‘I had no idea I’d never go back’: Mariupol survivors, a year on

Al Jazeera catches up with former residents of the city where Russia is alleged to have carried out atrocities.

People leaving from Mariupol train station to Kyiv.
People leaving from Mariupol train station to Kyiv last year [File: Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]

It was a striking picture.

Valentyna Konstantinovska, then 79, laid out on the floor wearing a lemon-yellow coat, learning to aim a mock assault rifle at a civilian weapons training in Ukraine’s southeastern port city of Mariupol.

Less than two weeks later, on February 24, Russia invaded.

The city was cut off and laid siege to, with Ukrainian officials estimating that as many as 25,000 civilians were killed and at least 95 percent of Mariupol was destroyed in the brutal months that followed.

Konstantinovska had planned to stay behind, no matter what.

“I love my city, I am not leaving. Putin can’t scare us off,” she told Al Jazeera at the time during a training session by the city’s Azov Regiment. “We will stand for our Ukraine until the very end,”

A group of older women who had volunteered for the war effort since 2014, nicknamed the “Babushka Battalion”, said they would take up arms or even go “mano a mano” (hand to hand) if they had to protect their beloved city.

Now, like many of Mariupol’s former residents, most are scattered all over Ukraine, and the world.

Members of the army of grannies have ended up as far as Germany and the United Kingdom, but a few stayed in Mariupol.

Liudmyla Smahlenko, 66, stayed in the Ukrainian port city to help with the deluge of wounded at a local hospital before escaping and relocating to Norway midyear.

Valentyna Konstantynovska, 79, training for the possible Russian invasion in Mariupol, Ukraine.
Valentyna Konstantynovska, 79, training for the imminent Russian invasion in Mariupol, Ukraine on February 13, 2022 [File: Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]

No return

One year on from the start of the war, Konstantinovska is currently living in Vita-Pochtovaya, near Kyiv, after stints in Poland and Spain.

She returned to Ukraine to once again help the front by volunteering six days a week to gather supplies and weave nets.

“I never wanted to leave Mariupol. I thought I would be useful there. I attended classes so I could help the wounded – we were set to resist,” she said.

However, on February 26, 2022, Konstantinovska received a call from her granddaughter, who has diabetes and was in Poland.

She said she had fainted while looking after her daughter because her blood sugar dropped to dangerously low levels, and that no one was around to help.

Knowing how serious diabetes and its repercussions can be, Konstantinovska threw on some clean trousers, a sweater and some food into a backpack and rushed to catch the 3pm train west to Lviv.

Once on board, the conductor informed her it was the last train out of Mariupol. A few hours later, the track was blown up, and within a few days, the city had been completely cut off.

“It was only when I got to Poland that I discovered my family had made the whole thing up to lure me out of Mariupol. My children understood the consequences of my refusal to leave,” she said.

“I only turned the heater down a little bit when I left thinking it would be nice to come back to a warm apartment when I return. I had no idea I would never go back.”

She learned from neighbours who stayed that her house in Mariupol has since been destroyed and her belongings looted.

“Things that can’t be replaced are gone,” she said. “Gifts my late husband bought from overseas when he was a captain. But everyone in my family is alive with all their arms and legs. I have started a new life that will lead to victory.”

Fight between good and evil

The siege of Mariupol is the worst atrocity Russian forces in Ukraine are accused of to date.

In Mariupol, Russia is accused of multiple alleged war crimes, including an attack on a drama theatre that is thought to have killed more than 600 people, according to an investigation by The Associated Press news agency, the last remaining media organisation in the city as the violence escalated.

With tens of thousands of people fleeing for safety, a once tight-knit community has been changed forever.

Friends, neighbours, and people who coexisted together for their entire lives, now live miles apart.

The people Al Jazeera interviewed in Mariupol last year are now spread around the globe: the UK, Canada, Portugal, Turkey, the United States and France.

On the first night of the war, Al Jazeera met Viktorii and Andriy Voytsekhovskyy who were seeking shelter in a subterranean church.

Earlier that day, Andriy had a lucky escape. A grad rocket crashed into an apartment 15 metres (49 feet) from him as he walked his Jack Russell, Chelsea, near their home in the city’s left bank.

Two men sitting at a diner table.
Andriy and his wife Viktorii Voytsekhovskyy, both 28, left their house in Mariupol at the beginning of the war and first stayed in an evangelical church for shelter [File: Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]

With their neighbourhood among the worst affected, being hit with missiles even before the invasion began, they fled the following day.

Viktorii and the couple’s son, Leon, then two years old, made it to the Netherlands, but Andriy was unable to leave Ukraine because men aged 18 and 60 were instructed to stay and fight the Russians.

Viktorii and Leon have now moved to Ternopil, western Ukraine, to be close to Andriy, who is a humanitarian volunteer.

Living for years within 20km (12 miles) of the tense front line with Russian proxy forces, the family invented a fairytale to soothe Leon’s fears.

There is an “evil king” and he wants them to be afraid, but they will not give him that.

Now, Viktorii is in the final stages of finishing her first animated film based on the story, which she plans to release later this year.

“It helped my son understand what was going on – it was a fight between good and evil. He called the jets ‘evil dragons’ that were ‘spitting fire everywhere’, the tanks for him were caterpillars with guns,” she said.

It gave her the idea to depict the war in Ukraine through a child’s eyes. The film’s production team is made up of Ukrainians who fled Mariupol.

“If I had not been able to do something like this, I think I would go crazy,” she said. “We never feel safe any more, it’s very stressful. We live every day as if it could be our last.”

Konstantinovska, on the other hand, feels no trauma after losing everything.

Only “anger and hatred towards the Russians”, she said.

If she had stayed in Mariupol, she thinks she would probably be among the first dead.

“If I had got caught, I’d have bitten these Russians – that’s how angry I was at them,” she said. “Crying does not buy you freedom. It is the one who fights that gains the world.”

Source: Al Jazeera