– Didn’t think we would survive. And we accepted it

The port city of Mariupol in Ukraine was a bustling metropolis until Thursday 24 February 2022. Everything changed when Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

Mariupol is today, less than a year later, unrecognizable after massive and constant bomb attacks that lasted for several weeks in the winter and spring of 2022.

No one knows exactly how many of Mariupol’s 480,000 residents have been killed, but Ukrainian authorities estimate 25,000.

UNBELIEVABLE DESTRUCTION: A year ago, Mariupol was a lively port city.  Now there are almost only ruins left.  Photo: Mariupol: The People's Story

UNBELIEVABLE DESTRUCTION: A year ago, Mariupol was a lively port city. Now there are almost only ruins left. Photo: Mariupol: The People’s Story

In the new BBC documentary Mariupol: The People’s Story – which will be broadcast on TV 2 Direkte on 24 November and is available on TV 2 Play – we get to see and hear, via unique mobile videos from survivors, the nightmare that happened inside the Ukrainian city from February to May 2022.

Refused to flee

One of those who survived the nightmare in Mariupol is Oksana. She is an anesthetist and worked at the Mariupol Regional Intensive Care Hospital in Mariupol.

On the same day Russia invaded Ukraine, Oksana received a call from her brother. The brother practically ordered her, her husband and their seven-year-old son, Nikita, to get ready to flee the city before the Russians arrived.

– I told him that I couldn’t go because of work. “Job?” he said. “The war has begun!”. I reminded him that I am a doctor and that someone must be at the hospital to help, she says in the documentary.

BEFORE THE WAR: Oksana with her son Nikita and her husband before Russia invaded Ukraine.  Photo: Mariupol: The People's Story

BEFORE THE WAR: Oksana with her son Nikita and her husband before Russia invaded Ukraine. Photo: Mariupol: The People’s Story

Oksana refused to escape from Mariupol. The son and husband also stayed. With each passing day, she experienced one nightmare after another. But she was determined to go to work to help the wounded and injured.

– My son cried every day when I went to work. He didn’t want me to go. I asked my son, “You do realize that mom is a doctor? You know I have to help other children?”. He replied that he understood, she says.

– But he does not understand why Russia attacks us. As an adult, I struggle to answer that myself.

INVADER: A Russian tank entering Mariupol.  Photo: Mariupol: The People's Story

INVADER: A Russian tank entering Mariupol. Photo: Mariupol: The People’s Story

Prepared to die

As the days passed, Russian forces came closer and closer to Mariupol. And with the Russian forces, also came the bombs. As the bombing became more intense, Oksana and her son evacuated every night down to a basement together with other families.

The basement was damp, cold, dirty and dusty. All the dust caused the children, who were already in a traumatic situation, to cough a lot. The children were also not given the opportunity to behave like children.

– The children want to be active, but with so many people around them, they had to be quiet. They couldn’t run around. It was very, very difficult, says Oksana.

Russian bombs destroyed important infrastructure in Mariupol, and the city had almost no electricity, water or telephone signal. Bomb explosions became part of everyday life, and little by little their city became unrecognizable.

Oksana was preparing to die.

– The city was complete chaos. We didn’t think we were going to survive. And we accepted it. I wrote down my mother’s phone number and put it in my son’s pocket in case we got separated. So if anyone found him, they could contact relatives.

THOUSANDS DEAD: Ukrainian authorities estimate that approximately 25,000 people have been killed in Mariupol since the war began in February 2022. Photo: Mariupol: The People's Story

THOUSANDS DEAD: Ukrainian authorities estimate that approximately 25,000 people have been killed in Mariupol since the war began in February 2022. Photo: Mariupol: The People’s Story

The closer the Russians got to the city, the more dangerous it became to travel back and forth to the hospital. Oksana then decided to move into the hospital.

– It was emotionally difficult for me to be separated from my family, without knowing how they were doing.

In the hospital, Oksana got to see – up close, every day – the innocent victims of the war.

– The situation at the hospital was critical. The entire floor was covered in blood. Many of the injured and dead were children.

– Most cruel I have seen in my life

On Wednesday 9 March 2022, the maternity ward of a hospital in Mariupol was bombed by the Russians. Several of the injured, including many children, were taken to the regional hospital where Oksana worked.

– March 9 is a day I will never forget. For me it was probably one of the worst days of the war, says Oksana.

She then tells the story of a young, heavily pregnant woman, Irina, who was extensively and critically injured in the hospital attack.

DEATH: The heavily pregnant woman Irina died shortly after a bomb attack on a hospital in Mariupol.  Here she is taken to the hospital where Oksana worked.  Photo: Mariupol: The People's Story

DEATH: The heavily pregnant woman Irina died shortly after a bomb attack on a hospital in Mariupol. Here she is taken to the hospital where Oksana worked. Photo: Mariupol: The People’s Story

Oksana immediately understood that there was little likelihood that Irina’s life could be saved. As Irina was rushed into the operating room, she grabbed Oksana’s hand.

– She squeezed my hand and begged me: “Please, don’t be afraid of me. I don’t want to live,” says a clearly affected Oksana.

The doctors operated on the baby via caesarean section. The infant showed no signs of life. And then Irina died.

– Putting a young woman in a black bag with her baby is the most cruel thing I have seen in my entire life.

Flee from Mariupol

After the bombing of the hospital, it became obvious to the regional hospital that they could be the next target. And when Russian forces were heading towards the hospital where Oksana worked, the staff had to evacuate.

Oksana had previously decided never to leave the city, unless absolutely necessary. Now it was necessary.

DOCTOR: Oksana works as an anesthetist, and stayed in Mariupol as long as she could.  Photo: Mariupol: The People's Story

DOCTOR: Oksana works as an anesthetist, and stayed in Mariupol as long as she could. Photo: Mariupol: The People’s Story

– We changed from work clothes to civilian clothes and left the hospital. It was madness. We saw destroyed buildings everywhere. At one point I felt like we were never going to make it.

Oksana saw no other way out but to flee Mariupol, but due to the lack of mobile signals, she had no idea if the rest of the family was safe. On her way out of town, Oksana suddenly got mobile coverage on her phone.

The first thing that ticked in was a text message from the husband: He and the rest of the family had managed to get out of Mariupol safe and sound. Oksana was overwhelmed with joy.

– I cried with happiness. I breathed out. I felt indescribably relieved. I began to hope that if they could escape the city, so could we.

BOMB CALCULATION: Mariupol was bombed continuously for several weeks.  Russia now has control over the Ukrainian port city.  Photo: Mariupol: The People's Story

BOMB CALCULATION: Mariupol was bombed continuously for several weeks. Russia now has control over the Ukrainian port city. Photo: Mariupol: The People’s Story

Now living in Kyiv

Oksana eventually got out of Mariupol, and today lives with her family in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. There she still works as an anaesthetist, and tries as best she can to build a life for herself and her family. But it is not easy.

– It is difficult to live with such a trauma. It is psychologically very difficult. But for my son’s sake, I must be strong and step forward to set a good example for him. You have to appreciate every day in life, and we try. We try, she says in the documentary

– We managed to get out of hell. And I think that only people from Mariupol can understand what kind of hell it is.

Russia now has control over Mariupol.

IN KYIV: Oksana now lives in Kyiv.  Here she goes for a walk, while her son Nikita speeds away on a scooter.  Photo: Mariupol: The People's Story

IN KYIV: Oksana now lives in Kyiv. Here she goes for a walk, while her son Nikita speeds away on a scooter. Photo: Mariupol: The People’s Story

The documentary film Mariupol: The People’s Story will be broadcast on TV 2 Direct on 24 November 2022 and is available on TV 2 Play. The documentary tells several stories from civilians in Mariupol, including the powerful story of Anna Zaitseva, whom TV 2 met in June 2022.

Need someone to talk to?

  • Mental Health helpline: 116 123 (open 24 hours a day)
  • The church’s SOS: 22 40 00 40 (open 24 hours a day)
  • Leve National Association for survivors of suicide: Accepts inquiries by e-mail: [email protected] or telephone 22 36 17 00 (weekdays 9am-3pm)

Source: Helsenorge.no

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