3 November 2023
Anna Bowles is a pro-Ukrainian activist from the UK and a regular visitor to Ukraine, meeting up 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 trips here – we are also republishing some of her blogs on Rights in Russia, but please also visit Anna’s site.
1st Nov 2023
“All your hatred, all your pain, goes towards fighting this.” An interview with Anya the evacuation co-ordinator (Part One)
The last amazing woman I spoke to in Kyiv was Sashko’s friend Anya. I once saw her and her husband Yura referred to as ‘Mariupol Bonnie and Clyde’. In one way this is decidedly inaccurate, as they are the opposite of criminals, but in others it’s a good fit.
Since the full-scale invasion, they have been evacuating civilians from cities under fire, delivering humanitarian aid, and working with the military. Sashko’s short film, My Favourite Job is about their work evacuating people from Mariupol in spring 2022.
We met up in a shopping centre as soullessly horrible as any to be found in London, and Anya said they’d been eager to meet this person who their friends say helps Ukraine. Cue vanity moment – Mariupol Bonnie and Clyde wanted to meet me!! But I attempted to steer the conversation in a mature and responsible manner. There being rather a lot of serious material to cover.
Though it started with a tiny bit of romance. Anya and Yura founded their relationship in the depths of the horror. ‘When it all began,’ Anya said, ‘I went to Zaporizhzhia and we organised rescue convoys. Yura was in the first convoy that went to the evacuation of Mariupol. We were there for four days and got to know each other, he went away, came back alive, went away, came back! He took some people to Odesa, and after a few days he called me and said I’m coming back and I’ll work with you. Then we settled down! So we’ve been together since March 2022.’
Unfortunately that had to stop for an all-too common reason: ‘Yura did two evacuations. The first time he drove his own car, for five days, then he drove a busik, and then the DNR prosecuted him, so he couldn’t return to that territory and began to work in logistics.’ Yura was lucky not to have been imprisoned and tortured; I met two drivers who were.
Even in the West people recall their horror when the first stories began to come out of Mariupol. I’ll always remember messaging with my friend Yulia who was hiding in a basement in Kyiv just after the start of the invasion, when it didn’t even seem entirely real yet, and she got one line from Sashko: ‘They are wiping Mariupol off the face of the earth.’
While the Western press focused on the Red Cross making a judgement call on whether to send in a small convoy, Anya and many others like her were in the middle of it – for the sake of others. ‘I started doing evacuations because my whole family was in Mariupol, my brothers and sisters. But they were all just so scattered around the city that when I sent drivers they couldn’t get to them because there was fighting. And my mum and dad left their village to go to the city, and ended up in the middle of a fight.
‘You hear [in international media] that 7,000 or 8,000 people died. That’s not true. Far more people died. When we were sending convoys drivers reported to us they were literally driving over corpses.’
The situation was complicated further – if that’s possible – by false flag manoeuvres attempting to discredit the Ukrainian side. ‘Sometimes drivers we worked told us that, for example, the Azov battalion had taken our cars. Then guys who were more experienced came along and said it wasn’t Azov. It was russians who’d broken into a Ukrainian military warehouse and stolen uniforms, put them on and shot civilians, requisitioned cars, did lots of horrible things so that people would think it was our soldiers doing it.’
One of the very worst things, in Anya’s opinion, is what’s happened since the surrender of the Azov battalion soldiers who held out in the ruined Azovstal steel plant for almost three months. ‘In May the russians cleaned out the city. When Bucha was deoccupied, a lot of evidence of crimes was found. In Mariupol [the russian soldiers] were ordered to clean up after themselves so they brought mobile crematoria into the city. There was such a terrible stench, because all the corpses they’d dragged out of cellars and mass graves were just lying around, they burned them in the crematoria. And so that story worked.
‘I find it terrifying, highly offensive, that nobody talks about this… The story of Mariupol is past now, people have turned their attention to Bakhmut, to Kherson, and so on, not our defenders in captivity. The Russians don’t want to give them back. When they left Azovstal, all the world organisations forgot about them.’
Russia is now ‘rebuilding’ Mariupol – jerry-building it, according to most credible reports. Anya explained the motive: ‘They’re bringing in these foreign citizens – Bashkirs, Uzbeks– and pay them more than our people who stayed there. They have to leave now because they can’t work there. The russians are now chasing out the population of Mariupol with these Bashkirs, Tadjiks and so on. Those workers and their families are settling in the blocks of flats they’ve built, so the Ukrainians leave, and the place has become a real russian city. That’s why they’re rebuilding it.’
Anya’s situation remains difficult, though she is matter-of-fact about it.
‘My father got very ill, he was taken to hospital. He turned out to have fourth-stage brain cancer, maybe because of the pressure on his nervous system. And it turned out that I couldn’t drive them out, because Dad was bedbound and just couldn’t get there. Mum looked after him for six months… Three days after he was buried, Mum took in an auntie who also had cancer, and my sick grandfather. Now she’s looking after them, so she stays there.’
Almost everyone I know in Ukraine is either matter-of-fact or on the verge of disintegrating; there are few other options.
After Mariupol became inaccessible, Anya and Yura transferred their efforts to Bakhmut. But there they encountered a particularly frustrating problem: entrenched support for russia. ‘We didn’t evacuate anyone from Bakhmut at all,’ Yura explained. ‘When we arrived there, the people there were anti-Ukraine. They were sitting and waiting for the russian world. They gave away our lads’ positions, posted them on Telegram channels.
‘It wasn’t just old people. There were a lot of women with children who were ill, dirty, dressed in rags – and the woman doesn’t leave. She sits and waits.’
Anya remembered, We offered to evacuate the children for free, promising to arrange everything for them, but people wouldn’t give in. If you have the chance to save your children, I really don’t understand how you can risk ending up burying them, because of some political belief.’
It had been the same in Mariupol, Yura said. ‘There were a lot of people sitting around and waiting for the russians. People who had lost everything – no money, no connections, no water, no light, they were cooking their food in campfires with no hope of survival except by luck – in spite of that, in spite of everything the rashists did, they kept living there and saying they support the rashists.’
‘I don’t understand how people can take everything from you, and then you still want to live with those people. That makes no sense to me.’
I wouldn’t say it makes sense to me, but it does sound like a common human weakness. Believing something absurd as a form of protection against accepting an intolerable reality. But then I’ve never been confronted with it face to face; I doubt I’d be sanguine if I was. I’ve heard from medic friends that plenty of villages scant kilometres from the front line have large families with children remaining there. Even though, unfortunately, being killed by a shell is far from the worst thing that can happen to a child under russian occupation.
Anya and her team in free Donetsk, October 2022