Cookies managing
We use cookies to provide the best site experience.
Cookies managing
Cookie Settings
Cookies necessary for the correct operation of the site are always enabled.
Other cookies are configurable.
Essential cookies
Always On. These cookies are essential so that you can use the website and use its functions. They cannot be turned off. They're set in response to requests made by you, such as setting your privacy preferences, logging in or filling in forms.
Analytics cookies
These cookies collect information to help us understand how our Websites are being used or how effective our marketing campaigns are, or to help us customise our Websites for you. See a list of the analytics cookies we use here.
Advertising cookies
These cookies provide advertising companies with information about your online activity to help them deliver more relevant online advertising to you or to limit how many times you see an ad. This information may be shared with other advertising companies. See a list of the advertising cookies we use here.
My 16 year old daughter saw eight people die
Irina Poliushkina, Mathematics Teacher
Irina's mother
Photo courtesy of Irina Poliushkina
The morning of the 24th I was getting ready to go to work and without checking the news. Just as I was about to leave, the mother of one of my students called, asking if the lessons would be switched to Zoom now. I was surprised, but she explained: the war had started; classes had been canceled. I turned the TV on and there Kyiv and Kharkiv were already being bombed.

I thought the media were trying to whip everyone into a frenzy and if the worst came to worst it would be like in 2014: a week of shelling and it would all be over. I didn’t even buy supplies, and when I came to my senses, the stores were already closed. Thankfully, the synagogue helped out with food.

We also went “looting”

I remember my first big fright. My son has been living in Israel for four years. While we still had reception, he called: “Mom, a convoy of 400 tanks is heading to Mariupol from Berdyansk!”. And at that moment someone knocked on the window (we lived on the first floor). I look out and it’s a Ukrainian APC, and a soldier shouts: “Quick! Everyone into the basement! Into the shelter! Tanks are on the move from Berdyansk!”

Photo courtesy of Irina Poliushkina
I quickly sent my husband and daughter to the basement and went to my mom. She is bedridden.

My mom survived the war. She and my grandmother were evacuated from Leningrad to Siberia in 1941, and their train was bombed en route, so they sat in snow for two days. And during this war at some point she asked: ”Why don't you turn on the lights?” She has been paralyzed for a few years and did not understand everything. So, I said: ”Mom, there's a war: don't you hear the airplanes?” She asked: ”And who is attacking us, the Germans?” I said: “No Mom, it's Russia.” And then she blurted out in a particularly Ukrainian accent: ”Are they completely nuts or what?!”

But we were spared that night. , they were delayed. Next day there was a strike that took out electricity and phone reception. We still had gas and water, but there were shellings. And then gas was shut off too.

One day, I saw some neighbors pulling carts and asked what was going on, and they said that Mariupol was surrounded, so the soldiers opened up the Metro supermarket and let people in. My mother is diabetic on insulin and has special food needs: we needed buckwheat and oatmeal for her. So, we went “looting” too, although that’s just self-preservation instinct: we only took what was absolutely necessary.

Before the war we used to have a car. When I came from work, my husband would meet me at the store and bring the car, so I never carried heavy things. And here I was, having gone to the base, carrying a big heavy bag and suddenly I saw that someone left half a sack of potatoes. I thought, “I have to take it now, otherwise we won’t get it later.”. So I picked it up with my other arm, flung it on my back, took my bag and went along. When my husband saw me, he said: “I didn’t know you could do anything like that.” I didn’t know I could do it either. But what can you do? If you want to live, you don’t think twice.

It became freezing cold, and our apartment was at -5C. We covered my mother with three blankets and put hot water bottles around her. She spent almost three weeks like that.
At first we spent the nights at home, even though the shelling was really bad, and then a shell hit the playground and the shock wave took out the windows in my daughter’s and my mom’s rooms. Then we put two old mattresses on the living room floor and moved my mother there. And suddenly it became freezing cold, and our apartment was at -5C. We covered my mother with three blankets and put hot water bottles around her. She spent almost three weeks like that.

We sent our 16 year old daughter to the city center with neighbors. We thought it would be safer there. But there was no way to communicate and I felt guilty that I let the child go.

My mom was nearly burned alive

When a bomb hit the pump station and windows and interior doors were blasted out in all the surrounding buildings our building shook so much we were terrified. We couldn’t sleep in the apartment anymore, so my husband and I went to the basement.

Then we moved to another basement, under a bank branch. We still ran to the base, brought water under bombardment, and took care of my mom.
Explosions somewhere; then quiet; just keep running. We put out fires in apartments; luckily we had an entire bathtub of rainwater. There was a hit on our building. One of the neighbors ran up to the ninth floor to put out the fire in his apartment and the stairs so fire broke out all along the vertical line of apartments. I was crying: “My mom is about to be burned alive!!”. So my neighbor says: “What are you crying for? Go put out the fire.” I looked and there was my husband with an axe and he started chopping down the shelves, anything that could burn was pulled down. I lined the room with wet cloths and made a spray bottle. But everything above our apartment burned down.

Irina's apartment complex
Photo courtesy of Irina Poliushkina
Irina's apartment

Photo courtesy of Irina Poliushkina
After eight days of shelling we went to get our daughter: by then we knew where she was. We had to go under shelling, but we made it. Our daughter was thin and pale. The neighbor’s little grandchild had already died by then, and the daughter in law had been taken to the hospital in a bad condition. Anya saw eight people die before her eyes. It was a miracle she survived. A boy she knew stopped her for a second to talk. And that was when the bomb exploded. She got a concussion, but thank G-d she’s alive. The entrance annex saved her. And then she watched as our neighbor buried his son with a torn away arm in the yard of his building complex. She was going outside to play with the little boy. His name was Tyoma. He was four years old.

We took her and the neighbor’s other child. On the way back we were lying down crawling on the ground more than walking. We had ended up in the line of fire: we only figured it out later when we saw Ukrainian soldiers and hid in their trenches. Then we ran to the parallel street in short dashes. We thought it would be quieter, but the Russians were already there. I didn’t even realize it at first, but then I turned my head, and there was a tank with a letter Z. We made it home as fast as we could, brought the children pretty successfully, even though I got a light conсussion.

We used a menorah instead of a candlestick

When we moved my mother to the mattresses, my husband disassembled her futon and we brought the two parts into the basement. Neighbors brought another mattress. We put a bunch of pillows together and slept there like that. We wore sweaters, jackets with hoods, vests, hats, three pairs of pants. We had blankets to cover ourselves. We covered up the sections with bedspreads and lived like that. We brought tables and benches from the nearby school, cooked food outside on braziers, using bricks, cinderblocks, anything.

My mother had to be fed and given her insulin shot at 7 pm, so my husband and I would run home. We used a menorah instead of a candlestick: it turned out to be much more convenient. We would change her diaper, feed her, give her an insulin shot - all as fast as we could. We were scared that a sniper will see the flame and fire on us.

Irina with her mother
Photo courtesy of Irina Poliushkina
My mother-in-law and husband’s brother died on the spot. We saw the video of the scene: a mess of metal and cinderblocks.
We had a pretty close-knit community. If I started a fire and just needed it to warm up some tea, I’d call everyone to come round: why waste the wood? And the men worked together to chop wood and bring water. There were a few neighbors who were terrified of venturing out into the yard, so we treated them and shared our food with them. One of them had two children: the older one in the second grade, and the younger 18 months. How could you not help? The last time we went to the Metro supermarket it was specifically to get milk for the baby. There was a man nearby who couldn’t walk well, so we fed him as well. What were we supposed to do? You can’t let someone die from hunger, right? So we would bring him some soup, some liver, something. When we left, we gave all our remaining food to the neighbors.

We invited the family of my husband’s brother to move to us, but they refused. Instead, they moved from their apartment to a 2-story boat house by the sea and decided to stay there. It was like a small house, with a sofa and everything on the second floor. According to what the sister-in-law has told people, I know that they were having tea on the second floor, and she went downstairs to get some honey. That’s when the rocket strike hit she survived, but lost the use of her legs yet somehow managed to crawl to their relatives in another part of the neighborhood. And my mother-in-law and husband’s brother died on the spot. We saw the video of the scene: a mess of metal and cinderblocks. They say a lot of people stayed there. Their apartments burned down too. And the sister-in-law is not in contact with us anymore: apparently, she’s not quite right mentally and behaves strangely. Actually, we found out about their death from our son, so we found out through Israel what was happening across town.

How they almost took me to the "cleansing department"

There were many strikes in the yard of our housing complex and the buildings were hit as well. One family left their grandmother in the apartment and went to the shelter with their child. Anyway, there was a strike between the 8th and 9th floors and she was burned alive. Many old people died from heart attacks. We had to bury them in the yard. We had to put one of the neighbors into a bomb crater. I helped with the burial.

The buildings behind us were also burning: it was one big flame all around. They say that now there is a terrible smell there: there was a strike and someone was buried under the rubble. The body did not burn and is decomposing.

I said: “Well, there’s a soldier lying right there!” - and pointed to my mom. “Take her away! After all you’ve done to us, are you going to sleep peacefully at night?”
Once we saw Russians bring out a group of 20 year old kids from the basement. They were Ukrainian soldiers who got separated from their regiment. They were in civilian clothing, I asked what would happen to them happen to them and they answered that most likely they would be shot. I only know that these young men were from Vinnytsia. They didn’t tell me their names and were too scared to give me the phone numbers of their moms. I wanted to call, but they were too afraid of the risk.

Another time I was almost taken to the “cleansing department”. I was coming home and someone said to me, “Hey, they’re taking your husband away.” I saw my husband and a Russian soldier enter the house and ran after them. So, we came up to the apartment and I asked what they were actually looking for. They said they had to check that we weren’t hiding Ukrainian soldiers. I said: “Well, there’s a soldier lying right there!” - and pointed to my mom. “Take her away! After all you’ve done to us, are you going to sleep peacefully at night?”. “You are too mouthy,” he shot back at me. “I should just take you to the cleansing department.” “Fine with me”, I said, “you can even shoot me for all I care.” He softened up a bit, asking what I did for work. I told him, I was a math teacher.
- What language did you teach in?
- The state language, of course.
- See, it wasn’t in Russian.
- Wait, why should I teach in Russian if I live in Ukraine? If the children responded in Russian, nobody had a problem with it.

Then it’s back to self-justification: Donetsk endured it for eight years, and here you are complaining after three weeks.

Donetsk is my second hometown. I went to college there; my close friend lives there. There’s no need to tell me that they were shelled like Mariupol. What you do with us is just… And his (I point to my husband) mother and brother died. For what?

He just left in silence.

Our son managed to get ahold of our rabbi from Israel and told him where we were

I went by a bombed out pharmacy on the same day. I knew there was a toilet there, so I went in. The door was propped open with a rock. I saw water bottles, so I took one. And suddenly this DNR (Donetsk National Republic) soldier with a machine gun came at me: “You, bitch, thief, put it back in its place!!!” And he began to go off on me! “Listen here, my dear,” I said to him. “Now I am a bitch and a thief, on my own land? I gave lessons on TV during the quarantines. I have a university education. And who are you? It was you who came to us; we didn’t come to you. You made us into bitches and thieves and looters and firefighters.” He went: “You should have thought about who you were voting for!”

Irina with her husband

Photo courtesy of Irina Poliushkina
As my sister says: we lived in our own country and voted for whom we wanted. What’s that to you?

To be honest, I used to think that Ukraine was wrong to quarrel with Russia l. But I never thought it would come to this. And all the neighbors were shocked too. Yesterday I talked to one of them on the phone. He said: these bastards put us down to the level of pigs. His apartment burned down, but where to go? People are scared that their car will be taken away; they are scared of having to start from scratch in a new country. Honestly, if they didn’t come for us, I wouldn’t have left my mom, and we would still be there.

We were lucky that we had some connectivity. Guys from the next house over brought a generator, got some fuel somewhere and every three days they would let people from the nearby houses charge their phones. My husband was lucky to find some reception downtown, and we were able to call our son in Haifa. He managed to say that he’s looking into all options for getting us out and then the connection cut out. Two days later, they came for us.

Our son managed to contact our rabbi and tell him where we were. They came into the basement and told us to get ready to go to Israel. So we threw our stuff together. The neighbors and my husband carried out my mom on her mattress, my sister and her husband were with us. He had three shrapnel wounds in his leg. That was on March 23rd. We didn’t even know how they would take us, but we understood that it would be through Russia, because by then the Russians had been in the city for three days.

In Crimea, mom got an infection from which she did not recover

They made my husband undress at almost every checkpoint. Then the dug into his phone. Then they kept looking for tattoos. We came to some sort of boarding house past Melekino and next day they woke us up at 5 in the morning: we are going to Crimea. We fed my mother, changed her and carried her to the car. Onwards!

She was like our pass. A volunteer would go around the queue, showing a sign “we have a sick person, she can die.” And it was true: being insulin-dependent if she didn’t eat on time. Then an ambulance took her to Sevastopol and we were put in a little hotel near Simferopol. Of course they didn’t take good care of my mother. She got an infection and that ultimately led to her death. Israeli antibiotics couldn’t cure the infection.

From Crimea we were flown to Minvody. My mother and I went to the hospital, and everyone else was at a hotel. Then we took a night flight to Kazakhstan, refueled and flew to Tbilisi. They didn’t want to let her on board. She was lying across the seats and the seatbelt was non fastened, so my husband and I held her during the landing. We made it somehow, but then the Czech pilot refused to fly on to Israel with a passenger like that. Long story short, we were left in Tbilisi, and here I broke down and started crying hysterically. It was the first time since the war started that I cried for an entire day. They placed my mother in intensive care, and I was able to stay with a friend of my cousin.

My daughter still remembers the face of Tyoma. Tyoma’s arm was torn off by the explosion, but it was the blast wave that killed him. It lifted him off his feet and he hit his head on the ground.
In Israel, my mother spent three weeks in Ichilov and then in a senior’s center, and then she passed away. At least I was able to give her a proper burial, not in a makeshift grave in the yard. My poor mama, she survived WWII, the Holocaust, and now…

How are we doing? We rented an apartment in Haifa; sometimes, it’s hard: a different mentality, bureaucracy, we don’t know the language and we do miss our home. In previous life we didn’t lift anything heavier than a pen, and now we have to work nightshifts, counting items in a warehouse. It’s not the hardest work, but there is some spiritual discomfort, not going to lie.

When a balloon burst, my daughter fell to the floor

Sometimes I talk to my cousin who lives in Saint-Petersburg. On the one hand, he is not a fan of the government; on the other hand, he thinks I should go back to Mariupol and take compensation for our apartment from that same government. I rarely use obscene language, but when he told me this, all of Haifa heard me scream obscenities at him. I just couldn’t handle this unhinged proposal. And his own father-in-law and mother-in-law live in Mariupol, so he has to know better.

I don’t want anything from them. If at some point we are awarded official compensation, for example, from the frozen accounts of Russian oligarchs, I will gladly take it.

I know some people who moved here from Russia. Mostly, they left because they hate the regime. But sometimes it’s different. The day before yesterday these two older women started nattering at us at a bus stop.
“You are from Ukraine?”
“And where exactly?”
“From Mariupol.”
And that’s when they started: ”Don’t you feel sorry for the soldiers?”
“They came to our land, why should I feel sorry for them?”
And my husband says: “Do you feel sorry for my mom and brother who died for nothing? That’s how they fight against fascism… on our land!”

But these are rare specimens. Usually when people found out where we are from they brought us all they could: even beds, clothes, and dishes.

Anya started school here, and one boy brought a balloon to class. He wanted to pop it over a friend’s ear. She heard the pop and screamed, and another boy from Mariupol (they go to Hebrew classes in ulpan together) did not scream, but they both fell to the floor. The mischief-maker apologized for a long time afterwards; he hadn’t noticed them…

My daughter still remembers the face of Tyoma. I had known his mother from childhood; we lived close by. She was almost the same age as my son and she died in the hospital. Tyoma’s arm was torn off by the explosion, but it was the blast wave that killed him. It lifted him off his feet and he hit his head on the ground. And his mother had head trauma in addition to the shrapnel wounds. They couldn’t move her: their car was damaged. And another little girl died with her mom: they all played there together. So Anya remembers all these people….

I am now also afraid of doors slamming, of loud screams. When someone starts talking loudly on the bus, I shrink away. It is what it is.

The testimony was chronicled on June 8, 2022

Translation: Dr. Mariya Gyendina