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When we saw Ukrainian chevron patches on the soldiers’ uniform, we cried like kids
Marina Piletskaya, Boiler House Operator at the Azovstal Metallurgical Combine
Marina Piletskaya with her husband
Photo courtesy of Marina Piletskaya
We had open immigration visas for permanent residency in Israel and had even bought tickets for March 15th. We didn’t make it out in time… I understood that was inevitable, but still hoped for the best.

On the 24th at half past four in the morning we were awakened by explosions. My husband asked, “Is it war?” “Yes,” I answered, “it’s war.”.

Anyway, I still went to work, and a few hours later heavy shelling began - then they stopped production (it was an emergency situation - the furnaces were jammed and couldn’t be put back in order), and my husband came to pick me up at the front gate.

Destroyed civilian building in Mariupol
Photo courtesy of Marina Piletskaya
Babushka, I’m hungry, but I’ve got to keep smiling

Until March 2nd, we stayed at home: my daughter, son-in-law and grandson spent the nights in the bathroom, and my husband and I stayed in our room. And then when the shelling started to get very close, we began looking for a basement shelter. We wanted to go to the Community Center for Construction Workers, but a really bad shelling started, and we didn’t make it in time. Under the roar of shells, we ran to some sort of basement shelter where it was very cold and damp, with people sitting on benches in a narrow hallway. There wasn’t even space to lie down. Then shells there as well. Anyway, after ten minutes my legs were so cold that my husband brought our Tavria car from the garage, and we drove to the basement of my daughter’s classmate.

We spent almost three weeks there till March 21st. I brought medications from home, the ones we had packed to take with us to Israel. By the way, none of us got sick in the basement; our bodies were focused on survival. The shellings did not stop; I don’t understand how we fell asleep with all that racket. We just slept on the cement floor; someone brought a carpet, and we had some blankets with us - also from our packing for Israel. It was really cold: on March 10 it dropped below freezing. Because of the shellings, the children could not go out anywhere. My grandson was 6, and his friend was five years old. We read to them by candlelight. Once, when there was a lull of ten minutes or so, they tried to get up the stairs, but we shooed them back from there. The kids did not see any light, but they grew up quickly. “Babushka, I’m hungry, but I’ve got to keep smiling” - that’s what my grandson told me one time.

Shelling would start just as we were went to get water: at exactly the kindergarten where there was a fire main, and then a scene of horror unfolded. They had nowhere to hide, and munitions thundered right next to them. That was the biggest fright of my life. They crouched in the hallway, and the mortars fired every 20 seconds: overshot, undershot, without let-up until they hit the main entrance to the kindergarten. Thick dust was everywhere; one girl almost got trampled. My husband helped her get up and put her beside him. Finally, we saw our men rush back into the basement with crazy looks in their eyes…

Marina's son, who died on March 13, 2022
Photo courtesy of Marina Piletskaya
At the morgue dead bodies were stacked in piles: some wrapped in bags, others in blankets

My husband didn’t even have time to catch his breath, when the news came that our young neighbor had been wounded in her leg and back. She is 21 years old with a year old baby. She had gone to the next building to get some Q-tips for her son, and a shell struck. There was nobody to help and she had just been laid on the stairs. So, we put her in our Tavria and off to the hospital. They stitched up her leg, and then my husband took Vera to the hospital three more times under shellings to change her dressings.

By March 21st there was no medicine, no water, no power, no heat. And they kept shelling the building. And at the morgue, dead bodies of civilians were stacked in piles along the curb some wrapped in bags, others in blankets. My husband saw that himself. The Russians kept firing at the buildings. Some burned down. There were often corpses on the streets. There was nobody to bury them, but while it was cold, the bodies just lay there and weren’t even covered up.

My son went missing on March 13th. He was in a different basement; three of them went to get water and did not come back. Their shot-out car was spotted, but bodies weren’t found. It’s awful… (Later it was confirmed that Marina’s son was dead – ed.).

In order to survive, people broke into stores and took away food. My husband went to the trade depot and brought back pressed bars of Black Sea sprats, something we had never once bought before, since we live by the sea. But we fried these bars on an open fire: we had to eat something. We brought some supplies from home; steamed some oatmeal. The water had terrible sediment and sand; we couldn’t even boil it. Somehow we held on till about March 15th, but then because of the terrible shelling it became impossible to even run outside and put the kettle on. The buildings started to just fold over and burn; there were aerial bombs every 10-20 minutes, and we realized that the basement would become our mass grave.

My sister’s husband was wounded and had a concussion. Their building caught on fire, and then as they were going down to the shelter, he was wounded in the stomach. Nobody could help; there were no medicines, no water. They could only put on a dressing. One colleague of mine was killed during the shelling. His wife called to let me know.

The strange thing is that 80% of the city population were fairly pro-Russian, and they are the people Putin was exterminating. Not that everyone re-evaluated their views - some still believed that we were killing ourselves - but some finally got it. Many of those who were taken to Russia say that it’s awful how people live there; like in last century.

Tanya Moroz, 6 y/o. A Russian shell flew into her house in Mariupol. The shell hit the shelter. Mom tried to close Tanya with herself, she died on the spot. The child was brought to the hospital, but Russian aircraft bombed the intensive care unit of the hospital. Died.
Conscripts were usually polite. Good morning and all that. We destroyed your home, but good morning.
We took out a Ukrainian flag under the seat

By March 21 everyone who had cars decided to get out of the city. These memories make me shake. Just as we lined up into a small procession, the shelling started - apparently, someone was watching. But we left; five or six cars. My daughter was in one of them with her husband and son. We got lost on the way, and ended up alone on the road, like an eyesore in our Tavria. There were unexploded mines on the road and torn up wires under the wheels. We started driving on the tram tracks and when we made it to the Post-bridge that connected the two parts of the town, we saw a big hole from an aerial bomb and realized that we wouldn’t be able to pass.

We had to go back. The next bridge was destroyed as well, but there was one more left. It was tiny, but we slipped over it. We even got reception for a second, and my daughter was able to call.

And then began the Russian checkpoints, about 15 in a row, practically every few hundred meters. They all behaved differently. Conscripts were usually polite. Good morning and all that. We destroyed your home, but good morning. We used to have two apartments: one burned out almost completely; we had just bought it recently. And as these guys said “Good morning,” I realized that there is nothing left in my apartment, that they had already taken everything.

At the checkpoints they made my husband undress completely, down to his underpants and searched the car. The Azovstal ID helped: they saw that my husband was a simple worker, not a military person. And at the last checkpoint they even made me undress. It was DPR-niks on duty; terribly angry, just a nightmare. And they kept saying “take off your flag” with such an evil frenzy! (We had a Ukrainian flag taped to the car.) “There is no such country,” they said. “And why are you going to Zaporizhzhya anyway? You should be going the other way!” Of course, we did not argue with them. You don’t argue with armed people.

We also had a big flag, one meter long. We folded it up and hid it under the seat and brought it out after all. It means a lot to us. If they found it, it would not have been great, but we took the chance.

You know what’s the worst part? When you know you might die any minute, and you are ready for it. I would wake up in the morning, see my husband next to me, and give thanks for one more day, since any day might be the last.
Then our car started smoking. Even though it survived, there were no windows on the driver’s and passenger’s sides - my husband managed to tape them up somehow. We stopped in a village and I saw a missed call on Viber. It turned out to be our rabbi – Reb Mendl Cohen. “Marina, where are you?!” I explained things to him, and he asked what sort of help we needed and told us to send him our credit card number, so he could send us some money. He said to let him know when we got to Zaporizhzhya and that someone would help us with a place to stay there.

There used to be the Jewish question. And now Putin has the Ukrainian question

Until we got to Zaporizhzhya, we sometimes had to go very close to minefields. When we finally came to the first of our checkpoints and I saw Ukrainian chevron patches, I told my husband, ”These are ours!” And both of us cried like babies. They waved back to us, and reassured us: ”Everything will be fine; you are in Ukraine.” I told my husband that I never felt such complete happiness, not even on our wedding day.

Our daughter and her husband drove another way. They only managed to get out on the third try. They were shot at and had to hide under the wheels. We met up in Zaporizhzhya. They put us up in an Inturist hotel and after a few days moved us to Dragobrat and then to Israel.

Our apartments are destroyed and looted; there is nothing left. Chechens took over one of the apartments, and now it’s some military guy. There are four guys in the other apartment and a tank in the yard. My son-in-law stayed in Ukraine When he came to the apartment, they pointed a machine gun at him and said: if you don’t prove that you used to live here, we’ll shoot you. But it didn’t come to that.

When Reb Mendl suggested we leave through Crimea, I immediately said that we would not pass the filtration procedure. We had pro-Ukrainian posts on Facebook, so we could have ended up in their torture basements, or they could have simply shot us. One woman from our community told us how she went through filtration, and it’s horrifying.

You know what’s the worst part? When you know you might die any minute, and you are ready for it. I would wake up in the morning, see my husband next to me, and give thanks for one more day, since any day might be the last.
People see things very differently. My shift-mate, who I was friends with for many years, has been living in Belarus for a long time. The last time we talked on the phone was shortly before the war, and she started telling me how Kharkiv is a Russian city. In all this time she never once asked, how I was doing, how was my family, whether we survived. And we’ve been friends for decades…

It’s really embarrassing what some people think. Is it really unclear that there was no shooting until the Russian army came? And liberation? They liberated us from everything: from life, from jobs, from home. Who used to prevent us from speaking Russian? Yes, they started teaching in Ukrainian in schools, but we live in Ukraine. There used to be the Jewish question. And now Putin has the Ukrainian question; he wants to destroy Ukraine.

And now we are here. I am amazed at how kind the people in Israel are: they just started bringing us dishes, a fridge, a washing machine, and even helped financially. It just brings me to tears.

We have nowhere to return. My husband started working at a plastic manufacturing factory, and I now work as a metapelet (care giver) and have two clients. I often speak with folks in Mariupol: I try to persuade my former colleagues to leave the dead city and not walk over corpses. People are told that they are volunteers now. They work for rations, pulling apart the ruins bury the dead bodies.

One little boy recently wrote on Facebook: ”The city has been destroyed, but the sea remains.” And this is the only thing that remains of Mariupol: the sea. We recently went to the beach in Ashkelon: we lay on the sand and I remembered the smell of our sea. The sea here does not smell of anything, so I closed my eyes and thought of the smell of our sea…

The testimony was chronicled on June 8, 2022

Translation: Dr. Mariya Gyendina