In the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol, an eight-year-old boy writes and draws in his diary about his life sheltering from the war that has struck his family. At his side for several days, photographer Yevhen Sosnovsky photographed his notebook.
Sunday, 3 May. “I slept well, woke up, smiled, got up, and read my book until the 25th page. My grandfather is dead, I have a wound in my back, my skin is gone, my sister has injuries to the head and mom no longer has flesh in the arm and a hole in the leg.”
Monday, 4 May. “Grandma went looking for water and she came back. By the way, it’s almost my birthday. I am eight, my sister’s 15, my mum is 38 and needs a bandage. Two of my dogs died. So did my Grandma Halya and my favourite city, Mariupol.”
These lines were written by a school boy from Mariupol. He kept a diary for the entire two months he spent in a basement in Mariupol together with his mother, sister, and neighbours hiding from the bombing. Local artist and photographer, Yevhen Sosnovsky took pictures of the boy and the diary after living with the family in a basement for several days.
Sosnovsky managed to escape besieged Mariupol and published the photos he took of the boy and his diary on Facebook, alongside dozens of images he took of the widespread devastation following weeks of heavy bombardment by Russian forces.
We met with Sosnovsky who spoke about his 62 days in a city that’s no more, the young protagonist of his stories and the close scrapes with death they both experienced.
Sosnovsky asked not to name the boy who remains in Russia-occupied Mariupol with his family. The family is awaiting an opportunity to be evacuated to Ukraine-controlled territory.
‘A missile exploded and I was covered in ruins’
Every day in Mariupol presented dangers but among the most terrifying was on 15 March, when a missile exploded near him, Sosnovsky said. His mother-in-law, Maria Akymivna, lived on Metalurhiv Avenue, near the smashed Azovstal steelworks.
“We went [there] every day … She is in bad health and uses a wheelchair. We needed to feed her and look after her,” Sosnovsky explained. “We could see Azovstal being bombed from aircraft from our own yard. Missiles were flying over our heads. Some of them struck private buildings.”
One shelling attack happened as he was near a campfire. The missile flew over his head and landed in a neighbours’ garden behind the fence. Sosnovsky jumped into his veranda and a moment later another missile exploded just a metre away from him. The veranda was gone. The walls and kitchen cupboards were destroyed, and the windows shattered.
“I was covered in the ruins of my veranda and stones. I heard a scary sound, and I thought that that was probably it. I was on the floor, not hearing anything. Then I realised that I could move my hands and legs … I managed to get myself out of it. There was a cloud of yellow dust. I was deafened and felt like I was in a fog,” Sosnovsky recalled.
He then walked to the house where the boy with the diary lived with his parents and sister. The boy’s family already assumed Sosnovsky was dead. “As it turned out, I didn’t have a single cut on me,” he said.
A couple of days later, a missile struck the bathroom where they had all sought shelter from the attacks. Sosnovsky’s niece had a laceration with flesh hanging off her arm and a fountain of blood pouring out of her wounded leg.
The boy was severely cut on his back and a piece of flesh was sticking out – details that he describes in his diary. The boy’s muscles were so visible that you could “study anatomy by looking at them”, Sosnovsky recalled. The girl was struck in the head.
“I started looking for a doctor but there were none around. We had soldiers next to our buildings but they couldn’t help other than provide bandages and painkillers. Our neighbours gave us hydrogen peroxide and bandage cloth. My wife and I cleaned their wounds and stopped the blood flow. They were in a lot of pain. The boy’s wound kept dripping, and he couldn’t lie down. His mother could barely walk with the help of walking sticks. We changed their bandages on a daily basis,” Sosnovsky said.
On 20 March, another shelling attack started. Loud gunshots could be heard. Their apartment block was directly hit. A blaze broke out, and people started running in a panic.
“Someone offered to put out the fire but a couple of minutes later we saw a group of Chechens. They forced everyone out of their apartments,” Sosnovsky said. “We were among the first ones to be out because we lived on the first floor. The children and women were also kicked out despite their wounds. They didn’t let anyone get their belongings.”
Some of the residents of the building went to a neighbourhood further away, which was quieter. Sosnovsky and his neighbours went to the nearest apartment block and asked to use their basement. That area ended up being a fighting hotspot, but the basement was safer than a flat. The children handled the stress well, especially the boy with the diary. He joked and laughed despite the pain.
“He probably wanted to show that he was a real man,” Sosnovsky said.
The shelling attacks caused a lot of distress to the 90-year-old Maria Akymivna: she couldn’t fully grasp what was going on.
“The day after we were kicked out by the Chechens, I left the basement to have a look around. I realised that my apartment block was no longer there,” Sosnovsky remembered. “Black walls and empty window frames. We were left with virtually nothing.”
Sosnovsky didn’t know what happened to the family of his son whilst he was in the basement, and nor did they know about him. Two weeks later, he learnt that his son managed to flee.
After three attempts, they escaped
The residents tried to escape three times using the official evacuation buses announced by the Minister of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine. They would turn up to the departure point and stay there for the whole day but to no avail. Finally, they found a friend who agreed to take them to Tokmak, in the Zaporizhzhia region, west of Mariupol.
Mariupol had no electricity, and it was dangerous for Sosnovsky to go through Russian-controlled military checkpoints with hard drives and folders filled with his photographs.
“We spent three days in Tokmak. They welcomed us well and gave us food. On Shevchenka Street, there was a church that accepted IDPs and helped them escape. They formed columns of vehicles that would evacuate people who had no cars of their own,” Sosnovsky explained.
That was also the first time in a long time that he saw working light bulbs, could wash his hands under running water and take a warm shower. Even plain fresh bread tasted exquisite.
Sosnovsky was finally able to charge his devices and ring his friends. Two phone service operators were working in the area — two more than in Mariupol. Sosnovsky also managed to sift through his photo archives.
He reformatted the photos that the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and the likes would not be happy to see and hid his memory card. He got lucky. The road out of Tokmak took a whole day with a few stops at checkpoints. Younger men – who could serve as soldiers – were getting especially strict checks. Sosnovsky was spared. Only once was he asked to get out of his car and even then they didn’t check his phone.
“As we were being checked, an evacuation column of 60 buses passed by. They were sponsored by the United Nations. Only five of them were full, the rest were virtually empty. At the same time, we were not allowed to get close to the column. Around 2,000 people in Berdyansk were not permitted to board the buses because they didn’t pass Russia’s ‘filtration’ test,” Sosnovsky explained.
As soon as the photographer saw a Ukrainian checkpoint and the soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, it felt surreal. Their faces were different, and so was the way they treated people. The Ukrainian army was very welcoming, he said.
“At our checkpoints, nobody was being detained, no mobilisations to the army, and no intimidation, which was the case in Mariupol,” Sosnovsky noted. “I saw an eight-year-old boy saying: ‘Mum, look, a soldier waved at me!’ – he was so happy.”
The photographer says that his family then took a train from Zaporizhzhia to Kyiv, which is where he is now.
“I can finally work with my photo archives. I managed to preserve all of them, including a small number of photos from the past two months in Mariupol. A lot of my photography equipment burnt down but one camera survived, only slightly damaged by a shelling attack. My laptop made it too and, most importantly, all the photos!” Sosnovsky announced on Facebook.
No more information reached the photographer about the fate of the young boy’s family.