Miracle in Mariupol
Spent two hours with Sasha & Nadia yesterday in a Vienna Starbucks, listening to how they and sons, Vlad (15) & Dima (8) survived 6 weeks in a cellar, escaped via DNR, Russia, Georgia. Goal: Canada.
Earlier this week, I received a text message. One of many. The user account said simply “Oleksandr Ukraine”. He wrote that he was in a Vienna dorm with Natalia and her family, also from Mariupol, whom I wrote about here. He and his family survived the entire battle of Mariupol. He would like to share his story. Maybe it would help me raise more money for Hofer cards, to help other Ukrainians? (yes, he really said it like that).
It was a good thing that I grabbed a lot of paper and two pens, because once we ordered Nadia a green tea (Sasha didn’t want to drink anything), the couple started talking, and I sat captivated, frozen in time and space, listening to their unbelievable journey, a testament to the human spirit, to the will to live, to the power of faith (and I say this as a very not religious person), to what ordinary people are capable of when they let go of fear and focus on survival.
I would like to share Sasha and Nadia’s story in their own words. They came without their boys to meet me. It is clear they want to put the horrors they lived through behind them and give their boys a fresh start. “We as adults will carry the trauma with us, but the children, we hope they can one day forget.”
Sasha introduces himself and his lovely wife Nadia by explaining they survived the entire battle for Mariupol in the cellar of their nine-story Soviet apartment building built in the late 1970s.
On February 24, Sasha, a professional sailor, was awoken by text message from friends living in other cities in Ukraine, with the news the war has begun. Nadia’s brother arrived soon after from Volnovakha, which was immediately under attack. Bombs started to fall on Mariupol, too. Sasha gathered the family’s documents and what cash they had at home, but didn’t think the Russians would arrive so quickly. Nadia adds she had food at home, she had just done a big grocery shop.
Then, Sasha says, “bakh bakh bakh”, explaining the sound of Russia’s attack nearby.
Lines formed at local ATMs. The family estimates they had about two weeks worth of food at the time. Mariupol city authorities did not issue an evacuation order, but told everyone to sit at home. “Like during covid,” I asked? Yes, Sasha nods.
Sasha’s mother lived in another area of Mariupol. On February 26, he got someone to drive him to her, brought her some money, told her to buy kasha. Sasha looks at me and says: I didn’t know then it was the last time I would see her. I would have said goodbye. He explains, his mother and brother were killed. He will get to that part later.
On February 27 they lost electricity. Kyiv and Kharkiv were being bombed. By March 2, they had lost water and communications. Before the water was cut off, Sasha told Nadia they should fill up the bathtub in their apartment with water, and all the available pots and pans. The tap water of course isn’t immediately drinkable; it must be boiled. But they stored what water they could in their apartment before the Russians turned off all water supply to Mariupol.
The family lived in a fourth floor apartment. Until March 6, they slept all together in the tiny corridor (1 meter by 2 meters) of their apartment hallway. Russian bombs fell every day. Cars in front of their apartment building were hit and exploded. The buildings windows all shattered with the power of the explosions. After that, the residents moved to the cellar.
The cellar had an earth floor and was in no way designed for anyone to live down there. Sasha estimates between 150-200 people crowded into this underground space; the apartment building had four entrances and was pretty large. It was extremely cold. Nadia says the temperature in the cellar ranged from +9 to +11C. They slept together as tight as they could to stay warm. Their assigned space in the cold damp cellar was 1.5 by 2 meters.
Didn’t people try to leave, I asked? Sasha explains: he didn’t own a car. Others did, and tried to get out via Ukraine at that point, but the Russians closed the ways out and often people would return two or three times with their cars shot up with Russian bullets.
From March 6 until April 17, Sasha, Nadia, Vlad and Dima lived in the cellar with no access to food or water other than what they managed to secure for themselves. Every trip outside, whether for wood or water, was risking one’s life. Bodies lay on the streets. A woman and her daughter, killed as they went out in search of water. Sasha recalls locals called the walk for water “the life road” because you risked your life each time you searched for water.
“Our kids are heroes,” Sasha recalls, “they never cried, not even once.” Nadia nods along, wiping back tears. I am in a way happy to see that she can cry. I have met others who do not yet process their emotions, for whom tears do not come easily yet.
Somehow Nadia managed to boil a soup each day, using whatever was available, even if it was just a few carrots and an onion. Non-stop aerial bombings continued until the end of March. The Russians attacked with artillery, aerial bombs, phosphorous bombs. The phosphorous bombs leave the horrible black charred stains on the buildings. It was such a bomb which killed Sasha’s mother and brother in their apartment. They were buried with dozens of others in a mass grave. Sasha didn’t know this at the time. He only found out about their deaths after communications were restored, much later.
Sasha and Nadia took water from their apartment and used it sparingly. He points to my Tall Cold Brew, and says, “we had a cup that size of water in the morning and a cup like that in the evening, and we shared it amongst the four of us”.
When food supplies ran out, they began to search for food in neighbouring buildings, in the apartments of those who had fled already. When the bombs and the fighting was far away “700 meters” Sasha explains, they would dare to emerge and check next door. Sometimes we found honey or jam.
Sasha explains “I didn’t sleep at night. At night there was a different war. The war with the rats. I had to kill them with a stick. I chased them. They would come out and try and eat our food supplies: 2 carrots, 1 apple. I tried to sleep for a few hours during the day instead.” Nadia nods, “They were everywhere. They would crawl on our heads.”
How did you have any energy, I asked them both. God gave us energy, Sasha replies immediately. He looks at me, sitting, trim in a button down shirt and jeans, not taller than me, “I used to weigh 80 kilograms. I know it’s hard to believe now.” Sasha lost 22 kilograms, Nadia lost 10. “The kids,” she says, “they were very thin. If we found a cookie we would break it in half so they could share.” They didn’t shower for two months.
The Russian bombing was so relentless they couldn’t emerge to search for wood or cook outside. There was one mangal (BBQ rack over wood) for everyone. One day, Sasha wanted to get the family’s soup from outside, which was really just water and carrots and an onion, but it was boiling and would boil over soon. A sniper was active. Three times Sasha tried to run outside from the cellar to grab the pot, three times the sniper shot. An old man, Victor Dmitrievich, was watching, and warned Sasha, “he is out to get you. Don’t do it. Leave the soup.” But Sasha was determined. A fourth time he emerges, grabs the pot with his bare hands (he burned them), and runs back in, hearing the sound of a bullet whizzing past his ear. “When you hear the sound, you know you are safe,” he explains. I sit listening with my jaw on the table. The sniper was bored. He tried to kill Sasha for fun. And Sasha just wanted to feed his kids.
One day, the Russians arrived. Or more precisely, soldiers with Buryat nationality. They gathered up all the residents of the cellar, and took them to a nearby technical college. The Mariupol residents begged: please don’t break open our apartment doors, we will open them for you. There were never any Ukrainian army positions anywhere near Sasha’s building, he explains. But there were thieves: homeless, drug addicts, they roamed abandoned buildings looking for anything valuable to steal. The Russians did their own stealing while the families were in the technical college: they blew open the apartment doors and took everything they could find of any value — laptops, watches, electric shavers, bicycles. Sasha jokes they even stole his backpack which had the Ukrainian trident on it!
The residents were held in the college for 48 hours. There were 15 soldiers. They called all men aged 18 to 65 in for questioning. An officer sat at a table, soldiers on either side of him, about seven in total in the room, each Mariupol male had to go in alone. They told Sasha to stand by the wall. Then they told him to face the wall. He was already expecting the worst. There was a Christmas tree painted on the wall. “I’m not afraid of death,” Sasha explains, “but I didn’t want to die such a stupid death, shot in front of a Yolka painted onto a wall.”
The Russians made Sasha undress. They checked him for tattoos. They asked him if he saw any Ukrainian nationalists. They asked him why he isn’t in the Ukrainian army. Eventually, they released all the residents after they had stolen what they wanted to take.
By April 17, Sasha and his family could emerge from the cellar. Fighting was now concentrated solely around Azovstal. The Russians were starting to bring in humanitarian food aid, but it was an hour’s walk on foot, and you had to wait in line six hours. They didn’t go immediately. Sasha and Nadia got to work cleaning their apartment, but they still slept in the cellar. On April 20, Nadia recalls, she could wash her hair for the first time. During this time, people were helping each other. Sasha recalls a neighbour gifted them a bag of kasha. There was a family of 16 who lived in a ground floor apartment in their building. The father was arrested in May and no one has heard from him since. They imagine he is in one of the DNR prisons, if he is still alive at all.
Sasha’s thoughts wander. Some people ate dog food. Others killed pigeons. The city lost 70% of its pigeons, he says. When humanitarian aid arrived, the alcoholics were trading it for booze. Sasha and Nadia traded the moonshine they had at home for food. One day, a volunteer arrived, who had a working SIM card, a Russian number (DNR provider). Sasha asked if they could make a call. They called Nadia’s sister, who lives near Donestk, in DNR. It was then they learned Sasha’s mother and brother had been killed when a Russian bomb hit their apartment building. Nadia’s sister had been searching for her online for two months.
As Nadia began to go out in search of food aid, Sasha put together a plan to flee. He refers to “Putler” and the “Raschists” which is a play on words for Putin (Hitler) and Russians (Faschists). A friend stopped by and brought them four loaves of bread. Bread! Sasha says, it was so wonderful. They talked about how to leave. Sasha knew you could find people from DNR who would get you out of Mariupol, for money of course. He gathered a small group: another couple with a child, and an elderly couple. Nine people in total. Sasha said he would pay for them all.
You never know even the names of the “businessmen” who help you get out. You find them online, you say what you need, you pay in cash. Sasha and his family left Mariupol on May 18. He paid extra to avoid the infamous DNR “filtration” camps which meant the Ford Transit minibus drove over fields instead of roads. It started to rain. He was scared the car would get stuck in the mud. On May 18 they reached Berdyansk. There they had finally a mobile phone connection and could take showers. And electricity! Nadia recalls she would turn the lights on and off, not quite believing it was really working. To get the nine of them to Berdyansk and avoid the filtration camps, Sasha paid $950 in cash to the “businessmen”.
A couple rented them a little house very cheaply, and Sasha began to search for the next transport: to get them to Georgia via Crimea and Russia. First, he got the older couple to Ukraine via a “quiet spot” on the front lines. For this he paid $120 and a van arrived at 5am. The older couple wanted Ukraine, and they would be let out. This would not have been an option for Sasha and his family, as the Russians do not let army-age men out of DNR territory back to Ukraine.
Next up, transport via Crimea and Russia to Georgia. Sasha paid $300 per adult and $150 per child. He called a number he got from a friend and was a trusted source. They passed through 18 checkpoints on their way from Berdyansk to Crimea. The Russians let them through, Sasha thinks the kids were helpful, and the Russians think you are trying to get to Russia. At the border to Crimea, all the men aged 18-65 face interrogation by men in uniforms without insignia and masks. Their families wait in tents on the other side for hours for them to emerge. Nadia and the kids went ahead, with the other mother and child, while Sasha and Dima (the other dad) were held for questioning.
Dima was released 8 hours later. Sasha was held for 12 hours. They found a photo in his phone of him wearing a T-shirt in 2015 with a Ukrainian trident while on holiday somewhere. A new shift of interrogators arrived and the questioning starts over. It all takes place in containers with sections. You hear the beatings and the screaming next to you, Sasha recalls. They taped a man’s mouth after he screamed too much. There are beatings using a stick to the legs. Three men interrogate at once. They are in masks with no identification. An atmosphere of pure fear. Sasha was held from 11am until 1am. He explains the interrogators really believe the Russian propaganda. They really think everyone who lived in Mariupol is a Azov fighter or Ukrainian ultra-nationalist.
Sasha tells them: I don’t know anything, I didn’t see anything, I was in a cellar the whole time, just trying to save my family. If I was in a cellar, how can I know which army bombed me? There was a change of shift. A new interrogator arrived. Sasha told him he is sailor. The man was one too. After a series of test questions, the Russian obviously understood Sasha is really a professional sailor. Sasha thinks this saved his life. At the end, when they finally said Sasha can go, he couldn’t believe it, he asked them three times. He recalls a tearful reunion with Nadia and the boys.
They drove onwards, over the Crimean bridge to Russia, through Ossetia. At the Russian-Georgian border, the men had to give fingerprints. A Russian border guard suggested it was a lie that Russia had destroyed Mariupol. A female guard was awful. Separated Sasha and Dima again for questioning. The FSB got involved. Sasha made the mistake of calling it a war and was then corrected to say “special operation”. Sasha asks what’s the difference? “The name change won’t bring my mother or brother back to life.” They were quiet then. The FSB guys told Sasha if Russia hadn’t done what it did, Ukraine would have attacked Russia. At each step of this harrowing journey it becomes clear to Sasha the Russians really believe their state’s propaganda.
When the van finally drove into Georgia, Sasha was impatient. He kept asking the driver: are we in Georgia yet? Not yet. Still no? Nope. And finally, the driver turns to Sasha, after they emerge from a tunnel, and says, smiling wide in a singsong Georgian accent, “now we are in Georgia”. The relief is still palpable as Sasha and Nadia tell me their story in this Starbucks in Vienna, months later. Freedom. It was the end of May. There was still snow on the mountain tops.
Sasha explains, “I am 42. I want a new life for my kids. We are applying for visas to Canada. We came to Austria because we heard the visa applications may be processed faster here.” Sasha, Nadia, Vlad and Dima have been in Austria since August 16. They are staying in a dorm with Natalia and her family, also from Mariupol, whom I wrote about a few days ago. The families both plan to go to Canada. Sasha has his eyes on Alberta. Oil and gas jobs. School. A future for their boys.
I look up, and it’s been two hours. I ask what help they need now. Tickets to Canada are super expensive, and those on the free charter flights disappear almost as soon as they are put online. Sasha suspects someone built a “bot” to capture the seats. I explain that maybe by sharing their really unbelievable journey some families in Canada may offer to help them with flights to Alberta, with finding housing.
While in Austria, they are in limbo, and also in need of help, financial, I imagine, although Sasha didn’t dare ask, only graciously accepted a Hofer card (one cannot work legally in Austria while waiting like this), and perhaps also residential, although I know housing in Vienna is an absolute nightmare now. There is none left. Both Natalia and Sasha would need short-term housing for their families of six and four respectively. Sasha and Nadia have already a very good feel for what the refugee process actually is in Austria, and are confident in their decision to go to Canada. I nod in agreement. I don’t need to say more. “Chaos” Sasha says matter-o-factly. That’s the right word, I nod quietly.
But most importantly, I would love to give Sasha and Nadia the feeling that the world heard their voices, felt their pain, understands what they and so many others went through. Sasha impressed me with his character: an unwavering will to live and to protect his loved ones. Nadia cries softly as she remembers what they went through. I am happy to see that she can cry. At the end, I give her a hug, shake Sasha’s hand, and promise to do my best to tell their story in English as they told me in Russian.
To contact Sasha directly, please message me on Twitter for his contact. Sasha, thanks to years as a professional sailor on international waters, speaks English. He and Nadia (and Natalia) also told their stories here:
Thank you for reading. I know this was a long and heavy one. It feels so important, for the sake of history, to share these stories.
This photo is the one Sasha says everyone asks for. A building in Mariupol destroyed by a Russian bomb, and the icon of the Virgin Mary, survives, in tact.
Sasha says he prayed to God every night during those six weeks in the cellar.
To help other Ukrainian refugee families in Austria with €50 of groceries, we would be grateful for your donations here.
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