The private space of the Smirnov and Makarov families are two bunk beds covered with sheets that someone has donated to them. There are 10 square meters that fit your luggage, personal hygiene products, children’s toys and a cat. The two families met a month ago in a Mariupol basement. They affirm that their friendship is forever: together they lost their homes and life as they knew it before the Russian invasion. Now their refuge is in the premises of a factory in the town of Zaporizhia, and they are surrounded by 100 other evacuees from the war front in eastern Ukraine.
Yulia Smirnova caresses her son Yan almost obsessively. When she doesn’t have him near her, she cries quietly; if she is next to her and she can hug him, she stops crying. Yan is nine years old and he is a whirlwind: he plays ball and shoots with toy pistols at the daughters of Vera, a mother of 10, who fled a few days ago from her village, occupied by the Russians, in the same province of Zaporizhia . He decided to leave immediately when a patrol of soldiers showed up at her house asking if he could leave her daughters for a few hours.
Yan is the most hyperactive child among the twenty or so temporarily living in the premises of this factory on the outskirts of Zaporizhia. The authorities ask not to identify the place, because they fear that it is the target of a Russian attack. The already high Ukrainian precautions not to spread images or information about its infrastructures increased with the bombing on April 8 of the Kramatorsk railway station in Donetsk. There 56 people lost their lives while waiting for a train to leave the front. The Ukrainians are convinced that the troops of Russian President Vladimir Putin want to sow terror in order to empty the territories they want to occupy of people.
A few hundred people can leave Mariupol daily, the city besieged by the Russians for weeks that is experiencing a humanitarian catastrophe, where there are still at least 100,000 civilians trapped. Most of the civilians who have used the humanitarian corridors agreed with the enemy, explains Vladislav Moroko, director of Information and Culture of the Zaporizhia Regional Government, now arrive from Berdyansk, the second largest port city on the Sea of Azov. Thousands of people from Mariupol, 50 kilometers away, took shelter in Berdyansk, who were reluctant to move west, hoping to return to their city as soon as possible.
Katarina Chernova, coordinator of the reception center where the Smirnovs and Makarovs have resided for five days, details that the Russian occupier is imposing new conditions that push many to flee from Berdyansk to Zaporizhia, that is, to the closest territory under Ukrainian sovereignty: “The use of the ruble and Russian companies in essential services is being imposed, but what is more worrying is that Russian soldiers are breaking into your house more and more frequently to interrogate the inhabitants and take what they want”.
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Savage offensive to complete the conquest
Smirnova and her friend Olga Marakova arrived in Zaporizhia on April 11 from Berdyansk. Some relatives fleeing from the areas controlled by the Russians agreed to take them to this other city on the banks of the Dnieper River, just 20 kilometers from the Russian positions. Coaches cannot circulate through the invaded territory, they and other Ukrainians consulted by EL PAÍS affirm. They are weighing up which country of the European Union they will move to, what they are clear about is that they will not return to the province of Donetsk, where Mariupol is located and where Russia is preparing a savage offensive to conquer it completely.
Makarova especially remembers two days of the siege in Mariupol: on March 8, when a tank fired on her mother’s house, killing her; and on March 21, when they left the air-raid shelter where they had been living crowded with other neighbors for a week. They had no water, electricity or heating, and to prepare their food they had to light fires on the surface, in the street. A Russian armored brigade stormed in and the soldiers demanded that they go back underground. The men replied that inside the shelter they could not cook because they filled the space with smoke. It was then that the Russians opened fire: one civilian was killed and four were wounded by bullets.
The six families from Mariupol that this newspaper interviewed this Thursday in Zaporizhia had lost their homes. Anastasia Ocheretina shows a video that she recorded with her cell phone of her apartment destroyed by the impact of a missile. Hers her son Vladik hers, eight years old, interrupts her with a stuffed animal and some little shoes that they have given him for her little brother, a one-year-old baby. Vladik smiles because he too has been given some pencils and a coloring book. Mother and son are at the refugee reception point that the Zaporizhia City Council has set up.
Orechetina travels with her two children, her husband, and his grandmother. They have traveled 200 kilometers through war zones in a convoy of three cars. Each Russian roadblock was an ordeal, they say, for fear that something might happen to the men. The children’s great-grandmother, Galina Federivna, sips tea while sitting in a tent paraded by UN staff and volunteers. In front of her there are some panels with dozens of pages written by hand or on a computer where information is requested on people, adults and children, whose whereabouts are unknown. The last classified was posted by a certain Alexander: he left the photographs of his parents, Dimitri and Svetlana Suslova, residents of Mariupol, with their phone number noted.
Municipal buses leave from this reception center for the railway station, where trains depart for Lviv, near the Polish border, on a 20-hour journey. Moroko details that the refugees from the province of Zaporizhia stay in this capital of the province; Those who have fled Mariupol, on the other hand, want to get as far away from the front as possible: “The people of Mariupol do not trust that the war will stay on the other side of the Dnieper River, there is a big difference, they are more psychologically affected”.
Tatiana Zvyagentseva, 57, waits inside a bus holding her backpack in both hands as if for dear life. At her feet is a cloth bag with her remaining belongings. She left Mariupol on March 16 for Berdyansk. That day, her house was razed to the ground. She wants to get to the West, to the city of Ivano-Frankivsk, where her son lives. She doesn’t know if it was the Russian or Ukrainian Army that destroyed her home, she doesn’t know if her parents are alive either. Zvyagentseva hasn’t heard from them in three weeks. Phones and internet don’t work. She says that the first thing she will do is go back to Mariupol, whether the Russians are there or not, to pick up her parents and get them out of there. She also wants to find a new job, she needs income. She has worked all her life in the human resources department of the largest steel company in Mariupol, the Illich, named in honor of Lenin. Three of her roommates have died during the siege: one at home, another while she was driving her car, and the third on the street. Weeks later, she says, she continues to ask herself the same question: Could they have been buried?
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