Maksym Sieroshtanov is 34. He, like me, works in television, but we didn’t meet through work.  Maksym, along with his wife and daughter, were evacuated from Mariupol in late March. We met online while discussing the problems of the war in Ukraine and his story struck me because he was evacuated through Russia. He told me later about the horrors he experienced during the evacuation and the hell in Mariupol. At Maksym’s request, I will not publish his photo and photos of his relatives – instead, only those photos he took on his phone in Mariupol.

“Until it began, no-one believed that there would be a serious war. When it started, everyone thought that the fighting would be only in the eastern part of the city. No-one imagined that our city would be besieged.”

On the morning of Feb. 24, Maksym ran outside to buy a power bank. Equipment stores were already closing and taking away everything that could be loaded into the car,” he recalls.

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Maksym describes the burning need flee the city, but at the same time a restraining sense of fear of the unknown. In the first week of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the Sieroshtanov family watched from the windows of their apartment as pillars of black smoke rose from all parts of the city as homes, shopping malls, gas stations, schools, warehouses came under ferocious attack.

The shells came closer, then one landed on the roof of the family’s apartment building (they live on the top floor).

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“It was over my daughter’s room. I had just called her to me a minute before. The whole roof fell in and the house immediately lost electricity. We immediately fled, returning a short time later for our things when it seemed reasonably safe and worth taking the risk to go back. We moved into an apartment a few floors below in the same building,” Maskym recounts.

Next came a strike on the city’s university, around a hundred meters from their home, where several hundred were taking cover in the basement. The explosion shattered the windows of Maksym’s apartment building and part of the exterior wall collapsed.

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On March 9, during a heavy mortar attack that lasted several hours, Maksym’s daughter, hiding in a corner of the room under the mattresses, prayed to God that she would die soon rather than live any longer through the fear of what might happen next. Maksym has tears in his eyes by this point as he continues to describe the ensuing events.

The shelling didn’t stop. In their minds there was fear. In their home, increasingly unsanitary conditions, lack of water and food, and no medicine. Maksym’s apartment building used to be home to around 1,000 people. Among those who stayed – sent panicking to the lobby when the first shells hit, food was prepared in the yard by the fire. To survive, they had to loot warehouses and shops. Money had lost its value. The new currency was food and medicine. It seemed like the shelling would never end. It became calmer when the invaders began to occupy the majority of the city, as the Russian army sought not to take out its own troops.

“Trying to describe walking through the streets, I have no words. The city was on fire. It was destroyed. There is nothing left of my Mariupol – the city where I had lived all my life. My parents’ house was already razed to the ground. And the worst thing, perhaps, was the unknown. There was no news about what was happening in Ukraine and we couldn’t reach friends and relatives. And it’s still awful here and now.”

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Evacuation

When war came, many people tried to evacuate immediately, either by train, bus or their own transport. All exits from the city and adjacent routes were heavily shelled by the Russians, making the journey perilous.

At the end of March, Maksym, together with his wife and daughter, agreed to take an evacuation bus to Russia. It was their only option, as Ukrainian public transport had ceased and they had no food left.

“We have always supported Ukraine. But at that moment, there was no other way out except via Russia. We got on the last evacuation bus and were stopped at a checkpoint. All men were checked for contact with the Ukrainian armed forces. They were ready to order me to join their army – they brought me a uniform and even wanted to give me a machine gun – but I stayed with my family. I was lucky. They searched me and took my money – curiously they took Ukrainian hryvnias and left what I had of Russian rubles – then they told us to go,” Maksym explains.

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After that, his family was sent to a filtration camp in Volodarsk, close to the border with Russia. They lived on the floor of a school and were given food once a day. Luckily, they were able to get on a bus that took people to Taganrog in western Russia. Thus, they avoided the filtration process.

“TV channels came to Taganrog and took a picture of how well the Russian authorities treated us. As soon as they left, the police came and ushered everyone to the train to Kazan with sticks. It was terrible. My wife started shouting that we didn’t want to go to Kazan so we were thrown off the train in the middle of Taganrog. Then everything was like a dream. It was necessary to act very quickly. Using what the rubles I had left, I bought tickets to Moscow, where I remembered that a former colleague of mine was living. He allowed us to stay with him for a few days on the condition that we didn’t talk about war. A few days later, we left for Riga, where we live now.”

Maksym thanks God every day for how things turned out and considers his family very lucky. In recent months he has been able to contact those who were evacuated to Kazan. They talk about inhuman living conditions and an even worse situation for those who passed the filtration camps and miraculously survived.

“None of my friends are left in Mariupol today. Some have left and some lost their lives. My apartment has gone. Destroyed. Mariupol is destroyed. Now there are bacteria, viruses and Russian evil spirits. But I know it will all end. And one day I will return with my family to my beloved Mariupol under the Ukrainian flag.”

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