Standing beside the blown-out windows of a Chevrolet Aveo, two-year-old Daniil appears shell-shocked as he stares up at his mother, Valentyna.
The car, which is bound with plastic wrap where the windows should be, is also pocked with shrapnel holes. Its gas cylinder and exhaust pipe are damaged. Still, it survived a two-day, 300-kilometre journey from battered Mariupol to the southern city of Zaporizhzhia.
Even though the Russians didn’t allow for a humanitarian corridor on the day they left, Valentyna says, they took their chances and asked the Russians at the city checkpoints if they could leave. The troops obliged.
“We got here somehow,” Daniil’s visibly exhausted mother Valentyna says.
“When the shell exploded near the car, I decided not to wait anymore. If I stayed longer, and completely lost my car, how could I leave? So we ran away.”
It is a Thursday at 2 p.m. They’ve just pulled up to the council-run refugee centre at Zaporizhzhia’s Episentr mall, where refugees from the front lines of the Ukrainian war are offered onward journeys to the west of the country or find temporary accommodation in the city.
More than 120,000 refugees have passed through one of three registration centres here since the war began. Just one still remains, as the flow of refugees has now slowed.
As his mother speaks about their ordeal, Daniil is silent, holding a small purse up against his face and using it to shield him from his surroundings. But as soon as he’s given a toy – a giant bubble wand – his expression breaks into a wide smile. He is enamoured, flicking the wand around on the spot and breaking into a dance, the horrors of the past two months momentarily forgotten.
Valentyna and Daniil are just two of tens of thousands of Mariupol evacuees who have sought refuge in the industrial city of Zaporizhzhia in the two and a half months that the strategic port city has been under siege.
Mariupol – and in particular the Azovstal steel mill within the city, the last holdout for Ukrainian forces – has emerged as a powerful symbol of resistance during the Russian invasion.
However, it is also the site of some of the conflict’s most harrowing destruction. City officials say 95 per cent of the city is ruined and more than 21,000 civilians have been killed.
Like most of the city’s residents, Valentyna lost her home to Russian bombardment. She says her apartment burned down weeks ago, along with the entire nine-floor building it was housed in. She lived in the centre of Mariupol – where some of the worst damage is.
Since then, she has been moving from district to district, staying in random basements. She didn’t leave earlier because she couldn’t communicate with the outside world – there was no Wi-Fi connection or working phone lines – so she didn’t know how she could get out.
The last basement she was in she shared with hundreds of strangers.
“There were like 300 people in the basement, people I did not know at all. People were just running from one district to another, so I did not know any of them,” she says.
When her car was badly damaged in nearby shelling, she knew she had to leave or risk not ever being able to. The 300-kilometre journey took them two days.
At the Episentr mall, refugees are congregating around a large white tent set up in the carpark.
Inside the tent, tables are full of people sitting around, talking and eating. Large bins of children’s toys, shoes and clothes line the walls. It’s 26 C and it’s sweltering inside.
There haven’t been any humanitarian corridors in the last week, Zaporizhzhia city council spokesman Knysh Denys says, but people are continuing to escape. Yesterday, 370 refugees arrived.
A huge carpark next door to the refugee tent has been transformed into a queuing area, using crates and barricade tape to keep everything in order.
This is where refugees are registered into a database, checked by police and then offered psychological support. They are then offered onward journeys to western Ukraine or a night’s accommodation in a kindergarten.
Valentyna doesn’t yet know what she will be doing. Her first priority is her son. She smiles down at him as he becomes newly infatuated with a juice box, demanding the straw be inserted immediately.
“He is too young, and I hope he will not remember all these terrible events,” she says sadly.
‘I do not want to live under occupation again’
One person who does remember the atrocities of war is 94-year-old Yuriy from Sartana, a village 16 kilometres to the northeast of Mariupol.
Yuriy is the oldest resident of a refugee centre in the outer suburbs of Zaporizhzhia, a quiet, leafy area with stone houses.
The two-storey building is a converted hotel. It became a refugee centre on Feb. 28 at the request of the owner.
Inside, the light in the centre is dim, a yellow tint over everything. The curtains are half-drawn at midday — a police requirement.
In a small room on the first floor, Yuriy sits on a single bed next to the wall, opposite three other single beds. His daughter, Svitlana, is helping to feed him a lunch of soup and bread. His crutches are propped up in the corner.
Yuriy and Svitlana, as well as Svitlana’s husband and son, arrived at the centre on March 22. Until that point, Yuriy had refused to leave his home. He suffered a stroke in December and had everything he needed there, Svitlana explains.
“They bombed the whole village. When the situation became very difficult, when day and night we were bombed, when the roof was demolished, the windows were smashed, then he agreed to go,” she says.
Yuriy worked in a steel factory for most of his life and only stopped after he was injured on-site, so is now considered disabled. For him, moving is extremely difficult, Svitlana says. But he is still considered the backbone of his family.
“He was the basis of our family, he brought us all along behind him.”
Sartana has been bombed 10 times since the war in the Donbas broke out, Svitlana says, but every time, the council repaired the damage and life resumed as normal. But Yuriy had lived through one Russian occupation and says he wasn’t about to live through another.
“Well, of course I didn’t want to go anywhere,” Yuriy nearly yells. He is hard of hearing and Svitlana has to shout into his ear to communicate.
“Leaving my house was hard — I jumped out of the house in some pants and that’s it. Everything else was left behind.”
‘Mariupol was grey and black’
Svitlana says they fled from Sartana to Mariupol after a morning of shelling, with everything they had time to gather, and lived in a rented apartment for a week. But when the shelling began to approach the Mariupol apartment, they went to a sports club’s basement and lived there for another week.
“Mariupol was grey and black,” she says.
Through a humanitarian corridor, they finally made it out of the city. In the eight weeks since their evacuation, life has been mostly comfortable, Svitlana says.
When they first arrived, they slept in a kindergarten on a mattress on the floor, which was difficult for Yuriy. He’d also spent 10 days in hospital with a fever and an abscess on his arm, but has since recovered.
“But it’s very good here. There are good owners. We are in a bed, we are fed and watered,” she says.
The family does not know what they will do. They want to return to their homes to rebuild, but only if it is under Ukrainian control again. Yuriy is keeping abreast of the war, to pass the time.
“I try not to tell him anything, but he can’t live without information — we bought him a radio, he reads newspapers, he learns everything himself,” she says.
“He understands everything. But he says, ‘I do not want to live under occupation again.’”
When asked his thoughts on the war, Yuriy takes a breath before saying: “They even came to steal our bread.”
“We wouldn’t have run away from good people.”
Volunteers spend own money to support refugees
Outside Yuriy’s room, the refugee centre is largely quiet.
Young and old, men and women, shuffle through the reception area in slippers, sipping tea. A young boy sits on the side of the wide staircase to the second floor playing a car racing game on a phone.
Upstairs, in a small kitchen, large vats of borscht and pasta salad sit on countertops for people to help themselves. Next door is a communal dining area, where a couple sit silently at one of two large wooden picnic tables, eating soup.
There are currently 131 refugees staying here – the maximum number the hotel can take at one time, centre co-ordinator Stepan says. Eighty per cent of them are from Mariupol, but some have come from other areas under Russian occupation such as Kharkiv and Kherson. Most arrive through humanitarian corridors and are sent here after registering at the council-run registration centre.
Currently, the youngest occupant is one-month-old and the oldest is Yuriy at 94.
The centre is run by volunteers, who are mostly local entrepreneurs and businesspeople who are donating money from their own pockets, Stepan says. A local charity sometimes donates food and hygiene kits.
The volunteers here keep soldiers fed at a nearby military checkpoint, too. They’re also supporting a nearby hospital where 200 wounded Ukrainian soldiers are currently being treated.
“They don’t have support from authorities – they have no food, no clothes, no hygiene.… It’s not our responsibility, but we do it,” Stepan says.
As we’re led through reception, we’re told that a missile landed in Zaporizhzhia about 20 minutes ago, on a home two kilometres from here. But not to worry, Stepan says, waving his hand, that’s not too close and they have a bomb shelter if needed. Sometimes there are 20 air raid sirens per day, a security guard adds.
‘It was Noah’s Ark’
The trauma of war seems far from here, as children run around with toys and adults walk through the hallways holding packets of biscuits, dishing them out to everyone along the way. But for many, having to relive the horrors of their escape is too much to bear, even two months on.
Andriy and Elina have been staying at the centre since March 15, when they escaped from Mariupol in a minibus, dragging an electric car behind it – as it had no charge due to the city being out of electricity for a month.
Inside the minibus were not only the couple, their daughter and Andriy’s parents, but also 14 animals – three dogs, three cats, four rats, one mouse, one rabbit and two chinchillas.
Despite what they’ve been through, the amusing image of their escape isn’t lost on Andriy.
“It was Noah’s Ark,” he smiles.
The situation had deteriorated in Mariupol gradually, he recalls. First the electricity went, then the water and then the gas.
“One day you go out and you see one broken shop, the next day — 10 broken shops. Then the first bombs hit, first somewhere far away, then closer. Then it hits us in the garden. A neighbour died,” he says.
When the family left, there was no planned humanitarian corridor. But they’d noticed a stream of cars passing by – which was an anomaly, considering the city was blockaded – and decided to try their luck.
“We approached the police and they said that you can go at your own risk – they do not give any guarantees,” Andriy says.
When they left their home, it was still standing but the windows were broken. Now, it is more heavily damaged due to nearby shelling, but is still in better shape than many other houses on his street, he says, saying “some people envy us.”
A friend who had stayed behind had gone to their house and sent them a video of the damage. While Andriy is showing this to us, Elina finds it too hard to bear. She starts crying and has to leave the room. She doesn’t return.
“Sometimes I see these buildings and understand that I know it from somewhere, but I can’t recognize it, and then, for example, when I understand that this is our railway station, it’s very difficult. This is what is not available on the internet,” Andriy says. He has begun to cry too.
Pre-war, Andriy owned a furniture store in downtown Mariupol. That, too, has been largely destroyed; he shows us another video a friend took of the destruction wrought in and around it. It looks apocalyptic – no buildings standing, a town of rubble. He sighs as he rewatches it, wiping away tears. He’s still paying off the loans he used to buy the business.
“We are waiting for everything to end, but what can we do? It is impossible to leave the country, and where is somewhere to earn money in the country? Who needs furniture now?”
Coupled with their own trauma is the knowledge that Elina’s parents have been deported to Russia. They had been living in a village between Zaporizhzhia and Mariupol.
“They were asked which way they wanted to go, and three days later there was a bus and then they were in Donetsk and then Rostov-on-Don.”
More than one million Ukrainians have been forcibly deported to Russia over the course of the war, Ukraine’s ombudsman for human rights said at a briefing in Kyiv on Monday.
Andriy says they talk to the couple in Russia regularly. They tell him they are being treated well enough, with shelter and food provided. He’s heard of others who weren’t as lucky, who were deported by force and have been subject to violence.
However, he says the information his in-laws are now being fed about the war in Russia is, of course, wildly different from what they receive in Ukraine.
Even in Mariupol, he says, the tone has begun to change. Friends who have stayed there are telling him to return because there’s water now – though not the kind you can drink — and they insist that things are improving.
“My acquaintances call me and say, ‘Why are you sitting in Zaporizhzhia?’” he says.
But for now, they are sitting and waiting, watching strangers and familiar faces come and go. Andriy says he reunited with a classmate he hadn’t seen for 30 years in this refugee centre. Some of his neighbours are here too. But he’s visibly distraught at the situation he now finds himself in.
They want to return to Mariupol – where four generations of his family have been born and bred – but understand it may not be possible. But still, he hopes.
“Some people stayed, I don’t blame them. But I could not. If Ukraine returns, we will consider our options,” he says.
On a final note, when asked if he has any messages to share with the wider world, Andriy is despondent. He sighs and claps his hands together.
“I don’t see the point,” he says, shaking his head. He doesn’t believe the world can do anything to help now.