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A body without arms, legs or a head was lying like garbage in the middle of the road
Dariya Bayek, Housewife, Citizen of Israel
Dariya with her daughter. Photo courtesy of Dariya Bayek.
I was born in Mariupol. I’ve lived in Israel for 11 years and recently gave birth to a baby girl. On January 25th, [2022] I came to my hometown to visit my parents and have them meet their granddaughter.

On the 24th of February, my husband called from Israel at 5:30 in the morning and said, “Take the baby and go to my mother in Bratzlav.”(Faina Bayek - the head of the Bratzlav Jewish community - ed.). But how could I get all the way across Ukraine during a war?

The shelling started on the same day. sirens wailed. Grad flew overhead. A big explosion thundered: they were bombing the airport runway. My mom went to get my brother and sister, so the whole family would be together. As I sat alone, hiding in the bathroom, I heard the sound of a tank firing…

Dariya's daugther. Her first present at parents' house in Mariupol.
Photo courtesy of Dariya Bayek.
Mariupol Drama Theater, early 2022. On March 16, 2022, the theater was bombed by Russian troops, with hundreds of civilians killed.
Photo courtesy of Dariya Bayek.
Hiding in the basement.
Photo courtesy of Dariya Bayek.
Hiding in the basement.
Photo courtesy of Dariya Bayek.
Alcohol and cigarettes became the only currency

We lived close to the Ilyich manufacturing plant. It’s a bedroom community, but close to the center of the city. Things kept getting worse with each day. The building next door was shelled by a tank. The first week we still could come up to the apartment from the basement, but then we all moved into the bomb shelter.

There were more than 50 people living there in three large chambers; some people even came from other buildings. My brother removed the battery from his car and set up electricity everywhere. So we settled somehow.

We immediately started stocking up on food. My mom owned a small grocery store and that helped too. The looting started on the second day, and in a few days there was nothing left. At some point money lost its value, and alcohol and cigarettes became the only currency.

In our basement no one went hungry; everyone shared with each other. Soon they cut off water communications, power, and gas. We were frugal with water, but it’s hard: you need to cook, drink, clean the children. We had nine people with kids: my sister has a family and so does my brother. Just making a pot of soup and some porridge took 14 liters of water a day. My dad had a big 70 liter aquarium: the fish died and we got the water. We drained the water from the apartment water heater and that was another 90 liters. We also set out buckets outside and that collected water.

The park was 25 min away on foot. Some people were getting water from there, but it was being shelled. Some people we knew went and did not come back. Fortunately, we only had to go there once.

As soon as gas was cut off, everyone went to chop down trees and gather firewood. We cooked over an open fire. We would come out early in the morning and cook food the entire day while shells flew above us. I was breastfeeding the baby and had already started to introduce solids, so she ate the same food as we did: there was no choice.

Dariya with her grandmother, who died of a heart attack and was buried in the yard. The photo was taken in her apartment.
Photo courtesy of Dariya Bayek.
Neighbors buried our grandmother in the yard

Our apartment complex was hit with a mortar shell and it killed a neighbor. He was just left lying on the street. It was good that at least it was cold. Bodies were just covered up and left by the sidewalks. Gradually, they buried the corpses. When we left, we saw a mini-cemetery in every yard. When we evacuated, there were 10 graves in our yard and people were digging more. And in another district, our grandmother was buried by her neighbors on April 3 in a makeshift cemetery in the yard of her building. She died from a heart attack, but we could not make it to her.

At one point I injured my hand and it got infected. Two days later the inflammation started. The arm swelled up to the elbow; I ran a temperature; it was getting worse every day. Neighbors brought some ointments, but they didn’t help; antibiotics were necessary. But where to get them? One man said that there was a doctor in the basement a few houses over, so we ran there under the whistling of shells overhead: that’s when I saw the destroyed buildings for the first time.

He examined me and prescribed a course of antibiotics - to be delivered by intermuscular injection at that. I couldn’t breastfeed anymore. My sister helped out. She had a baby too, so she nursed them both. We went through different basements looking for antibiotics - nothing. And then one man gave us the address of a woman who was taking antibiotics post-surgery. My parents had cigarettes and alcohol from their store, so they paid the doctors and bought the medications.

I couldn’t breastfeed anymore.
To be sure, at first we were only able to get enough medications for half of the days, and there was no lidocaine to be found: the injections were very painful. They did the injection twice a day, and then some man brought the whole package: people five houses over found out that we were looking. This was how we somehow managed to treat my arm.

Some mothers lost their milk. Many came to our basement and asked if we had formula and diapers. Sometimes strange people would appear looking to exchange whatever they had looted for alcohol and cigarettes.

Many people died. My friend had a 6-year-old son killed. Another family had an 18 month toddler killed-shrapnel. There was a young man sitting in our cellar with fractured legs: from Sartana.

The explosions were like in Hollywood action movies

Silence was the scariest: it would be followed by the worst shelling. When things calmed down, we took the children outside for a walk. Once there was a sunny day, so everyone went outside. One neighbor was cooking on an open fire and his kids, about 5-7 years old, were playing nearby. There was a big explosion. His head was blown off, but the kids survived, but one missing an arm and the other missing a leg. This was before the hospital was bombed, so they were taken away, but I don’t know what happened next.

Silence was the scariest: it would be followed by the worst shelling.
The explosions were like in Hollywood action movies. Sometimes everything was thick with smoke from the fires; everything was on fire. And once a plane flew by, the bastards bombed the city and dropped something terrible. There were three story buildings there, the planes flew twice as high. My dad walked by that area later when he was going over to visit my grandmother and said there was a crater approximately 8 by 4 meters.

There was no connection to the outside world, only rumors. The only source of “official” information was the radio station. They kept saying the same thing over and over, and this phrase was constantly repeated. I am pretty much quoting directly: “we are your liberators. We came to protect and save you.” They called on Ukrainian soldiers to surrender, ”Take out the magazine from your machine gun, hang the weapon on your left shoulder, take a white flag and leave in a certain direction. You will be given an opportunity to contact your family and will return home after the end of hostilities.” And then there was a phrase with a strong southern accent, a harsher one: “Surrender! We came to this land to kill our enemies.” And they switched between them. And they played news about the successes of the Russian military on the fronts. So, sitting in the basement, it seemed like a large part of Ukraine had already been captured. When you listen to this for a month, the option of evacuating through Ukraine does not even occur to you. Where to go if everything is occupied? Our friends were 3000th in the line for filtration. They didn’t want to go to Russia, but there was no way to get to Ukraine. They are already on their way to Ireland.

The only evacuation rout was through Russia

We left on March 24th. At that point a big part of the city was already under Russian control, so the only way out was to go through Russia. We had three cars, and they all survived, even the windows, which was a luxury for Mariupol, although my brother left his car behind. We made our own choice to leave, though it was a hard decision: we knew people who had left and disappeared…

Leaving the city was a generally huge problem. Mariupol is a city of bridges. To get to the city limit from our place you need to cross four bridges, and they were all destroyed. The men decided to check out our route and walked to the first destroyed bridge, and there was a shot-out car next to it. Since it was a residential area: people took down metal gates and threw them over the gap like a little bridge. It was dangerous, but you could drive over it slowly. On the 23rd, the neighbors came over, we were putting a convoy together and invited them to join.

There was terrible shelling on the day we left; it was terrifying to leave the building. But the group was assembled and at 7:30 we started out. Around this bridge there were scattered a huge number of small carnations the size of half a little finger and with plumage – they looked like arrows for darts. Maybe it was stuffing for a bomb.

On the way I saw destroyed buildings, some just black, others with huge holes in them. There were blown up tanks under overhangs. Many people walked on foot a whole line. We got as many people as we could into our cars.

Russian bombing of Mariupol in March 2022
Photo courtesy: The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine
A body without arms, legs or a head lay like garbage in the middle of the road. There was a demolished car: white rags, a sign saying “Children”, and people covered in blood.
Literally a minute from the bridge the DNR rabble held a spot on a hill from which you could see the entire city. The checkpoint was constructed from burnt cars and tires, so you had to zig zag through it. There were so many corpses! I, of course, had seen dead people in the yard of our building complex, but these corpses had lying there for a long time apparently. Everything was covered with dust. A body without arms, legs or a head lay like garbage in the middle of the road. There was a demolished car: white rags, a sign saying “Children”, and people covered in blood. There was a line up of cars, and next to it a tank firing right into the city. And I could see where the shells exploded.

Did they really think they were saving us?

You could avoid a thorough search if you gave the soldiers a bottle (of alcohol - ed.) and cigarettes. All of our cars had this set up at the top in the trunk. They spoke pretty politely. They even reassured us that it was already: quiet here, no shelling. Of course not, there was nothing to destroy there. Did they really think they were saving us? They checked our documents and phones. Dad opened the trunk; the soldier grabbed the bag and said we could go. The same story with my sister and brother. They didn’t check our things. They asked where my husband was. I said he was at home. I only showed them my darkon (Israeli passport), although I have a Ukrainian passport as well. That didn’t play any role here.

They checked other cars and made some men undress. We kept going – more of the same exploded cars, the same corpses. There were four checkpoints before leaving the city. They checked documents at each one and asked how I ended up here. My baby was around 8 months old then; some tried baby talking to her…

I counted more than 20 checkpoints to the Russian border. They stopped us at each one and demanded documents. There was a checkpoint at the entrance and exit of each village. We had to change the route: many bridges were blown up. There was a lot of military equipment: tanks, APCs marked with V and Z. Even some black executive cars, without license plates.

One soldier at the checkpoint warned us: “Forget about going to the toilet in the field. Everything is mined. Don’t even drive on the shoulder of the road”. When we were about 20 km from the city, we saw a Grad rocket launcher in a field hitting Mariupol. It was terrible.

We made it to some town in the DNR and were told to go through filtration. I still have the piece of paper (see photo) that allowed me to cross the Russian border.

The police told us to bring photocopies of all documents, but we only had hryvnias, and there was nowhere to exchange money. Such helplessness! I wanted to buy baby wipes and a plastic spoon at the store to clean and feed the baby. But we had no rubles, and the town was full of refugees like us.

Life in the DNR has stopped

The DNR is something horrible. Life there has just stopped. There is no internet, nowhere to spend the night, and it was getting dark. There was a huge line at the police station. My mom ran around, trying to trade chocolates for a chance to make photocopies, but nobody agreed. Dad found someone who agreed to exchange 100 dollars for rubles… We made copies, got the questionnaires: now it was time to get registered. “What kind of car do you have? Who is in it? Where were you before? Did you help the Ukrainian army? Have you been in contact with Ukrainian soldiers?” etc. We were in line for four hours. It was getting dark. My mom is strong-willed: she went to the guy in charge: ”Please see us; we have three kids in the car.” My brother’s daughter is 9 years old; my sister’s boy is a year and 10 months, and my baby is eight months. Anyway, the guy in charge had a look at my mom and said: Drive slowly, and they’ll let you through.”

Then we drove through Nikolskoe, Dokuchaevsk, Dobropolye, Amvrosievku, and after a few hours we were at the border with Russia. There was a booth, and the border guard warns us: ”We are not going to let you out without registration!” “Turn off, t he says, there is a village here, ”Register at the police station.” What can you do? We went, and – you wouldn’t believe it – there were no strangers at the police station. They met us like family! They led us to a big hall with beds, tea, coffee, cookies. They showed us where we could shower. Some asked about specific neighborhoods in Mariupol: they had relatives there, brothers, sisters. They cried, we cried. They assigned a staff member for each of us and took us to separate rooms. But all the same, men were made to undress; tattoos were checked; photos were taken head on and in profile, as well as fingerprints. They scanned all our passports and checked all the phones.

In fact, it was an interrogation: when did I arrive, where do my parents live, where is their residential registration, their dates of birth, phone numbers. And the same about each family member. Where do you live, what activities are you involved in: and they wrote it all down.

When they saw my Israeli passport, they called the Russian Ministry of Civil Defense and Emergency Situations and let them know where I was. From there they contacted the embassy.

At that point we didn’t know where my Dad’s sister and her family were or if they were alive. And when they were checking the passports, one of the staff said that the last name sounded familiar: I saw it somewhere yesterday. He leafed through the notebook and there it was: a record of all of Dad’s relatives; they had passed through the day before.

Never once did I hear anyone say that they wanted to be part of Russia, never once.

Finally, we got these papers, sealed and signed, and proceeded to the Russian border. When it was our turn, they pulled us to the side like all cars with Ukrainian license plates. We just sat there for two hours; then they took away the documents and didn’t give them back for a long time. Then they took the men away - my Dad and my brother. It was the same interrogation: they made them undress, took fingerprints, etc.

Then they checked the car: another hour and another few hours waiting in line. Altogether it took about seven hours, and they let us go at 1 in the morning. We wanted to get a hotel room, but there were no vacant rooms, so we had to drive to Rostov during the night. We spent the night there, cleaned up, and exchanged some dollars. I can’t remember the rate, but if in hryvnia it was almost $2000, then in rubles we were given the equivalent of $700.

Our goal was to get to Georgia. Nobody wanted to stay in Russia; we had discussed it back in the basement. We stayed in hotels for four nights: the receptionists knew about everything that was happening, since we weren’t the only ones fleeing like this. The city has been destroyed; it no longer exists. And you could see it in the refugees: those who didn’t wash for a month; when everything smelled of fire and soot. Everyone in Russia understood everything: many people cried; some apologized. My Mom’s cousin lives in Moscow; he called and apologized too.

Consequences of the bombing of the children's hospital and maternity hospital in Mariupol, March 9, 2022
Photo courtesy: Army Inform
The city has been destroyed; it no longer exists. And you could see it in the refugees: those who didn’t wash for a month; when everything smelled of fire and soot.
I grew up in Mariupol, graduated from school and college there, and regularly came back to visit my family. I left when I was 22. Never once did I hear anyone say that they wanted to be part of Russia, never once, especially after 2014, when Mariupol was shelled. And there were so many refugees from Donetsk then! What Russia?! Mariupol understood very well what DNR and LNR were and who was causing this. I had been astonished by the city when I arrived this time: it was clean, beautiful, and modern. You wanted to live there, work, and go out to have fun. All in the past.

We stopped in Northern Ossetia, so people at the checkpoint started coming over, offering clothes to change, food, and water. There was only one incident: a police officer stopped the car with my brother and sister He was probably looking for a bribe. After everything that happened, it was just ridiculous. Katya’s child was tired of being in the car seat and was sitting on her lap. “Well, we have to fine you!” Now my brother was stressed out: he left a big business in Mariupol, and now he was left with no apartment, no job, going somewhere in his sister’s car owning only his naked ass. And here he was about to be fined! “Okay,” he said. “I’ve had everything taken away, you go ahead and fine me.” The officer hesitated; he was looking for money. He asked: “What, you’re blaming us for everything?” Then he just handed back the documents to my brother and let them go.

They tried to wheedle out my Ukrainian passport.

We were stuck at the Russian-Georgian border for five hours: again, the men were interrogated, taken aside and asked all the same questions. “Where were you born?, what do you do?” They were made to undress, fingerprinted, phones checked.

I only showed them my Israeli darkon, but here the officer took it away.
- How did you get to the Russian territory?
- What do you mean? I legally crossed the border.
- But you showed a Ukrainian passport, not this one.
- Check again, I never showed a different passport. And the paper about border crossing has the number from the Israeli darkon. I showed it to you.
- You didn’t get a stamp.
- So I have to supervise your border service?

At that point my Mom came over and asked what was going on. “I need her Ukrainian passport; she didn’t get a stamp” said the officer. Mom took out all our passports – they also did not have any stamp. The officer said, It’s not about the stamp; it’s about the passport. She didn’t show that passport at the border.” That’s just funny!

They led me to a room and didn’t give back my passport. They told me to wait and take my phone with me. In 20 minutes two officers came by:
- Where is your Ukrainian passport?
- What passport? I’ve told you, I only have the Israeli passport.
- But don’t you have a Ukrainian passport?
- No.

Then the second one showed up:
- You gave us your Ukrainian passport, right?
- I have the Israeli passport, have you lost it?
- No-no.

He left. Then I saw my Mom coming with the baby. She approached the guard, ”Let me in,” she says, “it`s time to feed my granddaughter.” . They let her in and brought me to a different room with the baby. They let me nurse her. Then my daughter started crying. She wanted to go to sleep, and that sped things up a bit. Over the next 15 minutes two more officers came ask about the Ukrainian passport. Then we went up to the office, and a serious older was sitting there, and again the same questions: who lives where; where have you been; your relatives’ birthdates, phone numbers. And again ten questions about the Ukrainian passport: “Where is it? Why isn’t it here? Where did it go? It is very necessary. You have to understand, there are too many fake Israeli documents.”

“You know what,” I said, “I can show you my internal Israeli passport, my daughter’s Israeli birth certificate, my marriage certificate, etc.” They didn’t even want to look. And then they asked: “Where have you been during the military rescue operation?”

Honestly, I wanted to punch him for that question! He even asked how we used the toilet. I wasn’t shy and described it in detail: buckets, baggies etc.
He wrote it all down. Then he leaned back in the chair and asked:
- Do you believe in anything, like in God?
- No (I wasn’t about to talk to him about God).
- What about spirits?

(I’m not lying, I don’t know why they needed this…)

- What about crystals?
- Are you serious?
- Yes, serious. Like some people believe in prophetic dreams.

That was the end of the interrogation. My phone ran out of power on his desk. We took our documents and as we started leaving he apologized: You understand, it’s our job. ”Then we had to stand around waiting for another hour and a half until my brother got his documents back.

Georgians treated us like family

We went through border control to Georgia in 10 minutes. The first thing I saw there was a Ukrainian flag. I really love this country, we were treated like family. I had not even seen so many yellow and blue flags in Ukraine – I counted ten flags on three houses! There was Ukrainian music playing; «Glory to Ukraine» signs everywhere, and in some stores, bread was being given to Ukrainians for free. My husband sent over money, but they wouldn’t let us pay for housing, just straight up refused. The landlady said: “this will be my help to Ukraine.” She gave us a separate cabin and fed us.

It took a few weeks to set up a proper burial for our grandmother. It turned out that the new government has already compiled a list and our grandmother was the 20,000th on it!
My brother found an apartment for himself, and when they found out that he was from Ukraine - they didn’t take a penny from him, and in the evening they came to entertain the whole family. My sister broke her tooth, and the dentist treated her for free.

We spent a week in Georgia. Then my husband flew in and took me and our daughter to Israel.
It took a few weeks to set up a proper burial for our grandmother. It turned out that the new government has already compiled a list and our grandmother was the 20,000th on it! It cost $600 to make it happen: she was exhumed and buried in the cemetery next to her husband.

Our friends back in Mariupol say that there is a mountain of corpses in the Metro supermarket warehouse, and people are looking for their missing relatives there. There is a strong smell as the bodies decompose…

The testimony was chronicled on May 24, 2022

Translation: Dr. Mariya Gyendina