Story #76. Life During the Siege of Mariupol

March 15, 2023
The story of Maryna Holovnova, who managed to evacuate from Mariupol. #UkraineWorldTestimony

On March 8, Mariupol no longer had electricity, heating, communications, gas, or local government officials remaining representatives of local authorities (with a handful of very brave exceptions). Maryna Holovnova and her family slept in a windowless room and hoped that the two walls around them would protect them from Russian shells.

To be more precise, they almost did not sleep at all, because they could hardly breathe from the fear and cold. From the way, the shock waves shook the walls and furniture in their apartment and the hum of planes over the city. "The nights were the scariest for me. When I finally saw the light through the doorway, it became a little easier - it meant we had survived until morning," said Maryna.

After waking up the morning of March 8, Maryna spent 40 minutes trying to boil a pot of water on scrap wood near the door to her apartment building. It was -8℃ outside and snowing. At 8 am, as usual, Maryna's family went to the since-destroyed Mariupol Drama Theater to see their friends and learn at least some news. It was quite close, but on the way they had to take cover several times due to the threat of shelling.

The sirens in Mariupol were never turned on. Maryna heard them for the first time when she reached Zaporizhzhia on March 17.

"In Mariupol, we learned about the threat of an air raid from the sound of the Russian warplanes themselves. We hid and listened for the first bomb to fall, then the second, because the bombers would carry two of them. Then we waited a few more minutes in case the plane was not alone. If it was quiet, it was possible to go out and continue to do business. Even children knew this routine," Maryna said.

Near the drama theater, people stood for hours in the cold, waiting for information: what is happening in the country and in the city, and whether there will be a green evacuation corridor today or tomorrow.

In the afternoon, soldiers came to the theater and brought diapers, blankets, and cookies to the children from what they had managed to collect around the city. They also handed out leaflets with news. As always, they cheerfully told people about the situation on the front line: "We will beat them back soon, we are doing everything so that you all could leave."

A new friend of Maryna's family, who would soon save them, brought a bouquet of flowers. It was March 8, celebrated as Women's Day in Ukraine. "I held those flowers in my hands, and people were surprised. They came up and asked just to smell them. They didn't believe that the flowers were real, that there was still something of normal life left in this seemingly forgotten city," recalls Maryna. Later, the police also came to the Drama Theater. A man asked one of them what he should do with his neighbor's dead body. She had gone out into her building's courtyard to warm up food when a shell fell nearby and tore her to pieces. He had put her remains in a bag and took them to a garage.

There was no news about a green corridor that day, so Maryna and her family went back home. They said goodbye to their friends until tomorrow. "Every time I thought that we so easily promised to see each other tomorrow, but there is still half a day and a night ahead, and who knows where the Russians would drop another bomb, and who will live to see that 'tomorrow,'" Holovnova said.

They had to have time to prepare something to eat before darkness and curfew began. There were several fireplaces near the children's playground, and pans, kettles, and pots stood on the refrigerator racks. Someone even brought out a bottle of champagne and plastic cups. It was March 8. There was only champagne for the women - the men just smiled and said kind words.

One of Maryna's neighbors suddenly said that his son was preparing a poem for the holiday in kindergarten and that it would be a pity if no one heard it. The boy climbed onto the highest horizontal bar in the middle of the courtyard. People gathered around and fell silent, and he began to recite the poem loudly and distinctly.

The poem was in Ukrainian, about his mother, spring, and flowers. The last line was about our beautiful Ukrainian home. Everyone stood in silence for a few more seconds, and then began to applaud. The boy was extremely proud of himself. Someone gave him a bit of scarce chocolate candy.

After March 8, the Russians began shelling the center of Mariupol almost non-stop. Shells hit neighboring houses, killing Maryna's neighbors and burning down their cars and apartments. Her family could no longer stay in their apartment on the fourth floor.

On March 15, they took their backpacks, food, and water to go find a new shelter. They went around the surrounding houses with basements. A man came out of one basement and told them that there was no more room there. He advised them to go to the Drama Theater, but every meter on all three floors and in the basement was already occupied. The volunteers had stopped letting new people in.

Maryna remembered about an industrial college nearby. It was a two-story building from the late 19th century with thick, dark brick walls.

"We went to check if people were hiding there. In the hall there were huge windows with wooden frames, some already without glass. We had to move from one end of the corridor to the other quickly, in order not to be hit by deadly shards of glass in the event of a close strike," Maryna said.

After walking around the building, it became clear that nobody had been inside since the beginning of the attack on Mariupol. For Maryna's family, it became the last shelter in Mariupol.

"We stayed there with our friends, taking a small room without windows under the stairs. It belonged to the cleaner. There was a half-empty can of instant coffee. It was such happiness! We made a fire in the courtyard, boiled water and allowed ourselves a cup of coffee each," Holovnova recalls.

At night, everyone was unbearably cold, and it was buzzing like never before. Nobody could sleep. Around 2 am, another bomb fell nearby, 200 meters from the college. The Russians hit the central department store on Myru Avenue.

The massive college building stood strong like a fortress. For the first time in many nights, the walls around Maryna did not shake, and this created at least an illusion of safety. However, the windows in the hall did not hold up, and glass fell from them onto the floor. In the morning, everything was covered with sharp glass shards.

The next day, the Russians dropped a 500-kilogram bomb on the Mariupol Drama Theater. The circle had closed. There were no safe places left. Fortunately, unlike some other residents of the city, Maryna and her family managed to leave for a safer place.

This material was prepared with financial support from the International Renaissance Foundation.