals when the stores were already wide open.
I don’t blame anyone because people needed food and water. But after that they walked past the people cooking outside and said: “Peace! You may call us peacekeepers.”
How did people react?
I was curious. What they were thinking. Peace? Why should we call them “peacekeepers”?! For bombing our stores? For leaving me without medicines, bread, butter or cheese?! Such a peace wasn’t much good to me. I don’t know how others reacted, but I saw it with my own eyes. I have pets and was walking them round the block. Those people must have been brainwashed into believing they were saving me–from what I cannot understand!
I had to go through Russia to reach West Ukraine. There was no way I could travel cross-country; everything was cut off. I stayed at my cousin’s apartment in Moscow; then I travelled to Latvia, Poland and finally to Lviv. That’s how I got out of Mariupol.
When did you feel cut off from the outside world?
From the third day onwards.
What was that like, morally and psychologically?
I was bewildered. I felt frozen inside. I began adapting to the situation. I didn’t shed any tears: I knew they wouldn’t save me. But I never prayed as much as I prayed then.
The invaders thought they would take the city and hold a victory march, and that would be that. But there was no victory parade.
I wasn’t especially scared. My faith may have saved me when the “night watch” began making its rounds.
What are you talking about?
I imagined that’s what it was.
A tank driving around the block at 7.30 pm, shooting anything it wanted. It started about a week after the invasion began.
When the Grad missiles were fired from the factory, I realized they would fly a long way and not fall on me. I began to tell the weapons apart. Like an elf with long ears, I could tell if they were firing close to hand or far away. Can you imagine the stress? Straining to hear which direction each shell was going in?!
How did you survive the silences?
“Any moment now,” I kept saying to myself: the silence was even scarier than when the missiles flew past. When things fell silent, I didn’t know what would happen next. There was always return fire.
When did the food and water shortages begin?
I’m a very lucky person. Others went for water and never returned–not me, thank God. Neighbours left me the keys to their flat: they still had water coming through the taps. When Luda’s flat caught fire I saved her cat. I love my neighbours and they love me. That helped me survive. Everyone gave me the keys to their flats and left food behind–I didn’t go hungry.
Our apartment block caught fire; it was hit by shells several times. I survived somehow. The most terrible part was not the tanks firing shells; it was at night. Something flew past, I didn’t know what exactly, so I called it a “bumble”. No light, no sound, complete darkness and silence. Then, there was that “bumble”, followed by a sharp explosion. I realized it was overhead. Then everything was in flames, and the doors were trembling.
I swear I don’t know what weapon it was. It was horrible because it was dark. The planes always flew at night–that was their strategy. Later I got smart. If there was a sniper in the building, we knew a plane would drop a bomb there.
How did events unfold?
They were getting closer and closer to our part of town. We couldn’t leave. Mum asked me to go to her flat, a 10-minute walk along the Komsomol (Morskoy) Boulevard. It was one bus-stop away.
I was scared to go. I left with my Mum when our building caught fire. My cousin’s apartment block burned down in just one night. All my relatives live there (we’re very close as a family). My cousin’s house was across the street. It was also hit by a shell–one of ours or one of theirs, I couldn’t say.
There was a smell of burning?
All the time. Everything was black. I didn’t ask where the shells had fallen, although curiosity is a part of human nature.
When did soldiers in Russian uniforms appear?
About six weeks later. Not before.
Did they contact the civilian population?
You simply couldn’t go outside! My dogs had to relieve themselves indoors.
But ordinary people have basic needs.
What needs? Those who tried to bring us water dashed off after a couple of minutes, because we were in the line of fire. We couldn’t go outside to cook. People were preparing food in the stairwell. My cousin went with Sasha to the bread factory. A10-minute walk took them about two hours. I stayed behind waiting for their return.
In the meantime, three armed groups passed by. They broke into other people’s buildings to get food and water. Somebody might call it looting. I think it was fine. Some took too much, perhaps, but most were looking for food and broke into the boilers to get water.
For firewood we used all the fallen trees, every damaged building. We had only a few minutes to grab a piece of wood and heat a cup of water. Without firewood we couldn’t drink.
For a month I never left the building. All I could do was dash out into the stairwell to cook. I was in a constant state of fear, with the adrenaline pumping through my veins. My dogs never went outside. They began to grow breathless. I gave them something to drink. When I ran out of heart-medicine I was able to buy a bottle of vodka.
I gave the dogs vodka mixed with water to keep their hearts beating. You can imagine the fear I was feeling.
The Only Way Out
I heard about humanitarian corridors once; my neighbours from the first floor left, literally ten days after the war began. I don’t know about any other evacuation corridors.
People started leaving our district on their own, walking towards Russia and the Donetsk “People’s Republic” (DPR).
We had no choice: our territory was cut off by the river and the sea. All the bridges were blown up, there was nowhere to go.
We couldn’t go outside in our district. We received no information. People simply went somewhere else. First, they went to the hospitals, but all the hospitals lay in ruins. People panicked. And when they knocked at Olena’s door and said the planes are coming to destroy our area we went, too. With a handcart, a disabled mother and her medicines.
We left together. My mother, Olena’s family, Olena and her husband, and her neighbour, a woman disabled since childhood. Eight women, none of them youngsters, set out together.
A Chechen Fighter
I was talking to Shamil, a young Chechen fighter. “Is it true they call us animals?” he asked, with tears in his eyes. “Is it true we’re being called Nazis and junkies?” I retorted. The lad stood there and wept. “After I arrived, I saw that everything they said and promised was a lie,” commented Shamil.
The Chechens thought they’d belike one soccer team competing against another. They’d take the city in three days with their songs and dances. Then they’d set things to rights, call their families to join them and we would all live happily together. It didn’t turn out like that.
I don’t know who dreamed up the words “nationality, ethnic group”. God has no nationality. There are human beings and those who are inhuman. And that applies to every nation and ethnic group, not just to Ukrainians.
There are people and there are others (I can’t choose the right word) who are less than human, worse than animals.
When their whole company asked, “Do you have any bread?” I said, “No, there’s no bread”. Shamil gave me some bread, so I knew he was decent.
Every individual faced a choice: he could injure himself or surrender.
Shamil didn’t surrender. He mutilated himself and went back to Chechnya and told his relatives not to come to Ukraine. Why would he surrender?
He turned back and said he needed time to think. I told him, “Shamil, think of anything to avoid fighting.”
Let’s talk about the fighters from the DPR, whom I called “DPR Johnnies”.
Sometimes it seemed as though they were cheering themselves on: “We’ve been living like this for eight years.” They shelled us and fired at us. I don’t have a home, and they’re happy I’m homeless!
“You’re part of the DPR now. What, you don’t watch TV?” They seemed to feel a kind of pride: “I’m saving you; you’re now part of the DPR.” Who asked me if I wanted to join the DPR?! If I was pleased to live in this greyzone without food or water, crawling on hands and knees to escape the bullets? What a joy!
Were they insulting or offensive?
“Who do you think you are?” they said: “What are you doing, living here?”
Tortured by the “DPR”
Let me tell you a story.
It’s about my friend, Lena, with whom I lived and cooked food. Her niece Olya lived nearby. They were waiting for Olya’s mother Ira to come. When Olya went with her husband Vlad to look for her mother, they found only a ruined building and a cart nearby.Three days later Vlad went missing.
First her sister; now her husband. Lena and I spent five days looking for her husband. They had lived together 30 years. On the fifth day he turned up and told us this story.
Vlad was seriously wounded. He was trying to light a fire, when the metal doors of the entrance closed before him, and shrapnel hit him in the stomach. He had a hole in his side. His daughter got him to hospital where they bandaged him.
They captured Vlad in broad daylight. He was held at the DPR base in the Pioneer Camp where we went for water. Each day we asked everyone there, “Have you seen this man?”
He was taken down to the basement. They stripped off his clothes and beat Vlad every day. They gave him electric shock treatment and forced him to talk.
“I saw sparks flying, and my body jerked this way and that,” he told us. “If I didn’t say: ‘Glory to Zakharchenko’, I realised, within two minutes I would simply be torn apart”.
Vlad is not a practising Christian, but “I prayed for a shell to fall” he said, “and ripus all to pieces, me and them”. He wanted to die. Imagine how terrified he was.
They beat Vlad, with a fractured rib and a torn side. “They were gentle with me,” he said, compared to the others.
There was a lad who was detained because he had a phone when nobody had a charger. They cut off his finger to prevent him from typing “Glory to Ukraine” on Facebook.
There were many people imprisoned in that basement.
“Stepping on Bodies”
I lived at my friend Lena’s house. Her husband Vlad and I twice tried to run to our district to fetch some things. We were literally stepping on bodies. I’m not exaggerating. There were bodies lying everywhere–DPR fighters or other young lads.
There were civilians, too?
Everyone, civilians and DPR fighters. I didn’t see any of our guys; they were nearer to the Azovstal plant, I guess. All together like a herd, poor guys… I salute them and bow to their professionalism. I don’t know what to call them if not heroes…
When locals tell me they could have surrendered the city and remained at home, in peace, I said: I respect our guys because they protected my past, my home and my peace and quiet. They wanted me to go on living there.
But I don’t insist on my opinion. To each his own.
In Rostov I heard a taxi driver rejoicing that there would be a chemical attack. “Do you understand what that means?”I told him. “It won’t just hit Azov; you do realize there are many of your guys there?”
I’m sorry for the Donetsk men. They were sent to their fate like cattle. The Chechen fighters, kind or evil, were promised wages and the city, and they arrived, expecting to take Mariupol in three days. They were properly dressed and equipped. But when the DPR guys arrived, and climbed off the trucks, they were simply children! Wearing any old pants, a jacket of some kind and a hat. Why were they fighting? I couldn’t understand.
They didn’t even have cigarettes. They were rotated in and out every two or three days. I could see from my balcony the trucks with those boys, their tanks and anti-aircraft weapons. A day later the vehicles returned; the boys had not survived.
Many people ask, Are the stories about the mobile crematoria true? They are. I myself saw such a vehicle. That’s where the “missing people” of the DPR and the Luhansk Region went.
Were only DPR fighters cremated? Did they burn our guys, too?
I only saw those vehicles and the smoke. We had a grave yard behind every building.
While I lived in our district, there was a kindergarten near my building. It was turned into a beautiful centre, for disabled people and for children with disabilities. Even our President’s wife was present at the opening. It was stylish and well-maintained, with thuja trees and flowers.
A man was out walking his dogs. He was hit by a shell and lay there three days. Nobody could approach him; the dogs were sitting by him. Nobody could go outside: death was in the air, shells flying constantly, explosions... People couldn’t go and bury the man.
Things calmed down. On the fifth day, when the dogs started eating the body, men dashed out of a bomb shelter and covered it with soil. I had a burial shovel.The entire district knew it was there in our shared corridor, but I didn’t use it.
Attempts to Leave
As soon as I learned that people had got out via Sopyne, through the district closest to us, I decided to leave. I couldn’t go before. I asked a Russian camera crew and some journalists from Moscow, everyone: “Guys, I need to get my mother out,” I told them. “She can’t walk that far.” I didn’t plan to leave on my own. If it had only been me, Iwould have been gone in a flash.
It was not their job, they told me. There were cases when Russian journalists helped, I knew, but they wouldn’t help me. The same went for the DPR people: “We’ll help you”, they said, but nobody did. Only God helped.
A boy arrived to check the neighbouring flat. He had already passed filtration and had all the necessary papers. He helped Mama and me down from our flat and we left on 15 April.
Did you pass through filtration camp as well?
What was it like?
As a pensioner it was terrifying. We were at the border between the DPR and theRussian Federation.
I have Lviv ID papers, and my former husband was from the West, from Ivano-Frankivsk, so they started asking me questions: “Where did you live? What do you think about… ?”
But I have a sense of humour. “I used to be young and beautiful,” I told them,“Now I’m just beautiful.”
“I’m more depressed now than I was back then”
I fear for the future. I’ve nothing and I’m no longer young. People in their Seventies feel fear and despair–it’s not just me.
I felt a physical fear in Mariupol, but not such psychological distress. There I felt like an animal. We all survived Covid-19 but I could feel nothing: I was in a heightened state of awareness with adrenaline flooding my system.
Some women fainted, I know, others had heart attacks. Everyone reacts differently. I felt as if I’d had an operation. A finger had been removed and later a dull pain began. That’s how the soul aches at my age. Each discussion is like sticking needles under the skin. It’s a constant mental and spiritual anguish.
Translation, Vitaly Konkin and John Crowfoot