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Sometimes the shelling got so bad we had to burn fires inside the lobby
Yuri Dorochov, sports journalist
Mariupol. The war
On the 24th I was waiting for my friend to visit from Israel (he repatriated last year). He was supposed to leave at 5AM, but at 4:30 I got a text saying that the flight was canceled, and at the same time he texted me that a war broke out in Ukraine. That woke me up for sure. I gathered all the documents, and my emergency suitcase. After Putin recognized the L/DPR, I knew that the inevitable was coming, but I thought it would be only in Donbass.

By the time we left Mariupol, my wife and I had about a pint of water for the two of us

I remember feeling lost and scared at first, scared of uncertainty. Hope for a diplomatic solution was quickly dwindling, replaced by desperation. We stayed in the apartment until March 4th, we barricaded the doors and reinforced windows with tape. But our neighborhood got shelled a lot, some of the nearby houses got hit, the windows were shuddering, I realized that they were going to break any moment, and down to the basement we went. We lived in a big building with 8 segments, so there were about 200 people in the basement, some of them from different buildings, many of them with children and pets. There was one old lady who couldn’t move by herself, she was 97.

Residential building after shelling
We were lucky, the basement was fortified and separated into compartments, like a train, branching into corridors with little rooms in them.

People were trying to set up a home: somebody brought a sofa, a table, hung some curtains, kerosene lamps, flashlights, candles. We were only sleeping there at first, but when they sent bomber planes, (around March 8th), we stayed put for three days. There was no power, and after the bomb blast knocked out all the windows together with frames, it became impossible to live in our apartment.

We slept in our street clothing, wrapped ourselves in throws and blankets, huddled together. Our feet were constantly cold. Some found solace in drinking, playing cards, and cheering each other up. We even joked around, our mental state was mobilized against panic.
But the little children cried when bombs hit, everything was shaking and dust rose with every explosion.

Fortunately, we had some stores of food left — we went shopping the first day, and some store owners opened their doors — under military supervision — and let people take anything except liquor. But we still tried to eat sparingly, we didn’t know when the situation was going to get back to normal. Our neighbors gave us hot food at least once a day. When the stores started to dwindle, we went to a nearby bakery, got a few bags of flour and used it for pancakes. I think most people from Mariupol have stories like this.

It was tougher to get water. We rationed drinking water, trying to get rainwater to boil and cook with. We found a boiler at the same bakery and salvaged about 100 liters (26 gallons) of technical water.

By the time we left Mariupol on March 20th, my wife and I had about a pint of water for the two of us. That was one of the reasons we decided to evacuate.

Four out of eight segments of our building burned down completely

Sometimes the shelling got so hard that we had to burn fires in the building lobbies. And even that didn’t guarantee safety. There was a young lad, lived in the same basement with us, he went to the lobby to make some tea and something flew into the building, his arm got pierced through with shards. Another guy who went with him was also hit in the leg and got a concussion. My brother-in-law’s dad died, I don’t know how exactly, my brother-in-law just came to check on him and found his body in the lobby.

Speaking of, there were many wounded people in our basement. The day of the first air raid a woman came out to walk her dog — got hit in the head with a piece of shrapnel, they said she won’t last the night. She lasted about a week, then her daughter took her away to the closest hospital, but I don’t know what happened to her after.

We live close to a bus station — that was the direction they attacked from. Four out of eight segments of our building burned down completely. The building across from us, 19 Kuprina St., burned down completely, it was all black, the roof collapsed, it was a direct bomb hit. There was a kindergarten close by, but it got bombed in the second half of March. A hospital about a kilometer away from us got hit a couple times. By the time we escaped the city, the DPR troops were stationed there.

After our district was leveled by the shelling and the bombing, the infantry moved in, a few tanks stopped in our yard. We came out to them, asked them not to shoot, told them we were all civilians here. They didn’t look like Russians, I gather they were DPR or LPR conscripts.

One day there was a rumor that at the fire station the Russian soldiers were giving out water and some humanitarian aid. We came there but it was not humanitarian aid but supplies they took from the AFU detachment that held it before. The Russians were ruder than the DPR, they mocked us, telling us all our defenders surrendered.

We didn’t need any liberation from anyone. We lived in Mariupol as free citizens, we spoke Russian freely, no Nazis of any kind ever bothered our Jewish community. Every Hanukkah they put a giant Hanukkah menorah on top of the Drama Theater
Most of my friends who were a bit sympathetic with Russia before, now hate it with a passion for all the suffereing the Russian Federation brought us since the war started. But some people remained pro-Russian until the end. I can’t bend my mind around it — they are bombing us, they are destroying residential areas, we are hiding in a basement - and some people keep praising the Russian World. Saying that it was all because of the AFU, it was the Nazis’ fault, we are being used for a human shield, etc. There was never any Ukrainian military equipment in our neighborhood, and they have blown it to smithereens anyway. I don’t know who directed their fire. There was a park right behind our building, and there was a huge crater, about thirty feet across, I haven’t seen anything like that even in movies.

We didn’t need any liberation from anyone

We didn’t need any liberation from anyone. We lived in Mariupol as free citizens, we spoke Russian freely, no Nazis of any kind ever bothered our Jewish community. Every Hanukkah they put a giant Hanukkah menorah on top of the Drama Theater.

On March 18th there was a rumor that there were buses to Berdyansk leaving from the blood transfusion station at the 17th District hospital. The morning of the 20th we, along with some of the neighbors, decided to go there because we were running out of provisions.

We barely fit into the bus, it was so full. The first cordon was right at the city limit, they wanted to look for tattoos on everybody. It was very cold outside, I remember shaking from the wind chill, but they told me to pull up my pant legs and show them my knees.

They got us only as far as Volodarsk — it’s right outside the city - and put us up in a school that they turned into a temporary refugee shelter. The phones still weren’t working, we didn’t know where my parents were, and whether they got out. Soon it was apparent that the buses to Berdyansk weren’t coming. But there was transportation available to Rostov, Russia. Many people decided to go there - it didn’t matter where to run anymore, as long as it was to safety. By the way, in Volodarsk you could hear the Grad missiles being launched towards Mariupol.

Since the phones weren’t working, we decided to go to my wife’s parents, who live in DPR, about 40 kilometers from Donetsk. Took us three days to find a guy who agreed to take us there for some cash. We spend a night in a refugee center on Dokuchaevsk, then we managed to get in touch with my wife’s parents and my father-in-law drove there the same day and picked us up. It was March 23rd.

We spent two weeks at their place, catching our breath. We did not tell too many people where we came from, but I was pleasantly surprised that people in general saw the situation adequately: they did not call war a specialized military operation, they did not say that they suffered for 8 years and we are moaning after 1 month. Just the opposite in fact; the said that they are 8 years fail in comparison to what happened in Mariupol when the whole city got leveled in one month's time. Of course they said those things very quietly: they remember that where they live they have to watch their tongues.

We were wondering if we would land in time for the first seder. We did. I thought then that our journey was very symbolic, that we kinda had an Exodus of our own.
Sitting in Tbilisi Airport, we were wondering if we would land in time for the first seder

Then we moved towards Russia, together with another Mariupol Jewish family, that of Maxim Shishlov, who was wounded during shelling. My in-laws drove us to the border, we walked across it, and on the other side there was a bus waiting for us, sent by the Jewish community of Rostov. We were shocked, in a good sense of the word, by how generous they were with both emotional and material support. They kept asking us if we needed something, anything - clothing, medicine, what not.

Many Russians also know what’s going on, but they are just sighing that they can’t do anything, can’t affect anything. If we mentioned that we got out of Mariupol - in the store, for example, — some people commiserated with us, but then added that everything is for the best, that the city will be rebuilt, and so on. I didn’t even argue with those. You can rebuild the city, can you bring back the people?

We went in a roundabout way, and came to Israel just before Passover. There were about 90 of us sitting in Tbilisi Airport, wondering if we would land in time for the first seder. We did. I thought then that our journey was very symbolic, that we kinda had an Exodus of our own.

When we landed, there were tears in my eyes. My parents arrived the day before — they got out through Moldova, we couldn’t get in touch with them. Turned out they took the bus towards Berdyansk before we did. People are still coming over - I keep seeing new faces in our hotel.

I am so grateful to our rabbi, Menahem-Mendel Cohen, he’s done so much for the community, and he keeps helping to evacuate people.

They received us so warmly here in Israel, the day we arrived, the Minister of Absorption herself came to our hotel. She spoke to everyone, asking how she could help. That made us feel so welcome.

But my memories still leave me shaking and shivering.

The testimony was chronicled on April 25, 2022

Translation: Vadim Baranovskiy