‘Life is like Russian roulette in Mariupol’

Mariupol (Credit: photo provided by Mariana Tsymbaliuk)

Stories of Ukrainian families fleeing the war come left, right, and centre this year, but one Ukrainian family had to do it twice. Tetiana first fled her home in Donetsk when it was occupied by Russian proxies in 2014. She rebuilt her life in Mariupol, but had to escape after the February invasion.


Before 2014, Tetiana Vovk lived in Donetsk. She had to leave the city after the invasion of Russian proxies. Eight years later, she fled the “Russian world” again – this time in Mariupol. There, she lived in a basement for almost a month with her family, which includes an eight-month-old daughter and eight-year-old son.

Russia dropped bombs on their street, tanks were firing near their apartment block, and the occupiers came to their home. Tetiana has explained how her family managed to survive and flee the horrors of Mariupol.

GS News: How did you manage to escape from the Russian soldiers? And what was it like to start life from scratch for the second time?

Tetiana Vovk: I was born in Donetsk. Until 2014, our whole family lived there. I am a teacher, my husband is a metallurgist (he worked at the Ilyich Metallurgical Plant and Azovstal in Mariupol). My mother and two sisters are teachers too, and my father is a military man.

In February 2014, when the war in Ukraine began, the so-called “DPR activists” came to Donetsk. We decided to leave the city. I, my six-month-old son, and two sisters went to Berdyansk (in the Zaporizhzhia region -ed.). We thought that we would be returning home, but after the escalation of hostilities, it became clear that there was no way back.

Tetiana and her children recently. (Credit: courtesy)

My mother stayed in Donetsk at first, but I eventually managed to evacuate her. My father could not immediately leave because of his parents, so he remained in the war-torn city for some time.

On our way to Berdyansk, we saw Russian tanks driving in our direction along with Russian television. The Russian soldiers were firing at civilians, but, by some heavenly miracle, we managed to stay alive. Had we died there, no one would have found us.

Later our family moved from Berdyansk to Mariupol, where we started rebuilding our lives.

GS News: What was life like in Mariupol for those eight years?

TV: The Donetsk regional administration, many higher educational institutions, military and law enforcement agencies moved to Mariupol when the war started. The city blossomed right before our eyes in those eight years: from a simple provincial town it turned into a wonderful industrial seaside city with a great infrastructure.

At first, settling in was difficult psychologically: there was no work, housing, social circle, friends, support groups, or any normalcy. The most difficult thing was that all the funds in our accounts were frozen, and we could not use them.

We lived in an apartment with no essentials like furniture and kitchenware. Over time, we managed to find work, and life began to improve.

GS News: Russian proxies failed to capture Mariupol in 2014, and the city remained under the control of the Ukrainian government. But the war carried on. Were you scared to be in Mariupol? Why didn't you go further west?

TV: We have elderly grandparents in Donetsk, 85 at that time. We took care of them. Had we gone further, it would have been trickier to take care of them. The scary thing about the last eight years is that people got used to shelling. Life went on despite the fact that fighting could escalate nearby.

GS News: How did the people of Mariupol react to the January media coverage of Russia’s deployment of troops at the border with Ukraine?

TV: We knew that the war could escalate, but we could not predict the scale of the Russian invasion. We thought that they would shoot for a bit and then calm down. We could not foresee Russians dropping bombs on cities and civilians. You can shelter from Grad rocket launchers and the like, but there’s no escaping air strikes and guided missiles. Those can destroy everything and everyone.

GS News: Describe your day on 24 February, when Russia launched the all-out mass-scale military invasion of Ukraine.

TV: At 5:30 a.m, my mother rang and said: "Tatiana, get up and wake the children – there’s a war!!!"

For the first few seconds I didn't understand what she was talking about. And then I heard loud explosions. We lived just outside the Ilyich plant, 5 kilometres away from the Azovstal steel plant. I grabbed my documents, my eight-month-old daughter and eight-year-old son, and we went to my mother’s place. She lived in the city centre, which has bomb shelters.

And so our eight-strong family: my husband, myself, two little children, two sisters and their husbands, and my mother stayed in a basement for almost a month. The city has had no electricity, gas, or water since 27 February.

Pharmacies and grocery stores were already empty. Some queues for food and water took six hours, sometimes under shelling. One Russian missile hit the supermarket where the soldiers collected food and distributed it to the locals. Despite this, we did not truly understand how terrifying our situation was.

From 9 March onwards, Mariupol resembled a ghost town. The aircrafts continuously dropped bombs on the city and its people. Shelling from Grads and Smerchs followed, and then attacks from tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. Russia brought all the equipment they had at the time on the ground. The city was being flattened.

A missile hit my sister's house, causing its complete burndown. Fortunately they survived. Constant shelling, smoke, shrapnel, glass and splinters in the air, and plaster falling through the ceilings became reality.

Twenty-four tanks were stationed near our house. We thought that if they were to kill us, it’d be better to die together. At least no one would have to watch [others dying]. Explosions happened every 15 minutes. Our children did not even leave the basements. My eight-year-old son kept asking me: "Mom, will I live?" He turned grey from what he experienced and saw.

The most difficult thing for him was to write his contacts and information on a badge. I told my son that if something was to happen to us, he needed to take his sister Victoria and ask people to help them.

We lived life one day at a time. We realised that we needed to escape, but we were in an information vacuum with no communication or internet. We did not understand what was happening. Meanwhile, the Russians were spreading information that Kyiv was no longer there, and neither was the rest of Ukraine.

16 March was the hardest day because a missile landed on our street. I was there with some other people. We fell to the ground and when we got up, we could not see anything. There was silence. At first I thought: “Maybe I’m dead already?” We all survived. Our neighbours from the same street, an entire family, were killed by a direct hit of a missile on their house. Three houses survived the blow, but many corpses were scattered around.

A destroyed building in Mariupol. (Credit: courtesy)

The military personnel of the Russian Federation lived on our street. They behaved horribly. The occupiers cleaned out the area – looking for Ukrainian soldiers in the village, houses to camp in, or things that could be stolen. Our neighbour gave his car to the Ukrainian military to escape. And can you imagine? Later these soldiers returned the car!

GS News: How did you manage to escape from Mariupol?

TV: One day, when Russia was changing its deployment, we managed to drive to Zaporizhzhia.

We passed 20 checkpoints. The Russians searched through everything – even baby diapers – and inspected phones.  The Chechen checkpoints were the worst. They held us for 40 minutes. I don't know how things would have turned out if it wasn't for the bottle of vodka that we took with us. Kadyrov’s men saw alcohol, forgot about everything and let us go. I realised that that was the value of human life for them: one bottle of vodka available in every store.

GS News: How was life for you in Zaporizhzhia?

TV: While driving, we saw two people, and we couldn’t believe that they were Ukrainian soldiers. We cried – even the men in our group cried. We couldn’t believe that we got out of that hell.

Life in Mariupol became a Russian roulette for the civilian population. In two weeks, the city was completely destroyed, turning into a city of the dead. But as long as the Azov unit remains there, it continues to be Ukraine!

We did not ask the Russians to come! Why did they decide that they could determine our fate and save us from something? Save us from what? They're saving us from survival… Many of our acquaintances died.

One friend died while hiding in the drama theatre, which Russia bombed (at least 600 civilians reportedly killed in this one attack -ed.). Another acquaintance died in a hospital, which was also bombed by the Russians. This is pure cruelty, it’s inhumane.

GS News: Russia says that it came to save the Russian speakers. Was the Russian language ever suppressed in Mariupol?

TV: This is nonsense. Nobody suppressed the rights of the Russian speakers. I speak Russian. I work in education, and I speak the state language at work. But with my family I speak Russian. If you went to the U.S. or some European country, you would communicate in their official language, but at home you can speak any language that is easier for you. It’s the same here.

This is an artificial conflict. For the entire 30 years of independence we were constantly confronted on this issue. We can speak both Ukrainian and Russian. I'm from Donetsk, and I speak Russian, but it doesn't mean that I don't like Ukraine. I love Ukraine, and I am Ukrainian. There are many IDPs from Donetsk and Luhansk in Mariupol, who consciously chose to stay in Ukraine. I am one of them – I am proud that I am from Donetsk and that I am Ukrainian. The language issue remains an apple of discord and reason for speculation. They say that they’re saving Russian speakers, but they did not save me from anything. They’re only destroying everything.

In the bomb shelter. (Credit: courtesy)

Because of Russia, I had to start life from scratch twice. Because they destroy the roots of our lives. Everything that we restored was destroyed again. There is no peace anywhere – even here in Ivano-Frankivsk. Russia is also bombing the west of Ukraine.

GS News: You escaped death twice. What helped you survive?

TV: Family. Had we not stayed together as a family, we wouldn't survive. One for all and all for one! I can't imagine surviving if I was alone. I had an incentive – these are my children!

When we lived in the basement, we banned ourselves from mourning and crying in front of the children. We took photos, and in no photo will you see us crying or looking sad. We are smiling in all of them. We thought that if we were found dead and someone looked at our photos – at least they would know that we had faith and did not give up.