Galyna Morohovska, 59, was injured in a shelling of the hostel she ran in Mariupol, Ukraine. Wounds on her face were treated with a green antiseptic.
Galyna Morohovska, 59, was injured in a shelling of the hostel she ran in Mariupol, Ukraine. Wounds on her face were treated with a green antiseptic. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

Voices from the siege of Mariupol

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ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — Even amid the barbarity of Russia’s month-long assault on Ukraine, nowhere has suffered such a cruel fate as Mariupol, the coastal port city that President Vladimir Putin appears set on capturing at any cost.

Once a thriving community on the Sea of Azov and home to 450,000 people, Mariupol is now described by the local city council as “the ashes of a dead land” following weeks of siege and brutal house-to-house fighting as Russian forces tried to take control.

“It’s genocide,” Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said. “They are destroying everything that lives.”

With as many as 100,000 residents still believed to be trapped inside the city, officials from Russia and Ukraine said Thursday that they had agreed on a temporary cease-fire to allow civilians to evacuate and humanitarian aid to enter.

Those who have already escaped tell stories of hunger, fear and survival. Some trembled with emotion as they arrived to safety in Zaporizhzhia, 140 miles to the northwest. Others were rushed straight to the hospital for wounds they sustained in the city or on the treacherous roads out.

There are few who fled who didn’t leave someone, and with reports of forced deportations to Russia, some were braving the road back to try to save them.

The Washington Post interviewed more than 50 people who escaped the horrors of the city. Here are some of their stories.

Galyna Morohovska

“We are the flies and [the Russians] are trying to extinguish us one by one.”
— Galyna Morohovska

As the Russian noose on Mariupol tightened, Galyna Morohovska, 59, focused on the 172 mouths she had to feed. She prepared 60-liter batches of borscht, or soup made from whatever she could find. She also ladled out rations of boiled river water.

“This war tasted of boiled water,” she said.

The downtown hostel she ran had become a refuge for people fleeing fighting on the city’s outskirts since the first days of war: women, children and breastfeeding babies.

But in Mariupol there was no refuge.

“Direct hit,” Morohovska said from her hospital bed in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region. The right side of her face was scabbed and covered in green antiseptic, her body peppered with shrapnel. “Everything was blown apart like it was never there before,” she said of the hostel she had run for nine years.

There were five people upstairs when the explosion ripped through the building on March 15; everyone else was in the basement.

“It’s like when there are a lot of flies you are trying to hit,” she said. “We are the flies, and [the Russians] are trying to extinguish us one by one, but we are people.”

A man delivering water and a 40-year-old woman who had been helping to run the hostel died. Morohovska’s daughter, who is being treated for a head injury and lost an eye, was under the rubble. Her son-in-law dragged her out and brought them all to the hospital in Mariupol, despite his own wounds.

The three of them spent two nights there. The hospital windows had been blown out by nearby explosions. “It is so unsanitary, everything is covered in blood,” Morohovska said. “People are lying on the floor.”

Her daughter needed better treatment because she is diabetic and had no insulin. They heard people had started to be able to leave the city.

They collected her grandchildren, who had waited for two days in the hostel’s basement not sure whether their mother was alive or dead, and made their way to Zaporizhzhia.

“Mariupol is not the same anymore; dark, black,” she said. “I don’t know when it’s ever going to see the light again.”

Anna

“We decided we needed to leave the city, because we already had nowhere to live.”
— Anna

For some, fears for those left behind are enough to make them brave returning to the city they fled in terror.

Anna, 21, escaped Mariupol with her boyfriend and his family after the apartment block where they were sheltering was hit in a Russian strike on March 13.

“There was a feeling like it was a house of cards, that it could crumble at any moment,” she said. “After that, we decided we needed to leave the city, because we already had nowhere to live.”

They grabbed their already packed bags and spent one night in a neighbor’s basement before driving toward Ukrainian-held territory. Grad rockets struck near their convoy on the way.

“It was incredibly scary,” she said. “Until the end of my life, I will not forget those moments.”

There was a system in Mariupol, she said, that spread information by word of mouth. If you saw a dead body in the street, the custom was to cover it with a blanket. If you knew who it was, you should write down their name and put it in a bottle next to the corpse. She never saw anyone she knew.

The nightmares still come at night. “And they touch the soul,” she said.

But it’s not enough to stop her from trying to get back in. Her boyfriend’s grandmother has been left behind, and they had just heard that some of Mariupol’s remaining residents are being taken against their will to Russia.

They fear that if they don’t rescue her, she will be bused out and resettled against her will. Her boyfriend’s mother sits on the bench next to her as they try to get Ukrainian permission to cross back into Mariupol. She sinks her head to her hands, too upset to speak.

She hasn’t heard from her mother since March 2, the day communications in the city were cut.

“I’m scared,” Anna said. “But I realize that if we don’t do it, it will be very hard to live with this guilt.”

Tanya and Dimitri

“We feel lucky because all the houses in the neighborhood, people were injured or killed.”
— Tanya

Tanya and Dimitri moved to Mariupol with their 13-year-old daughter five years ago looking for more opportunities.

The port city offered more opportunities. Tanya, 34, opened a nail salon. After communications were cut on March 2, followed by the gas and electricity, it took just a few days for the city to descend into mayhem. “The moment people realized the shops wouldn’t open, the looting started,” she said.

After communications were cut on March 2, followed by the gas and electricity, Mariupol descended into mayhem. (Video: The Washington Post)

Dimitri, 46, and some of the men in the building would take turns guarding it.

People broke into the cash machines and stole televisions, but some of the spoils were pointless, Tanya said. A flat-screen TV was the last thing anyone needed from their shattered city.

Tanya took video of ATM's that were raided after gas, electricity and communications were cut off in the besieged city of Mariupol. (Video: The Washington Post)

The family exchanged what they could. “We changed a liter of gasoline into flour,” Dimitri said.

In the beginning, people would crowd around one of the city’s squares, as it was the only spot there was a faint cellphone signal. But then that was bombed, too.

“We feel lucky because all the houses in the neighborhood, people were injured or killed,” Tanya said. Dimitri pulled an injured woman and child out of one.

When they heard people had left, they organized themselves and drove out in a convoy of 32 other cars from their neighborhood.

Tanya and her partner Dmitri escaped Mariupol in a convoy of 32 other cars from their neighborhood. (Video: Courtesy of Tanya from Mariupol)

The car in front has the Russian world “PEOPLE” taped to the rear window to show they are civilians. It wasn’t until they drove out that they realized how completely their city had been ruined.

“A nightmare,” muttered Dimitri, as Tanya filmed the devastation out the window.

They drove by a corpse covered in a blanket.

But fleeing the city did not mean they were out of danger. They reached the first checkpoint held by Russian-backed separatists at Poselok Moriakov village, but there was a line of about 300 cars at the second. That’s when the mortar fire started, and they bailed from their vehicles. “We were all lying under the cars,” Tanya said. “Some people were in the ditch.

The mortar rounds landed about 10 yards away.

Someone was injured; they saw the person being pulled onto the back seat of a car before they piled back into theirs and sped off.

“We were lucky,” she said.

Oleksander and Katharina Chamin, and Yarolslav

“In the street that we were living, out of 10 houses, only two are standing.”
— Oleksander

The Chamin family drove the 140 miles out of Mariupol to safety in a car half destroyed in an explosion.

In the second week of Russia’s siege, they had started to go more and more to the basement where they sheltered with 14 neighbors, four cats and a dog. But in the last week they barely left.

“We’d quickly go up to the bathroom, and that’s it,” said Oleksander, 34. “Thank God we had food and water; we were prepared.”

By March 10, bombing was at their doorstep. “We felt the building shaking, like it was right by the house,” he said. “Then a bomb hit basically in the yard.”

The doors and windows in the house blew out.

“We went upstairs and looked, there were five cars that were damaged.” His was one of the worst hit. “We knew it was possibly going to be our only way out.”

He changed out the spare tire and borrowed another from a friend, who told him people were managing to escape the city. Somehow the car started, even with its entire side pushed in by the force of the blast.

“In the street that we were living, out of 10 houses, only two are standing,” he said. “Ours and our neighbors.’”

Anastasiya Hrechkina

“I cannot imagine that I was seeing it with my own eyes.”
— Anastasiya Hrechkina

By the time Anastasiya Hrechkina found herself hitchhiking on the roadside in her native Mariupol, the 22-year-old project manager had spent three weeks in survival mode.

She had rejoiced at buying 44 pounds of potatoes from a man selling them out of the trunk of his car. She had cried when the gas stove cut out, because dough she had prepared would go to waste — and no food could be spared. She had avoided the neighboring apartment building after a man killed in an airstrike had been buried in the front yard.

By the end of the third week, her family was about to run out of water. It was too dangerous to walk to the makeshift well. She knew they had to leave — but they didn’t have a car.

Hrechkina, along with her friend, mother, twin sister, aunt and cousin, stood hitchhiking on the street outside the apartment building with their bags, running back and forth to shelter as artillery and gunfire echoed off the buildings around them. The first day, no one picked them up, so they went back to their apartment for the night. The second day, a family came by in multiple cars and offered them a ride — but there were not enough seats.

Hrechkina initially sat down in the car but then realized there was not enough space for her mother and sister.

“I got out of the car to convince my mother to go instead of me,” she said. “We started crying.”

Seeing the tears, the family driving agreed to cram her mother and sister into the vehicles, leaving their luggage behind. Sitting on top of one another, they drove 14 hours to Berdyansk, which is normally a 1.5-hour drive.

From there, Hrechkina boarded a bus from Russian-controlled Berdyansk to Ukrainian-controlled Kryvyi Rih. People fought for seats and stood in the aisle. The “green corridor,” an evacuation route the two sides had agreed not to attack, expired as they drove, leaving the bus stranded between the two fronts the entire night.

Artillery fire and bombing sounded around them in the dark as babies were rushed from the bus to an accompanying ambulance to avoid the freezing cold. The road was surrounded by mines. Early the next morning, the bus continued its journey to Kryvyi Rih, where Hrechkina is waiting for her mother to recover from an illness to move farther west. She said it still hard to believe what happened.

“We never expected it would get that serious — not to that extent,” Hrechkina said. “I have never seen something like that. ... I cannot imagine that I was seeing it with my own eyes.”

Sonne reported from Riga, Latvia. Anastacia Galouchka contributed to this report.

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