ORn Saturday morning, I woke up in my home in Poland to a call from an unknown number. The woman on the line said she had a message from my mother in Mariupol, and my heart stopped beating for a moment: my mum is alive. Knowing this is my new definition of happiness.
For the past seven years I have made sure my mobile ringer is on before going to sleep, a simple rule I follow just in case my mum calls. But since the start of March, there has been no electricity in that city, and I have n’t heard her voice from her.
This call was a true miracle – after 10 long days, to have confirmation that my mum is still alive. The woman read a letter from her describing the situation in the city. A minute was enough to understand that there’s a humanitarian disaster there already, and every hour counts.
The information blackout in Mariupol gives them no hope – my mum was begging me to let the world know they have nothing. In that moment I realized how desperate it is: every night sitting in the full darkness, where the only source of light is a flash from bomb or shell, and all the while thinking you are abandoned and forgotten by the world.
I last heard from her and others early in the invasion. Few people wanted to risk leaving the city. It takes about 28 hours from Mariupol to Lviv on the train. People felt that the whole country was on fire and the train was too dangerous. On 3 March it was announced that the city was cut off from the world; the railway track had been destroyed in the night. Official evacuation plans were announced on 5 March, but in the time since only a few private cars have managed to leave the city – probably only a few hundred citizens, out of a city of more than 400,000 people.
Now that the city is cut off, the shortages are horrible – electricity, water, gas, the mobile network. Every day something becomes unavailable. Grocery stores turned cash-only but still quickly ran out of stock. In every war there are looters, and desperately hungry people who have lost their human side through fear are emptying and destroying shops across the city. You hear of people taking wooden furniture to make fires.
There really were people cooking over these fires, or melting snow to get water. But this wasn’t widespread or long-lasting. Mainly it is too risky to be outside. Air attacks are constant – the city doesn’t have the same air defenses as Kyiv. The few bomb shelters available are packed with people. There are firefights in the street. It can be cold at night, -8C (17.6F), and with heating and medical care unavailable, anything that falls a person could kill – slower than the bombs, but just as surely.
The main cemetery is located outside the city in a small village – it’s impossible to get there now. This is why people are buried in their own yards, or in mass graves. The city administration has informed people that they do not identify bodies in these graves. That is my newest fear: not just to lose someone I love, but not even to be able to cry at their grave.
The president has said a aid convoy could reach the city today. But simple math shows that 100 tonnes of aid works out to just about 300 grams per person. Is it enough? Will it reach people who are terrified in basements, who haven’t seen sunlight for days?
People are still praying for the convoy to reach the city so they can be evacuated by its buses. Everyone I know dreams of that miracle. I am afraid to see a picture of the thousands of people left over – to evacuate even a third of the city would take weeks. And for thousands, the question is whether they can go or not. Many have lost their homes and belongings; many have nowhere they could go.
Since 2014, Mariupol – which is in eastern Ukraine in the Donetsk region – has been the city that resisted. It built connections to the wider world and blossomed: new roads, a restored city centre, modernized hospitals, big festivals. It looked like a new chapter in our history. When I was last there in October 2021, it was modern, clean. I went to the pier and watched the seagulls blow like so many kites in the wind. It reminded me how I told my friends in Poland about the city: a place where the trollybus can take you down to the beach, and the water is warm like milk.
After all the heartbreaking stories and all the pain Mariupol is going through, my biggest dream is to witness the day it can be that other city again. I hoped to see my mum there in May of this year and take her to the pier. I still hope to make that happen.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism