One of the people living here is Larysa, 57. She organises art therapy classes for children and has negotiated with the city council to help internally displaced people find accommodation. She has also launched a business employing people in need. “I just want to work in my country and pay taxes,” she says, her eyes sparkling with curiosity and ideas. She shows us the Christmas toys she made with the children.
Larysa comes from Mariupol. She is eager to tell her story. “We want to tell everybody what happened to us, we want to cry so that the world hears us and stops the hostilities,” she says. In recent years she’d witnessed her city blooming; schools and hospitals were renovated, tourist routes were established, and the roads were repaired. 24 February 2022 changed everything.
Within five days of the start of the war, the city was under siege. Due to the constant shelling, critical infrastructure was quickly destroyed. People were left without electricity, water, heating, and gas in the first days of March. The mobile network and the Internet were cut off too. The city was pushed to the verge of a humanitarian disaster.
Larysa remembers standing on the porch of her shop when a family approached her wearing nightgowns and slippers, despite the cold. They had lost expressions in their eyes and no place to go. In the first days of the war, she accommodated twenty adults and children in her shop.
Within a week, finding something to eat became increasingly difficult. More people moved to the city centre, staying anywhere they could - cinemas, shops, schools, and sports clubs. Larysa stayed in the city centre, close to the Drama Theatre, hearing the missiles launched at the city every day. Local authorities tried to provide people with water and food for a while, but it soon became impossible. Four humanitarian aid buses were stranded outside of the city, prevented from entering. Larysa remembers how dangerous it was just looking for food. People were going to markets and shops under heavy shelling, running the risk of never returning home.
“The kids were constantly crying and asking for food. How do you explain the situation to kids if they are hungry and asking for food? I will never forget this.”
Escaping the nightmare
On 3 March, Larysa’s stepson was severely injured while searching for water with his friend. This friend was killed.
Her stepson was saved by a passerby who took him to the hospital. Larysa recalls this with a heavy heart. “The doctors were real heroes. Injured people were coming in large numbers. Rivers of blood were flowing on the hospital’s floor,” Larysa says. “The doctors didn’t sleep for days. The hospital had a generator and people from the city were bringing petrol to ensure that the hospital could continue to function.”
The injury worsened and blood poisoning set in, but it was impossible to leave the city. On 15 March, a convoy of thousands of cars, including Larysa’s family, moved along the coastal road to reach government controlled Zaporizhzhia. During the night, a convoy was shelled at the unofficial crossing point. Scared and tired, they finally managed to reach the city at around 04.00. With the help of volunteers, Larysa’s stepson was transferred to the hospital in Lviv and then onwards to Germany for emergency surgery.
On 15 March, about 20,000 people escaped through the "green corridor" from Mariupol. More than 4,000 private cars left the city in the direction of Zaporizhia via Berdyansk and Mangush. By 18 March, around 40,000 Mariupol citizens escaped the siege.
“When we were leaving Mariupol, people from neighbouring villages approached us, giving us small packages. We didn’t know what was inside, and then we saw eggs, bread and salo – we hadn’t seen proper food for a while – the smells made us almost nauseous.”
Our conversation is lit up by the music, which comes from the shelter’s canteen – the same canteen which advertises affordable meals on a sign outside. Arriving in Lviv, Larysa and her family were looking for a place to eat cheaply and they ended up staying at the shelter.
Art classes for kids
Larysa organises and teaches art therapy classes for kids from Izium, Kharkiv and Kyiv. The classes range from academic drawings and oil paintings to making Christmas toys and ornaments. She shows us the Christmas toys, which were made from fabrics sourced in second-hand shops and donated by a clothes factory. “I’ve seen the scared eyes of the children, I wanted to organise art therapy classes for them to distract them from the war,” she says.
Olena, 33, a mother of two children, lives in the shelter as well. Like Larysa, she is from Mariupol and managed to leave the besieged city on 26 March.
On the first day of the war, Olena and her family gathered some necessities and moved from the Primorsky district to a safer place in the city. Cut off from electricity and water soon after, Olena says that they were lucky to live close to a water source. Although some people going to fetch water never returned, the situation in other parts of the city was worse. She recalls that her relatives had to drink water from the radiators after other sources of water quickly ran out.
“The kids didn’t leave the house for at least a month. I went to the bonfire outside to cook food and my husband went to search for groceries,” says Olena. “I liked being at the bonfire. It was warm there and other people were around, I felt like we weren’t alone.”
She witnessed a lot of horrors – a building burning down with people inside, bombs landing close by, the bodies lying on the street covered with white sheets. Seeing the building collapse under the shelling, they were afraid to go to the basement and be buried alive. “I can’t imagine sitting in the basement under debris and not be able to hear my kids,” says Olena. “I’m afraid of closed spaces. For me, it was easier to stay in the hallway of the apartment.
“I was afraid to go to sleep as I knew that the planes would appear around 02.00 and the bombing would start. The only thing I could do was to cover my ears and try to fall asleep. Waiting for the bombs to land seemed to take an eternity.”
New life ahead
Olena and her family tried to leave Mariupol, but without any internet connection, access to information amid the constant shelling was impossible. If you were lucky enough to be around people who knew something, you had a chance.
On 26 March, Olena and her husband started travelling on foot until some people helped them to leave the city. They had to stay in non-government controlled Berdyansk, unable to leave without a car. Every day, she and her husband waited for evacuation buses without success. One day, a person told them about buses leaving from the nearby village. “We came to the village at 06.00 and waited until 14.30 every day. One happy day we were lucky enough to see the buses and could leave,” Olena smiles.
A long and challenging 15-hour journey by road brought them first to Zaporizhzhia and Kamyanske (in Dnipro oblast) and later to Lviv. With no money and no place to stay, Olena and her family were ready to sleep on the floor in sleeping bags, but with help they found space in one of the shelters.
Olena met with the Norwegian Refugee Council’s team to register for a pilot programme, providing internally displaced people with financial assistance to rent accommodation. The programme launched at selected shelters and, depending on the funding, could expand in the future.
Olena describes her life and the lives of her children in Lviv as happy and hopeful. She studies at the University and her husband works. Her daughter loves to wear the Ukrainian national costume and to sing songs. Her son goes to school. He likes the other children and teachers in the school. They are kind to him and appreciate his personality and ideas.
“What do you want the most?” is the last question I asked before we had to leave.
“I want the war to end, I want stability – that I and my husband have a job and a house, that we can plan a trip to France in the spring, a better life – that’s what I want for the future.”
By the end of the day, missiles would strike the energy infrastructure of Lviv, leaving the city without electricity and water.