My Family Is in Mariupol. I Don’t Know if I’ll Hear From Them Again
The most terrifying feeling in the world is listing your mother as a missing person in Ukraine
From the first days of the war in Ukraine, Mariupol has been surrounded by Russian troops. On the seventh day of the war, I lost contact with my family there. The city is under constant shelling. This attack on our country is a genocide of Ukrainians, with a methodical destruction of houses, hospitals, maternity wards, and city infrastructure. The stories of people who are now experiencing this nightmare should be known to the whole world.
The last few months have been very unsettling for me. I left Mariupol and moved to Kyiv in the summer of 2022 because I got a job. Before the war, I worked as a PR specialist and journalist. My mother and grandfather, who is 90 years old, stayed in Mariupol. My grandfather is blind in one eye and barely leaves the house. My mother is an ophthalmologist. She worked in a Mariupol hospital, which had already been bombed to the ground and completely destroyed.
When I came home on New Year’s Eve this year, everyone was discussing the Christmas tree that had fallen in the central square. Many people believed it to be a very bad sign for the city. As a person who does not believe in superstitions, I was trying to ignore it. Yet today, just look what is happening to our city. I still can’t believe my eyes.
A month before the start of the invasion, the first news about the full-scale war appeared in the Ukrainian and foreign media. I asked my relatives to flee, but after 2014, people in Donetsk and Luhansk regions perceive the threat in a completely different way. Unfortunately, my family underestimated the level of danger.
On February 24, I woke up at 4 a.m. from a call from a friend, saying: “It has begun. They are bombing near Kyiv.” I left my entire life in a Kyiv apartment to flee the city at 6 a.m. I could not take any suitcases with me — there simply was no place in a car. I took one bag and some documents I asked my family to send to me the previous week. We drove 32 hours to the western border. I didn’t tell my mom where I was or how I was doing, or that I had left the city. I managed to flee Ukraine — a decision that I was forced to make in order to save my life. As soon as I had a mobile connection, I immediately called my mother. I begged them to leave Mariupol — to at least to go to Kyiv. From Kyiv, I would help them get to the west. At that time, the last trains from Mariupol were leaving. Unfortunately, they refused.
We were talking on a phone with my mother every day until March 2, while there was still a cellular signal in Mariupol. I called her in the evening, and she said that she was sitting in the corridor. She said that she was very scared, the shooting was very loud, and that there was a strong stench in the city. She asked me to find out if they were shooting somewhere nearby and to call her back. I found out that something was burning near Azovstal (one of the biggest steel rolling companies in Ukraine) that evening. I tried to reach her again to tell her what was going on, but could not longer get back to her — all the communication towers had been destroyed.
From that moment on, I call my mother every single day, but it is all in vain. That was the last time we spoke. I used to complain that she was calling me five, six, or more times per day. Now, I can’t hear her voice
I lost contact with my grandfather even earlier since he lives separately and doesn’t use the internet. I haven’t heard anything from him since I had to cross the Ukrainian border. I know that they are separated, they are under shelling, and my mom simply has no ability to bring him to her place.
My grandpa’s house doesn’t have a bomb shelter.
My mom is alone.
A neighbor offered to help her to flee, but she refused because she could not take my grandpa with her. If she fled, no one would help him. Leaving meant a certain death for him, either from hunger or from shooting. It is heartbreaking to hear how friends and acquaintances are able to get in touch with their relatives, or get out of the city, and to hear nothing from my family.
A few weeks ago, I asked a friend to ask his mother to check on my mom. She visited her, said that all the windows in our apartment building had been destroyed. A few days later, a photo of my building appeared on the internet. On the first floor was a bridal salon. There was broken glass, burned mannequins in wedding dresses, and our destroyed balcony. My friend’s mother — the woman who visited my mother — had been killed. A shell hit her house. There were three victims. The house and their bodies were burned to rubble.
The most terrifying feeling in the world is adding the names of my loved ones, especially my mother, to the lists of missing people in Mariupol. I go to bed and do not know if I will ever hear their voices again.
Two days ago, my house was bombed and then burned. I don’t know whether my family is alive, and if so, where they are. I am going through each available list of evacuees from all the surrounding regions. Each time I open the list, I understand that most likely I won’t find my mom’s name there.
Every day, I call every organization, acquaintance, acquaintances of acquaintances, and strangers who may have information about my family. It seems like the war erases pride. You knock every door in hope to save human lives. There are no humanitarian corridors in Mariupol, or even basic communications there. It is impossible to notify your relatives about evacuation efforts or tell them about buses leaving the city. Many residents who are my grandfather’s age stayed in the city, especially those who live alone. Not everyone has relatives, and not everyone is ready to flee. They are afraid they will be killed during their escape.
I’m not the only one experiencing what’s happening right now. Entire families of my friends are missing. We all lost contact with them on March 2. The entire city of Mariupol has been bombed and burned — 80% to 90% of the infrastructure has been destroyed.
This city strongly needed air defense. Being in a state of war since 2014, it was crucial to pay attention to its additional protection. Humanitarian corridors are organized west, from Mariupol to Manhush and into Berdyansk. I hear stories of people walking on foot to from Mariupol to Manhush — roughly 20 kilometers — just to save their lives. And despite that, thousands of people stay in Mariupol.
Mariupol is a city with a population over 400,000 — the same size as Miami. I think that if this happened in the U.S., the world would do much more to evacuate people. Even the Red Cross has left Mariupol.
I don’t know how the story of Mariupol will end. I just know one thing — I will keep doing everything possible to save my loved ones. I hope with all my heart that, despite all the horror that is going on, I will be able to hear the voices of my family again and to take them to a safe place. Until then, I will do my best to help out others and to tell the whole world about the tragedy in Mariupol and its heroic people.
By Tania Rak
Tania is a Marketing manager at a software development company and a native of Mariupol.
This article was first published by Tania on Medium