Opinion: The fugitives from Mariupol speak of “hell on earth” 2022-04-28 08:26:29

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At one point, the explosions got so bad that 59-year-old Halina ran downstairs every time she added another ingredient to the pot. “Add carrots – run downstairs, add potatoes – run downstairs,” she told me last week in a hospital in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine that has become a sort of safe haven in the country.

Here is where Halina and her daughter Natalia, 37, are being treated for the catastrophic wounds they suffered when an explosion hit their ward later that day.

“March 15 was a black day,” said Halina. As the bombing worsened, Natalia finally persuaded her mother and stepfather Andrey to flee. They were meeting in a room on the second floor, to discuss evacuation plans, when the attack occurred.

Helena said she heard a sizzle. Her ears started ringing, she was in a daze. Next thing I knew, her face was bleeding and she could feel the right side of her body burning. She saw Andrey beside her, he was frantically digging among the rubble, dust and shards of glass. Natalia was buried under it, only her foot protruding from it.

Natalia lost her right eye. She also suffered a fractured skull and a broken jaw. The young woman had a broken arm and several deep wounds on her face. Her mother was also seriously injured. She showed me deep, unhealed wounds all over her right side, thigh, knee and ankle.

Natalia, in a Lviv hospital with her husband Andrey, lost her right eye during an attack in Mariupol in mid-March.

There were two other people with them in the room at that time. Both were killed. The sons of Natalia Maxim, 5, and Edward, 19, were in the basement during the attack and were unharmed.

Mariupol, located on the northern coast of the Sea of ​​Azov, has been under relentless attack by Russian troops since early March. Civilians who fled Mariupol described it as hell on earth; It was once a beautiful city damaged beyond recognition, its buildings blackened and destroyed by constant Russian shelling and bombardment, and its streets littered with corpses, rubble and shrapnel from shells.

She is not alone. As a Human Rights Watch researcher, I have spoken to dozens of people who have fled bombing and shelling in many towns and cities in Ukraine. I have spoken with people who feared for their lives, who simply wanted to find safety for themselves and their children, and who told me of the unspeakable violence they witnessed during this war.

Mother and daughter Helena and Natalia at a birthday party in Mariupol, May 2021.

Like countless other people in Ukraine, within weeks, the Halina family lost their home and everything they had. They almost lost their lives.

With no electricity or gas since early March, people in Mariupol began cooking over open fires near the entrances to their buildings. That’s why, on the day of the attack, Helena told me she was cooking the soup outside, in a huge 30 liter pot.

Among the people Helena was taking care of in the dormitory, there were at least 50 children and many elderly people who weren’t able to move much. Natalia had been trying to get Helena to escape for weeks, but was reluctant because she felt guilty leaving behind people who had no cars or other means of travel. “I felt responsible for them,” she said.

After the explosion in the dormitory, Halina and Natalia were taken to Mariupol Hospital No. 3. It was a terrifying sight, dark and practically deserted, and pools of blood on the floor. Most of the doctors and other medical staff fled. The doctor who stitched up the wounds on Helena’s face kept pleading with her to hold still amid an acute shortage of painkillers. She said the pain was unbearable, but she knew it was worse for her daughter.

The family spent 36 hours in the hospital, and Halina was asleep on a bench in the hallway, while the bombing continued. There were no doctors or nurses to change the bandages on their wounds.

Two days later, on March 17, the whole family got into Andrey’s car—bullet-holes but still running—to the city exit.

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Halina said they passed about 20 Russian checkpoints. At one of the checkpoints, a Russian soldier looked at their wounded faces and asked: Who did this to you?

“I really wanted to respond,” Helena said to me, “I did! “But it’s really better to keep your mouth shut when you’re dealing with a man with a gun.”

Russian troops manning the checkpoints told the family that they could only go to the nearby city of Berdyansk on the southeast coast, currently occupied by Russian troops. But the family was determined to stay in the territory controlled by Ukraine and thus risked a detour to reach the city of Zaporizhzhya. After receiving immediate medical help there, the family took a train across the country to Lviv, to get more care.

Despite this, many other people did not have this option. People who recently fled Mariupol told me that Russian forces gave the residents no choice but to go to Russia or Russian-controlled territories.

Only those who have their own cars or enough cash with them to access alternative transportation can get to other parts of Ukraine, often through dangerous escape routes. It seems that many residents of Mariupol ended up in Russia – against their will and With no way to leave. According to city officials, approximately 120,000 others are still in Mariupol, but the exact number cannot be verified.

In Lviv, Natalia spent days in intensive care and just started eating on her own. You will need an artificial eye. She said that Halina was in constant pain, but that all she was worried about now was her daughter.

When my colleague and I were leaving the hospital, I saw Maxim wandering the empty halls of the hospital. He stopped to stare at me, smiled, then lost interest and ran away.

Natalia and Andrey said that they did not want Maxim to experience war in his life. When they were still in Mariupol, they desperately tried to protect him, explaining that the loud explosions were just fireworks.

He asked: How does that happen during the day? Why can’t I see them? We told him the Russians came and set off fireworks and we convinced him for two weeks and then he realized those were bombs and tanks but he was very brave.”

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