One of the hottest spots on the map of Ukraine, still under attack by Russia, is Mariupol, a city on the coast of the Sea of Azov. Surrounded during the very first days of the war, continuously shelled, the residents have been living without electricity, water, gas, communication, food and medicines for a long while now. Innocent people die here every day. Maksim Siverskij worked at our Ukrainian branch – Polaris Vision Ukraine – as a software engineer when he came to Mariupol to visit his parents – and suddenly became a war hostage. On February 26, he was supposed to go back to Kyiv, but to say the war has changed his plans would be an underestimation – it turned his life upside down.
Luckily, Maksim survived and escaped the hell alive. Today, we’re speaking to him in Lithuania, and it’s only been three days since he landed at the Vilnius Airport. Our conversation is about a young man living in a warzone – what he had to go through, what tactics helped him and his family survive, and what a harrowing journey he had to endure to finally get back to safety.
Despite constant talks about the danger of war, few people in Ukraine actually believed it was about to start. Solving conflicts with guns in the 21st century seemed too absurd and stupid. But, on February 24, the war did begin.
That day was calm in Mariupol – no war actions took place in the city as Russia’s attack was mainly focused on Kyiv and Kharkiv coming from the direction of Belarus. “If someone hadn’t told me the war had begun, I wouldn’t have known,” Maksim remembers.
Martial law immediately went into effect in Maksim’s country; all transport junctions and internal and international routes were closed. Movement within the country came into paralysis. A little later, these restrictions were canceled, but during the first days of the war, people had to stay where they found themselves at the very beginning.
The situation in Mariupol began changing swiftly, and life in the city started reminding more of an apocalyptic movie scene. Fights close to Mariupol began on February 25. At first, they took place in fields outside the town and went on between military units only. Later, shelling and explosions started coming closer and closer. On February 28, the electricity supply stopped. A few hours later, there was no water, and, in the following morning, people lost gass, too. The mobile connection wasn’t working anymore. Shops closed. Food perished quickly because there was no way to store it properly. Once military devices stopped working, those trapped in the city couldn’t even receive warnings from the air-raid sirens. First buildings collapsed from shelling and cruise missiles, and reports about first war victims surfaced.
At first, Maksim’s family decided that hiding in the basement of their building wasn’t expedient, as it meant spending time without water, food, and fresh air. Besides, there was a high risk of getting trapped underneath the ruins of a nine-story building. What were the odds that a missile would miss the building and it won’t collapse? So, they decided to stay in the apartment and keep closer to the retaining walls, further away from the windows. Until one day, a cruise missile hit the building… But more on that later, because until that moment, Maksim had to follow his gut and intuitively navigate between life and death.
Was it scary? Upon hearing this question, Maksim takes a moment to think: “I wouldn’t say so. You can be scared if you can resist somehow – run, fight. But we couldn’t do anything – the city was surrounded by the enemy.”
Left without mobile connection and electricity, Maksim and his family looked for ways to contact others and escape the informational vacuum they found themselves in. Once, in the suburbs of the city, Maksim noticed a guy with a phone in his hands, rushing towards a multi-story building. Apparently, on the top floors of the building, located in Pryazovske village, some 10 kilometers away from Mariupol and not-yet-occupied at the time, you could still get a mobile signal. For the first time since the beginning of the war, Maksim could call someone. “First, I called my colleague, then had some quick conversations with close ones and other colleagues – I had to preserve my battery,” tells Maksim. “I simply let them know I am alive.”
Unfortunately, at the end of March, the village was taken over, too, and Maksim, together with other residents, remained without any connections to the outer world.
Maksim tells us that life in utter deprivation made people look for effective ways to survive. Even though at the beginning of the war, each family lived independently, soon everyone realized that it’s impossible to survive on your own. It’s much easier to tackle most issues together as a group.
“People were forced to unite – someone has something the other needs, and vice versa. Finally, everyone living in our stairway, all nine floors, started working together. Only a few recluses remained.”
Together, the residents solved the electricity issue – they bought a simple yet functional petrol generator, so people could at least charge their phones. Vodka, wine, and cigarettes became currency. Later, they filled the generator with petrol they got by exchanging their vodka. Three liters of petrol were enough for everyone to charge their phones to 40 %.
“We also did the cooking together. First, we did it outside, next to the house, but as the shelling and bombing increased, we built a kitchen in the basement: we used bricks to build a stove, and parts of the roof became drainage to let out the smoke. We would collect rainwater to wash our hands and dishes. But we needed a well to get drinking water, and the closest one was some 3.5 kilometers away,” tells Maksim.
One person could carry no more than 30 liters of water, so they used whatever they had to make a sort of a trolley: they got wheels from a trash can, made a wooden base and some metal sides. With that, one person could bring some 120-150 liters of water in one journey.
The road towards the well was under constant shelling, so there was always a big risk that one won’t come back after the trip. “But what can you do? You need water,” says our colleague. “We would leave as early as we could, at 4 or 5 am, still a few hours before the curfew is lifted. According to the rules, you couldn’t move about the city from 6 pm to 6 am, but we noticed that was the time when the shelling stopped. It would start again after the curfew.”
People who would go for water were rotating all the time, and they always had to rely on luck whether they’ll make it or not. One of these trips could have been the last for Maksim, too. A projectile exploded about 500 meters from him, and the wave of the explosion knocked him down. Sadly, those who were closer to the projectile died.
We are lucky we decided to leave home that day. Had the water not been frozen, we would have stayed home, and I wouldn’t be here alive.
“War, exploding missiles became part of our daily lives; I couldn’t remember that it used to be different at some point,” sighs Maksim.
There was only one goal left – to survive, that is, to somehow satisfy the basic human needs: get some water, chop wood for the fire, find and exchange food products and other basic necessities. And all of that with a threat in the background – a threat that a bullet will hit you or a cruise missile will come.
Maksim’s family story is a truly miraculous one. When the water completely froze (because of lack of heating, it was freezing cold everywhere), they decided to visit some relatives who lived in a private house, so they could warm up and melt the ice. Once Maksim and his family got back, they saw that a missile had flown straight into the hallway and went through the whole building. Only those who were hiding in the basement or had left the building, like Maksim himself, survived the attack. But we’ll skip the horrific images the young engineer and his family had to witness.
Maksim’s family home burnt down, and their car was full of holes. “It is a miracle we are alive,” states Maksim. “We are lucky we decided to leave home that day. Had the water not been frozen, we would have stayed home, and I wouldn’t be here alive.”
It took a couple of tries for Maksim to escape Mariupol. On March 6, when the roads leading out of the city were opened, the family car was still running. But there were so many refugees, it seemed impossible to get to your turn. People were waiting for three, four days straight. Maksim’s family decided to wait for a little – until the mayhem comes down a bit. Unfortunately, Russian soldiers surrounded the city, and the roads were closed again.
Some residents tried escaping by bypassing the main roads, ignoring the threat of driving over a mine, and some succeeded. Then the route would become a green corridor as people would tell others of safe, mine-free roads. Maksim’s family also intended to use one of those routes, but their car was too damaged. Even after some DIY fixing with some improvised supplies, the car could go at 40 kilometers per hour maximum, you had to hold one of the doors by hand, and the windows were barely attached with branches.
According to Maksim, at first, people tried to escape to other Ukrainian cities, but once Mariupol and its surroundings were taken over, it became easier to run to Russia. Once a humanitarian corridor was open, and there was at least a theoretical chance of escaping, Maksim decided to act.
“At first, we thought we would go together,” remembers Maksim. “But finally, we understood that without a car, it’s easier to do it when alone – there’s a bigger chance to succeed hitchhiking, besides, it’s easier to find a spot on a bus for one person.” On April 15, at 8 am, Maksim’s escape from Mariupol began.
The man had to go through multiple cordons to access Donetsk – a republic occupied by the Russians. Then, his road led to Moscow, where he has some relatives, and finally, the ultimate destination – Vilnius, Lithuania. Although, at that point, Maksim had no idea how he’d get there.
“I mostly walked by foot, sometimes, people would give me a lift. Since there was no mobile connection and my navigation didn’t work, I had to follow road signs,” says Maksim. He remembers that the scariest parts were the cordons that were far from civilized customs – they were more closely related to a despotic robbery. “They would take everything out of the backpack, empty the pockets, steal money and other valuables, watches. They would also check our phones – social media, photo galleries, chats. If they had the slightest suspicion, the consequences could have been the worst. Soldiers would force people to do squats, sing the Russian anthem…”
Maksim tried to avoid those cordons – he would circumvent them some 100 meters away. But it wasn’t always successful. At one point, they took some of his money. The Russian soldiers called him a “Ukrainian fascist”, interrogated him for an hour and tried to compromise him. “I realized that there simply is no right answer,” remembers Maksim. “I figured it was best to say something close to the truth without revealing too much detail. “I’m going to visit my relatives” – that’s enough. I would only speak when they would ask me a question.”
At about 10 pm, Maksim finally made it to the Russian border in Novoazovsk. Luckily, the guards here treated refugees like humans. In fact, the conditions in which they had to wait, compared to life in Mariupol, seemed heavenly: a warm tent, light, water, and even a doctor.
Checking the paperwork took about 8 hours. At 6 am, Maksim was on the Russian side of the border. “In the papers, I wrote that the goal of my visit is transit through Russia. Nobody asked me to be more precise and tell where I’m going,” remembers Maksim.
On the evening of April 16, Maksim reached Taganrog – he traveled by foot, by bus, and even by taxi with some fellow passengers. It took him a day to travel to Moscow – where Maksim’s godmother lives – from Rostov-on-Don.
“She is one of those people who are embarrassed by the actions of their country. In Russia, many people support Ukraine, but it’s dangerous to show it publicly,” tells Maksim. “You can get eight years of prison for a peaceful slogan. Police are everywhere, looking to catch people.”
Maksim spent four days in Moscow looking for ways to reach Lithuania. Because of sanctions, there were no direct flights, so he first had to fly to Yerevan (Armenia), then Warsaw (Poland), and only then – to Lithuania. And finally, on April 24, Maksim landed at Vilnius Airport.
“I can’t say I’m calm at heart. My family is still in Ukraine. Sometimes, they manage to get internet access and contact me. I’m trying to persuade them to leave. And I believe that one day, they will escape Mariupol.”
They would take everything out of the backpack, empty the pockets, steal money and other valuables, watches. They would also check our phones. If they had the slightest suspicion, the consequences could have been the worst.
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