6 April 2023
Anna Bowles is a pro-Ukrainian activist from the UK, and from 23 March to 6 April she is in East and South Ukraine, with her friends from the Freefilmers NGO, interviewing local people – especially women in rural communities – about their experiences and survival strategies. Anna is blogging about her trip here – we are also republishing some of her blogs on Rights in Russia, but please also visit Anna’s site. You can donate here to support the people Anna meets.
Galochka and the Siege of Mariupol
On my penultimate day in Zaporizhzhia a very important person arrived – Sashko’s mum! She took me for a walk down to the Dnipro river, in spite of saying she had ‘topographical idiotism’. (I will adopt this phrase in English, as it sounds much more exciting than just saying I have no sense of direction. Galochka found the river, so her idiotism is less than mine.)
Galochka is from Mariupol. She managed to flee her home on the Left Side, the most dangerous part of the city, early on in the siege, and remained in the city centre until her escape a couple of weeks later. She was completely out of touch with what was happening afterwards, and found out later from friends. Here are some of their stories.
Most people in Mariupol were living what Westerners would consider ordinary lives before the 2022 invasion. They were conscious of their proximity to the Russian border, but the situation was considered stable. Galochka remembers that one of her friends, a primary school teacher, had just attained a life goal: ‘She tried all her life to save enough money to buy her own home. At the start of February 2022 she called me and said, “Congratulate me! I’ve bought a flat.”’
The woman didn’t have long to enjoy it. ‘She left Mariupol a few days after me [i.e. in mid-March]; her neighbours gave her a ride out. The next day a bomb fell into the basement and everyone was killed.’ Dozens of people were hiding in this basement, and hundreds of others like it; this is one reason why the invaders are in such a hurry to demolish the buildings in Mariupol, to destroy the human evidence of genocide.
As the woman escaped, this qualifies as a Mariupol good-luck story. She’s now gone abroad, to the Baltics, where she works in a Ukrainian school. ‘She sends me photographs where she looks very elegant,’ said Galochka. ‘She’s settled. She helps her relatives who are in Dnipro. But her mother died in Ukraine, and she couldn’t be here for the funeral.’
Many Ukrainians, including those with considerable trauma, have found a way to continue abroad, often with the help of therapy; but no one is ever going to forget what they left behind.
The siege of Mariupol, or just the word ‘Mariupol’ has become totemic in the West. I can’t remember who it was, but I read a Ukrainian journalist saying early on in the war that all Ukrainians feel guilty: those abroad feel guilty for not being in the country, those in the country but in relatively safe cities feel guilty for not being at the front, those at the front feel guilty for surviving when their comrades are killed, and everyone feels guilty for not being in Mariupol. None of which helped or helps, the writer pointed out, but that’s the natural human response. (We can add an extra clause to the front of the list where Westerners feel guilty for not being Ukrainian, though I try not to do that as it’s probably the least helpful of the lot.)
If you werein Mariupol, you cope with it in different ways. Telling your story on social media (and battling with trolls and bans for talking about the war in ways the moderators don’t like); plunging yourself into volunteer work; changing your lifestyle and even personality; moving to Europe – or moving to Russia and embracing the propaganda, as buying into a malign system can be less painful than looking squarely at what it’s done to you.
Galochka’s friends avoided this latter trap, but she told me a story that illustrates the kind of pressure intentionally put on terrified people fleeing their homes. There were few evacuation buses out of Mariupol in early March, and those there were did not necessarily stick to what evacuees thought was the planned destination.
‘I used to work at a boarding school for orphans, and in the yard between my house and the school there was a small two-storey building where the staff lived,’ Galochka told me. ‘When Mariupol was invaded, soldiers were living there. My colleague Svetlana told me about it afterwards:
“They were shooting at us from the sea, from the sky, everywhere. It was hell. Then soldiers broke the door down. They shouted, ‘Everyone out!’ We were so frightened, we didn’t understand what was going on. We were lucky, we got on a bus, but we didn’t know where it was going. They took us to Russia, to Tambov Oblast. And everyone was so scared that when Russians put up big screens in the street saying Ukraine was destroying Mariupol, they believed them.”’
Svetlana resisted and eventually found her way back to Ukraine via the Baltic States, but while it’s true that tens of thousands of Ukrainians, especially children, have been forcibly taken to Russia against their will, some do remain voluntarily.
Not everyone reacts to a crisis by becoming a hero, and those around them try to accept that. When the functioning of a city breaks down, looting is inevitable, of homes as well as shops: I recall reading the Facebook of someone newly arrived in free Ukraine from Mariupol in March, saying, ‘I know people will break into my flat and take everything – but I hope it’s Mariupol people, not Russian soldiers. For Mariupol people, it’s OK.’
Family ties could break under the strain too. Shellings intensified so much that the only option was to flee; survival was nearly impossible, as even if food and water were available somewhere you would likely get killed on the way to get them. Galochka recalled, ‘There was a guy in the cellar with us who didn’t want to leave when we did. But the next day he did go – and he left elderly his mother behind. Volunteers drove her out of the city.’ But she shook her head meditatively rather than judgementally. ‘People act out of fear. And you never know how you’ll behave in such a situation until it happens.’
At least bad behaviour can sometimes take a bizarre enough form to be funny, even in such a desperate context. Galochka has wryly humorous stories too:
‘People used to cook in the yard, and when a plane came you had to run quite a long way back to the bomb shelter. So we decided to set up a campfire near the entrance. The chairwoman of the house committee came and said, you’re not allowed to have an oven so close to the building! And another official said we weren’t allowed to take shelter in a particular cellar because there were water pipes in it.’
‘One of our friends told us about the time when everyone was in the cellar of their block of flats, and it was on fire. There was smoke and people began to cover their mouths with wet clothes. It was impossible to get out onto the street because they were shooting every five minutes. One woman began to shout at her, “You don’t live in this block, stop stealing my oxygen!”’
‘Mariupol’ has already entered history as something more than a town: it’s become a referent for the particular evil, and its consequences, that Ukraine and by extension the rest of the world is currently facing. But its people are finding ways to keep living. I’m drafting this while some of them cackle with laughter in the next room – the aftermath of an event that will appear in another post shortly.
As for Galochka herself, she doesn’t want to move abroad. She spent six months in Kyiv staying with a friend, just looking after herself and relaxing as much as possible. But now she’s back in Zaporizhzhia with Sashko. ‘I can’t sit idle! I want to work.’ And ‘after the victory’ (as everyone here puts it), she and Sashko want to travel. Including to Britain – if the visas aren’t too much of a headache.