"The worst thing was when my son asked: 'How long before we die?

Yana Shynkarenk
"The worst thing was when my son asked: 'How long before we die?

Tetiana Myniailo is an internally displaced person from Donetsk. In 2022, she and her two sons, aged 8 and 11, were in Mariupol.

On February 24 morning, they heard the sounds of distant explosions, and the eldest son asked: "Mum, is it again?" The boy remembered these sounds from Donetsk. Tetiana packed an anxious suitcase and decided that they would spend the night in the basement of their nine-storey building.

On the first days in Mariupol, there were long queues of cars leaving the city. There was panic, and people bought everything in sight in the grocery stores. But Tetiana had a supply of food: tinned food, crackers, and sweets. Although she did not have her car, evacuating the city by train in the first two days was still possible - this was reported on local channels and the Internet. Tetiana thought Mariupol would be similar to Donetsk in 2014 but would be over quickly.

From the first days of the full-scale war, the family spent the night in the basement, where it was dirty, rats were running around, and the only thing available was light. After that, however, more and more people came there every day.

On February 28, there was no water or heating, and Tetiana realised that she could get sick in the damp basement, so she had to find medicine. She went to the Kirovskyi district to an open pharmacy because it had a generator.

"We stood outside waiting - there was a huge queue," Tetiana recalls. - "It was raining, cold, and people were still standing. I stood in line for two and a half hours. You could either go to the pharmacy or stand in a huge queue to buy bread at the store. At that time, we charged our phones in the Prostor store. As soon as I walked away from the pharmacy, I was covered by a sound wave from the explosion on Kirov Street, in the yard where the first hit in my neighbourhood was. Later, I found out that I got a concussion."

By the beginning of March, about 60 people were sleeping in the basement - almost the entire building. 

Tetiana and her family first tried to evacuate on March 5. They went to the Drama Theatre, where people with cars gathered every day and tried to leave the city. They went at their own risk. There was no communication in the city, and no one knew if anyone had managed to leave for the government-controlled territory. There were no evacuation buses, so Tetiana and her sons returned to their basement.

As they walked through the city, Tetiana saw houses "folding" from direct hits. She was afraid that would happen to theirs. So she asked a friend to take them to a bomb shelter at Molokozavod. When they arrived there, they found out there was nowhere to stand. So Tetiana and her sons returned to their basement on foot.

On March 8, their house was hit: four people were killed, and two others were injured. People were cooking over a fire.

The shelling from the planes took place every night; the planes dropped 3-4 bombs in the area of the Central Market. On March 13, the basement ran out of food, which does not need to be cooked for a long time but can be simply parboiled.

"The only thing we ate and drank for three days was two boxes of tangerines that our Azerbaijani neighbours gave us," says Tetiana. - "And the worst thing was when my youngest son asked, 'Mum, how much food do we have left? How long before we die?"

Tetiana asked her neighbours to take her and her sons when they evacuated their families. The neighbours agreed, but by then, only the minivan they used to take to the market was still fuelled and intact.

We were leaving on March 16 when loading our bags, and we came under fire again. Everyone hid on the ground floor between the lift and the vestibule. Then there were 40 hits to the Central Market. 

We were travelling in three cars - two minibuses and one car. Thirty people and their children were crammed into one minibus. We had to ride standing up because we couldn't fit otherwise. 

There were two checkpoints on the way, where the Russian military checked everyone: first women and children and then - more thoroughly - men. They looked at documents, undressed and checked for tattoos and bruises. 

The queue moved slowly, reaching Mangush only in the afternoon (19 km from Maruipol to Mangush - ed.). The streets were clogged with cars of those fleeing Mariupol. It was here that Tetiana could buy bread for the first time. 

In the evening, everyone managed to leave the city: the car with one family drove faster, while the minibuses overloaded with people moved more slowly. According to the driver, after they passed Komyshuvate, a vehicle with people was crushed on the road — a tank had run over it. It was the neighbours' car that drove sooner.

The two minibuses drove faster to Berdiansk to reach the city before the curfew. However, they didn't make it and were prohibited from entering the city. They had to go around Berdiansk and continue to Prymorsk.

"We drove about three kilometres, and our car screeched to a halt because it was being shot at with machine guns," Tetiana recalls the journey. - "We stopped, it turned out there was a checkpoint, and the men in the cab had no experience. They were 'blinked' and didn't realise they had to stop. There were neither glowing signs nor an equipped checkpoint where it was clear where to stop and show documents... No one was hurt because there were suitcases on the side where the car's tent was pierced, and no one was hurt. But we were all scared and crying... It was dark, and there was dark tape on their jackets; it was the letter Z. They spoke Russian rudely. They made the drivers kneel and ordered us to get out of the car. They were shocked, shouting obscenities, saying how they could transport children like sheep in a truck. They insulted the Azerbaijanis, shouted at them, and threatened to shoot us all. We all cried and asked them to forgive us. Then they ordered us to turn off all the lights and phones and spend the night in the field in these minibuses at minus 10 degrees. The men pushed two minibuses 300 metres from the checkpoint, and we spent the night in the field."

We tried to start the cars in the morning, but it didn't work. Police officers from Prymorsk, who were driving by, helped us and asked if we needed assistance. They contacted the city's mayor, and he provided cars for towing. In Prymorsk, everyone was accommodated in a hostel, fed, and given clean clothes. There was hot water, and we could bathe for the first time since February.

In Prymorsk, Tetiana and her neighbours split up: the Azerbaijanis decided to go to Melitopol, Crimea, and Azerbaijan. Tetiana, her sons and another family returned to Berdiansk to go to Zaporizhzhia.

On the first day in Berdiansk, Tetiana and her children stood in line for evacuation buses but could not board them. Then, when the buses were ready to board, there was a stampede. Men were blocking the bus entrance and letting their families get on first. 

Tetiana could leave Berdiansk only three days later when seven additional school buses arrived from Berdiansk and five large ones from Zaporizhzhia. The military stood near each bus and read out the names from the lists.

That day, the buses were joined by cars. The Russian military escorted them with equipment and a State Emergency Service vehicle. They were moving slowly, with checkpoints every 1.5-2 kilometres, where all the men were taken out of the buses one by one, their documents were checked, and they were stripped and examined. 

In the evening, the convoy reached Vasylivka, where Chechens stood guard and again inspected and interrogated the men. Initially, the military wanted to leave the men to spend the night in buses in Vasylivka. But then they let them go to Zaporizhzhia.

"There was already fighting nearby, and we were told that we could not cross the bridge from Vasylivka to Zaporizhzhia," Tetiana recalls. - "We took a detour. The adults were asked to get off the bus and walk because the bus loaded with people could not go along the broken dirt road. We were told to walk along the road and not to turn off because the roadsides were mined. And I repeat - only children were left on the buses. My sons were crying, saying: "Mum, we are afraid to be alone". It was very scary to walk these 2.5 kilometres in almost complete darkness; who knows what was underfoot - the road was loose with potholes. When I got on the bus, and it started moving along some roads, I just fell into a kind of slumber... We were woken up in Zaporizhzhia."

Then the family had to travel to the west of Ukraine. After everything they had been through, Tetiana and her children could not recover for a long time - for two weeks, they all cried when they were given food, water or the opportunity to wash.

"While we were in the basement, I couldn't cry because there were children with me, also worried and afraid. I couldn't show that I was more afraid than they were," says Tetiana. - "I think I had a heart attack because of these experiences. I am 40 years old, and a heart attack is too early. I still have small children to raise, and I can't work anymore because they said I couldn't do any physical work. And I don't know how I will continue to build my future without working or how I will provide for my children. I can't get my head around it yet. But I'm trying to improve my health: I paint, spend time with my children, communicate with people close to me."