war crimes in Ukraine

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‘In a panic, people abandoned their bed-ridden relatives.’ А resident of Mariupol story about how people were coerced to leave for Russia

29.08.2022    available: Українською
Denys Volokha
Andriy Potayenko, a 47-year-old engineer left Mariupol on 24 March. During that month he saw tanks shooting at a kindergarten and residential buildings and even quarreled with the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) fighters.

Коли росіяни сказали, що в будинку в Маріуполі буде «зачистка», — говорить Андрій, — мешканці в паніці почали виїжджати до Росії. Фото: ХПГ [андрій потаєнко маріуполь] When Russian troops said that there would be a “purge” in Mariupol, residents in a panic started leaving to Russia, says Andriy. Photo: Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG).

When Russian troops said that there would be a “purge” in Mariupol, residents in a panic started leaving to Russia, says Andriy. Photo: Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG).

“We used to go to work, but we were forced to switch to searching for food”, says Andriy Potayenko, a 47-year-old engineer who left Mariupol on March 24. During that month he saw tanks shooting at a kindergarten and residential buildings and even quarreled with the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) fighters. He says that he continues to receive news about the deaths of his acquaintances months after his departure.

Which part of the city did you live in and when did you first hear the shelling?

My apartment is in the Western mini-district, in the Berdiansk direction. Our mini-district was the farthest from the events of 2014, but this time we got it. We were the first to come under attack from the Crimean side.

We realized that we should leave after the electricity went out in the city. However, it was already impossible to simply make off. Nobody was allowed to leave because Russian troops were already near the city. Letting the civilians go would have meant letting them get shot. And literally within a few days the shelling began.

Beginning March 2 there was no electricity, no water, and in two or three days after that there was no gas. We were left without information, light, water or gas. We began surviving.

What does “surviving” mean? How did your life in a war-torn Mariupol look?

I filled the bathtub with water. It was unfit for drinking. I moved in with my mother to make it easier as she was by herself as well.

We started going outside between the rounds of shelling, the residents began gathering some bricks and pieces of metal, searched for firewood.

The situation with firewood later improved, in a way: when they began destroying houses, the wooden construction elements were flying out of the buildings.

We used to live and make plans for a week, or a month or a year, planned where and when to go for vacations, what to purchase, but now we had to make plans for a day.

Of course, the bread was only available for one or two days. However, people had flour. We adapted. We started making pampushky: we mixed flour with water and added some other ingredients. The first batch, especially after a week without bread, tasted like a delicacy.

Each day was full of tiny goals and tiny victories. Such was a way of our life.

No, we lived in our flat. When the shelling began, we went to the vestibule, we have a large vestibule between the load-bearing walls. Our neighbors went there as well. We survived the bombings there.

We lived on the fourth floor. The walls saved us from shrapnel, but if there had been a direct hit, it is clear that we would all have perished.

Did the shells fall near your building? Can you recall how it was?

I remember the first explosion well. There were explosions somewhere nearby before it, but not close to my building. We went to bed and somewhere after 1 am, after complete silence, there was that approaching rumbling. Probably not a plane, but a cruise missile, perhaps. We woke up and there was an extremely powerful explosion, it made our windows open. The smell of burned gunpowder filled the apartment. There was a powerful explosion near the building. It hit a concrete road, and pieces of concrete shattered one of our windows. 

Once during the night, I looked out of the window and saw some fire at the end of the boulevard. In the morning it turned out that a building was burning nearby, across from the Port City. A shell hit the lower floors and the fire slowly spread. Half of the building burned down. It was burning for several days.

Due to the constant shelling, our kitchen, living room and bedroom windows were shattered, completely gone. It was getting colder and colder outside: -10, -12 degrees Celsius. We realized one thing during that time: if you want to get warm under the blanket you need to take off your underwear. You will never get warm if you are fully clothed.

Our building had four entrances. It was hit four times. No shells hit us, but one smashed the eighth floor above us. The shelling went on as if on schedule. We knew we had to get up at 5 am.

On March 8, I visited my nephew, congratulated my sister, it was during the shelling, came back home and we went to sleep. At around 8:45 pm somebody knocked. It was my brother, he lives in the same district, on the other side, my sister lives across the street and my brother lives near the hospital.

He was standing there with his 10-year-old son. He said that they were shelled and all their windows were shattered. “We’ll spend the night here and get my wife in the morning,” he said. We put them to bed and calmed down his son, an hour and a half passed and there was knocking again. This time it was my brother’s wife with his mother-in-law.

They lived on the ninth floor and a fire started on the fourth floor. Somehow, they descended and got into a car. The roads were blocked with fallen trees and one electric tower fell too. She said she was afraid to turn on the car lights, afraid that someone would target her. She reached us somehow in this darkness. Since then, we lived together.

Have you interacted with Russian or Ukrainian military?

We saw our troops from afar. The Russian troops interacted with us: after my brother’s family arrived, a day later, we went to my brother’s flat to get the remaining water and some clothes.

Burned apartment buildings and a conversation with the DPR fighters

I was carrying the water bottles on my way out and found soldiers with white armbands near the entrance. They were either the Russians or from DPR. There were two five-story buildings in my brother’s yard. Both of them were completely black. My brother’s apartment is in a nine-story building with six entrances. Only two entrances remained intact, but his apartment did not burn down.

I encountered the soldiers sitting near the entrance, warming something on the fire. It was in the morning, around 9 am. I passed by and a soldier asked me, “Where is the water from?” I got emotional and said that I didn’t understand them. And they went: “What don’t you understand? Stop right there!”

Two young men chased after me repeating, “What don’t you understand?” I stopped and replied, “What’s there to understand? Look what you did to the city. How could one understand it? Why are you doing this?” I asked. “Are you liberating us? You say that you liberate the Russian-speaking residents of Donbas. I am a Russian-speaking resident of Donbas. Should I now cut off my tongue because I speak Russian? What do I do to avoid getting killed by you?”

“You are deliberately killing us, destroying our homes, destroying our lives. You are shelling our schools and kindergartens, looting our stores. You are destroying everything!” They said to me, “You were destroying Donetsk for eight years!” I replied, “How can you compare your prosperous Donetsk with Mariupol?”

When in 2014 the outskirts of Donetsk were shelled, those were rare hits. “Well, isn’t this the Mariupol outskirts?” they asked.

“I was a kid back then”

They started ordering me to show my documents, to get undressed. They were searching for tattoos. Later I asked him: “Do you remember what started it all in 2014?” I wanted to tell him that all their leaders, like Strelkov and Hyrkin, were all Russians, but he said: “No, I don’t remember, I was a kid back then”.

This generation, which were the kids in 2014, has grown up. He doesn’t remember what and how it was before. But now they are so brainwashed, that they are “liberating” us by oppressing us. This generation has grown up under a new regime and they came to teach us how we should live.

Such was our interaction with the Russian soldiers. After that we only saw them from afar, I never talked to them anymore. I only saw their tanks entering our yard. There were old buildings with narrow paths, but the tanks somehow squeezed through.

A tank stopped near a building, turned its cannon and shelled the building from 50 meters away.

We did not know what to expect as it was shooting randomly. Then it moved and started shooting behind the building, at the kindergarten. That tank left and another one arrived from another direction. It stopped near our building and started shooting directly at the kindergarten. Our men who still lived in the building, said, “What are they shooting at? There hasn’t been anyone at the kindergarten for a few days!”

Nobody was there, no military, but perhaps for them it was a potential threat. They probably thought that there may be some soldiers there. We tried to find some logic in their actions. They appear to destroy everything in a striped pattern. They would enter new territory and smash houses until everything was on fire. A building with the ATB store near us was completely black. It was hit several times and burned constantly.

Our building was somewhat lucky, it didn’t burn down unlike many others.

Did you witness other attacks on civilians by the soldiers? How did they behave?

We still had many people in our building, very few people understood that we all needed to get out. One day a Russian soldier passed by the building and announced, “Urgent evacuation, there will be buses near Port City, whoever stays will be in danger, this building can be destroyed tonight!”

People panicked, started running around, helping invalids, and bringing out some elderly people in wheelchairs.

Our neighbor from the first floor could barely walk, she had a spine condition. It turned out she left with others in this panic abandoning her bedridden husband. He was bedridden for several years. Their daughter showed up the next day; she lives in the next building and didn’t know what happened.

Our building was almost completely vacated, only five families remained in the entire building. We discussed it among ourselves and decided: if it is an evacuation to Russia, we aren’t going anywhere. We better stay here,

When we left for Dnipro and caught the phone signal, our neighbor called us. She said, “We were brought to Russia to live in Rostov. And now we are not in Rostov, they are taking us elsewhere. I don’t know how to return. What do I do? We weren’t planning to go to Russia.”

That is, they were brought there. When they abandoned their sick relatives, they did it in a panic. It is madness. This is how Russians evacuated people, at least in the beginning.

We have known those neighbors for a long time, we lived next to them all our life. When their daughter arrived and asked her father where her mom was, he responded, “I don’t know, I was asleep, when I woke up, she was gone.” He was unable to get up by himself.

Do you maintain contact with people who left for Russia?

I have a friend with whom we studied together a long time ago. He was forced to relocate to Russia. He lived in the Eastern mini-district. When it all began, he relocated to the Left bank. The river divides our city into two. When the bridges were destroyed, it was impossible to relocate to the Ukrainian side. Staying with the DPR on the Left bank was just as impossible for him.

He left for Taganrog; his relatives lived there. “What do I do?” he said. “I brought all my relatives here. All my cash in hryvnias is useless. The cards don’t work. I don’t have any rubles or dollars.”

Later I learned that he took his wife and child abroad, they left through Estonia, but he remained in Taganrog. Sometimes he arranges a pass and visits Mariupol. He helps to transport people and brings humanitarian aid.

Tell us about your evacuation from the city.

When it was more or less quiet in our district, we heard from various people that it was possible to leave towards Berdiansk through Tokmak and Vasylivka. My brother had a car, it was a miracle that it remained intact. The shrapnel only smashed the windshield. We decided to leave—the six of us in my brother’s car.

We left on March 24. My sister with her husband and children decided to risk it and leave on foot. They took a cart which I made a long time ago, placed their bags and backpacks there and went to Nikolske. It is a long way. They tried to hitch a ride, but all the cars were filled.

They were lucky that a car picked them up, eventually. In Nikolske they got lucky again. My father-in-law found a man who agreed to take them to Berdiansk. They paid around 3, 000 hryvnias and they were brought to Berdiansk where they were placed in the center for internally displaced people.

We made the final decision to leave when the Russian troops began to settle in the apartments.

We left on March 24 by car. We passed many checkpoints; we had to open the trunk and had our belongings checked at each one of them. Because we were a family, the soldiers were more or less tolerant. They did not force us to undress. However, we saw people taken from the buses, men were forced to undress. The soldiers were searching for tattoos.

At the checkpoint in Tokmak the Russian soldier or whoever he was said, “I won’t let you go to Vasylivka, because Vasylivka does not let vehicles pass. You won’t have a place to spend the night. You better stay in Tokmak. There is a school, you can spend the night there.” We started going to school, but met a priest in a cassock, he was running, waving hands, and turning everyone back.

That priest arranged for the two buses with kids to be let through. He told everyone, “Two buses with children will pass soon, you can join them and we will all go to Vasylivka.”

However, neither cars nor buses were allowed to pass. We had to spend the night in our car, but in the morning, we were allowed to pass without delay.

The day before we left, on March 23, I visited my flat. When I was going back, I saw Russian troops near the entrance. There was their armored personnel carrier (APC) and probably a company of soldiers. They were breaking into apartments on the second floor and occupying them.

We did not have a choice, we had to leave at once. Who knows what would have happened next? They might have secured a corridor, like in Ilovaysk, and then fire at us from our own windows.

On March 24 we were already packing our bags into the car when someone called my name. It was my cousin with her husband and children. They wore dirty clothes and smelled of fire smoke, we all were dirty. My cousin was crying, I hugged and kissed her. “Our house is gone”, she said.

They expected to be brought to the neighboring villages, Urzuf or Yalta and from there travel further. They eventually reached Ukrainian territory. We took them in, they planned to leave the next day on foot, but later my aunt showed up. She lived closer to the town center, on Metallurgov avenue, in a 14-storey building, she is 75. All this time there was no information about her, we could not visit her due to the shelling. And now she came on foot.

Lately, she has been living at her neighbor’s flat on the third floor, she went up to her apartment on 13th floor to take something. When she reached her door, she hesitated before it and there was an explosion. She said that she felt as if the walls were closing around her.

It turned out the slabs were shattered above her and her hat caught on fire. She had a flashlight and she used it to find the way out. She has sick legs and can barely walk, she had to crawl.

She barely made it down the stairs and continued staying with her neighbor until three days later a shell hit the neighbor’s flat as well. My aunt had a bag in her apartment and she asked a young lad to help and bring it to her. He somehow climbed to the 13th floor and brought her bag with medicines, documents and some money. And so, she took that bag and went on foot to our district.

She remained there,  she would not have made it to Nikolske on foot. We now have a problem—somehow, we need to get her out of there.

Do you have any acquaintances who died during the war?

Yes, I do. The news comes in every day—good and bad news.

I had a very good friend, Mykola, we were friends as families. One day Kolya went to school No.27 - there he could recharge his phone. He was hit and killed by a “Grad” shell. For nine days his wife could not bury him. Then she found some men who brought his body home, they are from Agrobaza, a village near Mariupol. He was buried humanly - there were many bodies in Mariupol that were not buried properly.

We saw graves by the forest, graves in the kindergartens, in the yards, even in bomb craters – people put the bodies there and covered them with dirt. There were burials throughout the city.

I said, “Tanya, you are a heroine, some people abandon their living relatives and you did not abandon your husband’s corpse.” However, a day after her arrival to Ukraine she had to prove his death, she was told that she buried him incorrectly and illegally. How could she have done it legally with all the shelling?

She should have gone to the hospital to obtain a death certificate. What hospital? When we visited my brother’s flat to get water, we could see city hospital No.2 from the windows and it had the Russian flag on it and tanks driving around. The Russian troops are cunning, they distribute humanitarian aid at the places of their location. People constantly gather there and prevent our guys from shooting. Russians also arranged evacuation buses in the hospital yard. People were constantly standing in lines there, waiting for departure.

They use human shield to prevent our troops from shooting.

So where was she to go? To that hospital, so that those “orcs” would give her the certificate of her husband’s death? Thank God, the Ukrainian court confirmed his death.

The family of my co-worker was killed when their private house was hit by a shell. Nobody survived. Another case: also a colleague, she left her house with her family, they were standing by the car to take something from the trunk and the car was directly hit by a mine. The man’s arms and legs were torn off and he was caught on fire. He burnt down while the neighbors searched for the fire extinguisher. Her legs were wounded, when she was brought to a hospital, they had to amputate one leg and plaster the other one, she was later brought to the Makiivka hospital.

It happens constantly, the good or bad news arrives every day when you learn whether an individual is alive or dead. Unfortunately, the list of the deceased keeps growing.

What did you do before the war and what do you plan on doing now?

I am a design engineer, I worked at a factory. Now, in Dnipro, after I get settled down, I will be looking for a job. I have to earn my living…

What factory did you work at?

The MRMZ. This is a repair plant, it belonged to the Metinvest holding, it was located at the Ilyich plant. They said the Ilyich plant was not damaged as badly as Azovstal. Azovstal was razed to the ground, and the Ilyich plant—what I was told—there were hits in the blast furnace area.

Do you know the fate of your apartment?

The building is still standing, both my flat and my mother's are in the same condition as it was when we were leaving. The windows are shattered, and the furniture is broken. Nothing the repairs couldn’t fix.

What are your memories of Mariupol before your departure?

The leaves have not yet appeared on the trees, the city was gray, full of smoke, and every morning people went out as if hunting for something.

Before the war, we went to work and we knew that to live normally one has to work. We earned our living. But everything changed and our life turned into hunting or scavenging.

Men were the victims of shelling more often because women mostly stayed at home and cooked. Men went around our district searching for food and often they were hit by mines or Grad shells. It was very depressing.

When we went outside to cook near the building entrance, we installed a makeshift grill, and at some point, it was my brother’s wife who cooked, the neighbor from the fifth floor and some children were also around. I went upstairs to get some cooking ingredients. It was quiet, but suddenly the mines began dropping and exploding.

When I ran there, our neighbor from the fifth floor said that something was flowing down her back. It turned out that a piece of shrapnel hit her leg and back. Fortunately, it was a flesh wound, but we had no medicines or antibiotics.

On the same day two garages were hit near our building and near the next one. Our neighbor was passing by, he was also hit in the back. His leather belt protected him somewhat, but he was limping afterwards.

Why were we shelled? Our soldiers haven’t been there for a long time. The shelling came from the direction of the Port City.

What do you feel towards the Russians now?

What can I feel towards the people who do not consider us human? They deny the very existence of Ukrainians. They call us Nazis although a Nazi and a nationalist are not one and the same. They are the real Nazis because they deny the existence of the Ukrainian nation altogether. They are blind with a fog before their eyes.

They live in their parallel universe with their imaginary idols: the St. George’s ribbons, 9 May… And they came to kill us. What can I feel, except hatred? Should I love and respect them? What for? Because they destroyed my city and killed my friends?

It looks like their entire country has gone mad. I don’t know what’s going on. This is some kind of mass madness.

The article was prepared by the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group with the support of the Prague Civil Society Centre
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