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I escaped from Mariupol – a city that no longer exists

By Olga Shults, Food Security and Livelihoods Program Manager, Save the Children

Mariupol was a beautiful city before the war. Now I want to feel at home again, but not in Mariupol, because unfortunately that is in the past, writes Olga Shults.

Mariupol was a beautiful city before the war, and I worked to improve it day by day.

As an economist for the city council, I was in charge of a major road reconstruction project and in charge of bringing more funding to the city, such as government grants, so that it could develop.

My colleagues and I were so confident that the war was not going to escalate – it couldn’t happen in a normal world.

On February 23, we were sitting in the office and joking: what were we going to do if the city came under siege?

Things quickly got out of hand

The next morning my husband and I were awakened at 5am by explosions. But this was Mariupol — we were 40 kilometers from the front line in eastern Ukraine, and you could hear explosions from time to time.

Even though it was very noisy outside, my husband still went to work. I went back to bed but couldn’t fall asleep.

Within half an hour my mother called me in tears and told me that Kyiv was being bombed. I couldn’t believe it; it could not be so.

I started calling my friends in Kyiv, but no one picked up. At that moment, I realized that nothing good was going to happen.

I started thinking about how much food I had, and at 7:30 am I was in the store buying produce. It was then that I noticed that the situation was spiraling out of control. People were getting anxious.

However, we decided to stay. We had moved into our new home two months before and were hesitant to leave.

Moreover, it was almost impossible to leave Mariupol from February 26 because people were turned away at checkpoints – it was too dangerous to escape. So we took my husband’s mother and sister to my house, where we all stayed.

We’ve been sent back to the stone age

At first, unlike many other families in Mariupol, we had enough food to go on. But then, on March 2, the city returned to the Stone Age because everything was cut off – electricity, internet connection, water.

That morning, all the stores were looted, and there was virtually nowhere to get supplies.

The bombardments intensified day by day. We lived in the basement, where we woke up to the sound of explosions. It usually started at 6am – we could set the clock to suit that.

We heard up to seven explosions at any one time – bombs, mines, artillery shells and missiles gave us no respite.

We tried not to come out of the house at all because we heard rumors of people being killed all the time. Going out, each trip could be the last.

The whole town in flames

I remember the night our street was first bombed – a house 100 yards away burned to the ground – we never knew if there were still people there. But we realized that we had to escape and save ourselves no matter what.

Thus, on March 21, 11 cars, including ours, fled the city. As we were queuing at the checkpoint on our way out of Mariupol, we saw that the city was on fire.

From above I saw the whole city burning, literally every building. It turned out that there were over 2,000 houses destroyed, and all the destruction happened in the month we were there.

We walked through the checkpoint and there were dead bodies everywhere. People who have been killed. On the road, on the sidewalk, in burnt out cars; covered or not, buried or not, cut down.

We were driving through a maze of bodies, a nightmarish driving test.

Constant checkpoints and damaged roads took us about two full days to reach Zaporizhzia, which was only 200 km away.

something to cling to

Over the next two months we stayed in different cities and finally ended up living in Kyiv.

After exactly 21 days in Mariupol, sleeping in a basement with no utilities, I was sure we had done the right thing, having left because we had left hell.

No regrets, but I needed something to hold on to, some kind of goal to work towards.

I didn’t have a job, but one sleepless night I realized I wanted to work for an organization that helped me.

I have always believed that children are our future. All children are in difficulty because of war, and children are the least protected.

When you see these families and children that Save the Children works with, and it’s something you’ve facilitated, it inspires you.

The war ruined everything

One day I want to have a son or daughter to take care of.

My husband and I had planned to have a baby in 2022, but the war ruined everything.

Now I want to be sure that I have a place where I can take refuge with my child and feel safe.

Maybe in a year or two I’ll change my mind. And I want to feel at home again, but not in Mariupol. Mariupol is the past. Unfortunately.

Olga Shults works as the Food Security and Livelihoods Program Manager for Save the Children Ukraine, developing an initiative in southern Ukraine that will support the economic recovery of war-affected parts of the country.

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