Evacuees reveal horrors of Putin's bombardment in Mariupol

‘We hid in our basement as Mariupol was reduced to rubble’: Families reveal their terror of being trapped for weeks in war-torn city that they have seen ‘wiped out in a month’, writes IAN GALLAGHER

  • Russian forces continue to lay waste to besieged city of Mariupol with artillery
  • 160,000 people remain under constant bombardment and without vital supplies
  • Residents fear long-lasting psychological damage for their young children 

Trapped for weeks in a basement, Olga Anosova thought her apartment block in Mariupol was being specifically targeted.

Almost daily, Russian forces bombarded it with every kind of missile from all sides, stripping the nine storeys above Olga and her family to a shell.

With her husband Alexander, 39, eight-year-old son Kirill and mother Ludmila, 65, the 41-year-old lawyer hid in the freezing shelter, not knowing if the day would be their last.

It seems beyond comprehension, she says, but they shared the 540 sq ft room – the equivalent of three and a half car parking spaces – with more than 40 others. 

There was no room to lie down. They just sat, night after night in -8C conditions, waiting for the next missile.

It was only when Olga finally emerged on to Shevchenko Boulevard in the centre of the city at 7 o’clock one morning, tightly squeezing Kirill’s hand as they threaded their way through the streets of the most dangerous place on Earth, that she realised her apartment building was the same as every other one.

Russian forces have laid waste to her entire city, creating a humanitarian disaster that has seen Mariupol dubbed ‘Europe’s Aleppo’, after the devastated Syrian city.

And Vladimir Putin’s offensive will not let up until there is nothing, and no-one, left as he tries to make an example of the once-thriving hub.

Beyond what Olga describes as ‘unadulterated evil’, there is no reason for any of it.

‘Goodbye Mariupol,’ she whispered as she looked over her shoulder from her seat on an evacuation bus earlier this week as planes screeched above the ruins. 

Something told her they had to get out and two days later she was proven right, hearing that the basement that had been their home had been hit by a missile, killing 16.

‘I find it incredibly difficult to understand that a whole city could be wiped out in only a month,’ she says. ‘I’ve tried to wipe it from my memory.’

So, too, has Kirill. 

Olga Anosova (left) with her husband Alex and their son Kirill, eight, in Odessa after fleeing the horrors of Mariupol

Russian forces have laid waste to her entire city, creating a humanitarian disaster that has seen Mariupol dubbed ‘Europe’s Aleppo’, after the devastated Syrian city

As we talk in a cafe in Odessa – two days after their escape – Kirill demolishes a generous slice of chocolate cake. 

One might imagine him pale and sullen. But he seems normal. Worryingly so.

Not only normal but spirited, funny and chatty and certainly intelligent.

When the war started, Kirill was preparing for a national maths competition. His obviously proud mother ruffles his hair. 

While the other children in reception class were counting on their fingers, her boy was solving complex sums.

‘But when I ask him about Mariupol, he says he can’t remember anything, not even his friends. He just can’t talk about it,’ says Olga. 

She knows a psychological reckoning looms. She worries about her own mental health.

Yet she also knows her family are among the lucky ones. They escaped. Some 160,000 others remain under bombardment in the besieged city with no water, heating or electricity.

Earlier this week the city’s mayor Vadym Boychenko likened the devastation to that seen in Nazi concentration camps. He put the number of civilians killed at more than 5,000, including 210 children.

‘I don’t know how my own child made it through. It amazes me,’ says Olga. ‘He was a hero and looked after the other kids, sharing his sweets with them when they were scared.’

Kirill’s grandmother told him fairy tales to soothe him during bomb-punctuated nights, her voice struggling to rise above the noises of war outside. And then Ludmila began to fade, a combination of terror, high blood pressure, hunger and dehydration.

‘One day, two weeks ago, as she was trying to get up – helped by my husband – she just collapsed and died,’ says Olga. Alexander buried her in the yard outside while Kirill was preoccupied playing football in the corridor.

‘Kirill was desperately sad – those two were inseparable,’ says Olga. 

‘He kept looking for her picture on my phone and bursting into tears. I think she knew she was going to go. Two nights before she died she gave Kirill her coats and jackets and warmest jumpers.

‘And that’s how he stayed until our escape – wrapped up in his grandmother’s clothes.’

Kirill was five months old when his parents moved to Mariupol from Donetsk at the start of the Donbas war in the east.

‘We didn’t want the first years of his life to be defined by war, by shelling and bombs, so we moved to Mariupol for a new life,’ Olga says.

‘Oh, the irony. But back then it was peaceful here, by the sea, with fresh air and a friendly atmosphere.’ 

Like everyone else in this benighted land, that all changed on February 24 when Mariupol was awoken early by the rumble of tanks and shelling – sounds that came closer and closer.

Some 160,000 others remain under bombardment in the besieged city with no water, heating or electricity 

Residents walk past a near entirely burnt out building in Mariupol on Monday

The family lived in a first-floor apartment on Kirova Square. Ludmila was on the floor above but moved in with them when the fighting intensified.

Over the next fortnight, thousands fled the city for the safety of western Ukraine and beyond. Olga’s family discussed leaving but resolved to stay, reasoning that the war wouldn’t last. They were wrong and the bombing got worse.

‘Very soon all our windows were shattered and then the electricity went and all the utilities,’ she says. 

‘I found a metal container and started cooking out in the street on open fires with planes flying above me. I made soups and porridge while all the shelling went on around us. There was never a minute without shelling. 

‘It was dangerous of course and many people died outside cooking this way, mostly from shrapnel. But we had no choice. My husband would go to get water from the special tank nearby with missiles whizzing over his head.’

Meanwhile, their much-loved apartment block was repeatedly taking direct hits.

Fires broke out simultaneously on five of the nine floors. Soon, even though they were now in the basement, it became clear they would have to seek refuge elsewhere.

They were led by Ukrainian soldiers to another nine-storey block nearby on busy Shevchenko Boulevard, one of the city’s major thoroughfares. By now it was only safe if they remained in the basement.

‘Tanks were patrolling the streets, going up and down and firing in the direction of any movement. We couldn’t even open the door an inch. I had to keep Kirill close because he’s at that age when boys are fascinated by tanks and armoured vehicles and he kept wanting to go outside to look.’

They got by on what of food they could stockpile. 

‘Eventually, though, there was nothing left. One of our neighbours has an 18-month-old boy and she decided she would go back upstairs into her flat and bring back some food. 

‘She never returned and we learned that she had been killed in the air strike. Some Ukrainian soldiers came to take the baby away a few days later.’

It was the death of the toddler’s mother that convinced them to try to escape, however perilous.

Outside, they saw bodies, tank-flattened cars and a carpet of rubble and glass. They realised that the only buses leaving town were Russian but, at this stage, didn’t much care. They had to get out.

And so they went east, not west, to a Russian-occupied town along the coast. 

They managed to hitch a ride on a Red Cross bus to Zaporizhzhia, 130 miles north, before catching a train to Odessa. They plan to travel to Moldova, where Olga has relatives.

She sighs: ‘The world knows some of the horrors of Mariupol but not all – there is more to come, I’m sure. What was once our happy home is now a graveyard.’ 

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