People from Mariupol are heading to Poland via Russia, Belarus or Estonia, and then further to the West. The further the better. Away from the stench of corpses in the city. To escape from months spent in the cellar and the horror of bombing. And away from the house where an 8-year-old child was burnt down.
The story was told by a Mariupol REFUGEE at a refugee reception desk at the East Warsaw Station. They were taken by bus towards Russia under Russian supervision. At the last check-point the Kadyrovites said: all of you can go, except this girl.
The kid was 14.
No one protested.
No one could.
The bus took off. But the girl stayed.
Jacek, an activist: “This picture stuck in my head very firmly”.
“Husband dragged out injured wife, but failed to pull out 8-year-old daughter too. The girl was burned”
Vitali Rabchevskiy was a long-term employee of Azovstal, then as a manager he moved to the transport company OSMP Mrija. Marina, his second wife worked as a foreman at Azowstal. They had a house in Mariupol’s Kalmiusyi District. When war broke out, they hid in the basement together with their two adult children and two grandchildren. Vitali’s elder son fought in the Ukrainian army, somewhere in the Donetsk region.
They somehow managed to survive until mid-March. The house stood still, no shells hit the yard. But there was horror everywhere. “Our neighbours – parents and grandma – they went out to source water and food. A bomb killed them all. Only the children, aged 3 and 11, remained at home” says Marina.
On 12 March, a humanitarian corridor was established. They drove off in two cars. While still in the city they found themselves under shell fire. Vitalyi shows us what is left of his mini bus. Not much.
How many people survived?
It is a miracle – everyone says so. Because they all survived. Only his 12-year-old granddaughter was shot in the leg – he says. My son jumped out into the street, to the Russian soldiers who fired at them screaming that there were children and casualties with them. So the soldiers referred them to Hospital No. 2. There, together with several hundred people, perhaps even a thousand, they spent the next month and a half in a basement. The granddaughter was immediately placed on the surgical table. The doctor took the bullet off her leg. Ten days later, when the air raids eased a little, Vitali and Marina put their children and grandchildren on the bus. To get as far away as possible. They went to Moscow, as the girl needed medical assistance.
Marina recalls her stay at hospital like this: First they bombarded us for 2-3 hours from the planes. A hail of shells was falling. Then tanks would come and shoot. And then the planes came again”. She suspects that the Russians were testing something on them. Because you could smell chemicals in the air. Her tongue swelled up so much that she couldn’t close her mouth. People in the basement were falling unconscious.
She struggles to refrain from tears as she recalls the couple she met there.
Their house was shelled. Husband dragged out injured wife, but failed to pull out 8-year-old daughter too. The girl was burned.
She also saw soldiers of the Donetsk People’s Republic standing around the hospital. These were 18-year-olds who were given a gun in their hand and sent to the battlefront without training. It is known from tapped telephone conversations of the Russians that they are referred to as “one-time soldiers”.
On 12 April, Vitali and Marina finally left the basement to check whether their house was still in place. They show me some photos. The house was half razed, the demolished kitchen could be seen. Some unexploded material was left in the ground. What the Russians could not steal, they just burned, like, for instance, their car.
Just before Easter, people from the hospital lit a bonfire outdoors to cook a meal. Marina went out to grab some wood. She heard the swish of a bullet right next to her ear. A sniper. She hid under a wall and then ran, hiding behind the trees. As fast as she could.
“A dog enjoys more rights there than a Ukrainian citizen”
On 29 April, their friends took them to the right bank to Vinogradnoi – the village where their parents lived. And they could not move any further. There were checkpoints everywhere and the soldiers wouldn’t let them go, because they hadn’t passed the filtration camp. So finally they decided to go there. Russians examined their attitudes, sympathy towards Ukraine. Marina: “If you are Ukrainian, they see you as a threat”. Being an activist, having relatives in the army or Ukrainian institutions – this is a danger. So Vitali cleared the entries on his phone, especially his contacts with his son in the army. Yet filtration officers found a verbal exchange with his first-born.
“You’re a lucky one” a soldier said and affixed a stamp confirming the passing through the filtration camp. Because on that day – 1 May – the camp was visited by representatives of the UN and the International Red Cross, together with the first survivors from Azovstal. So the Russians turned a blind eye to certain issues.
Vitali shows me his camp pass – it is a tiny piece of paper with his full name, date of birth and the stamp “Fingerprints taken”. They normally will not let you go if you have a son in the Ukrainian army. Vitali: “Oh, they can do anything to you. Keep you as long as they please. Beat you up. If they don’t like you, you are meat, not human”.
Marina recalls her neighbours who were taken by the Russians on 5 April. Even a month later no one knew what happened to them. “They torment for a long time all those who refuse to show their phone in the filtration camp” says Vitali. They met Sasha, a voluntary worker from Mariupol, later on in Russia. They beat him so badly during the filtration process that he was blue from his knees to his back.
Russians rob filtered individuals of their jewellery, money, phones,
“When you go to the West, you’ll buy yourself another one” a soldier told an elderly lady taking away her smartphone.
Vitali and Marina decided to flee. “A dog enjoys more rights there than a Ukrainian” – he says. There are several options for leaving Mariupol. You can get to Georgia quite quickly (EUR 300 per person). From Novoazovsk in the Donetsk People’s Republic, buses go directly to Warsaw, via Belarus (EUR 350 per person). “It is expensive, but all the buses are packed. For 1-2 weeks ahead you won’t find anything” Marina says.
There are also options to go deep into Russia. At no cost. “Wherever you wish, except for big cities” says Vitali. Their friends took them by car across the Crimea to Rostov-on-Don. At that place they met Russians who lamented that they could not go to the seaside. “Because it stinks of corpses here. The sea brings the corpse odour from Mariupol”.
Then they travelled by bus, by train, by hitchhike. Through Moscow, to Vilnius. For eight days. In mid-June they finally reached Warsaw.
Three roads to freedom
Kajetan Wróblewski, Board Adviser on Refugees at the Open Dialogue Foundation together with a group of the ODF workers and volunteers have been helping to relocate refugees for several months now. They work in tents at the reception centre at the Warsaw East Station. “We receive groups of people who have fled Mariupol almost every day. Last week we had six people. From one organisation”. Several NGO’s are helping people to leave the stricken city i.e. a German Rubikus and at least two Russian organisations (we are not mentioning their names due to security reasons). “There are very many Russians, also living in different parts of the world, who help refugees throughout this journey” – says Jacek, who coordinates aid offered to Mariupol people on the Polish side and prefers to remain anonymous.
The two main escape routes from Mariupol in our part of the world lead through Russia and Belarus and through Estonia and Latvia.
There is a third route too – the one via Ukraine, which means going through the battlefront and sometimes across minefields. “It is possible, but very dangerous” – stresses Jacek. “Gazeta Wyborcza” once wrote about an organisation that is involved in this, known as Project Dynamo, which was founded by Bryan Stern, a former US soldier. Some time ago they helped people flee Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Now they are pulling people out of Kherson, Mariupol and other occupied cities to Zaporozhia. In June they manager to help 600 people in just one week. The existence of a route through the front was confirmed to us back in April by refugees in Medyka – the cost of travelling by car through the mined areas was then EUR 300/person. The option was still available at the end of May. This was confirmed to us by Valia, a Mariupol mother separated with her 2-year-old daughter, about whom we wrote in OKO.press.
The route through Riga is usually chosen by groups of several or more people. In Riga, some of them take free buses to Germany and others go to Warsaw, also by bus. Even more people come to Warsaw via the Belarusian route, which is overseen by Rubikus. Refugees coordinated by volunteers travel individually or in small groups through Russia and Belarus. There – in a town we shall not name – they all get on one bus.
Residents of Mariupol who flee via Kazakhstan or Georgia hardly ever reach Poland.
Burnt by the sun
Kajetan: “After the filtration process, people are exhausted, beaten, injured. They are so traumatised that they don’t want to stay here, but to move on as fast as they can. When a plane flies overhead, they nervously shrink and try to hide under the benches. They think it is an air raid”. They are literally burnt by the sun, since they were kept for hours in the blazing sun, as if in a frying pan.
A 30-year-old man from Mariupol had a panic attack and fled from the reception centre at the East Station and in the middle of the night. “He had left his belongings and his dog, and we had just brought his wife from Cologne, Germany. Young people break down mentally the fastest” – says Jacek.
Survivors of two-and-a-half months of living under siege also make some pretty irrational decisions.
“Whom would you like to visit in Germany?”
“A friend of mine”
“Did she suggest that you could live there with her?”
“No. She is in a camp”
“Then why do you go there? After all, you could end up in another camp…”
Activists sometimes convince them to make more rational decisions and choose other travel destinations. “Why not Denmark? You will get a council flat there, your children will be able to go to kindergarten and you will be able to attend a language course”.
Kajetan recalls a girl who said she wouldn’t go anywhere without the dog who saved her life. “I wanted to go outside and he stood in front of me and tugged with his teeth. He wouldn’t let me. And in a minute a bomb dropped there” – he repeats her story. Refugees are bonded to their pets. Sometimes they epitomise the only remnants of normality and home.
The ODF relocates refugees mainly abroad. Those in the worst condition are given a few days’ accommodation at an “American” – in a three-star Moxy hotel, funded by a US businessman, so that they can recover for a while after their ordeal.
Activists from Eastern Station speak of the problems faced when helping refugees from Mariupol: those fleeing via Russia or Belarus are not given the privileges enjoyed by refugees from Ukraine, as they have not crossed that country’s border with the EU.
Kajetan Wróblewski: “They are not authorised to travel by train for free. They only have EUR 20 each in their pockets, so it is a tragedy”. Meanwhile, free transport to Western countries will soon be unavailable as money runs out “The last bus to Norway departs this week, and there are no more buses to Sweden. The buses to Germany are still only from PTAK” – an Expo trade centre in the vicinity of Warsaw, hosting the largest number of refugees.
“My friends from Mariupol are all dead now”
Before the war broke out, Maria Kutniakova was a marketing and PR manager, actress, journalist and activist. Her mother survived in the bomb blast that killed 600 people hiding in the basement of the Drama Theatre. And now Maria organises demonstrations and actions in Vilnius, where she lives with her family. She also helps people flee from Mariupol. On 10 June, her uncle managed to escape. She posted on FB a photo of his arm, which is skinny, veiny and brown from the heat.
The 71-year-old man only got humanitarian aid once after the rise of the “Russkiy Mir”. It was a stew, oil, sugar and oatmeal. The stew was mouldy. He survived thanks to his neighbours, who also ran out of food later on. When the family found out he was alive, they sent money. Pharmacy prices are four times higher and the uncle has asthma. “The majority of people are on the brink of survival” says Maria. But he also mentions those who appear online in neat clothes, with their nails done, happy and smiling. “In most cases, they are the ‘outsiders’ who collaborate (with the Russians – ed.), have access to stolen humanitarian aid, families in the villages and transport”.
Ania from Mariupol, who has been in Toruń since mid-March, still has acquaintances, friends and family in her home town.
“Humanitarian aid is just about to end. Food prices have grown at least twice. There are no jobs. The only job you can get is rubble removal and pulling out dead bodies.
The payment is food. People live there now just as they used to 70 years ago. Those who have nowhere to go live in the ruins. They still cook on fires, outdoors”.
The residents are unlikely to get heating for next winter. The Russians promised them that they would put up “bourgeois” tents in which they could get warm.
Marina’s mother is relatively well off – she has no electricity, no water, gets only a little food, but she has her garden – vegetables, fruit. “As good as it gets”.
Valia’s 40-year-old father is at risk of having his leg amputated. Nevertheless, in mid-June he faced a new threat – they might forcibly conscript him into the army of the Donetsk People’s Republic. “No jobs, no food, so they tell them: Go to battle!” Marina explains.
I asked Marika, a young girl who now lives in Krakow and has organised demonstrations there in support of those imprisoned in Azovstal, what her friends were reporting about the situation there. “My friends from Mariupol are all dead now. I don’t know anyone there now who is alive”.
Thousands of bodies still remain buried under rubble, in basements and shallow graves. Already in May, people were refusing to clear the Drama Theatre – it stank so badly of the decomposing bodies of the victims. It gets even worse in summer.
“There were also those who applauded when the Russians fired Grad missiles”
Vlada and her 6-year-old son Bohdan fled Mariupol in mid-March and arrived in Poland a week later. At the end of May, she returned to Kiev, to her brother, to look for her soldier husband, who had been taken prisoner by the Russians in Azovstal. He says that up to half of Mariupol’s residents may have willingly left or intend to go to Russia. Not just because they speak the language, have relatives or friends there, or because of the free transport to their destination. “Some believe that it was Ukrainians who killed people in Mariupol, that it was our people who shot at them with cannons and rockets. This is what people who were already fed Russian propaganda before the war say. You cannot change their mindsets” – Vlada spreads her hands out of helplessness. Such views are held by, among others, her ex-husband and his family.
“In Mariupol some people applauded when the Russians fired Grad missiles. They believed that the Russians would liberate us in this way. Some people standing in the queue for water said it was good that now Russia would rule. Because they bring water. And yet they don’t have to” adds Marina.
They are not the only ones going to Russia. The opponents of the Kremlin regime go there as well.
Maria Kutniakova: “You sit in Mariupol for two months in a basement. There is no water, no light, no coverage, and no food. Then you kind of want to go anywhere. Even to Russia and to Putin himself. But after a few weeks, when people realise where they have ended up, they start to move back”.
Ania: “Mariupol still lingers in our minds”.
Vitali tried to persuade his friends not to go back to the ruined city: “So I tell them: There is no light, no water, and no coverage. And half the city lies in ruins. They didn’t believe me. They came back”. Because they saw on propaganda Russian television that everything was fine and there was already electricity in the houses.
“Please pass this message on to others – do not return to Mariupol” he asks.
Together with Marina, they have been helping refugees at the East Station in Poland for several days. They are going to Denmark soon. There they plan to enrol in language courses, find jobs and stay there.