Farewell to Mariupol: ‘We risked our lives for food and water’

By Lourdes Velasco

Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, May 6 (EFE).- Marina and Olena, who fled their home in Mariupol, have been staying in a shelter set up by a charity in the basement of a factory in Zaporizhzhya since arriving two days ago.

They are part of 250,000 people who have fled areas near the front lines to come to the relative safety of Zaporizhzhya. Some 150,000 remain in shelters, hotels or private homes that will house them until they decide to return home, stay in the city or head west.

Marina and Olena now have access to a bed, electricity, food, the internet, water and other basic necessities that they could not get in Mariupol, the devastated southern Ukrainian city where they lived underground since the start of the war, emerging only to collect water or food from an abandoned food store.

They arrived by car from besieged Mariupol on the same day that the United Nations managed to get 100 people out of the Azovstal steel plant.

“There were many people who wanted to leave, but there were no buses for those of us who wanted to go to Ukraine, you could only go to the Russian side, and the evacuations that were announced never came,” Olena laments.

While they would prefer not to be living in an underground shelter, they are relieved to have left behind the hellscape that Mariupol has become.

“In Zaporizhzhya the anti-aircraft alarms sound but there are no bombs. In Mariupol there are no sirens, only bombs,” explains Olena Hibert.

When a missile partially destroyed her apartment building, she went to live with around 200 of her neighbors in the underground parking lot.

Sometimes they came out from their improvised shelter to look for water in the city’s gutters and burst pipes. Other times, Olena admits, they found food – among dead bodies – in abandoned and destroyed shops.

“That’s how a young man who was with us in the shelter died. He went out to get water and never came back,” Olena tells Efe.

Olena, who has another son living in Kyiv, doesn’t think she will ever return to Mariupol. “It’s not Ukraine anymore, I wish it could be again, but I think it’s difficult and I’m not going back to Russia.”

She says she would not wish what she went through on her worst enemy, not even Russian president Vladimir Putin. “Mariupol was a rich and beautiful city, it had everything, everything I needed to be happy, and the gentle sea… I never thought that something like this could happen,” she says.

Her friend Marina has no plans to return either. She wants to get as far away from the shells as soon as possible. “I have some friends in Ireland and I would like to live there but I can’t leave without my husband,” she says, as men between the ages of 18 and 65 are not allowed to leave the country.

At the refugee center she has been asked to stay a few days before leaving for the West, to rest and have her basic needs covered but she says that she has nothing to do in Zaporizhzhya. She used to be an accountant and wants to work so that she can provide for her 2- and 4- year-old children.

The shelter’s director, Kateryna Chernova, explains that most of the refugees who arrive at her center want to keep moving. Most only stay between two and 10 days, although there are some who stay longer, like Mikhail.

The 52-year-old left Mariupol on April 21 and does not know where to go next. At the moment he has to wait for his 82-year-old mother to be released from hospital in Zaporizhzhya.

“My daughter and my wife went to Poland but I can’t leave the country. I don’t know what we will do, at the moment I can’t consider anything other than staying here,” he tells Efe.

None of the three refugees Efe spoke to will return if Ukraine does not take the territory back from the Russian forces, but they are aware that there are many who do not see things that way.

“They believe the propaganda. They think it is Zelenskyy who is bombing Mariupol. They believe that the Russians will come and that they will be very good for the people because that’s what they read in the papers they receive from the Donetsk government,” Marina laments to Efe.

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