Participants: Yulia Kondakova (Y.K.), Nicoleta Mușat (N.M.), Evghenia Jane Rozbytska (J)
Location & date: FITT Timișoara, Romania / August 2022
Nicoleta Mușat: How was your life before the invasion? Where were you born, what did you do in your day-to-day life? And then what happened on the 24th of February? What did you hear, what did you see?
Yulia Kondakova: I was born in Mariupol and I lived there until the beginning of the war. I am 34 years old now. I have a daughter, she is 8 years old. I have an education as an economist. I had my own business in Mariupol selling professional cosmetics. My parents lived in Mariupol as well, but when the war started, they were in Egypt.
N.M.: Were they on vacation?
Y.K.: Yes. They should have come back on the 28th of February, but they couldn’t, as the airspace was closed, so they stayed in Egypt for 2 more weeks and then they moved to Germany, where they received temporary shelter. They live there now. My sister lives in Kyiv, she moved there in 2014 with her daughter and her husband. So my daughter, my husband and I lived in Mariupol before the war. He was working in a special police department. He was born in the Donetsk region, so he has moved twice: in 2014 from Donetsk and in 2022 from Mariupol.
Before the war started, he stayed in a military camp for 2 days. He couldn’t come home. We live in an apartment in a 5-storey building. My daughter and I were home alone, and these types of buildings don’t have a shelter. We lived on the 4th floor. I was supposed to go to work that day [on the 24th of February], but my husband called at 5 a.m. and told me the war had started. There is a river in Mariupol. My husband’s workplace was on the left side of the river. That’s where the explosions started, and they were very loud. He told me to pack my documents and clothes, but I didn’t think it was real. I thought it might be like it was in 2014, a local conflict. In 2015, our city was bombed with Grad missiles. They are not that long range. They hit a 15-storey building and a lot of people died.
N.M.: So you thought it might be something similar?
Y.K.: Yes. Also, I thought it might be near the city, not in the city. Maybe on the left side of the river.
Jane Rozbitska: These are Grad missiles, they use them to damage buildings.
Y.K.: In 2014, they tried to occupy Mariupol, but our army fought back, and Mariupol remained a Ukrainian city. We thought it would only last for a few days.
J: People there got used to it. Mariupol is not far from the Donetsk region, so the war was close to them all these years. There were fights there on a regular basis.
N.M.: With pro-Russian forces from Donetsk and Lugansk?
J: In 2014, Ukraine signed a document saying there would be no more fighting. But in the following 8 years, fights continued. They shot at our territory from the territory they occupied.
Y.K.: So my husband couldn’t help us because he was on the other side of the river. Mariupol is a pretty big city. Before 2014 the population was around 500,000. Some people moved away, but many others moved from Donetsk to Mariupol. So in 2021 the population was around 600,000 people. When the war started, my daughter and I lived for 2 days in the corridor. We slept there. In those days, they didn’t bomb the city as often as they did later. We didn’t know what to expect. My husband told us to stay in the corridor.
N.M.: Did you have food, water, electricity at the time?
Y.K.: At the time, yes. I didn’t spend that much time in Mariupol. All communications in Mariupol were interrupted on the 2nd of March. We left the city on the 27th of February. My husband’s family, his sister and his parents, were staying in a shelter. We didn’t have that kind of shelter under our building.
N.M.: Did you go stay with his family?
Y.K.: No. It was quite a long journey. When I left, I didn’t think it would be for a long time.
J: This is the second stage. First nobody believes it will happen, then nobody believes it will last for a long time. Just a week or so, that’s all.
Y.K.: I packed one sports outfit. My daughter packed some unnecessary clothes, I didn’t check what she was packing. At the time it was not important. I didn’t take anything, no clothes, nothing. I took some tea, some food from the fridge.
N.M.: Did you take any documents?
Y.K.: Not all of them, just the passports and my daughter’s birth certificate. My husband insisted for us to leave, because our city is surrounded by Russia, the temporary occupied territories and the sea. So there is nowhere to escape. There was only one road to the Ukrainian territory, through Melitopol. Now that’s also occupied territory. We left because I was scared of the Russian army, what would happen if they came into the city.
N.M.: Were there checkpoints?
Y.K.: When we left, there were only Ukrainian checkpoints. Russian checkpoints appeared after the city was occupied by Russians.
J: At the time, they only bombed some parts of Mariupol.
Y.K.: In those days, the situation was not so bad, some shops were still open. Maybe not the whole day, but they were open. Gas stations were working as well, but they were selling only 20 litres of gas per person. Everything was still working. We went to the Western part of Ukraine, near the border with Slovakia and Romania.
J: Were you travelling by car?
Y.K.: Yes, me and my daughter. Sometimes we stopped, as I needed to sleep, but there were huge traffic jams everywhere.
J: A lot of people were going to the Western part of Ukraine because there were fights near Kyiv, and there were Ukrainian checkpoints, so traffic jams were huge.
Y.K.: We lived in Khust, near Uzhorod, for about a month. It was the only place we found. Other places were full of people, and we couldn’t find anything.
N.M.: When you left Mariupol, were you thinking of leaving Ukraine or staying in the Western part of Ukraine?
Y.K.: We wanted to stay in Ukraine, but we couldn’t find any place to stay.
J: The entire territory of the Carpathian Mountains was fully booked at the time.
Y.K.: One day I opened the map and I saw that the Romanian border was close to the place where we were staying. At the time Poland was overcrowded. Slovakia was too small. I decided to go to Romania.
N.M.: Did you decide this together with your husband or with your daughter?
Y.K.: I came to Romania with my sister and her daughter. Her husband is in the Ukrainian army, fighting the Russians. My husband is there as well, in the Donetsk region. Men are not allowed to cross the border, as you know.
N.M.: Were in contact with your husband all this time?
Y.K.: Yes. Also, I went to Ukraine on the 11th of August. It was my birthday, and he had training in Dnipro. It’s Ukrainian territory. It’s not that safe, but still. So he had half of day of training and we were able to see each other.
N.M.: Did you take your daughter with you?
Y.K.: No, no, she was in Germany with my parents. And after that I came back to Romania.
N.M.: What happened in Mariupol? What about your place, you friends?
Y.K.: All my close friends escaped from the city when they had the possibility, on the 15th or 17th of March. My apartment was destroyed by bombs, and everything was stolen from it. I can show you pictures. This is our apartment. A bomb fell near-by, all the windows were broken, but the door was locked. So somebody broke in, I don’t know who or why, but they stole the sofa, the bed, the carpets, everything. I understand why they would steal my daughter’s electric scooter, but carpets? The bomb fell here. This is a big apartment for Mariupol. Most of them were burned and destroyed. People can’t live there anymore. The neighbours took these pictures for me. If there is a white cloth, it means nobody lives there anymore, so you can come and take whatever you want.
N.M.: So you haven’t been back there?
Y.K.: No. If I went, I wouldn’t be able to leave again, because my husband has been in the army since 2014 and I think they know, as Russians know all the names of the people. So they would arrest me if I went there. All the clothes, everything was stolen from our apartment. There is nothing left.
N.M. How do your neighbours manage to live there? Are they in hiding?
Y.K.: I don’t know much about that. They are old. My mother’s apartment is in the same condition. There is nothing inside anymore, everything was stolen. She talked to her neighbours. They are 55 years old, they have no electricity in the house anymore, no water, but their windows were not destroyed, so they stay in Mariupol. They send photos to my parents all the time. My parents have a car in a garage, they checked on it. The garage was closed, we think the car is still there, but security told them they had to pay 1,000 roubles for it. Before they used to pay in hrivnas. But now they have to pay in roubles. If they don’t pay, they said they would open the garage and take the car. Also, I know the stories that if you have left Mariupol and you don’t live there anymore and your apartment was not destroyed, anyone can come and live in it.
N.M.: What kind of people? People from Russia?
Y.K.: I don’t know how they will decide. It is a very big city and very few people are left. Maybe 100,000-150,000 people. The Russians have started to tear down damaged houses. And nobody knows how many people have died. They don’t look for the bodies. After they demolish the houses, they remove all the trash. So I think some bodies will never be found. Also, a lot of people were shot in the streets during fights. And a lot of people were buried in common graves, without any markings. The approximate number of people killed in Mariupol is 90,000. Then there are those deported to Russia. So the number is not final. We have a Telegram group of people from Mariupol, there are about 100,000 people on it. They say that those who were deported to Russia can now come back. If their houses were not destroyed.
N.M.: Do you know which city in Russia they were taken to?
Y.K.: I know a couple of cities: Taganrog, Novoazovsk, Rostov. They are near Mariupol, but on the Russian side. In March, as well as now, if people wanted to escape from Mariupol to Ukraine, the procedure was very difficult: a lot of documents, filters, they checked your relatives, your social networks, your phone, your whole life. So a lot of people moved to Crimea, to Russia, by bus or by car.
J: Yes, we talked to some women from Kherson who escaped through Crimea, through the Russian Federation, through Southern Ossetia.
Y.K.: Some people went to Georgia. A lot of old people remained in Mariupol. They didn’t have many relatives, they were afraid they wouldn’t find a place to live, they didn’t have much money, they didn’t have cars… Because a lot of cars had burned. So I think a lot of old people stayed in Mariupol.
J: This is a common theme. Young people are more adjusted to changes, they usually have cars… As for old people, it is almost impossible to convince them to leave, even if they have young relatives, kids. They are very attached to their houses. There are lot of people who can’t move fast, who don’t know how to use internet, they are quite vulnerable.
N.M.: Do you know any people who are still living in Mariupol?
Y.K.: Almost all my friends and relatives live someplace else now. Even if they wanted to go back to the city for clothes or anything else, the procedure is very complicated. There is also the army, the Russian army of the DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic], they take money from people who went go to Mariupol to get documents.
N.M.: Like a bribe?
Y.K.: As for the situation now, I know that there is electricity and water in the city, but it doesn’t reach higher than the second floor. There is a lot of garbage in the city. And in June and July there were a lot of dead bodies on the streets. If relatives asked the Russian army to bury the dead, they had to pay a lot of money. I know the amount was 10,000 hrivnas, which is about 350$. And if you couldn’t pay, they didn’t give you the body and buried it in the common grave. In April, they were giving some food to people, now they are only giving food to old people. Now I know that it was the Red Cross giving food to people, not Russians.
J: So they allow the Red Cross to come to Mariupol?
Y.K.: Yes, they do. But anyway, the situation is bad. I don’t know how people survive: no communication, no work, the Russian army is there.
N.M.: Do hospitals still work?
Y.K.: Some of them. Mariupol is a big city, one of the biggest cities in Ukraine. It was quite new. For many people, it was great to live there. We were proud to be Ukrainians and to live in Ukraine. The city is near Donetsk, and we were always comparing the standard of living in Mariupol, Ukraine, and in Donetsk, Russia. In Donetsk nothing has changed since 2014, but in Mariupol there were a lot of projects, a lot of construction works being done.
J: Before 2014, Donetsk was a pretty innovative city. There were a lot of rich people there who built factories and did business. There were a lot of big companies. Mariupol had a steel industry, and Donetsk a coal industry. Before 2014, Donetsk had a lot of new buildings. I don’t know if you’ve heard about the Donetsk Arena. It was a big stadium which was renovated in 2011.
Y.K.: I don’t know how all these people can live there, when the city used to be new and now it is destroyed. The hospitals had new equipment which was stolen by the DNR army and moved to Donetsk. Now hospitals don’t have anything. I know that people who have diabetes can’t get proper treatment. From that Telegram group I also know that some people sell pills and treatments on the streets, on the black market.
N.M.: Is there no police?
Y.K.: They are now starting a police force with people form the Donetsk region. They are also looking for teachers. In schools there are only three subjects at the moment: mathematics, Russian history and Russian language for all grades. A lot of teachers refuse to work there, but they force them to. I don’t know what they do to them, but you can’t just say – I don’t want to teach.
J: If you need money to survive, you don’t have a choice.
N.M.: What place do you miss most? Your apartment? Or other places in Mariupol that have now been destroyed?
Y.K.: The place I am thinking of was not destroyed. It is the sea. I was born by the sea, I lived there all my life, and to be honest this is my first summer without the sea. You might not go swimming, but you still see it. And it is very strange for me and my daughter to not see it every day. And I also miss my job a lot. It was like my second child.
J: Was the place destroyed?
Y.K.: Not destroyed, burned. I have photos. I had a shop with professional cosmetics in the shopping mall, and it was completely burned. For me, this was the most difficult part. Now I don’t have an apartment, I don’t have a job, I live in another country, and my husband is in the army. This is not what I dreamed of.
N.M.: How do you find strength?
Y.K.: I have a daughter, she gives me the strength to live. I can’t give up. I can’t cry every day. When I think of how many people have died and how many people weren’t able to escape from Mariupol, I realise my story is not the worst. But I am still very sad. I don’t know when I will be able to go back to Mariupol. I miss everything, my work, my apartment. At the moment, all I have is my car.
J: It’s a strange feeling, you have nothing stable here and you have nothing there and you don’t know what to expect.
Y.K.: When we came to Romania, we didn’t want accommodation for 90 days. We thought 90 days was too much, the war will finish sooner, we don’t need it. Then we accepted just in case. And now we have been here for 5 months. But all of us want to go back to Ukraine.
J: What about your parents?
N.M.: They want to stay in Germany. They have the Ukrainian pension, they have temporary shelter in Germany, they got social housing and they receive some kind of benefits. They go to lessons of German language 4 hours per day, 5 days a week. This is the condition if you want to receive money from the government, you have to learn the language. You study German for half a year, then you pass an exam, and you get the right to work there. My parents are 64 years old, and they can’t work all day, but maybe part time.
N.M.: What did they do in Ukraine before they retired?
Y.K.: They are engineers. My father worked in a big factory, and my mother worked in a factory that built machines. They want to stay in Germany as they don’t have anything in Ukraine now, they don’t have an apartment anymore, they don’t have a job, and they will not find a job after the war as they are quite old. If they can stay in Germany, they would like to stay there.
N.M.: What do you tell your daughter? What does she know about the war?
Y.K.: We escaped from Mariupol at the beginning of the war, so she didn’t have as much stress as children who stayed in basements and shelters during bombings. Yes, we spend a couple of days in the corridor and there was no electricity in the evenings, and she heard the attack on the airport, it was very loud. And it was really hard in Khust, she was eating and sleeping in the car. We couldn’t get gas for our car, there was no water, nothing at the gas stations. But I think she thinks of all of this as an adventure. She stayed in Germany for 3 months, she lived there with her aunt and her sister. She attended a Romanian school for a month, she met Romanian kids, everyone is very attentive to us and kind, but this is not her life. She was going to a very good school in Mariupol, her grandmother and grandfather lived in the same city, she had friends, she went to dance lessons, twice a summer she went to a summer camp by the sea, she was travelling to other countries. Still, I think this is not the worst situation to be in as a child, but this is just not her life.
N.M.: What do you feel? Anger, fear?
Y.K.: I feel everything. I think all Ukrainians, whether they live in Ukraine or on other countries, have passed through the same stages.
J: In the beginning and for a long period of time, I couldn’t believe this was really happening. And I felt a total disagreement with everything that was happening. After the news from Bucha, I told myself there was no place in my mind to put that. And now I got used to it somehow.
Y.K.: When I look at the photos from Mariupol, I still don’t believe that it’s in ruins. I think it is still the same. People’s minds can’t live with this kind of stress for long periods of time. It’s terrible and it’s not normal, but we are getting used to it. And the feeling of anger is not over. We had a good life, we had jobs, we were travelling twice a year for holidays, but we never wanted to live in another country. And this is not the same as moving to another country because you decided to. We were forced to. We are scared about our future. All Ukrainians feel this war, but not all regions felt it the same.
J: People in most territories in Ukraine continue to live and work. However, the economy is destroyed. We live on donations and we know it.
Y.K.: I have three fears: for my husband, for the future of Ukraine and for the future of my family. I have never lived under occupation and I will never go back as long as there is an occupation. I couldn’t live in Belorussia, for example. We are a free country, we are free people, we have a lot of ethnicities in Ukraine. And I would like to go back to a free country. For the past 8 years we got used to Donetsk being under occupation, to Crimea being under occupation, but now we can dream that someday these places will be free and we will live in a free country. And Russia will leave us alone forever. This is the dream of most of Ukrainians, I think.
Translation: Evghenia Jane Rozbitska
Proofreading: Cristina Chira, Alexandra Palconi-Sitov
Photo credit: Mircea Sorin Albuțiu