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.
They made leaving Russia very difficult for us; they even interrogated the child
Svetlana Agantseva, owner of a real estate agency and a vegan sweets shop
Destructions in Mariupol

Photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, Wikipedia

On the 24th, very early in the morning, I woke up to the sound of explosions, looked at my phone and… understood everything. In 2014 something similar started up, but in the end the war spared Mariupol except for one neighborhood where there was a 10 minute shelling. That’s why we decided that the city could be protected and we didn’t even think of evacuating.

Three nearby houses and a school were blown clear away

That being said, on March 2nd the reception was lost, 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 dr essed on a mattress in the kitchen. Approximately on March 12at night 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 clear away. There was a huge crater, about 12 meters in diameter and 8 meters deep. By a miracle 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 the containers in the yard, the summer shower etc. So we solved this problem, while many people had to melt the snow.

During the day we cooked on a grill. I made a kind of flatbreads, porridge: we cut down the size of 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 against the backdrop of constant shelling, flying rockets, shooting tanks, working mortars, mines exploding in the yards… 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 plugged, like what happens when a plane is landing and it felt like there was water in them. There were no Ukrainian soldiers around. The area was all residential and still . I just mean to show who it was doing the attacking and doing the shooting.

Our son’s friend lived five minutes away in a high- rise 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 clients 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. The husband was taken to the 4th hospital, and he died there, but the children to this day haven’t been able to retrieve 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 was 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’ll 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. They 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. They 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 find out 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 addicts. 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 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 if there was an 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 away. They said we were going to Russia; they 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 later would got 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 the Russians, and they decided to quickly move people out.

The children hadn’t seen bread in three weeks.

When we came to Volodarskoye, we spent the night in a music 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 8 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 being 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 dragged things out 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. Anton stayed inside, like in a burrow. He knew how to get down if the shelling started. We let him go out for five minutes per day.


Photo: Wikipedia

So Ieally wanted to go for a walk. And my husband said: let’s go get some coffee. Now 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. I gave the store assistant a large banknote (my sister gave it to us), and she had no change for it. I finally talked her into making some 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 for the authorities 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. Nevertheless 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 suffered contusions. The old lady was unconscious; she couldn’t be evacuated. Once we were in Russia, we got in touch with Novosibirck and let our friends know what happened. They managed to get the mother out through some emergency service folks they knew from Donetsk. But even now they don’t blame Russia at all. I wrote that aircraft was killing people.

Fighter planes were flying at night so hard that your ears get plugged 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 on their part…

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 onward(Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland), not risking 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 for us to get into Europe. Why were 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 did plan 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 both had fevers mine around 40C, his 38.5C. We caught really bad colds at the basement. I said to her: "Ma’am, please, could you at least let the child through, so he could sit downt? And I hear: “Wait, first I interrogate him f 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 she started questioning 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 interrogating: “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 was just bullying.

Until I find my place under the sun

Before all that, we had talked to the staff from Kyiv Sokhnut, so they were waiting 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, it was simpler in Ukraine. I am trying to find out if I can start a confectionery 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 the time being, 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 high-rise apartment buildings, where they buried people in the yards, in 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, by this age you know a lot of people 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