‘I don’t want to see them in the dock. I want to see them dead,’ a man from the Mariupol Drama Theatre says
Vadym Zabolotny escaped from Donetsk after 2014 and moved to Lviv. Then he settled in Mariupol on the Azov Sea coast. Recent events have forced him to return to West Ukraine. Today the 59-year-old doctor works as a volunteer, helping his country to win the war.
In March 2022 Vadym and his wife took shelter in Mariupol’s Drama Theatre. The situation was not getting any better, he realised:they decided to leave. Two days later Russia’s armed forces dropped a bomb on the theatre, killing many civilians.
Let’s begin with 23 February. How do you remember Mariupol that day?
There was a feeling of anticipation. Something was about to happen, but we didn’t know what. Several days earlier we bought a radio. The power might go off and we needed information. That small radio became a news source for the entire Drama Theatre, for all who joined us and listened to the broadcasts.
There had been fighting near Mariupol since 2014. We trusted our guys who fought all those years, fighting not just to the death – but to the death of our enemy!Then we couldn’t imagine that the enemy would take only a week to reach the far side of the city and that seven days later (maybe more) Mariupol would come under fire from all sides.
When did the fighting become so intense you decided to go into hiding?
We arrived at the Drama Theatre on 5 March. Since 24 February we had stayed at home. We spent several days without going outside. Then shells began falling only 300-400 metres away.
You lived in a high-rise building?
A nine-storey apartment block with two entrances. There was a hospital nearby; the entire district now came under fire.
What was the breaking point? Why did you choose the theatre?
We were in the basement when we heard a plane overhead. Not just the plane, but what it was dropping. There was an explosion. We knew that was the first sortie; the plane would return, and we didn’t know where the second bomb would fall.
There was no television, the phones didn’t work, every battery-powered tool was flat: the radio was the only source of news. On 5 March we heard that a convoy was gathering near the Drama Theatre. My car wasn’t near our apartment block;I had to get to the garage, which was in a “hot” area.
You took your car...
We loaded up the car and took our neighbour who was with us in the basement. She brought a bag. We didn’t have much: a bag, a suitcase and some food. Our neighbour carried the same.
We arrived at the theatre. There were many cars there, but no one was organising the convoy. People tried on their own and stood waiting for several hours.
Were there any soldiers there? Did anyone take charge?
The Ukrainian police were there and several soldiers. “There will be no evacuation today!” they told us. “Come back tomorrow.” We decided not to go back to our basement.“If they’re evacuating tomorrow, let’s wait at the theatre”.
Was it already being used as a shelter back then?
There were a lot of people there. I don’t know when they started gathering at the theatre. We didn’t find any room in the basement (later it was hit); we found a place on the other side of the theatre, near the stage door.There were rooms for technical equipment: a small passageway, a watchman who let (or didn’t let) people through, and two narrow corridors. We spent a night in one of the corridors, expecting to be evacuated the next day.
Who was there: women, children, old men?
Everyone. A representative slice of the whole city. I didn’t see it all, only the rear area where we were:that narrow corridor with chairs by the wall and an armchair with a small coffee table.
We slept on the chairs. My wife slept on her suitcase–she’s short and could fit on top of it. Later I grew into and began to work as the watchman; people called me instead of the staff. They trusted me with the keys. I was there all the time.
The ice-skating rink was dismantled for firewood
You’re a medic. What state were people in? How did it change?
People were scared. Not just of what was happening:they had no idea what was going on around.
That’s the scariest thing, isn’t it, not knowing.
Things got worse when the bombs were dropping. When the shells fell silent, some people even took their children out to play. There were playgrounds nearby, and an ice-skating rink a little way off. There was no longer any ice, but the fence remained.
It was left there after the Christmas holiday?
Yes, and it saved us, because we dismantled the fence for firewood. The people in the theatre and the nearby residential blocks all needed to keep warm.
How was it used? Did you make a fire?
Only for cooking.
Did you cook outside?
The soldiers brought two field kitchens. The police, the military, volunteers, people from the theatre all went out searching for food. There was still some to be found that hadn’t been stolen by looters. The police allowed us to enter a store and take something for those in the theatre.
Was the theatre company still there?
Yes, but not all the actors. Three of them organized everything; they were true heroes.
Do you remember their names?
Yes, though I don’t know for sure what’s happened to them since then. There was an actor Sergiy Zabogonsky and his wife Yevgeniya, a technician (a sound recordist or something), and another actor called Damir Sukhov. As far as I know, Damir’s now in Berdiansk with his wife and child. He came to Mariupol, and they stayed behind. I hope he got back to them.
How did you contact the military? Were the contacts always friendly?
We didn’t contact the Ukrainian military. Sometimes they just turned up at the theatre, I don’t know why. They were not billeted there. Sometimes soldiers brought us food. When they came, people surrounded them asking what was going on.
Did they try to organize evacuation corridors?
Who tried? Does Boychenko, the former Mayor of Mariupol, say he tried? People were ready to tear him apart because he didn’t stay in the city. He may have arranged corridors somewhere.
The Ministry for Reintegration said negotiations were under way.
Where could we get that information? We sometimes heard Mrs. Vereschuk [Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine] say that arrangements were being made. It wasn’t often. And we heard other things. Russia began to shut down all sources of information. At night I listened to the Russian radio, filtering the information they broadcast to decide what was going on.
They jammed the Ukrainian signal and started their own channels?
They did, but we struggled to find our wavelength. We knew it would carry the Ukrainian news at 9 or 10 pm, and people gathered in the hall around two radio sets (mine and another girl’s). At first our radio picked up a better signal. People came from all over the theatre, up from the basement, to listen. 20-30 people crowded into the hall.
Why did you decide to write “CHILDREN”in capital letters on top of the theatre?
Everyone was scared.The shelling was more frequent. There’s a place close to the theatre surrounded by buildings from the 1950s. The courtyards are like wells. The shells began to strike those buildings. They caught fire and we saw flames and smoke.
Then a small mine targeted the theatre and exploded in a tree. It shattered the windows on the third floor and flying debris from the tree caused injuries. That was either on 10 or 12 March; I can’t be more exact because I was then on guard duty.
It was my job to keep in contact with the actors who were organizing everything, because they spent most time near the stage door and held meetings there. Many guys who helped arrange our life and security to avoid incidents joined them there. I often talked to them.
A police officer would visit us regularly. He was a colonel, I think. Several police families were in the theatre, and their husbands came to visit them. The colonel was called “Grandpa”, they said. His wife was in the theatre: she was a medic and cared for the sick, trying to arrange a first aid station there.
Let’s finish the story about the CHILDREN sign.
We had a meeting, a lively discussion. The “orcs” could not be trusted, people said. They might target the sign: we couldn’t decide what to do. In the end, we put it up – it would give us some protection, we believed.
The Russian military justified their 16 March attack, by saying there were Azov fighters in the theatre, members of radical formations. Did you see anyone in the uniforms of those groups?
Some people approached the theatre from time to time, as I said, but they didn’t stay. They could have come for all kinds of reasons, to supply information, for instance.
But nobody stayed all the time?
No. Soldiers came, bringing food and field kitchens, but they never stayed!
There were police families, as I said, and naturally police officers visited them. They could have rested there for several hours, I don’t know. But the policemen weren’t there all the time either. Only civilians.
Radical attitudes, you say. More than half the people in the theatre had radical attitudes.
Against Russia, you mean?
Yes, everyone was radically against Russia. Everyone was ready to tear them apart,our “brothers”.
The decision to leave was spontaneous
The attacks grew more violent. You and your wife decided to go.
No, our decision was spontaneous. All the people at the theatre had one goal, to leave Mariupol. Everyone was waiting to be evacuated. For some reason they expected the Red Cross to help: we could get out, they thought, under the protection of the Red Cross.
Everyone was waiting. It was then I decided. “That’s it, time to leave,” I said. Five minutes and we were gone.
What date was that?
On 14 March.There had been attempts to break out before. Five or ten cars got together and tried to drive out of the city, but Mariupol was surrounded. They could not get through. Our guys shot in the air, to prevent people going near the frontline where they would have been killed.
We wouldn’t find a better time. We could only expect what happened two days later, when the bomb dropped.
Did you have a premonition?
A maternity ward was destroyed a kilometre away from us–it was nearby, 10 minutes’ walk. What could we expect if they were hitting such targets? It was getting worse by the day. We didn’t have any phone signal. The lads organised a charger for our phones; soldiers or the police loaned them a generator.
There was a church nearby, 100-200 meters from the theatre. Sometimes you could get a signal there. Someone charged our phones so we could contact relatives. About 10 March I got in touch with my daughter: we were alive, I told her, and at the Drama Theatre.
On 14 March I went to the main exit. My car was there. I wanted to check on it and see what was happening on the other side of the theatre. It was about 10 or 11 in the morning. I saw a convoy lining up.I asked a woman what was happening. “A group of 30 cars left this morning,” she said.“Somehow they got through.” She’d received a message from the Emergency Services, advising her what route to follow. That was it, I decided to go.
I took my wife, and we got in the car. There might be no other chance. The convoy was already on the move. I told my wife she had five minutes to pack. Then I ran to tell several people that I could take them, as arranged. Our neighbour refused to go, so did several more people I’d promised to inform.
What happened to them later?
A young man from West Ukraine died. Nazar was 28 or 29 years old.
And your neighbour?
She survived the bomb on 16 March. Then she took a long time, maybe a month, to move in with her sister. She lives several kilometres from the Drama Theatre; it took her weeks to get there.
The fighting was that intense?
And she stayed there?
No, about three weeks ago she got to her son’s place, after travelling halfway across Europe. She’s in Vinnytsia now, I think.
Let’s return to your story. You got in your car…
Yes, the two of us. My wife didn’t want to go: “The convoy’s left, we’re all alone.”
I told her we were going, and we left, following a route along the shore. We used to go that way to the boarding school where our grandchildren stayed. There were guards there and a checkpoint. Their station had been destroyed, although some buildings remained. Burnt-out vehicles, a Ukrainian tank, an armoured personnel carrier, and some other objects lay around.
We drove west to Manhush. There we saw the “orcs” handing out humanitarian aid to the locals, but nobody stopped the convoy. We passed through Manhush, and, for some reason, the convoy turned back towards the shore.There’s no road to Zaporizhzhya from the seashore. (By now we were part of the convoy.) “Where are they going?” I said to my wife,“There’s no road to Berdyanske that way,” [not the port, a small inland settlement to the west of Mariupol, ed.] Then I realized that the convoy didn’t know which way to go, and I decided to branch out on my own.
When we reached Nikolske two cars were parked across the road. I saw young men having a discussion and thought I’d better stop and find out what the situation was.
“We have to decide quickly,” I said, “because if the DPR people come here it will be bad.” A nearby local replied, “The DPR lot are already here”.
You came in contact with the Russians. Where? How did they behave?
First contact was in Rozivka. At the entrance to the village, the occupying forces stopped us at the first checkpoint. By then we had passed several checkpoints without trouble, bribing the guys with cigarettes.
Soldiers passing by intervened: “Where are you going?” “To Zaporizhzhya,”I said. “Why not to the DPR?” Their voices were hostile.
Yes. “I would go to the DPR,” I told them,“But there’s shooting there and it’s impossible to get through. We’re avoiding the fighting by taking whatever route we can. We won’t go there!”
“Is it that bad?”
“Yes,” I said,“There’s shooting and bombing.”
My ID shows I was born in Donetsk. “Actually, I’m from Donetsk myself,” I told them.
“Ah, so we’re countrymen!” he said.“I’m from the DPR. Is the bombing so bad there?”
I said, “Yes, it’s bad.”
“Good,” he replied, “you lot have been bombing us for the last eight years.”
I saw that nothing good would come of our conversation. He had a strong argument hanging from his shoulder; I didn’t.
An assault rifle, you mean?
Yes. I tried to keep calm.
As diplomatic as possible?
No, as calm as possible. Not squirming or being arrogant.
Did he provoke you?
Yes, I could see him doing it.
“Let’s not get into this now,” I said in a tough voice.
He agreed and they left. Some young boys had been following us. Now their car disappeared. Later I learned that they were arrested.They were stopped and checked for tattoos.
Those boys worked for security at one of the plants. One of them had a patriotic tattoo and they began cutting it out, right there on the checkpoint.
As far as I know, the boy whose tattoo was removed was later exchanged for someone else. Others were still prisoners.
What were the Russian forces bombing and shelling? Did they deliberately target residential blocks and social infrastructure?
You can just check the chronology: what they hit and when. The maternity ward was a hot target, and the hospital. So was the fire station across the street from our apartment. Every site that served civilians was hit. The ambulance service only worked one week after the war started: they must have destroyed all its vehicles.
You didn’t encounter the local authorities?
I did not. “Mayor” Boychenko was negotiating a humanitarian corridor somewhere. He may still be doing it.
You mentioned the fighting in 2014 and said you kept thinking about it for eight years. Do you feel the same now?
I feel more anger, more hatred.
I don’t even know what to call them. The scum. The scum that is Russia. It’s not even Russia; it’s an abomination – it and those of “our people” who support Russia. I don’t feel sorry for them. I’m willing to destroy them all. Both “ours” and the others. They have to be destroyed, there is no other way.
We believe a tribunal will take place. Let’s imagine the courtroom. If you could make a speech or ask a question, what would that be?
I don’t know how much the Ukrainian Armed Forces need me, given my health, my age, and those kind of criteria. I tried to sign up after 2014: “Enrolme, send me on courses, I want to be useful.” They wouldn’t take me as a soldier or as a doctor.
Let me join the firing squad. After that I’ll go willingly to the Hague, let them judge me there. Just let them! But first let me serve in the firing squad.That’s how I feel.
Tell them something in court, you say?… Let my machine-gun speak. Let the HIMARS speak. Not a court… They aren’t human beings.They understand nothing but bullets, shells, and missiles.
You won’t talk about the violation of your rights, that you’re also a victim?
Discuss that with whom? Discussion is only possible with a human being. They aren’t human! Someone has to hear and understand you; you can’t discuss anything with a cockroach. They aren’t even cockroaches… Well, there are many of them, pouring in from every hole. So maybe, yes, they’re cockroaches.
Who would you like to see in the dock? Putin and his deputies who’ve wrecked your life a second time?
I don’t want to see them in the dock, I want to see them dead. That I would like to see.
Do you know what happened to your apartment building?
One flat on the ground floor is intact. The building is still standing, but it was completely gutted. I don’t know what kind of ammunition they were using … After the fire the doors were welded shut.It could have been some flame-thrower. The temperature was so high that the metal parts stuck together.
The neighbour at the theatre with us went to her flat. There was nothing but ash inside.
A last question. Are you trying to build a new life? Or are you leaving a symbolic bridge to the past?
Eight years I’ve lived with a single dream of victory. We’ll see what happens next. I can’t imagine Mariupol today under those cockroaches, that scum. Victory, destruction of our enemies– then we’ll see.
Destroy them all, including the collaborators helping them today. Push the bastards back to hell. Destroy them.Then we’ll see what kind of life we can live. Complete victory and total destruction of the scum.
Translated by Vitaly Konkin and John Crowfoot.