March 16, 2023.
Today, I decided to go into the hell of Mariupol. A few hours ago. A year ago. Because Yulia is alive and she is there, on the neighboring street, near the Drama Theater that was bombed today. She sent a note with someone that she is alive. She was. Before that fraternal megaton bomb that took the lives of half a thousand people under the theater.
I saw Yulia once in my life, but I know her husband well. He is the one who really helped me a few days ago when everything was fucked up… And his Yulia is alive. Maybe. In the Abyss.
I am now somewhere, about to spend the night with the volunteers who accept my «swallow» for the night on the way to Hell. Precious fuel in plastic containers, large packages with food, water. In the house where I was sheltered for the night, there is hot borscht and a kitty won’t come off me, warming me with its purring. I am so feverish that the tremors won’t let me hit the letters, downloading offline maps of Mariupol, mapping out the route, and monitoring all the public places in Mariupol that I found through the news. And there, in those public spaces, Hell is screaming and raging. Children are lost. People are dying and calling for help from under the rubble… if the «dashes» on the screen show that there is a connection.
But behind me, waiting for me are my son and Viiking who arrived from Sweden two days ago to pull me out of this ass where I’ve been for almost a month… But I must.
March 17, 2023.
Today, after waking up in the morning, I started getting ready for my journey through the war. Yesterday, all the film was peeled off the windows of my [car]. I read that the chances of being shot and killed while crossing the front line are reduced if the car looks like an observation aquarium. I divided the fuel into parts, stuffing one half into the car interior and the other one into the trunk. I was very afraid to burn alive with that field under my ass.
In order to gather at least a little courage, I joined a bunch of desperate volunteers who were going to Mariupol from Zaporizhzhia. I am guessing there were 11 cars in our group. We were scheduled to gather at 7 in the morning, but for whatever reason left at 9, waiting for someone.
We plastered the cars with the signs «Children» and «People,» and white flags were attached to sticks. I thought that we need to somehow hide the fuel and the food for Mariupol citizens. I met a man in that volunteer hub who advised me on where to get clothes. I gathered up women’s and children’s clothing, piling it up in a mound without hangers so that it would not be easy to pick it all out in cse the car was inspected. I think you understand why women’s and children’s. Noone needs it at the checkpoints.
That fellow put a piece of paper with an address into my hand. There, in Mariupol, was his daughter with three children—ages 4, 9, and 11, I think. Her husband was killed, shot by the russians. I put that piece of paper, along with one other, into my pocket. The other one, given to me by the volunteer at the place where I slept, was the address of a young doctor who stayed there with his mother who had trouble walking and his bed-ridden grandmother. I could fit four into my car (including myself). There were already six on those pieces of paper, and two spaces were already reserved for Yulia and her elderly father. I decided to think about that fucking hard choice later. The burned out frontline was waiting for me now. The moaning earth, hot and damaged…
When we finally left, my nerves were breaking down. I was cold and clear-thinking, like a machine. I remember the eyes of our soldiers at the final checkpoint. They were beastly. Frightening eyes They were looking for medicines, anyone taking medicine to the invaders. They could kill for the wrong movement of the arms…
The road on the frontline was filled with sinkholes and craters, covered with broken glass and pieces of twisted metal, boxes from ammunition, and remains of cars. Dozens of shot civilian vehicles, with abandoned sticks laying in the grass near some of them. A bright baby carriage, torn into pieces, which for some reason did not burn down completely, half falling out of the car that was missing a quarter of it. And next to that I thought there were bags. But I then realized those were not bags…
I was then completely focused on the road because a flat tire there meant death. Stopping meant death. A delay meant death. The drivers of the other cars in our column understood that as well. There were a few women with us, but the drivers were all men.
At one place, for some reason we got off the road tinto a field. That was probably necessary. And we got stuck at one of the field intersections, near someone’s farm or business. From behind the fence, people in camouflage uniform were coming at us like locusts. They started shaking the cars. On one, the inner lining of the door was ripped off. All the guys were stripped down to their underwear to check whether they had tattoos and what kind of tattoos they had. They searched the phone gallery, looked through social media, checked the documents. I got rid of Facebook and Messenger, but I still had two photos in the gallery of the neighbors' house in Kharkiv, which I took on the last trip, so what you see here… they got stuck on those photos but did not erase them.
At that intersection, I saw about 50 undamaged military vehicles and armor. Half of our convoy was detained, while the other half drove on because it was already approximately 3 o’clock, but there were still 100 km to Berdyansk. I was supposed to spend the night there with the volunteers and was carrying a canister of fuel for them. At that moment, I realized that I could leave the convoy. Because it is easier by yourself. Which is what I had done. By the way, that evening I marked that place on the map, clearly indicating where I had seen what equipment and where the buildings with special storage stood. I gave that to an acquaintance, then still a major, as well as to one other well-placed person that I knew. It was close to the frontline and I hoped that our artillery responded.
My hiding places worked; the russia
Somewhere, it seems, near Tokmak, was a big roundabout. Right in the middle was a huge cannon that was aiming in my direction. Near the cannon, «swamp men» [mens were too lazy to get the clothes out of the car, they just poked at them and touched them. But they took stuff out of the trunk. At one checkpoint, one «polite» russian saw the fuel, 20 liters in the canisters which were lying down. He asked what that was and I said that was for the way back. He took the canisters and started to carefully place them back, standing up, covering them with bundles of clothes. n in camouflage uniforms] stood in a circle. I was stopped and they began to search the car. When they saw a jeep and a woman behind the wheel, the eyes of one of them lit up with envy. Those were young and aggressive strongmen. They found a bag of food and took it, giggling. DIdn’t find the fuel. At that moment, a car with two pigs in the trailer drove by me. They started discussing whether the farmer chose two skinny pigs, that he is a parasite, and they will have a conversation with him in the evening… Asked me where I was going by myself.
— Mariupol. I felt like the wheel started to turn in their brains as they pondered the answer.
— Fucking shit. Unstoppable woman. Only the car is not for you. Where is the permit?
-We don’t need the permit, we are Ukrainians and can drive just like that.
— Just get in the car and drive?
— Fucking shit.
Near Berdyansk, I got stuck in an enormous traffic jam at a huge circle. Soldiers walked along the line, looking for men, ordering them to undress, and searching them. At every one of the hundreds of checkpoints that I drove through, men were stripped down to their underwear. An armed man came over to my car and asked if I had already taken the food. I asked:
— What food?
— Over there, on the truck.
People from the line carried some kind of canned food in large red cans, marked with a sickle and hammer. I did not go. When my turn came, I got out of the car and they began searching it again. I was taken to a «cube» made out of concrete planks, inside which a man in a camouflaged uniform sat behind a school desk. He took my passport, and licking his fingers unfolded a 96-page notebook, slowly tracing letters and writing down my information. I said I am only staying overnight and going to Mariupol tomorrow.
The queue ended after me, the curfew was starting, and all those people were left to sleep in their cars right in the line. I was the last one that they let into the city.
I really needed to pee. I was taken in by the volunteers. A pregnant woman, her husband, and her father. They cooked some kind of broth just for me. They had little food. The stores in Berdyansk were empty, people had no money. No fuel, no gas. But there was no shooting. For the first time in the month after the war began, my brain shut down to allow me to sleep for more than 15 minutes…
That family gave me one more paper with an address. Where the sister of the pregnant woman lived with her family: two boys and the husband. Four more. In total, 3 people for my 4-seat Jak. I decided to figure out that fucking difficult choice later. Wakeup time was scheduled for 5:45 in order to drive into Mariupol.
March 18, 2023.
I woke up today, just like a year ago, at 4 o’clock and spent 40 minutes staring at the ceiling and listening. After a month of non-stop missile attacks in Kharkiv, the total night silence in occupied Berdyansk terrified me even more. It seemed I forgot forever how to sleep and live in silence--without the sounds of sirens and bombs…
My body mobilized. I turned down coffee and breakfast, not knowing when there would be a chance to use the bathroom. Mariupol lay ahead. At that point, our defenders still controlled a large part of the city. Fierce street battle went on non-stop in the city center. That is exactly where I was headed to look for Yulia.
Having filled the tank to the brim, I relaxed a bit because I understood that there was nothing else to take from my car: the fuel was all inside and they were not going to look at the arrow on the dashboard. And if all goes well, I will have enough fuel to cross the front line back into Ukrainian-held territory. I said goodbye to the volunteers and took off.
I drove as fast as I could, the roads were completely empty, adrenalin was flowing out of my ears. At times, broken-down, empty civilian vehicles stood on the side of the road, with open doors and trunks. The road was heavily damaged by tanks. Two boys were walking towards me, pulling a suitcase on wheels. After a kilometer-another boy. He carried nothing, with hand in his pocket, somewhat carefree. He very much reminded me of my son.
Ahead, I saw a large checkpoint in the form of a UFO saucer and a crowd in camouflage uniform. There was noise in my temples. I was stopped and asked for documents.
— Irina Pavlavna, leave the car over there in the parking lot and you are free to go.
He looked at me like I was stupid.
— I am taking your car and you can go.
— But why?
— Because the car is not registered in your name, it’s a company car, and you are a private citizen and have no permit to drive it.
And that is where I made a mistake:
— But in Ukraine, we don’t need a permit to drive a car.
His face twisted:
— I said to the parking lot!
I drove over to the side of the road and got out of the car.
— I want to speak with your superior.
He huffed and silently went into the saucer building.
I was looking at the people standing around. I saw a woman with three children. Teenage girl of about 13, a boy of approximately 10, and a little girl in bright-pink, she looked about 4. They stood by the fence. The woman had a gloomy look on her face, with huge circles under her eyes. The children were quiet, the little girl was standing and looking nowhere, her face was impenetrable like a wax mask and without any emotions.
I telephoned Serhiy.
— They are taking away the car!
— Leave it. We’ll come up with something.
— What do you mean «leave it»? And how will I get out of here today? The child is waiting for me, friends, my Stetik and Viking!
Two people came out of the «UFO.» The one who stopped me pointed at me with his finger and went further down the lane to stop other cars. The second one walked over to me. He was calm and polite.
— We are confiscating all vehicles that do not belong to private individuals. Your car belongs to the company.
And that’s when I started to cry, sobbing greatly. Choking on my tears, I brought him over to the car, opened the trunk and the doors, and started taking things out, showing him what was inside.
— I have a sister there. with children… this is her car… they were inside the drama theater… those bitches threw a bomb on them… there are so many children there dying of cold as we speak-the clothes are for them… please…I need to get there… look, this is for infants… and that’s for women… I see that you are a decent person, that you understand… please, let me speak with your boss.
He started putting everything back in the car.
— Alright. Let’s go. He is over there, about to leave, hurry.
A boar was sitting in the car. His cheeks hung over his collar, and his belly pressed against the wheel. He was sorting through some papers and chewing on the eraser.
— What does she want?
— For us to let her go.
— What do you mean? She is free to go. Our orders are only for the car.
And then I started to cry again.
— I am not coming from there, I am going there. I am taking clothes for women and children. Those who are still alive in the Drama Theater after yesterday’s bomb. Please, let me through…
— Going there? Hmm. Okay, but keep in mind that you will leave your car here on the way back. It’s only one way from there so keep that in mind.
— Thank you, thank you.
The first one came from behind. Took my documents, stared at my name, and coming close to me, shouted in my face, emphasizing each syllable:
— You hear me, Pavlavna! Ukraine no longer exists! Ukraine died in 2014! Do-you-understand-me-Pavlavna?! REMEMBER! UKRAINE IS DEAD!
I stood there and silently looked into his fish eyes, calmly, without emotion. My head was pounding and I had only one thought: «I still have to get the people out.» He somewhat quickly expired and quietly returned my documents. I ran to the car, got in, and drove on.
Mariupol was 25 km away. There were no more checkpoints. I decided to not take the main road, but to go along the sea. That’s because cars appeared on the road and I started to hear the sounds of artillery. I thought it would make sense to enter the city from the side of the port. I suspected the russians were not destroying the port because they had more looting in their plans and taking away Azovstal and other businesses. They needed the port intact. And it worked.
Along the sea I felt quietness and wholeness. In the city, I drove 30 km an hour because I read in some publication that driving fast is a guarantee to have the car come under shelling.
I got lost. My hands shook so much that I let go of the phone, studying an offline map. An old Japanese car with two young guys inside flew out from around the corner. They stopped near me:
— How do we get out of here? Take us out, we will pay you!
— I don’t know, boys. You have a car so you can take other people out…
— Look, there is some car over there, let’s follow!
They hit the gas, catching up with the other car that quickly turned the corner, up a steep ascent. I finally found where I was on the map, counting the number of left and right turns, and drove on. All around me was silence. When I went up to the city (the pot in Mariupol is below), I saw… trees lying on the roadside… cut down and as if cut up by something big. Trolleybus cables in large tangles or loops hanging down and lying across the road, threatening to get entangled in the wheels of my car.
I opened the windows because I wanted to hear. It stunk very badly. Sometimes the smell was so bad that it stung the eyes. I saw a burned down trolleybus and a fire truck next to it. Also burned down. A person sat behind the wheel, or to be more exact, whatever remained of the person. There was something in the trolleybus too, but I couldn’t look, I felt sick.
Turning the corner, I drove a few blocks and saw several bent women who stood at the corner of the building. I asked where the turn onto a [name] street was. But they had no reaction as if I was a ghost. They looked at me but were not seeing me; they were looking through me. As if they got stuck in the texture. Like that 4-year-old girl in Mangush.
It turned out I made the right turn, and then another one, and started to look around. Last evening, I studied the photo of that street on google maps. I was looking at the color of the buildings and recognized the ones from that photo in the ruined facades and broken windows. Looks like I am here!
I parked amidst broken glass. Okay, so somewhere here there should be iron doors to the courtyard, with a handle like in the train compartment. Fuck! Here is that handle. I am here! I rant into the courtyard of a five-story building and got lost again. Where will I find Yulia?! And I started to scream. I was calling out her name again and again until my ears were ringing and bunnies jumped in my eyes.
— Yulia! Yulia! Yulia!
She quickly ran out from behind the bush by the other fence, which I somehow had not noticed at first, probably because of the nerves.
— I am Yulia. And who are you?
— I am Ira. You don’t remember me? I came to get you out.
— You… you are ours?
-Yes, I am. Look, I have something for you! With trembling hands, I opened the message and turned on the voice of her daughter who was asking her Mom to listen to me and do what I say. And then the voice of her husband who was saying the same thing…
And then, somewhere close, a Grad rocket flew. I knew that fucking sound very well-I am from Kharkiv. Yulia shouted for me to run after her. I slipped, fell to my knee, and started crawling, trying to get away from the roar all around me. There was only one thought in my head: «The car is fucked, the car is fucked, the car is fucked.»
I got up, ran into some door, went down and then up. Yulia was calling for her father. She got stuck in Mariupol at the beginning of the full-scale invasion because she had arrived from Kharkiv to take care of her ailing father. He was a famous structural engineer who once invented and designed a unique machine for the mining of iron ore. Those machines are still working in the mines.
The man came down from the second floor and told us that he won’t go anywhere… that he will stay. I turned on the audio for him as well. Because there was also a message there for him. He listened to it, but refused to go. Yuia hugged him, took her backpack from under the table, and said she was ready. It became quiet outside. I rant out onto the street, prepared to see the ruined car, But, fuck it, the car was undamaged! What happiness!!!
I ran to the car and started throwing clothes from the front seat on the ground to make space for Yulia. I felt horrible shame and guilt that these clothes won’t be given to anyone now but are simply thrown out on the street…
We got inside and I started the car. In the middle of the street, walking toward us, was a group of several guys of questionable appearance. One of them, spreading his arms and smiling, shouted something at us. I turned the way I know from motor sports (thanks Sensei Piton for the skill), and leaving those dudes behind, I sped down the street. I had to stop to let the adrenalin out. I was again moving toward the quiet port, I remembered the way. Yulia tried to calm me:
— Exhale, calmly inhale, and then exhale again.
After I parked, I took out of my pocket all the papers with people’s addresses and opened up the map. When I was first driving into the center, I noticed that the road leading to where the young doctor, his mother, and his bedridden grandmother lived was destroyed and had a huge crater. Houses destroyed, a ton of debris. The way around was through the Drama Theater. Exactly where Grad rockets were just roaring. Scolding myself, I put that address aside.
Fuck!!! Where is the address of Mom with three kids? Wher is that fucking piece of paper!!! I jumped out of the car and began feverishly searching under the seat and in my pockets. I shook everything out again and again and again… I lost it. Oh shit, I lost the address!!! Can you understand… the realization that I, with my own hands, may have killed all those people, has been eating me up for a year!
I had one last piece of paper, with the address of a family of four, and two spaces in the car. Yulia said she knows where that is. It wasn’t far. We left. The road was covered with garbage, broken pieces of bricks, and torn cables. There were burned down cars…
When we drove into the courtyard of a regular 5-story building, I saw people cooking food on the fire near the building. I told them that many volunteers had left for the city today, that they were going along such and such street, evacuating people (I knew the plans of the volunteers with whom I had left from Zaporizzha). But the people had no reaction.
Yulia ran, it seems, into the second entrance on the right side because she had the paper with the exact name and description in her hand. I started taking the clothes out of the car and piling them on the bench nearby. People started gathering, rummaging through, and choosing some of the things. And at that moment, I found the second package with food that the russians did not take away yesterday! And a package with water, the one from Sweden (I threw that huge package in the car at the last moment before coming here). One woman with crazy eyes started to grab the water and cans with food and stuffing them inside her shirt…
Another woman walked over to me, wrapped in a blanket. She was asking if she could go with us. She was crying, and tripping on her words, explained that she came to check on her mother, but a rocket hit their house and she got out. But now she is in the basement with complete strangers, doesn’t know anyone here at all… But I only had two seats! She still stood near me and cried.
Yulia returned with that entire family. I only remember the woman’s name-Alyona. I looked at all of them and realized that if we sat very very tightly, putting the tennagers on the lap, all five of them could get in. Even that woman wrapped in a blanket, I think her name was Luda. «Everyone is going,» I said.
We threw our bags quickly into the empty trunk and took off. All those people I came for had their bags packed, ready to go at a moment’s notice, even though they did not know that I was coming… At that moment, they lived by hope alone.
I decided to go along the sea again. I was trying to go along the sea for as long as I could in order to avoid that checkpoint and to not forfeitthe car. At the small checkpoint when leaving the city, my hands and knees began to shake again, knowing that there was no way we could afford to be left here without the car. People leaving the city by foot were walking along the road, many people, an endless line of people.
After sitting in traffic for about an hour, we reached the checkpoint. And what a miracle, those camouflaged men did not make our boys take off their clothes and didn’t give us trouble about the documents. What luck!!! They let us go! II All of us, even the men. We separated from the crowd, driving along the coast, while everyone else headed to Mangush, to the UFO.
We now had cell phone connection. Luda kept crying and calling people non-stop. And then my phone rang. Serhiy, Yulia’s husband. I gave the phone to her. It seemed like he had lost the ability to speak…
And then this only road ended. That’s it, no more. Only into the field. It seemed that we turned into the field, into fresh fields and sprouts of wheat. There were conversations going on in the back seat, the kids chirping. I found a few bags of nuts and apples. Luda said she hasn’t eaten in two days.
Some car caught up to me, then it stopped, angrily flashing its headlights. And started moving back. And then I saw the mines. I felt coldness in my chest, sweaty hands gripping the steering wheel. It turns out noone in the car had noticed. I yelled for them to be quiet because the noise irritated me and my adrenaline was already at the tipping point.
After about 7 to 10 kilometers, I noticed the main intersection, along which the cars were moving rather slowly. And I realized that we got out. I got an urge to use the bathroom. We stopped at the more or less trampled side of the road and I strictly instructed everyone to not walk away from the car for more than a meter, who knows what surprises could come from the bushes.
The internet came back and, looking at the map, I realized that we avoided Mangush and could safely return to the main road. A store was open in some small village and Luda bought herself soft cheese and something else. I called the volunteers whose family I was bringing out and asked where and when we could meet up. And I made them promise that they will take Luda to a rest home in Berdyansk where her friend was waiting for her. This is the photo of everyone I brought out of Mariupol…
I had to drive fast because I wanted to cross the front line as soon as possible, fearing that the window to leave will close. We stopped near the store in one village, I had to find something on the map. At that moment, there was a delivery of bread to the store. You know, those wooden pallets with evenly laid out fresh loaves. Yulia’s eyes widened:
«I must have that bread.» Loaves of regular gray bread in interesting triangular shapes. Delicious!
While I was waiting for Yulia to return from the store, I saw someone I recognized. The same carefree boy from Mriupol who reminded me of my son was walking along the road. How did he get here by foot? We started to move and I stopped near him because I saw he was trying to flag other cars. I decided to get him out of occupation as well.
That boy called his mother, they were from Kramatorsk. He was a student in Mariupol. His mother was crying on the phone and asking for my card so she could pay me.
— Why are you crying, Mom? Everything is okay. My friends are waiting for me in Zaporizhzhya, everything will be okay.
I decided to go back a different way than coming in because I read that there are ongoing battles under Orikhiv. A huge bridge over a cliff was bombed out in Vasylivka. We turned right. The reason why there and not to the left is because the road seemed more traveled. And I said a prayer once again.
The country road wound its way along the cliff, but I couldn’t see where to turn to drive along the bottom to the other side. There was a line of about 30 cars behind me, crawling like ants, and filled with people and children that were forever leaving their lives here. Fuck, dudes, why are you sticking to me when myself don’t know where I am going.
And then I saw a local boy of about 10 on a bicycle. I asked him if he knew how to get over to the other side:
— Of course I know. But there are mines there. I will show you how to get there, I rode there 100 times already!
And our whole column followed the little guide. When that boy was coming back, apples, candy, and cookies poured into his shirt from every car. He had such a satisfied look and I think I understood why he had been there 100 times already and that this was not an exaggeration.
On the bottom of the cliff, I saw small flags that marked mines. Ukrainian flags stuck into soft, fertile soil. I began to cry and I think Yulia did as well. Our soldiers were smiling at us and it seemed to me they were the most amazing men I had ever seen in my life.
After transferring our boy over to the volunteers so they could get him to where he was going, we rushed off to Dnipro. There, my son, my precious dobermann, friends, and Viking were all waiting for me… There was a long and important journey ahead of us.
March 17, 2023.
I remembered something interesting! During that journey, when I had an opportunity to safely ask the russians a question, I asked several times what they were doing here. On this land. My land. The first one was a seemingly intelligent, bespectacled man, about 40-years-old. He stood at the checkpoint somewhere at the edge of a micro-village, by himself. He stopped me, I opened the trunk, he lazily looked through, and started looking at the documents. Seeing that I was born in Ternopil, he nodded, and I asked where he was from:
— What are you doing here, in Ukraine?
— You do not know what motivated me to come here.
— So tell me.
— I had no choice.
— There is always a choice.
— And what are you doing here, Kharkovite [someone from Kharkiv]?
— I am home, this is my land.
He got quiet, gave me back my documents, I got into the car and looked at him. And he repeated, even shouted a bit: «I had no choice!» I turned my gaze on the road and drove on, silently.
And there was another time. It was a young guy, about 19-years-old. With big, child-like eyes. «Danbili bambas.» [Refers to a Russian blogger writing «dambili Bombas» instead of «Bombili Donbas,» meaning «Bombed Donbas.» Shows misunderstanding of geographical names by the Russian occupiers.] That’s it. Cultured, calm, friendly. Believed in his holy mission…
Those young strongmen in camouflaged clothes, who greedily took away and gobbled up the food I was bringing for the residents of Mariupol. Or that one who was scrolling through the photos in my phone gallery and poked at the one with the ruined Kharkiv building. Or the one who handed out red cans with sickle and hammer in the line entering Berdyansk. Or that one, sitting at the school desk, who was licking his fingers and sticking out the end of his tongue as he was carefully writing down my name in a big grid notebook. Or all the others, at a million checkpoints on the way… I do not know which one of them is a true representation of those who came to kill me. Maybe all of them. Murderers. With child-like eyes.
Translated by Natalia Barden