‘We waited for death’: Mariupol siege survivor recounts ordeal
The Ukrainian port city of Mariupol has been devastated by relentless Russian bombardment.
Vinnytsia, Ukraine – After days and nights of incessant bombardment, Sergey Vaganov thought that death would bring relief.
The 63-year-old retired photographer and his wife Iryna, 62, spent those days in a one-bedroom apartment in central Mariupol, the southern Ukrainian city of 430,000 devastated by more than two weeks of Russian air raids, cruise missiles and artillery attacks.
“I was thinking – what would we run out of first? Food? Water? Or will a bomb land on us?” Vaganov told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview after he and his wife managed to escape the city.
“At a certain point, I was waiting for the relief [of death], I had these half-suicidal thoughts,” he said.
Vaganov said it did not make sense to go to the damp and dark basement, because the raids were so frequent they would have had to relocate there full-time.
In the first days of the raids, the Vaganovs tried to stay away from the windows and doors so that the shards of glass would not wound or kill them.
Then, after the shock-waves shattered the windows, they simply stayed in bed.
“We just covered ourselves with three blankets and waited for death,” Vaganov said matter-of-factly.
By that time, they knew how Russian bombers sounded like – and how many bombs they would drop.
“When a plane flies, we know it would drop four bombs. [After] it does, we exhale with relief,” he said, reliving the experience in the present tense.
‘They decided to destroy it’
Mariupol is not the first city Vaganov has left due to war.
Until 2014, he lived in the largely Russian-speaking eastern city of Donetsk, where he worked for years as an orthopedist and later took up photojournalism, for which he won a string of domestic and international awards.
He photographed protests against the toppling of Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanykovych, a Donetsk region native, in February 2014 and also covered the subsequent war between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian armed forces.
He fled Donetsk later in 2014 after separatists seized the city, relocating to Mariupol – a port on the Sea of Azov 100km (62 miles) south of Donetsk – and bought a modest, third-floor apartment.
Despite absorbing tens of thousands of uprooted people from the Donbas regions of Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk and coming under direct attack from separatists, Mariupol remained a largely pro-Russian city.
Many of its residents rejected the glorification of vehemently anti-Russian figures such as Stepan Bandera whose Ukrainian Insurgent Army sided with Nazi Germany and participated in World War II killings of Jews and Poles.
No major Ukrainian party even tried to campaign there, and the city council was full of pro-Russian politicians of all stripes, Vaganov said. Many residents supported the Kremlin’s concept of the “Russian World,” or Moscow’s right to “protect” Russian speakers in the former Soviet Union politically and militarily.
“My neighbour who awaited the arrival of the Russian World, who spread horrible rumours about the Azov battalion – what did she expect?” Vaganov said referring to the far-right Ukrainian military unit accused of harbouring neo-Nazi and white supremacist views.
But as the threat of Russian attacks grew in recent months, the city overwhelmingly turned against Russia.
Weeks before the full-scale Russian invasion began on February 24, Vaganov attended outdoor training for the “territorial defence,” units being formed by Ukrainian volunteers. He learned how to assemble and dismantle an assault rifle, and saw volunteers put together Molotov cocktails.
But no training or wartime experience could prepare him for the horror of living through the air raids and shelling.
“When a city of half a million is being destroyed with bombs and rockets, all of that is useless,” he said.
Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera that Russia realised Mariupol would continue resist occupation if it fell.
“It would have been very difficult to control the city. They decided to destroy it,” he said.
The continuing Russian bombardment of Mariupol has killed more than 2,300 residents and destroyed huge swaths the city – leaving it without electricity, running water or central heating, and with only scarce supplies of food and medicine.
Its residents have been forced to spend hours standing in lines for water and to chop down trees and saw up furniture to light fires and cook meagre meals or boil water.
Vaganov, who has asthma and is disabled, could not handle the sawing and simply collected dry twigs from the ground to contribute to communal fires next to his apartment building.
“The biggest delicacy was to pour 1.5 litres of boiling water into a thermos and drink it. Not even tea, just the water,” he recalled.
The Vaganovs were lucky to have stores of potatoes, buckwheat and salo, uncured pork fat. Iryna boiled the remaining meat in salt and canned it in glass jars. They had honey, and neighbours gave them some carrots.
And, even more luckily, their apartment building remained intact, even though the bombing made it “move like it was made of Plasticine,” and the neighbouring nine-storey building “burned like a candle,” Vaganov said.
His building’s population changed constantly as people whose apartments were destroyed found shelter there after walking streets covered with rubble and frozen dead bodies.
The sight and thought of death became daily and prosaic to Vaganov.
“A man’s body was lying next to our building, and I was thinking for a long time – what shall I do with my wife’s body if something happens? And she told me she was thinking the same thing [about me],” Vaganov said.
On Monday, civilians were able to evacuate Mariupol for the first time since the Russian bombardment of the city began.
Earlier this week, Vaganov and his wife managed to escape Mariupol in a friend’s car – and are now recuperating in the western Ukrainian city of Uzhgorod that borders Slovakia.
Vaganov, who lost 10 kilograms during the siege (22 pounds), has been hospitalised to treat his asthma.
Their ordeal has taught him and his wife to keep their expectations to a minimum.
“We are alive. We will keep on living, one day at a time.”