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Mariupol
Leaving Russia was very difficult; they even interrogated the kid
Svetlana Agantseva, owner of a property management agency and a vegan sweets shop
Destructions in Mariupol

Photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, Wikipedia
The morning of the 24th I woke very early to the sound of explosions, looked at my phone and… understood everything. In 2014 something similar started, but in the end the war spared Mariupol except for one neighborhood that was under 10 minute shelling. That’s why we decided that the city will be protected and we didn’t even think of evacuating.

Three nearby houses and a school were blown clean off

That being said, on March 2nd the reception went away, along with gas, water, and power. We lived in a private house. And when the temperature inside fell to 1-2C, we started sleeping fully clothed on a mattress in the kitchen. Approximately on March 12, an aviation bomb fell two houses over (we lived in the center of the city), and the three nearby houses and a school were blown clean off. There was a huge hole in the ground, about 12 meters in diameter and 8 meters deep. It was a miracle that our house was not affected, just the roof sagged a bit.

A street in Mariupol after the fighting for the city, March 12, 2022
Photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, Wikipedia
Mariupol civilian killed by Russian troops, March 3, 2022

Photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, Wikipedia
Luckily, just before the war we ordered water, and then got it into all containers in the yard, the summer shower etc. So we solved this problem, and many people had to melt the snow.

During the day we cooked on the grill. I made some flatbreads, some porridges: we cut down the servings and divided food into portions, since we didn’t know what would happen next and whether we would be able to leave. All this was across the backdrop of constant shelling, flying rockets, shooting tanks, working mortar launchers, mines exploding in the yards… The planes flew really low; we saw and heard them: they flew and dropped bombs. One night a fighter plane flew right above us — it was a scary moment. Our ears were clogged, like it happens when a plane is landing and it felt like there was water in them. There were no Ukrainian soldiers around. It was all residential and still. I just mean to show who was attacking and who was shooting.

Our son’s friend lived five minutes away in a multi-story apartment building. He was cooking in the yard, and they were hit by a mortar: two people were killed, and he was wounded. My friends and longtime client who lived on the left bank, close to the Vechernyy Rynok, Liuba and her husband Sergey, were killed. They were about 60 years old. Their house suffered a direct hit; she died immediately, and the neighbors buried her in the yard. And the husband was taken to the 4th hospital, and he died there, but the children still haven’t been able to find the body.

The father of our friends was killed. He lived around Novoselovka, that’s the Central Area. Also a direct hit, and he was buried in the yard. He was 65 years old. A friend of a friend has been killed. She was 34 years old. She and her husband and two sons (7 and 8 years old) were hiding in the basement. There was a strike, and she was taken to the hospital, where she died. They are still looking for her body, and want to bury her.

70% of people I know had apartments destroyed. Many haven’t stayed in touch. At 6pm the curfew would start and they would shoot to kill. Many people died like that. I have two children: Sasha is 19, and Anton is 9. The youngest was always afraid. He kept asking: mom, when are we going to finally leave? There was no reception, and we didn’t know if there would be safe passages of some kind.

I covered up my child’s eyes because there were corpses around

They took Mariupol intersection by intersection. One scary morning we were “reconquered” (their word). There was a bad shoot-out, and when we woke up, we saw that the street was patrolled by the soldiers from DNR, not Russians. It was on March 17th. I told my husband: I will go ask about the evacuation. What will they do to me?

One intersection was destroyed by an aviation bomb, and the four of them were on the next one. The patrolled the destroyed houses in fours. They said: don’t worry, it’s all calm here now; we’ve got you and will protect you
I left the house; they saw me and started shouting from afar: put on a white armband, then come closer. I went back, put on the armband, and then me and Anya’s mom (Anya is the girlfriend of Sasha, my older son), so we went: two unarmed women. One intersection was destroyed by an aviation bomb, and the four of them were on the next one. The patrolled the destroyed houses in fours. They said: don’t worry, it’s all calm here now; we’ve got you and will protect you.

I asked: may I ask, why did you come here?!

And one of the DNR soldiers answered. He was the most normal one. Two of his buddies looked like drug users. So, here is the direct quote, or close to it: what can I say? I live on the outskirts of Donetsk. I was conscripted, and my wife and child stayed home. I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to come here, but there was no choice. Otherwise it would be the tribunal and jail.

Probably not everyone is like that, but I am talking about a guy I talked to myself. We asked him about the evacuation too. He said: not today, but tomorrow you can go. Escaping to somewhere… My sister lives in Taganrog, and we took a very long circular way to get from her to Israel through Poland.

Next day we went again to find out about the evacuation, because we didn’t want to drag a 9 year old boy and a 78 year old woman (Anya’s grandma) through destroyed streets with corpses, over burned out houses all for nothing. They said that there would be buses. To where? To Russia, no details.

On March 19 we packed the backpacks: water, leftover food, and extra shirt for the child. We had four people in our family, Anya, her parents, grandmother, and three of her father’s sisters, altogether 10 people. There was a patrol on every intersection, and we had to come up to every one and tell where we were going. It was a total nightmare: roads were blocked, the sidewalks were impassable; I covered up my child’s eyes because there were corpses around.

They took us to Russia, didn’t even name the city

We walked 10 km from our house to the checkpoint in Staryy Krym, where the buses were waiting by the gas station. One of these buses took us. They said we were going to Russia, didn’t even name the city. Once we were closer to the border, we got reception, and I called my sister in Taganrog to let her know that we were en route.

The children haven’t seen bread in three weeks. When we came to Volodarskoye, we spent the night in the musical school, and they gave us some porridge and bread. My younger son grabbed a piece: bread! He ate a small bit and said: I will take it with me and finish it later
We were going through occupied territory: there were DNR checkpoints everywhere, and a soldier in each bus. Another soldier would come in and check things, but they didn’t hold us for too long, since these were their buses. But those who left after went through very long filtration. At that point Mariupol had not been fully occupied, although the center of the city and the west part were under Russians, and they decided to quickly move people out.

The children haven’t seen bread in three weeks. When we came to Volodarskoye, we spent the night in the musical school, and they gave us some porridge and bread. My younger son grabbed a piece: bread! He ate a small bit and said: I will take it with me and finish it later.

We were stuck at the border between Ukraine and Russia for 3 hours. They interrogated us: who are you? where are you from? who was shooting? who do you support? what have you seen? They checked the phones of my husband and son. When I saw that people with phones were led away, I deleted all photos, and I had a lot: destroyed buildings, corpses, broken equipment.

Anton and I had fevers, so we stayed on the bus. They just asked who was shooting, and I said that I didn’t see. It’s useless to try and prove anything. I said, we lived in the residential neighborhood; we were hiding. And my husband managed to say that everyone was shooting, and it delayed things for him. They kept him for ten hours: why did you think it was Russia? We came to protect you, and all that. They asked why we don’t want to go further, where we are headed. We said we were going to my sister. Will she take all of you? Yes.

Anyway, we came at 9 am and only came out to see my sister at 5 pm. She met us at the border and brought two cars. And guess where our bus went - to Astrakhan’.

Taganrog is Mariupol 20 years ago

Once in Taganrog, we washed up and went to the city for a little walk. Even though we lived in a house, we almost never went outside because of the shellings. The kid stayed inside, like in a burrow. He knew how to fall down if the shelling started. We let him out for five minutes per day.

Taganrog

Photo: Wikipedia
So we really wanted to go for a stroll. And my husband said: let’s go get some coffee. And I have to say that Taganrog is like Mariupol twenty years ago: potholes in the roads, newspapers being sold off street stands. We started looking for a coffee place and couldn’t find anything, even though my sister lives practically downtown. Anyway, everything was closed, and we only saw a coffee machine in one store. We gave the store assistant a large banknote (our sister gave it to us), and she had no change for it. I finally talked her into making the coffee, please, we had such a long drive. She asked where we came from, and I said: from Mariupol. Her eyes got big: is it true that you had secret labs there? She looked about 50, and she admitted that when she watched TV she could tell that it was all nonsense, but then started believing it…

My sister works in the law enforcement as a bailiff, and she understands what’s what. She says, if she ever gets conscripted, she’ll pack a backpack, grab her son and off she’ll go.

Generally, everyone we talked to in Russia mostly understood things. Some admit that they are ashamed. Although many people we know, even our friends who left in 2014, believe that Ukraine is at fault. They are from Mariupol and live in Novosibirsk right now: husband, wife, and three kids. The husband’s parents stayed in Mariupol and lived close to us. On the 19th, before the evacuation, Sergey and Sasha went to them, to tell them about the evacuation. They saw a destroyed house: a direct hit. The father was killed; the mother had a contusion. The old lady was unconscious; she couldn’t be evacuated. Once we were in Russia, we got in touch with Novosibirck and let them know what happened. They managed to get her out through some emergency service folks they knew from Donetsk. But even now they don’t blame Russia at all. I wrote that the aviation is killing people. The fighter planes fly at night so your ears get clogged, but no, they say Russia can’t be bombing cities, it just can’t be so. We’ve known each other forever, always trusted each other, but now - complete disbelief…

We never planned to take money from those shooting at us

My husband suggested spending a few more days in Taganrog, but I just couldn’t. Part of Anya’s family went to Georgia and then to Spain.
And we went to Rostov, then took a train to St. Petersburg, and chose the safest bus route (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland), and didn’t risk going through Belarus.

I am still in touch with Mariupol. A client called and said that the rains are washing off the burials, and there is a terrible smell, especially in big apartment buildings, where they buried people in the yards, on flower beds, on sidewalks. There are graves everywhere and in some places you can see the half-decomposed bodies
We spent almost a full day at the border with Estonia; they made it very difficult to get to Europe. Why are we leaving Russia, why didn’t we take the subsidy from Putin (10000 roubles per person) etc, etc. My sister’s advice was not to take the subsidy to avoid issues at the border crossing. And we never planned to take money from those shooting at us.

But at the border they still tried to find out who shot at us, why we don’t want to stay… At the customs building Anton just fell asleep standing up and leaning against me. I tried to wake him, and he started crying. We were both feverish: mine around 40C, his 38.5C. We got really bad colds at the basement. I told her: ma’am, please, could you at least let the child through, so he could take a seat? And I hear: wait, I interrogate him first and then you can go. I tried to argue: but he is asleep. She raised her head: yes, he is asleep. So wake him up. And started asking him: where are you going? To Poland. I taught him to say that he is going to his mother’s sister, even though I just have a friend there. According to the tickets our final destination was Warsaw. The customs’ officer kept asking: and what’s the sister’s name? maybe, you could go back? My son said: I don’t know, it’s up to the parents to decide. It’s just bullying.

Haven’t found my place under the sun yet

Before that we talked to the staff from Kyiv's Jewish Agency, so they waited for us in Warsaw. I have to say, the folks from the Jewish Agency were really helpful, especially the head of the St. Petersburg office, who met us in Warsaw. And all their employees supported us as much as possible. They tried to help as best they could. We didn’t have any clothes, so they brought us some, so we could be dressed for the weather. They also offered advice and just kind words. That was the end of the tough part. In Poland we went through the consulate check and flew here.

We lived in a hotel for three weeks, then rented an apartment, and started a new life. The people here are kind and open. One young family helped us a lot: with document translation and looking for a place to live. But if we are talking about bureaucracy, Ukraine was easier. I am trying to find out if I can start a bakery business here. I knocked on all doors, tried everything, but it’s very complicated here. While we were in Warsaw, we talked to the representatives from Jerusalem, and they all promised to help. When we came here, it was all yes-yes-yes. We flew on the same plane as the Minister for absorption, and I personally talked to Pnina. She said I could get a loan etc. But nothing is moving along… I am studying Hebrew; I need to know the language I will use for business. For now I got a job in a private daycare.

I am still in touch with Mariupol. A client called and said that the rains are washing off the burials, and there is a terrible smell, especially in big apartment buildings, where they buried people in the yards, on flower beds, on sidewalks. There are graves everywhere and in some places you can see the half-decomposed bodies.

I am 43 years old, and when you live in your city, you know a lot of people by this age; your social circle is wide, but I haven’t found my place under the sun here yet. But if you give me a call in a couple of years, I hope to have a different answer.

In Israel after a year
The testimony was chronicled on March 11, 2022

Translation: Dr. Mariya Gyendina