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«The city will run out of food any day now. And we'll be left to starve and die.» Confessions of Ukrainians under blockade

Sofia Presnyakova

While the Kremlin continues to justify the war in Ukraine with the need to «liberate» residents from «Nazis,» the number of civilian casualties in a month has already exceeded the total number of deaths in all 8 years since Russia invaded the Donbass. Some towns have been blockaded by Russian troops, preventing the delivery of food and humanitarian aid. Residents of Kherson and Mariupol told The Insider about the humanitarian disaster they found themselves in.

ALL CARDS
  • Mariupol

  • «We ran out of water and bread on the second day, and then all the supermarkets were looted» — Ilya, 35

  • Kherson

Mariupol

«They told us to put our dead grandmother on the balcony» — Nadezhda, 51

I went outside in between bombings because I had to walk my dog. It was constantly whining, shivering and hiding behind my legs. When I looked around, I saw a section of the apartment building across the street burning down, five floors already on fire. I was sure I was going to die, in a matter of days it seemed. Everyone in this city is expecting to die. I just wished it wouldn't be too scary. Three days ago, a friend of my older nephew came to see us and told us there had been a direct hit on the fire depot. Several firemen were killed. A woman had her arm, leg and head blown off. They won't bury the bodies while the fighting continues. That's what the cops told us when we caught them in the street and asked what to do with our acquaintance's dead grandmother. They told us to put her on the balcony. I wonder how many balconies are there with dead bodies on them?

Our house on Prospekt Mira is the only one that hasn't been directly hit. It was damaged twice by shells and the windowpanes were shattered in some apartments, but it is almost completely unharmed and very lucky compared to the other houses. The entire yard is covered in several layers of ash, glass, plastic, and metal shrapnel. I stood outside during the day, and there was a graveyard-like silence all around. No cars, no voices, no children. But there were a few people, nonetheless. They lay around the corner and on the parking lot, covered up by outdoor clothing. I didn't want to look at them. I was afraid I'd see someone I knew.

A mass grave in Mariupol
A mass grave in Mariupol

On March 11, my friend's husband was killed. A day later, when everything was rattling and clanking as if a giant piece of glass was being cut with an iron saw, an airplane was rumbling nearby, children were in the basement and adults were lying on a long couch covering their heads with pillows. I also kept my eyes shut. I still don't know why I did that. I thought the pillow would save me from the bomb. At that moment, 13-year-old Sasha ran into the house. He shouted: «I'm Sasha! Something just flew into our house.» We asked, «Where's your mom, is everybody safe?» He replied that everybody was safe, only Daddy was buried under the debris and Mommy was digging him up. Then it turned out that Daddy was buried for good. The loving father and husband, calm and kind, lay with a cracked skull and an unnaturally twisted leg in his own apartment on the ninth floor. There was no way to properly bury him. There was no way to get to him. A few days later the whole building burnt down. The house was hit once again.

A house hit by a shell in Mariupol
A house hit by a shell in Mariupol

In Mariupol, a lot of things were not important. We ate from one plate so as not to waste water on washing, slept on mattresses all together for warmth, and threw ourselves at every person we met to get news from the house next door. We forgot that there were stores, that we could turn on the TV, talk on social media, take a shower, or go to sleep in a real bed.

I am alive and I'm going to live a long time now, I managed to get away. And my city is dying a painful death. For twenty days I was dying along with it. I was in hell. Everyone in our basement prayed and asked for the bomb to fly past. But flying past doesn't mean going away. Flying past means not hitting us. Do you know what I saw when my friends picked me up and took me from Mariupol? I didn't recognize my city. I sat in the basement for too long, and during that time the city was completely ruined. I saw dead houses, charred walls, uprooted trees, broken electrical wires with a flag, and people killed on the side of the road. But that wasn't the scariest part. We drove past a fifteen-story building with shattered windows. Curtains and shades were fluttering in the wind. It seemed to me that this house was almost unharmed. But when we drove around it, we saw a smashed wall, shrapnel-cut balconies, blown-out windows. It was a shapeshifter house. Like a dead man in disguise. Alive from afar, but dead up close. And there were hundreds of houses like it.

Mariupol
Mariupol

In the city, people continue to hide in basements. Every day it becomes harder for them to survive. They have no water, no food, no electricity, they can't even go outside because of the constant shelling. I want everyone to know that civilians continue to be killed every day.


«We ran out of water and bread on the second day, and then all the supermarkets were looted» — Ilya, 35


We didn't quite believe that a full-scale war could be unleashed, so initially we were in a stupor. In the first days, the situation didn't seem threatening, and we stayed at home. Starting in March, we had to «move» to a shelter. Around March 4, our neighborhood came under direct fire. The stores ran out of water and bread on the second day, and there were endless lines to every store. The shelves were empty. After a while, all the supermarkets were looted. We lived on our own supplies for the most part, and getting water was a daily challenge for us. The ATMs ran out of cash instantly, and it was impossible to find it elsewhere. Communication was lost in the first few days, along with electricity. I still haven't heard from some of my relatives, we don't know what happened to them. The only sources of information are rumors. Once in a while, someone heard something on the radio and passed it on to others.

Empty shelves in Mariupol stores
Empty shelves in Mariupol stores

We spent nights in basements, seldom went home during the day if the situation allowed. We took only the bare necessities to the basement. It was dangerous to leave the shelter, but we had to do it to cook food and boil water. My wife's sister was with us with a three-year old child. She was doubly afraid for herself and the child.

One day we realized we could not go on like this: we would either die here or take our chances trying to get out. It happened spontaneously - we got in the car and left. We were lucky, before the war we had filled a full tank of gasoline, later it was impossible to get it anywhere in the city. Along the way, we met many cars that had run out of gasoline, they were simply being towed with ropes. It took us 26 hours to get to Zaporizhzhya, instead of the usual four. We spent a night in a field on the front line. Leaving the city was a real challenge. We abandoned an apartment in Mariupol. We don't know in what shape it is now. Our house suffered from shelling, but the apartment was still intact when we left. We lost everything we had, everything we'd been trying to achieve for years is gone.


Kherson

«I wanted to cry and scream, but I was afraid I'd scare the child» — Irina, 36

Everyone knew a war was about to start, we were following the situation concerning the Russian troops gathering at the border. Everyone understood that the exercises were a lie. We considered moving to Sevastopol. My parents, my 85-year-old grandfather and my husband's son were there. On the 23rd, my husband and I decided we should pack a suitcase just in case and leave, but we didn't make it. We went to bed pretty late, and on the 24th my husband woke up first at 4:30 in the morning to the sounds of explosions. He woke me up and told me the war had started. I heard some explosions, but I couldn't figure out what was going on.

I sent a voice message to my parents saying that a war had started, to which my parents sent a reply: «Stop panicking, this doesn't concern you, these are strikes on your military system.» I became hysterical because we started reading the news, the flow of information was huge. We read about the first civilian casualties. After packing our suitcase, we didn't know where we were going or how. All we knew was that troops would be coming from the direction of Crimea, so we couldn't go in that direction and had to move to central or western Ukraine. Then we heard a loud explosion, and through the window I saw a large column of smoke. It took my first photo of the war from the kitchen window. I sent it to my parents, they still didn't believe it. Now I realize we could have made a quick stop at the store, bought the groceries that were still in stock for regular prices, jumped in the car and driven away. But no one knew what was going on, so we just sat at home with our suitcase packed, fully dressed.

After a few hours of that deluge of horrid news, we went to the nearest supermarket, guessing that either every place would soon close, or there would be crowds and lines. It wasn't even 12:00 yet, and the shelves were already empty. Ours is a pretty busy neighborhood, with all sorts of stores, two farmers' markets, and several shopping malls. People rushed to the stores, buying up everything they could. I don't remember what exactly we were buying that day, because we always lived in a way to keep small supplies at home, but I knew perfectly well that it was going to get worse, and we had to buy more. I tried to grab baby food, which was still in great abundance, some diapers and cereal, but not canned food. Literally every half hour there was less and less of everything.

Empty store shelves on the morning of the first day of the war
Empty store shelves on the morning of the first day of the war

We started calling our neighbors to find out where the bomb shelter was. We were told there was a basement under the school building that served as a bomb shelter – it had three exits, ventilation, and electricity. We spent the first night at home - we taped the windows shut, put the kitchen fridge against the window in the room, closed the curtains, and put the cabined against the door. We moved to the corner of the room, laid out the bedding, moved the dresser closer, blocking the windows with it. The night was absolutely sleepless, we just lay on our backpacks with our clothes and shoes on and could not sleep. As for our belongings, in the morning we began to frantically pack our suitcase, but then realized that we would not get far with that suitcase, so we took the backpacks, one of which contained our IDs and money, the other - baby diapers, a pair of tights and a hat, and the third - food, water and some other stuff. That's how we spent the first night.

By lunchtime, a column of Russian soldiers had already moved into the area around the city and there was no longer a way out. We understood that physically nothing was blocked, but it was impossible to leave - there were skirmishes and explosions everywhere. We spent the second and the following nights in the basement of the house. We were reading the news about how and where the fighting was going on and how civilians were dying, it was very scary. Especially as the sounds of gunshots and explosions grew louder by the night. There were people from our house or the house next door in the basement. There were some with families who had small children. It was an absolutely sleepless night, too, because the children couldn't calm down and go to sleep. We ourselves tried to sleep on some pipes and planks, covered with rags and blankets that we had brought with us as we fled into the shelter. We tried to get close to the ventilation ducts and catch the internet, so that we could at least understand what was going on above our heads.

Bomb shelter in the school basement
Bomb shelter in the school basement

And then we read that the invaders had already entered the city with weapons. From the first days there were looters, who started looting stores and kiosks. It was scary to sit in the bomb shelter in the evening because it was impossible to lock the doors. When you hear gunshots next to you, when you read about gunfire in the news, you realize that if something bad happens you will suffer not so much from explosions as from looters or those orcs with guns who will enter the basement and just rob you, at best, or kill you, at worst.

I hadn't heard from my parents for four days and then they showed up with complaints as to why I was rebuking them instead of answering their messages on how to transfer the money my grandmother had saved for my child. During the conversation, my parents said we were lying, making things up, and, in fact, all those explosions meant that our soldiers were firing at themselves. Then they told me not to write or call them anymore. That's how Russian television brainwashes people in Crimea.

As for the rest of the situation, I lost track of days and numbers. It's like everything is in some parallel universe. When you sit in the basement of your house until late at night just to wait out these explosions, shaking in fear and wondering if a shell is about to fly into your house, if you ever will be able to get back to your house because the air-raid alarms never stop. Every time we would grab our three backpacks with baby stuff and food and documents and money and socks and run to the shelter. And then you sit in that basement trying to read the news, and you wait for the firing to subside so that you could get back home in the middle of the night and sit there until the morning.

After the first night at home, we spent the second and the following nights in the basement, and then we set up our hallway to live in, the «rule of two walls.» At first, we just laid out the bedding, but then we realized the hallway was too small and we needed to expand that space. We emptied the hallway, dismantled the wall cabinet, and removed to the room, which was now stuffed full of bags. We settled into a two-by-two-meter hallway. And in that little space, life went on. The first days were very scary. After two weeks of war, you get used to everything, we use the kitchen, cook, clean, wash. If we hear explosions, we immediately run behind the wall into the corridor. We don't wear indoor clothing at all, because what you're wearing may be the last thing you'll wear. The only indulgence we've allowed ourselves is that we've started taking off our shoes at night while at home. It is a great luxury, because the first few days we didn't take off our shoes, ready to run any minute. When the siren goes off and when the explosions start, you realize it could be over at any moment, and there could be severed limbs, injuries, rubble, or anything else.

A two-by-two-meter indoor bomb shelter
A two-by-two-meter indoor bomb shelter

The situation is pretty dire, with martial law and curfew in place. From 6 p.m. there's nobody on the streets, everybody locks their apartment, we don't turn on the lights and just sit there with a lamp until morning. In the morning, you can get out and go to the markets to get some food, but most of the vendors just resell stuff with a huge markup. There is no cash in the ATMs, supermarkets are all closed, looters are everywhere, but they get caught and punished. We live in a besieged city, now it's impossible to enter or leave Kherson, and no humanitarian aid from Ukraine can be brought in. They only brought their Russian humanitarian aid, which no one wants, so people just carry on, but no one knows what will happen next, because you cannot leave, the train station has been closed since the first days. People share with each other the location of ATMs with cash or food. But there's almost no cash or food left in the city.

Regarding morale - it's like experiencing emotional swings. There was insane fear and confusion. This is not the usual fear, when you fear a certain situation, and then it goes away. No, this fear was all-encompassing, with a panic and not knowing what to do in that particular instant. Because of this fear we could not leave on the first day when the war began, although there were a few people who just got in their cars and drove away while there was still a chance to leave. Then the fear has diminished, but it hasn't gone away, it's become less because you get used to everything, even the war. From time to time, we can even smile and laugh, and it starts to feel like life is gradually returning to normal, but it's not really the case, because all these thoughts disappear after the next explosion.

Explosions in Kherson on March 3
Explosions in Kherson on March 3

During the first days I wanted to cry all the time, but I didn't because the little child was frightened and looked to me. I had no moral right, although if there was no child, I would just sit there and weep out of helplessness. I don't know what will happen next, because a third week has gone by, and we all feel like zombies.

We don't drive into the other neighborhoods, we don't walk on the streets, we don't leave the house in the afternoon because people go missing every day, there are lots of announcements about men going out to the store or trying to get from one neighborhood to another and disappearing. There are invaders all over the city, in every neighborhood, ours included. In the evening, we sit without lights in the corridor behind the wall trying not to draw attention to ourselves, just like everyone else, because the invaders occasionally walk through the apartments.

There is practically no food left in the city and the authorities themselves say a humanitarian disaster is looming ahead. Supermarkets are all closed because they are empty. Only minor stall vendors are still selling goods, mostly from the warehouses, like cookies or tea. There is no meat, fish, dairy, or eggs, and no one knows what will happen next. We don't know how long we will survive in the blockade, because everyone is trying to get food every day in order to hang on as long as possible and keep the supplies that everyone has at home.

We have no plans because I won't be leaving on my own with my child. If something terrible happens and we are offered a green corridor, we will try to leave the city, but at this moment it is impossible for anyone to leave, because the invaders won't let anyone in or out, including trucks with food, medicine and so on. We are in a complete blockade. The city authorities are trying to negotiate, but so far there has been no success. It seems to me that their goal is to break us completely. We will run out of food any day now, and then people will consume their food supplies and will be left to starve and die, or to crawl and accept help from the Russians. So far no one has accepted their help - and we don't plan to.

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