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“It was hell.” Civilians evacuated from Mariupol tell of survival, Russian filtration camps, and death

A family that was evacuated from Mariupol. Photo by Ukrayinska pravda
“It was hell.” Civilians evacuated from Mariupol tell of survival, Russian filtration camps, and death
After two months, Russia finally agreed to the first UN-supervised evacuation corridors from Mariupol; however, it still subjected the evacuees to Russian filtration camps. The corridors saved up to 1,000 people on 1 and 6 May. President Zelenskyy said that all civilians were evacuated from Azovstal and the next stage should be the evacuation of wounded soldiers. About 100,000 people managed to leave Mariupol earlier by their own transport, but many of those who didn’t have cars were forced to stay in the destroyed city or go to Russia.

Despite the UN acting as an intermediary for evacuation, people still had to pass Russian filtration camps. Civilians from Azovstal were accompanied by Ukrainian soldiers out of the territory of the factory. Then, the Russian troops escorted buses to filtration camps. Only afterward they were allowed to go to Ukraine.

Most of the evacuees were hiding in bunkers for almost 2 months but before that, they saw leveled houses and heaps of bodies. It remains hard to determine how many civilians were killed in Mariupol or forcefully deported to Russia. Yet, Ukrainian authorities say at least 20,000 died under Russian shells and bombs in Mariupol.

The stories were recorded by Suspile Zaporizhzhia, Deutsche Welle, and Ukrainska Pravda, translated by Euromaidan Press.

Women had to undress for inspection, and were told they will receive heads of men in boxes, says Katia:

Honestly, we lost hope several times that we will come out. In fact, there is no [Azovstal] factory there, it was wiped off the face of the earth, only bunkers remained, and some are already destroyed. We have been hiding there for almost two months without daylight. Our Ukrainian military helped us with water and food, they dug up some bombed-out warehouses, and in recent days they have been bringing their rations.

When we were evacuated from Azovstal, we saw in Mariupol just boxes instead of buildings with huge black holes inside. There are no houses.

There was a very serious inspection. We were stripped, they checked scars and tattoos, inspected the women’s underpants. They checked all the backpacks, completely shaking out their contents, checked the phones, and read all the correspondence. Women who knew the military or the police were threatened, told they will receive the men’s heads sent back to them in boxes.

Ihor didn’t rely on rare evacuation columns. Instead, he just walked away on 23 April “when food started to end and people began to change”

Ihor walked almost 200 kilometers from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia. Only for the last 80 kilometers in Ukrainian-controlled territory did he get a ride from a passing driver.

“I probably wouldn’t make it these last kilometers. It saved my life that that kind man took me with him,” Ihor said.

Ihor with his dog Zhuzha. Source: Screenshot from DW video

He started his journey on 23 April, a day before Orthodox Easter, and walked for five days.

“All people are kind on Easter. So I decided to go the day before Easter. It helped me, I think… When food started to end, people began  changing, started avoiding each other. Everything was broken. This country named Mariupol was no longer free. Moreover, it disappeared, only ruins remained. And then alien people arrived in military uniform. They were prohibiting everything. I didn’t want to be a slave.”

Ihor had a metal cup with him. From time to time he stopped, started a small fire in the woods to make a cup of tea and sit for a while. And then went further.

“‘Stand up, we have to go,’ I told [dog] Zhuzha. But she was already too tired. So I had to carry her in my arms all the rest of the way.”

A volunteer center hosted Ihor in Zaporizhzhia where volunteers brought him “back to life.” Then he arrived in Kyiv with his relatives.

Ihor with his dog Zhuzha. Source: Screenshot from DW video

“When we saw heaps of bodies and a black hole instead of our flat we had to return,” Tsybulchenko Elina who worked at the Azovstal plant recalls an attempt to rescue her mother

When the evacuation [from Azovstal] began, our soldiers first accompanied us out from the territory of the plant. It was totally destroyed, much more horrible than in films about war. All metal constructions and buildings were destroyed. Glass, metal, and projectiles that didn’t explode protruded from the ground. It was hell there, everything was burned down.

14 people were evacuated from my bunker on 1 May, but 42 remained there. Because the Russians didn’t allow more. While going through Azovstal, four of our [Ukrainian] soldiers went first, cleaning the way from mines and explosives. Then the bus picked us up near Azovstal. We didn’t see Mariupol in detail, except for just the entire black remnants from a distance. We saw apartment blocks leveled. They turned our blossoming and beautiful city into a pile of garbage.

We were brought first to Bezymenne. A Russian filtration camp was there. We had to enter one by one for personal inspection, then questioning. Everything was recorded, we had to sign what they gave us. After the filtration camp, Russian military conveyed us to the bus, the whole group was also escorted by the military to a toilet. Some soldiers tried to behave, others were mocking, saying “f*cking these UN liberators.”

As for my personal impression, some of the Russians tried to explain to themselves why they are doing this by persuading us. They again told us those fake stories, the sort of stories about a crucified boy in shorts [that Russian propaganda disseminated in 2014, alleging that Ukrainian soldiers killed him in Sloviansk] and so on.

Russians during filtration also said: “Go back to Mariupol! Why don’t you want to go back to Mariupol?” I almost told them: “Should I live on a fireplace?”

And secondly, I could not stand them. While we were in a bomb shelter, I said: “God forbid we have to get to Russia. I can’t, the FSB will imprison me as soon as I open my mouth.” I am used to speaking freely in Ukraine, thinking freely. I said: “God forbid, we would be forcibly taken to Russia.”

Once [earlier before evacuation, Ukrainian] soldiers [in Azovstal] asked us to move from one bomb shelter to another to make room for the wounded. It was said that the lightly wounded would be there. I saw those “lightly wounded.” They had completely smashed hands. The bones were visible through the wound. And they had no drugs or bandages.

In the first days of March, our mother disappeared. There was no connection with her. On 4 March, we tried to look for her. However, we managed to run only halfway towards her home, under shelling and bombing. When we saw heaps of bodies and a black hole in the place of our flat, we had to return.

I owned a flat, my mother owned a flat, my daughter owned a flat, and my son-in-law owned a flat. And now all this was turned into ashes in a second. After our house was hit by shelling, after the doors fell on me, we just grabbed what was next to us and ran [to Azovstal] where we were hiding from 2 March to 1 May. We even failed to understand we needed to take some food, so terrifying it was.

Also, in the first days, we went to the military storage to take some food for ourselves. However, it was totally destroyed by bombs, and food was just scattered on the ground. We collected some bakery and pasta together with glass and concrete. Afterward, we cleaned it as much as possible and ate it.

Ukraine calls on Doctors Without Borders to evacuate Mariupol defenders

Olena wasn’t in Azovstal but was hiding in a basement with her daughter and finally managed to leave for Ukrainian-controlled territory with the evacuation column


We were saved by the church of Peter the Great, famous for its Petrykivka painting. They found some food somewhere and first of all gave it to the children: some briquettes of porridge, lentils, peas, dried vegetables that could be cooked, sometimes children got cookies, one or two candies.

We could not evacuate. Because the evacuation came from the drama theater and from Illichivets sports complex. Those who had their own cars left; those who did not have cars stayed in their homes. We lived there in a basement for a long time. And then we heard shells exploding directly under the house. The child says after each explosion: “Mom, I love you.” And I understand that she, in fact, says: “Mom, goodbye.”

We decided that we could not stay here, we had to leave. We reached my aunt’s apartment on the outskirts. The first night was more or less quiet but every night it got louder and louder – Azovstal was already bombed. And I said, “No, we have to go on.” We decided to go through Nikolske where the Russians ran a filtration camp.

I had to go through filtration because without it you can’t go anywhere at all, you won’t pass any checkpoint. They take fingerprints, take photos as if we were criminals, and stamp our documents. People have to pass very long queues. DNR [Russian proxy] soldiers write really a lot, they record every move.

War diary: “Terrified of what He saw, God has left Mariupol, my neighbor said”

18-year-old Nadiya says she is grateful to Ukrainian soldiers and also to the UN and the Red Cross who supervised the evacuation through Russian filtration camps

The soldiers brought us food. In the last month, they gave us their food and water, and they ate once a day. They are very kind. We are very grateful to them and we really want them to be taken away. There are a lot of dead and wounded soldiers who need to be taken away. There is nothing left of medicines, they die there just because of bleeding. About 200 people and 30 children remained there.

We were taken out of the plant by our military, handed over to the Russian military, and taken to the village of Bezymenne. We were accompanied by the Red Cross and the United Nations from the plant, and we are also grateful to them. On the way, we were housed in a camp, where we were inspected and our phones checked. They looked at the presence of tattoos, scars. They asked provocative questions. This is not even a question, but a statement: “You were beaten, weren’t you.” They wanted to discredit our military but they did not succeed. They talked brutally with the wives of the military, they called them prostitutes, rags. Just because we are going to Ukraine.

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