Former journalist Roman Kruglyakov left his home town of Mariupol to stay in a nearby village at the beginning of the war. Over three days in mid March, he made three trips back to the devastated city to pick up trapped family members. They had had no phone signal for over two weeks.
Entering the place where he grew up was like entering hell, he says.
“People were coming out of burnt out multi-storey apartment blocks to cook food on fires in the street.”
“I was driving and there were bits of shells and electricity cables and dead bodies up and down the streets.”
Kruglyakov wanted to pick up his two godmothers and their families. The first godmother was shocked to see him but she quickly gathered her family’s belongings from her. “She never thought anyone would risk their life from her for her.”
Next he collected his mother, whose apartment block was the only one on that street that had escaped shelling, and drove them out.
Then he returned for his other godmother, who had a two-month old baby – but her husband was too frightened to leave their apartment. “As I understood it, as people who had been through so much, they were just too scared to even leave.”
They tossed a coin but it told them to stay. “I gave them two minutes to think because you can’t leave your car for too long, people could steal the tyres. The shrapnel from the weapons punctured practically all the tyres.” In the end, her godmother and her husband refused to leave her.
He then went to a shelter at a local school and collected a family with children at the request of other relatives living outside Mariupol.
“I went to take people from foundations but they didn’t want to leave because they were so used to sitting there. They were scared of what awaited them outside the concrete walls. They were being destroyed every night. I had to use force to get them out. I lied to them, whatever I could think of, I said ‘there’s hot food waiting for you, electricity, mobile phone signal’ I lied and I’m not ashamed. I believe that the people I got out are in less danger than they were inside the city.”
Mariupol is now completely surrounded by Russian forces, said Kruglyakov, who said he saw Russian soldiers on every corner in the areas he drove to.
“When you meet these people they are in complete despair. They tell me that they will stay in the bases and wait for the humanitarian convoy and they will evacuate to Ukraine. But I understand that will never happen.”
“It won’t eat. Not now or in the next few days or month, it won’t come.”
Kruglyakov took his relatives to Melekine, a neighboring seaside town recently occupied by the Russians which is the first point of safety for refugees leaving Mariupol.
“We’ve decided to go to Rostov [over the border in Russia] and try to find work and housing. It’s better than living in an unrecognized territory,” he said as he explained that it is very difficult to get to Ukrainian controlled territory because of the lack of petrol and the distances involved.
“The claims by Ukrainian media that people are being evacuated to [the city of] Zaporizhzhia are misleading. People have to walk 86 kilometers to the neighborhood [city of] Berdyansk, unless they are one of the few who have cars”
“Out of the 25 people who I took out, there was not one who wanted to evacuate to Russia – they all want to go to Zaporizhzhia but not everyone is able to.”
“If the evacuation route was extended to Manhush,” he said of another town closer to Mariupol, “Then people could walk to Manhush.”
He and his wife won’t return to Mariupol but the older generations in his family might if gas, water and electricity are restored. All but two of their properties have been destroyed or severely damaged.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism