“I went into the hell of Mariupol to rescue my parents”

As Russian forces surrounded Mariupol, a young Ukrainian girl undertook an extraordinary journey to the besieged city to rescue her parents.

Her name is Anastasia Pavlova and she is one of the few people who has braved the risk of attack or kidnapping to get through the battle lines and the blockade.

The BBC spoke to her about the “apocalypse” she witnessed there.

Within days of Russia’s invasion, Anastasia Pavlova understood what war would mean for Ukraine.

The 23-year-old managed to escape the bombing of Kharkiv, a city where the attack on residential areas was “indiscriminate” from the beginning, in the words of the local mayor.

Anastasia went with her fiancé, Abakelia, to the city of Dnipro, in the south of the country. She felt safer there, at Abakelia’s family, but she suffered from the fate of her parents, who lived on the outskirts of Mariupol.

His mother, Oksana, had faith. She found peace in prayer and nursed the roses in her little bungalow of brick in the Cheryomushki neighborhood, an industrial suburb. For the 54-year-old religious studies teacher, the city is the most special in the country. “She has a great name, Mariúpol, in honor of the Virgin Mary,” she explains.

But their prayers were being drowned out as the Russian troops advanced.

Oksana in her work as a teacher of religious studies

Oksana Pavlova
Before the war, Oksana taught religious studies; he says that his students were safely evacuated.

“Day after day, shells of various calibers flew over the roof of our small house,” says Oksana. “On the fourth day of the war I started thinking, ‘I’m not going to get through this.'”

Mariupol quickly descended into what one aid agency described as “hell” as Moscow forces laid siege to the city. Amid the fighting, civilians had to search for food and water: running water and electricity were cut off and communications collapsed.

Thousands were killed. Military checkpoints controlled movement in and out. missile-rockets Grad Thrown from the backs of military trucks in what is sometimes described as a “hail storm,” they hit the district where Oksana and her husband Dmitry make their home.

“I couldn’t catch my breath,” he recalls as he describes what happened in biblical terms. It was a storm, she says.

Oksana managed to talk to her daughter in a rushed phone call. She warned Anastasia: “Don’t come.” But at the end of March, five weeks after the start of the war, Anastasia decided to try driving to Mariupol. A feat fraught with danger and exceptionally rare to attempt if not done by official humanitarian groups.

The young woman hired a driver and a van belonging to a group of volunteers who were also trying to help evacuate people from the city. They started from Zaporizhia, northwest of Mariupol, and the last relatively safe city before the battlefront.

“Nobody wanted to be the lead vehicle,” explains Anastasia. “They thought that if someone wanted to shoot at the caravan, they were going to shoot at the lead vehicle first. My driver was very brave. He said: ‘We are going to be the first vehicle.’ I clung to my seat and thought, ‘Okay, I’ve made up my mind, no matter what.’”

satellite image of burning apartment buildings in northeastern Mariupol, Ukraine, 19 March 2022

Getty Images

They took a photo of them just before leaving. “I’m smiling here,” she says. “But I am scared. I couldn’t be more scared.”

Anastasia grew increasingly anxious as they drove more than 260 km from Ukrainian-controlled territory, crossing battle lines and navigating the first Russian checkpoint.

He was surprised to find a crew of “skinny guys who were embarrassed to ask to open the car.” As they moved deeper into Russian-occupied territory, “more military” guards appeared, wearing uniforms bearing DPR stripes from the self-proclaimed Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic in the country’s east. .

“At one of the checkpoints, while they were checking the documents, the soldiers pointed a machine gun barrel at our heads,” says Anastasia. They demanded to know why they were traveling. She explained to them that she was going to help her parents and that she brought medicine to her father.

I couldn’t help but feel so scared. “You feel that they are going to take your vehicle, that they are going to shoot you, or that they are going to rape you. You constantly expect this to happen. It’s scary. You realize that none of your rights are respected here,” she says.

Meanwhile, Oksana and her husband Dmitry slept on the floor under blankets and pillows to survive in Mariupol. The house shook under the bombing and shock waves. Her neighbor cut firewood for outdoor cooking.

“Even in the bombing we realized this connection between humans,” says Oksana. “This help was like the saying they have in war: salvation is found in mercy, in mutual help. Someone had a decent stove, we had some wheat. Others had some water left. We visited an old man in the neighborhood. We were comforting each other, and that made me not feel so scared.”

Drive to Mariupol

Anastasia Pavlova
On the way to Mariupol.

Anastasia did not know if she would find her parents alive. They traveled for nine hours until they reached a devastated city. She tells of gruesome stretches along mined roads, past shallow graves and streets littered with windblown rubbish.

They entered Mariúpol shortly before curfew. Anastasia says that she felt it “like the end of the world”.

“Around you are burning cars, tanks, holes in houses, black buildings with collapsed roofs. Crowds of very dirty and empty-eyed people follow [nuestros vehículos] down the mined road. Everything was taken from them, their relatives died.

“In the beginning, you’re looking at the graves, and you’re scared and confused. But once you see about 10 of those, 20, you feel like you’re just passing by. Maybe it’s just me, but somehow it seems like you quickly get used to such atrocities.”

A freshly dug grave next to two bombed-out residential buildings in the besieged city of Mariupol.

Getty Images
Anastasia saw many graves in the city of Mariupol.

They tried to pass through the center of the city but the fighting was intense. At a checkpoint there, Anastasia says that they came dangerously close to a bombardment. The troops told them they had two minutes to move or they would be shot. They decided, then, to surround a part of the city further to the west. Night curfew was approaching and they headed to the western neighborhood of Volodarske, where they had heard that a school had been repurposed as a refugee camp.

“This was probably the second scariest experience,” says Anastasia. “It was painful to see the people in this refugee camp.” She says the civilians inside would be taken away by Moscow forces.

Ukraine refers to this process as “leakage” and the West condemns it as deportation. Moscow describes it as a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians. “There are people who have lost everything. They know that no one will come after them. The camp is their only chance to survive,” says Anastasia.

“What I saw inside really disgusted me. On the floor, in the hallways, in the classrooms, and in the gym, people lay almost on top of each other. Everything is mixed: grandparents, women, children. It’s hard to breathe there, and people hadn’t had access to running water for a month,” she says. “You can hear terrible stories in line [para la comida]. A grandmother said that she spent 10 days in the basement without food. She only drank one raw egg each day. After [escuchar] these words, I started to cry,” he says.

Anastasia says that she witnessed an “apocalypse” that night in Mariupol. “I felt like everything was collapsing inside of me. It seemed that everything we believed in, everything good, my perception of people, the idea that we live in a civilized society… All of this [había estado] evil. It was as if I had been wrong all my life, that people are barbaric and that human life is worthless. And I dwelled on this all night and morning.”

Anastasia arrived at her parents’ house on the second day. “I couldn’t rejoice, but I couldn’t cry either,” she says. She told her parents: “We will cry on Ukrainian territory.”

Her mother, Oksana, calls Anastasia “a heroine”. Residents on the street were surprised that she had come to Mariupol, and Anastasia says that no one knew what to take with them. She told her mother to go get her favorite clothes. They managed to evacuate several of her neighbors. “In the van we took out eight people.”

Anastasia returned the truck to a volunteer after returning safely.

Anastasia Pavlova
Anastasia returned the truck to a volunteer after returning safely.

But Anastasia still thinks about those who can’t get out. “They have to try to stay alive, even if Mariupol is occupied. They are under fire every day. Many do not want to leave, they do not want to leave their homes or the grave of a husband or wife.

Now her parents are in a safer city in western Ukraine, while Anastasia remains in Dnipro with her fiancé, Abakelia. She feels guilty about the rescue, she says, because she got her parents to safety while others stayed behind. “Every day I find out that some of my classmates, some of my family members, are killed or injured there,” Anastasia says.

Dmitri, Oksana - with their cat - and Anastasia Pavlova after the Mariupol rescue

Dmitri, Oksana – with their cat – and Anastasia Pavlova after the Mariupol rescue

His mother, Oksana, reflects on the Mariupol nightmare. “Every crime comes with a punishment,” she says. “The cup of wrath is filled…and there is the wrath of God.” But she remains hopeful because, she says, salvation came from her daughter. “She is a role model for many people,” says Oksana.

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