Victoria Levashina survived the blockade of Mariupol. For more than forty days she hid in the basements from Russian air bombs and crossfire, buried her mother in the garden, and having escaped from the city, she did not pass the filtration organized by the Russian army and the separatists controlled by it. “Banderovka!” – the muzzle of a machine gun rested in Victoria’s stomach when the military in the filtration camp saw the Ukrainian flag on the avatar on her Facebook. She still managed to escape: the Mariupol rabbi helped to evacuate. Our correspondent Meir Itkin spoke with Victoria in Haifa, the final stop on her long journey away from war and death.
“Some owners themselves opened stores and said: take what you want!” How did the war start
– How did you meet the war?
– Talk about the fact that there will be a war, went every day. We watched TV, listened to programs, watched the Internet, and everyone thought: well, it can’t be.
– Are you your family?
– I lived with my mother, on Bakhchivandzhi Street in the Primorsky district of Mariupol, and I also had cousins who often came to us, and all the time we discussed the news. On February 24, my mother and I were at home. Mom is 84 years old, she was bedridden after the illness. An assistant from the Hesed Jewish Society visited her, and I worked remotely, because my mother could not be left alone at home. On February 24, I woke up calmly in the morning, and then my girlfriend calls me: “Well, how are you?” – “What?” – “What? War!” And I can’t figure out if I’m dreaming about what kind of war it is. And then I turned on the news, and it began.
At first, we thought that it would be like in 2014: well, three days, well, five days maximum. I was scared, but I can’t say that it was very strong. An assistant from “Khesed” continued to visit her mother, life went on at a normal pace. On the second day, I called our chief accountant – I was engaged in personnel in a construction company – and I said: “Lilya, let’s close the time sheet for people. Let’s calculate the salary and pay it, because it is not known what will happen.” So they did. On Monday, February 28, the banks were still working, we transferred the salary … and that’s it.
I don’t remember exactly what day it was, but the light went out, and he was gone for about a day and a half, and then once – and appeared again, for a while.
– Everyone ran to withdraw money?
– Yes, but I was not able to withdraw money from an ATM, because the queues were huge, and I could not leave my mother for a long time. I went to buy medicines for her, poked into one pharmacy, into another – there were crowds everywhere. In one pharmacy, I still got it. There was no electricity there anymore and they sold only for cash. And then the light disappeared everywhere, and this time – for good.
Was there panic during those four days?
– Oh sure. From the shops began to rake everything. Matches, candles there, everything, everything, everything. I thought then: “These people are stupid!” True, then I pulled myself together, and with one friend we also went to the supermarket, stood in a huge queue and bought groceries for the week. Then the shops simply stopped working, and they began to be robbed. Naturally, people had nothing to eat. And some owners themselves came, opened shops and said: “Go, take what you want.”
On March 2, a neighbor called me and asked: “Do you have gas?” I went, opened it, but there was no gas. There is no light, no heat, no gas, and immediately the telephone connection was lost. My last call was March 2nd.
“A shell flew into a neighboring house, a balcony flew out – and people are dead.” The beginning of the shelling
– From February 24 to March 2, were there explosions?
Yes, there were, but I personally did not hear them.
When did you hear them for the first time?
– For the first time, probably on the fifth or sixth [March]. They were not very strong, somewhere far away. And then it started. They shot more at night, and I was very worried – after all, we are alone with my mother! – I didn’t sleep and looked out the window in the kitchen. I remember it was midnight, and suddenly there was such a noise … and I realized that a plane was flying. The whole window lit up, such a bright light, and somewhere in the distance an explosion. The next day, my brother came to me and said: “Don’t worry, it’s somewhere out there. You just hear echoes, don’t worry about anything!” But it was not there! When I had a birthday, March 10, they still came to congratulate me, but the shelling was already in full swing.
– Not. Rockets, tanks or mortars – I didn’t understand then.
Did you see neighboring houses explode?
– Certainly. On March 11, a shell flew into a neighboring house – a balcony flew out, and people were dead. When I saw this, I had a mad tantrum. Then I realized that oh-oh-oh – what am I going to do? The bodies lay there for several days. Then some people came and dragged them somewhere.
How did you solve the water problem?
– We had one person with a car there, many thanks to him, so he collected flasks, went to some spring (spring – NV), brought water to everyone. And then it snowed, and we went to collect snow in buckets to at least wash the toilet. Flushing is impossible in the toilet. My hands were all on tiptoe.
– Did you leave the house?
– I only went out into the yard, because I had to cook a meal, but how? We lit fires in the yard. We had two houses with the letter “G”, a five-story three-entrance house and a two-entrance one. There were many people in the houses, and there were also many fires. Among the neighbors there were decent men who allowed the female neighbors to put pots on their fires. And I had to cook on the fire myself, because the woman assistant didn’t come to my mother anymore: she lived far away, they were shooting everywhere, and it was no longer possible to come. No transport was running anymore, there was no heating, and spring, as luck would have it, was abnormally cold – it was freezing outside, while you heat up a pot of water on a fire, oh-oh-oh, how long it takes. At first, my cousin came, they lived nearby, he brought me soup, then something else, and then once … and no one came to me. Day, two, three. Such heavy shelling began, what a horror, and anyone who wanted to come to me would simply risk their lives. In recent days, people have been walking down the street, and mines have whistled over them.
Were these explosions visible from the window?
– Well, of course. Imagine, I’m sitting at home, I hear all this, my house is shaking, and around March 13, my windows flew out and the door in the bedroom flew out. It’s minus five degrees outside, there are no glasses, my mother is unhappy, sick.
And on March 15-16, shelling began to be absolutely terrible. Every night a plane flew in, and we understood this: if the floor shudders, then it flies. And dropped the bomb. Although they said that he was aiming at Ukrainian units, he did not always get there. Of course, I also got into residential buildings. Shots are all around. We have already gradually begun to distinguish how Grads fire, like mortars, how a tank drives by and fires.
– You, accordingly, stuffed all this with blankets?
– I plugged it, and they are knocked out again. We have one load-bearing wall in the corridor, it seems to be the safest, and I didn’t sleep at night, I sat next to it on a chair, because when the plane was flying, it was simply impossible to withstand all this. Here it flies, and somewhere it should explode, and you don’t know where. Is he going to hit you or something…
“After my mother died, I did not leave the basement”
– How did you hide?
– In the house that adjoined mine, there was a basement, before it was a store, and then a hairdressing salon, such a long one. The chairman of the association of our houses had the key to it. And he said, “Come on, women and children first, come down.” Then everyone who only wanted to went down to the basement: children, mothers, fathers, grandmothers. At first I didn’t go down, but I’m lying with my mother.
– Was it cold there?
– Warmer than in the apartment, because there were no windows. Thanks to our guys, neighbors, they cooked food for everyone who was sitting in the basement. In turn.
– It was unrealistic to drag mom there?
“She couldn’t move, who would take her there … When it was already completely scary, I had to leave her for the night. The girls said: “Now you two will die together, so what?”
Then I said: “No, I will not leave her.” One woman left the first floor, gave me the key and said: “Come live here at least.” I asked the guys, they moved my mother, with difficulty. And literally the next day, glass from the explosion also flew out in a new place. Mom is lying, there are no medicines, where can I go? She has terrible pains, she screams all the time, but how can I help her?
She died on March 28 – we lived there for five days in this apartment.
– Heart could not stand it?
– She was half-conscious in recent days, although she understood everything and asked: “Call me a doctor.” But how? Then another explosion, and such a wave – bang, – she gasped, and that was it. And where to bury? We have explosions, you know, uninterrupted, and even around the same time a shell hit our house – and next to the basement, half the apartment fell off.
Mom was buried in the garden, wrapped up. And she was not the first. Another six people were buried. They dug a grave in the yard and buried it. It was March 28th.
In the meantime, the water ran out: they stopped transporting it, because due to the shelling of these terrible cars, on which they transported it, burned down.
Did you make water out of snow?
– No, we had a boiler room not far from our house, and a shell hit it, and a container of water broke there, and one man, a water utility worker, said that this water can be drunk after boiling it. And it saved us. The food was. Neighbors, 40 people, demolished everything that was left in the basement. The children were there. One child, he was 5 or 4 years old, screamed so much that it was just horror. And the other was younger, 3 years old, so he did not scream, because he simply did not understand what was happening.
And so we sat, and everything was shaking us, and the houses around were all burning, burning, and they shot at us with such frenzied force, and on March 28, after my mother died, I didn’t leave the basement at all.
“A man is sitting on a bench, he is also a corpse, covered in blood.” Escape to the neighboring area
– And on April 1, early in the morning, the Ukrainian military came and said: “Guys, don’t be scared, but you need to quickly pack up and leave here. The house may burn down. In short, it won’t be there. Leave urgently.” And I ask: “Where?” And he shows me the direction. And where should I go? I have no one in the city!
Did the soldiers come on foot or by car?
– Not by car, no, it was such an area in our country that the military hid in these houses there. We had fights between houses. Ukrainian troops surrounded from all sides, the whole city was surrounded. Naturally, they were between houses or in houses, I don’t know where. And so, they said that it was necessary to run urgently. I grabbed my bag and ran.
I had documents, money, and nothing else folded there in advance. Then I realized that it was possible to go home somehow, to collect things there. But I didn’t think about anything, I just ran away. And I still have a cat at home …
And on the third floor of our entrance – also such a tragedy! – there lived a woman older than me, and her mother was also unable to walk, so they didn’t move anywhere, didn’t leave, and I don’t know how it all ended for them.
“You say all forty people went in that direction?”
“I ran first, I don’t know about the others. There were no shots. The soldiers specifically warned that in the morning it was possible to pass without shots being fired. When I walked, I looked to the sides: there is a corpse, there is a corpse. A man is sitting on a bench, he is also a corpse, covered in blood. A man is sitting on another bench, and he is covered in blood, also a corpse. Basically a horror movie. The houses are all broken. Well, before that I was sitting in the house, I didn’t go out anywhere, I didn’t see. I walked and thought: “My God! Just some kind of horror!”
And where we were told to go, just in this direction, my friend lived, 10-20 minutes walk from my house. As it turned out, she went to the dacha on the Belosaraiskaya Spit, and her husband stayed in the apartment. I came to him crying. And he: “Of course, come in, only I have almost no food.” And let me go, that is.
– When you came to his house, was the view of the area more prosperous?
— Yes, almost all the houses were intact there. At first, there was less shooting in their area. But then the same shelling began as at my house: endless planes every day, every night. I covered myself with a blanket and thought: “Come what may.” I was so tired, I didn’t sleep for probably three weeks, I just didn’t have physical strength anymore. You lie on the bed, if it bounces, then the plane is flying. Boo-boo! Explosion! Light!
“Mariupol is, you know, a difficult city. Many believed that it was the Ukrainians who bombed”
– And everything was clear: here are the Ukrainian trenches, and there are these stupid “Deenergizers”. They shoot at each other, and between them there are houses. Some projectiles fly, some do not. And the Deenergists and the Russians – they deliberately destroyed the entire infrastructure. All cool shops, clinics. We have a hospital, my brother’s wife worked there as the chief pediatric cardiologist. She went to work until the end. And now she comes to me on the 9th, probably March, all in tears. “Imagine, I come to work, and there is a six-meter crater in the yard, from an air bomb or from a shell, half of the hospital is gone!” And in this hospital there was a maternity hospital. And she said that the women in labor were transferred to the basement, and when this happened, there were no deaths, there were only wounded. And she says: children are born, but mothers have no milk, and there are no baby formulas either! And yes, that’s how it is, my neighbor from the 4th floor, she came and cried: she had a six-month-old child, and there was nothing to feed him at all.
– There was a lot of speculation about the maternity hospital in Russian propaganda.
– Well, yes, they said that the Ukrainians themselves shot him. And the fact that the Azov people were hiding there. It is clear that all this is a lie. Although some believed this Russian propaganda. Mariupol is, you know, a difficult city. Many residents, even while in the basement, believed that it was the Ukrainians who were shooting and bombing.
“Even the people in that basement where you were sitting?” That is, even at this terrible moment of the invasion, people were divided into two camps?
– Certainly. Even the majority were those who thought they were Ukrainians. Well, I sat, of course, was silent. And they … many have relatives in Russia, and they watched Russian channels all their lives and were for the Soviet Union. It was in our house. And in the place where I later moved, there were already decent people, they didn’t believe in such stupidity.
I lived there for two weeks, and in the end it was already a nightmare, there was no food, the husband of a friend who saved me, he became so thin that I tried to eat less. He went for water under mortar fire. And I also heard the mines flying, such a whistle – “Eeeee”, – everyone bends down, and it flies by.
People, you know, how different they are, sitting, cooking on a fire, one bent down, a mine flew by, he sits – cooks further.
Did you see soldiers near the house?
– On April 16, “Deenergizers” came, about 200 people, and settled in neighboring houses. First, they ran through the houses with machine guns, checked if there were any “Azov” people, and then they were already settled. Each man was checked for tattoos or butt marks. They undressed. If the apartments were locked, the locks were broken. Naturally, they took something for themselves. They called it “cleansing”. The shooting, by the way, almost stopped.
— Did you see them? Did you communicate?
– What are you, I was completely uninterested in communicating with them. And see saw. Once they brought a young guy to our house. With wrinkled hands, they say: “Do you know him?” The neighbors said, “No, we don’t know.” They let him go later. And one “Denerovets”, they say, said that he did not want to go to war at all. Like what went for ice cream, and he was drafted into the army.
— Can we say that they were adequate?
— Yes, it seems. But I don’t know what they did there. They were running somewhere.
Have you heard of cases of violence?
– Not. I only heard that apartments were opened and robbed. I will not invent.
“Dill, I’ll rot you here in the basement! You can’t live.” Filtration
– And then there was a lull, the “Deenergists” disappeared somewhere. And I thought, I’ll go see what’s up with my apartment. Maybe some food to pick up from there. And I have a neighbor, a young boy, he told me: “You are sitting here, I will see for myself.”
Then he returned and said: “Sorry, but your apartment is gone, it burned down completely.” And I think: if my mother had not died, she would have burned down. I got hysterical. In general, I have nothing, no things, no food, nothing. There was a hope that I would go home, pack some things and leave. But alas.
Video of the house where Victoria lived, filmed by her neighbor
And then, on the day when I found out that everything had burned down, you know, it happens once in a lifetime: just in the yard where I lived, a car with Moscow numbers arrived. And she began to call the woman who lived in that entrance by her last name. It turns out that this woman had a son in Moscow, and he asked to be taken away from Mariupol.
And then I came up with a cunning plan. I remembered that the mother of my Israeli relatives lives in Moscow, I can try to go to her, and now I have one road – to Israel. And as soon as I asked these people, I will give all the money – whatever you want. “No,” they say, “we won’t take the money, we are normal people.” And then they said: “Okay, let’s go.” I said goodbye to Volodya, the one who sheltered me. He asks: “Aren’t you afraid?” I told him: “And what is the way out?”
How did you go about filtering?
– On April 18, I got out of Mariupol, and they took me to the village of Bezymenny, where I had to go through this very “filtration”. “Deenerovtsy” made a “filtration camp” there, those who are going to cross the border on foot and in cars go through it. Large tents were set up, awnings – and, we must pay tribute, heated. And it was so cold outside that people were walking around in winter coats. In the tents, there were chairs, mattresses, you can even lie down – in general, you won’t die. And they fed me once a day, I even ate there once. Porridge with some kind of stew and tea.
In general, Bezymennoe is a small resort village with hotels. It used to be Ukrainian, then it became “DEENER”. And since I had money that I did not spend for two months, I rented a room there. With shower! We waited two and a half days for a queue for filtration, and at night it came up.
Then they began to bring ordinary residents of Mariupol, men, to this filtration. “Deenerovtsy” came in – here, for example, we have the village of Mirny – and all the men from there are enumerated, taken to the bus and taken to the filtration. Check to see if there is someone among them who fought, maybe an “Azovian”, or maybe someone else. Only after that you have the right to return to Mariupol and continue to live there. All must be filtered.
Our turn has come. They said, you need to go with a passport and a mobile phone. I understood that in my phone all kinds of information were not very good for them, and I took my mother’s phone, and she only had the numbers of her friends there, practically nothing at all.
They took fingerprints, photographed in full face and in profile. Young guys were sitting there, not good-natured at all, rather, on the contrary. “So, be silent, don’t ask, don’t turn around! Last name, first name, patronymic, address, who you work with.” Then you give the girl the phone, and in return you get a piece of paper that you passed fingerprinting on such and such a date. And then they say: “Come out and wait for your phone with your passport.”
They give it to everyone, but they don’t take it out for me. I stand, I wait. It turns out such a healthy guy, maybe 19-20 years old. Says: “Who is Levashina?” Takes me to this big empty tent. He says: “Come on, come in.” The machine is poking me in the belly. “Ah, dill! Banderovka!” I do not understand anything. He then takes out his phone, opens it, and there is my facebook. And on Facebook, I have a Ukrainian flag on my profile picture.
He says: “Dill, did you design rockets?” I say: “We do not have such firms in the city.” And he: “Yes, I’m going to pieces you now! I’ll rot you here in the basement! You can’t live. Are you going to Russia? I say: “What should I do? My apartment burned down” – and he kicked me in the ass and said: “F*ck in your Lvov.” He put me out into the night, into the unknown. But I gave my passport and phone.