‘Children, I won’t be able to teach the lesson because the war has started’
I am a Russian language and literature teacher with almost 30 years of experience. Under shelling, sometimes I felt as if my heart was turning into a small bird, into a sparrow. I felt how it folded and shrank. Almost all nine-story houses around were black and destroyed. It was horrifying to look at them because, quite recently, it was New Year’s Eve, and the houses shone. There was life in them.
My name is Pavlova Oksana Viktorivna. On the first day of the war, in the morning, I worked as a teacher at school No. 18 in Mariupol. In the morning, we learned that the war had begun. However, we thought that on the 24th, we would conduct online lessons. By the way, I am a Russian language and literature teacher with a great experience, almost 30 years. I worked in the educational institutions of Mariupol. On 24 February at 9 am, I had a lesson in the 9th grade. But something has already fallen on the airfield not far from us. We lived on the outskirts of Mariupol, in the Cheromushky district and the village of Pivdenne. Fields are nearby, and a military unit and an airfield are not far from us.
Something terrible fell there and impressed me so much that I wrote in Viber to my children from 9th grade: “Children, I won’t be able to teach a lesson because the war has begun.”
I couldn’t control my emotions and didn’t conduct the first lesson. And then, by the sixth lesson, I pulled myself together and began helping the children psychologically. I didn’t teach a lesson but spoke about how my mother (a child of the war) survived in Luhansk, about aircraft shelling people, and the May 9 victory. I lead the 9th grade, the 6th… I said that every person has a destiny that the Lord gives. And what a lot of wonderful things could be in the war. I told them to believe and endure. Sometimes, it happens that people are saved miraculously.
There was shelling from five in the morning to seven in the evening. Sometimes it started at six in the morning. I realized that the war in the cities is a war on schedule. Usually, around seven o’clock in the evening, we sat down to supper. We ate once a day. We drank a lot of water because we were constantly thirsty like a flame. The nervous system adjusted with difficulties.
Then, on 7 March, it was quiet here in Cheromushky; the neighbors ran to their daughter and returned. When I saw my neighbors ... You know, there is such a phrase “Pale as death.” I saw it with my eyes for the first time when I looked at my neighbors, who returned. I saw some pale faces without eyes ... As if the features were erased from this horror. We were just getting used to it. Later I noticed all the neighbors had chapped lips. I thought it was also from the horror. It burns you like a flame.
My neighbors and I helped each other out. Something flew overhead, but we talked. I am now watching videos from different cities of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which are also under shelling. People walk the streets and say: “We are used to it.” So it happened with us, Mariupol residents. People prayed a lot. All. And our family too. I went into the street and asked my husband to bless me with a cross. When the two of us went out, I blessed him, and then he blessed me. We helped each other.
But there were situations when I realized that many people were left in high-rise buildings next to us. And I kept telling my husband, “Do they have water?”
Do you know what I regret? My chaotic feelings: I understood that I could take water to them. But we constantly heard some shots, automatic bursts. We knew that your exit to the street was your death. And my daughter commanded me on the 24th: “Mom, Dad, take care of yourself; I don’t know how I will live without you.” Her words made me careful.
Some brave people went and helped, and then we started. Before leaving, we took almost all our food to those houses. Nearly all of the nine-story buildings were blackened and destroyed. It was terrifying to look at them because New Year’s Eve was recently, and the houses shone. There was life in them... And when we brought food to these houses, we saw that people turned black; they just turned black because they constantly burned fires to cook something.
It was very difficult for people. It was easier for us in our private homes because we had few neighbors. Also, scary stories happened to people in the basements. Someone I know even went crazy in those basements. So there were complex relationships between people, and people manifested themselves differently.
We held out for three or four days, and then it became scary. Every three or four days, the thought seemed to rise from the pit of my stomach: “I can’t stand this.”
As they used to say in Old Slavic times: the belly is life. There was such a thought that I could not survive. Then I thought: “My parents survived 1941 and waited for 1945, and we will survive.” Finally, I thought: “The Lord endured and commanded us."
Only during the war did I understand the meaning of the phrase: “God gives according to one’s strength.” Because what my colleagues saw in the city center was scary. We saved a man my age, taking him out of Mariupol with his mother. He said that every other day he visited his ex-wife and daughter. So that you understand, there is one part of the city — us, Cheromushki, and the old part, where we have the Natural History Museum. So he ran there through the whole of Mariupol. The Lord protected him because he saw his deeds. He saw a dead man sitting on a bench: he froze and sat there. Cats and dogs ran without paws.
There were many crippled dogs. We started to feed the dogs that were running away from the nine-story buildings, and they seemed to go crazy. It was about the first of March. They ran through the streets and gnawed at the cats. Our neighbors, who brought us porridge, had seven cats bitten by dogs. Then the madness passed. The animals just couldn’t stand those sounds. And people couldn’t resist. After Mariupol, I went to a cardiologist when we arrived in Zakarpattia. He said that I started having heart problems.
Under shelling, sometimes I felt as if my heart was turning into a small bird, into a sparrow. I felt how it folded and shrunk.
My colleagues from the city center — it was the worst there ... We did not understand what was happening in Mariupol because there was no connection. When we began to leave the house, we asked the people walking along the street: “What? Where? Is the city still Ukrainian? What areas are still Ukrainian?” People told us some things. Then one colleague who left for Kyiv told us how her son-in-law and daughter went to fetch water. It was in the city center, Zelinsky Street. He felt something, suddenly slipping and seeing that it was the human brain. The human brain ... This is probably the worst thing: to see what you stepped on, that it was a person.
The woman who told me this was sitting in the city’s center in the basement. It was near our school, No. 18, where I worked. There they, along with the residents, stayed in the basement. Her mother was ill and bedridden for many years, she had to climb the steps to the seventh floor from the basement to her mother, and dead people lay on the steps. And she has been terrified of the deceased since childhood. Therefore, she closed her eyes. Once it became quiet, she would go up to feed and help her mother. Then she would go back down. She told me: “It was sheer horror!”
She also saw how our guys, Ukrainians, ran in. They supported people with words. The worst thing was in the city center: our Ukrainians were sitting in the ATB store, and the Russians were shooting. Then there was a fire, and our defenders ran there. It was horrifying. I heard many stories that people in those basements, especially the elderly, had heart failure.
It was scary to look out the windows because I saw houses burning. It was terrible every time.
Once, when I saw what happened to our nine-story buildings, it was tough to tell even my husband about it. It was Armageddon. How can this be? I’m a teacher, and perhaps it was easier for me because I read under fire. I read theological literature — I have a lot of it. I even made some notes. Then I said to myself: “Easter is coming. Maybe there will be a victory because the war began on 24 February, and Easter was on 24 April.
When we got used to shelling, we even went outside to warm ourselves. We have two cats, and they asked to go outside. At first, we kept them home for a very long time. And later, we started releasing them. We let them out and blessed their backs with a cross. And the cats came out. I also began to go out and pruned grape vines, then roses. And I told everyone: “We need to prepare for Easter. Why do we live in eternal fear?
I also told my husband that we are intelligent people. And not only us but everyone: the people of Mariupol, Ukraine. We are civilized people, but they (Russians) kept us in fear. We were like two cowards sitting and shaking. We were even afraid to go outside. We did not wash our faces or hair for a month to save water. Finally, I said: “How can this be? There is a civilized world; there is the UN. There are different organizations; humanity knows the experience of World War II. Why is it like this now? How could this happen?”
Mariupol residents thought maybe a week, and then everything will end at some high level. We thought we would wait here for silence. But then, we realized that humanity has no experience, and as wise people say, every war begins incomprehensibly. And then it ends the same way. However, unfortunately, we cannot contain it. Even now, there are no institutions that could influence the war.
When the war began in Ukraine, we realized (I understood) that we were indifferent to the grief of others. Georgia, Chechnya, Serbia, Syria... When there were wars, we didn’t even try to help, to volunteer en masse. And now, someone else’s misfortune is like ours, and we understand this. On the one hand, there are Nobel Prizes for scientists who create drugs to save people. On the other hand, there are wars. How does it all fit together for humankind?