Amid attacks, Ukrainians seek shelter in a subterranean church

On the first day of Russia’s invasion, in an evangelical church in Mariupol, people were torn about whether to stay or flee.

People praying at a church.
Andriy Voytsekhovskyy prays in the church on the first day of the Russian invasion, Mariupol, Ukraine [Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]

Mariupol, Ukraine – Andriy Voytsekhovskyy held back tears, praying for Ukraine and singing hymns with a small and emotional congregation in a subterranean church as fighting raged nearby.

In a quiet suburb of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, the church is almost invisible from the street as it sits in the foundations of a building that was never completed. It’s unusual for two reasons – it is underground, and it is Evangelical in a country where most Christians are Orthodox.

On the uncertain first day of a full-scale Russian invasion, the space was a heavenly gift to its devotees as troops close in on the city from two sides.

While children somersaulted across roll-out mattresses on the floor, too young to understand the magnitude of events around them, their parents swap information and try to decide whether to stay or go.

Andriy and his wife, Viktorii Voytsekhovskyy, both 28, slept here.

Just after midday on Thursday, as Andriy walked his Jack Russell Chelsea near their home in the city’s east – just 10 kilometres 96.2 miles) from the front line with Russian-backed separatists – a Grad attack crashed past him into the window of a ground-floor apartment, about 15 metres (50 feet) away.

“If I had gone outside with my dog one minute later, I would be exactly in the place where the strike hit and it changed my mind. Before, we were thinking to stay at home but now, I feel like there is no safe space,” he said.

While gut-wrenching flashes of explosives throughout the night and morning were terrifying, the close call was the last straw.

People leaving from Mariupol train station to Kyiv.
People bid emotional farewells as they head from Mariupol train station to Kyiv [Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]

The couple’s son, Leon, 4, quickly lay on the floor when he heard the blast from inside.

Living so close to the tense front line with Russia-backed separatists, he is used to the threat of war. The family have even made war into a game – the “evil king” wants them to be afraid and they will not give him that. Yet when he comes, they should always hide.

“We’re not afraid of you, Evil King,” he cried after the missile hit on Thursday, punching his hands towards the sky.

“Life is a fairytale for him and a nightmare for us,” said Andriy.

As Mariupol residents woke to the long-feared news on Thursday morning that Russia had invaded, air raid sirens whirred.

Many chose not to give in to panic and some even headed to work on packed buses.

Yet by afternoon, emotions were starting to fray as people queued for hours to stock up on cash and petrol in case the electricity or internet were cut.

Locals from eastern Mariupol found a shelter in an evangelical church.
Locals from eastern Mariupol found a shelter in an evangelical church [Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]

At a central cash machine, Maryna Mastak, 42, and her husband were getting ready to flee the city with their children, leaving everything behind.

“Putin kills people here,” she said.

Mariupol, which is close to territory held by Russia-backed separatists, is vulnerable to attack from three sides – including from the Sea of Azov, where Moscow’s warships lurk.

It escaped the air raids and heavy bombardment seen in Kyiv and Kharkiv on Thursday, but Russian and separatist troops are closing in from two sides and the fighting can be heard from the city centre.

At the train station, a father hugged his daughter as he put her on one of the few trains out of Mariupol.

People hurried through with everything they could carry, including their cats, heading into the unknown.

With fighting across the country, no one is certain whether the situation is any better elsewhere.

“This train will go to Kyiv. Hopefully. On the way here, we saw a lot of fighting,” said a train guard on Thursday afternoon, who did not want to be named.

“It’s just better to be in the capital,” said another passenger, international ecology student Akin, from Nigeria.

Locals from eastern Mariupol found a shelter in an evangelical church.
Families decide whether to remain put or flee to another part of Ukraine [Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]

In the church, people prayed for things to get better, saying that they have faith that God is with them, even “when the ground is shaking”.

One woman said she had been an atheist until now, as she readdressed her relationship with faith in the face of a devastating conflict.

For Andriy and Vikorii, who married in 2015 as the conflict between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists was at its worst, there is an added dynamic to this fresh war with Russia – Vikorii is from Moscow.

They met when Andriy visited a friend in Russia and Vikorii worked for Russia One at the time, a state-owned TV channel known for its pro-Kremlin stance.

“I was so ignorant then. I didn’t even know where is Russia and where is Ukraine on a map,” she said, adding that she left her job after Andriy told her about what was happening in his home country.

Two men sitting at a diner table.
Married couple Andriy and her husband Viktorii Voytsekhovskyy, who used to work for a Russian channel before they met [Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]

“I feel so much shame for what Russia has done. Now, it feels like the end of a great nation – how can anyone forgive this?”

The prospect of war, just weeks ago, felt distant. But from asking whether or not Russia will invade, questions are now centred on how long the attacks may last? How bad will it get? And what will the human cost be?

Meanwhile, Ukraine has announced mobilisation plans and banned men of age from leaving the country.

Andriy is fearful he will be forced to fight.

“I don’t think I will be a great warrior – the first time in my life holding a gun. We will just be cannon fodder,” he said. “I just don’t want my son to grow up without a father.”

Locals from eastern Mariupol found a shelter.
Locals from eastern Mariupol found a shelter in an evangelical church. Mariupol, Ukraine, February 24, 2022 [Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera