I am now in the Vinnytsia region, far behind the frontlines, in a remote village, very far from civilization. It is only two hours from here to the regional city on a good road and very close to the Moldovan border. So if the worst happens - worse than it already was - I can leave Ukraine by car within a few hours.
In the first days when I've just arrived, I felt such a rush, such enthusiasm! I thought I could move mountains! I even started a renovation here (ed.: laughs).
And then I started drooping down a little: there were dizzy spells and sleepiness.
“What a strange physical sensation: I feel cold, I put on two sweaters, while others around me wearing T-shirts. I feel hungry, I eat, but I don’t feel the taste, I don’t get pleasure."
It even began to scare me, so I discussed it with the psychologist. It turned out that this is ok: this is how the post-shock state manifests itself. It was important for me to hear from someone that “everything is fine, you are not going crazy” (ed.: laughs).
Before the war
Before the war, I was a prominent socialite - I took part in various city events, meetings, and festivals. We formed an IT community, IT centers, where after quarantine relief, some conferences, meetings, and lectures were held. I have always visited them.
I love it very much and have always participated in the “What? Where? When?” game. There was a very strong movement in Mariupol, we started playing since high school. And then continued as grown men and women. Later it even developed into pub quizzes. At first, my friend and I organized them, conducted them, created the questions by ourselves. And then the workload increased, and we decided to remain in the ranks of the participants only.
We used to go for long walks with my children. I am the kind of housewife who doesn't care about cleaning on Saturday but puts aside the mess in the house and goes for a walk with the children on the coast, in the suburbs (ed.: laughs). Someone washes the windows on Saturday, but my children and I go to some unique spring 60 km from the city.
“... It's so strange: here, where we are now, there are very beautiful views. Such a remote wilderness, but with splendid nature. I look at this all and think: well, this pond looks pretty. That forest looks pretty... But there are no real emotions. Before I would go like: wow! Let's take pictures right now! But now I go like: well, there is an "ok" forest down there..."
February 24, 2022
My dad called me at 5.00 am (my parents live outside the city, 10 km from Mariupol): “Lera, the war has begun! They’ve shelled Kyiv!" And I'm like, "So what? We're being shelled from time to time here, too! There's the “gray zone” just 40 km from Mariupol.” He goes like: "Leave all you have, take the children, come to us." I said, “Pa, I’m not going anywhere. I'll stay at home." I thought my parents started panicking way too early, as usual.
Then there was an online daily meeting, and I realized something was wrong: my colleagues sounded anxious, someone didn't get in touch that day. Then I started reading the news... At that moment, I realized that something bad was going to happen.
But I was absolutely sure that here, in Mariupol, we are safe! I knew that, most likely, they would shell the Vostochny neighborhood. Perhaps they'd try to surround the city.
“But I was confident that we'll be ok! And that's what I told my father: during the assault on the fortress, it is better to be inside it, and not near the city walls. It will be safer here, in the city.”
... I was wrong...
First days of the war
In the first days, I spoke with my COO Igor. He communicated with compassion and sounded interested in my plans - whether I would leave, where I would leave to. I had a clear position: I will leave here only if Mariupol will no longer belong to Ukraine.
When in the first days everyone rushed to leave, I doubted whether it would be safe to drive out of the city: which roads are still there, whether bridges were blown up, where to go. I was sure it would be safer to remain here.
(author) What was this confidence based on?
I just couldn't believe that there could be such a level of cruelty. Many could not believe that this is possible in the 21st century. We remember how they took Donetsk, how it became the “dpr”. Mariupol was also “dpr” for several weeks. It was scary, too, but not as much as it was this time.
“No one thought that the city would be so systematically destroyed, grid by grid. I just couldn't wrap my head around it. It was the biggest shock to me that this could happen.”
The first week of the war
The first week we were shelled, but there were still telecom services provided. And I went to all the rallies.
My work capacity was very low: I was reading the news all the time, everyday life matters arrangements took longer, as meal cooking depended on electricity, and it was cut off repeatedly. But while there was a cell connection, the Internet, and electricity, I still worked.
Moreover: I am such a bit of a fetishist - I love papers (ed.: smiling, Lera shows into the cam a stack of documents lined with a marker). I printed out all the TORs. And when my eyes got tired from the computer, I worked on my papers, making notes. That's why when the electricity was cut off, I still kept working.
I'm not sure whether it was productive, but I had a strong sense of responsibility: I had to do it. Moreover, I've been watching our guys chatting, working on something.
And until yesterday (ed.: March 29, when Lera received a laptop) I had such a feeling of guilt, I was so embarrassed as everyone is into something over there, typing something, updating some release, while I'm staring like an owl from a hollow rolling my eyes.
The toughest time
“I guess, the most terrible torture for prisoners is when they get their eyes blindfolded. When the communications were cut off, I had the same feeling: I lost all sense of time and reality. And that was the toughest time for me.”
Here you look out the window, you see the buildings over there. You hear some explosions above your head, you see something is burning somewhere. But you don't understand what's really going on as you can't see much from your small window.
... From the moment the connection was lost, and until the moment we left, two weeks have passed. And I still can't remember some things. My son tells me of some things I still don't remember. Perhaps the brain blocks it all out because it's too much for me to bear...
The very first thing I did when it all started was to meet with all the neighbors. Because, apparently, having lived so many years altogether, we even didn't know each other's names. I approached everyone, asked “what is your name?”, said what my name is, “these are my children, their names are Sasha and Zhorik.” And we started uniting: those neighbors who were leaving left their apartment keys to others and said, “come in and take what you need.”
Each morning looked like this: we woke up. If we have some dry food to eat such as cookies or breakfast cereals (I stocked up some and it really helped me out those days), we ate, then I went to the fire by our apartment building. If it was already lit, I had to boil some water. As there was no drinking water, we boiled it.
Then I cooked dinner: some porridge or soup. Sometimes we cooked with the neighbors altogether. For example, borscht: someone brought a big cauldron, others brought potatoes, beets, borscht dressing. So, we cooked dinner, fed the children, and then waited.
It was a real "Groundhog Day".
“I no longer put my children to bed in the afternoon as I had to put them to bed at 7 pm. And then my neighbors and I drank, played cards, sang songs. For the first time in my life, I drank pure alcohol with a raspberry compote.”
And even then, we laughed that Mariupol would become a Hero City and there would be a movie filmed about us and named “The Siege of Mariupol”. (ed.: it is linked to a famous soviet WWII movie "The Siege of Leningrad")
At first, we didn't go to the basement. But then they started shelling us so terribly that my children themselves asked to go there as "explosions are not so loud there."
Initially, we constantly ran upstairs and back to bring something in order to somehow arrange this basement for us to stay in more or less comfortably. Then I freaked out and brought a mattress, a snow-white mattress from a new bed! Pillows from the new sofa! We brought all this to the dirty basement because at that moment we treated our apartment just as a resource for use.
“Mentally, the worst thing for me was to see my children sleeping on the basement floor.”
My past experience helped me a lot: in my student years, I worked as a camp counselor in a children's camp. And now, in the basement, all the games and stories, especially scary ones, I knew were useful to me. There were always a lot of children in my compartment because I entertain my kids and at the same time the neighbors' ones, too. This helped distract the children from what was going on outside and pass the time.
Money has no value anymore
There was a situation when, after shelling, a neighbor's husband appeared just in a thin light shirt. She started asking around if anyone had a large men's winter jacket. I had one.
And then he says: “I will buy it from you, how much does it cost?” And I say, “What would I need your money for?” (ed.: chuckles bitterly) Nowadays money has no value here. I can't buy anything for it. He asked, "What do you need then?" I said, "Drinking water." So he gave me a five-liter bottle of water for a jacket worth several thousand hryvnias.
“You no longer have an understanding of the value of a thing - you have an understanding of how useful it will be for you here and now.”
Our first escape
On March 2, I heard that there was supposedly a cell connection coverage near the "Glutton" Store (ed.: a local large food store), so we could make a phone call from there. We ran over there, but it turned out that only the Kyivstar network was available. And I have MTS (ed: another cell phone network). Later, I bought some kind of stolen Kyivstar package from a “suspicious person”, and so I got a connection up again. I called HRG Lena and said that we were alive.
In the same place, we heard, there would be “corridors” for two days and it would be possible to leave. We ran home, collected all the bags during an hour, my eight-year-old son dragged huge bags and loaded them into the car...
“I gave the neighbors the apartment keys and said: if we don’t return tomorrow, go into the apartment and take everything you need."
So, we’ve left…
…And we were all brought back. They shelled us very hard and returned us all back...
End of Part I
To be continued…
In Part II
“... He said, “You must understand, we'll drive fast, we won't wait for anyone. If you take too long, you'll go on your own. And we don't know what's there, we are going on the off chance. I replied, "I'm going with you" ... "
“... We covered the children with blankets. Not because of possible shell fragments, but for them not to see what was around. I didn't want it. …And then I saw my city…”
“My friend and her husband, who is Police high-ranking official, have left earlier. They knew which way to leave, but they didn't tell anyone. I've always considered her a very close friend of mine. But they did what they did. And I think it's dishonest."