Ukraine

Escaping from hell – one family's ordeal to flee Mariupol

"I had to take cover next to a dead body that had been there for over a week," says sports journalist.

Anton Dudar and his family fled Mariupol as street fighting engulfed the residential district where they lived.

Machinegun fire raged across the road from them, as they got into their car.  

"The frontline for a while had been exactly where we were," Mr Dudar said. "There was movement [of the frontline] but we were in the epicentre of it for a long time." 

Mariupol has been heavily bombarded for a month (Picture: Anton Dudar).

The windows of the car had been smashed from an airstrike shockwave, but the ignition sparked, and it was their only hope of making it out of the city. 

"Russians came to 'liberate' us from a normal life" 

Anton is a sports journalist, born and raised in Mariupol. He describes what has been happening for the past month as "pure hell".  

With Mariupol being about 100km from Donetsk, Anton is used to hearing shooting and explosions in the distance as the war in Donbas has continued for eight years.  

But it was different on 24 February. Anton, his wife Katia, and their two-year-old daughter were woken up at 4am, as the shooting felt a lot closer. Lying in bed, he said he could not believe what was happening – that the war had reached his city.   

An hour later the sky turned orange, and a deafening explosion rattled the windows. Katia grabbed her daughter and ran to the bathroom.  

"My daughter woke up with the logical question – 'Mum, why are we sleeping in the bathtub?'" 

According to Anton, the war in Mariupol started with strikes on residential houses.  

"What has been happening in Mariupol, and continues to happen, is pure hell," Anton said. 

"We could have only imagined it in a frenzied nightmare.

"The Russian army that has come with some kind of 'liberating mission' to 'liberate us' from something or someone. We don't understand from what or who. From a normal life, it seems. 

"They are erasing the city from the face of this earth." 

After a month of constant Russian airstrikes, 90% of Mariupol is reported to have been destroyed. From what Anton has seen driving out of the city, he believes that not a single building remains undamaged.  

More than 5,000 people are believed to have been killed. Visibly distressed, Anton said that he thinks the official figure needs to be multiplied tenfold.  

Anton has seen bodies lying in the streets for several days with no-one able to collect them.  

Anton with his two-year old daughter and wife (Picture: Anton Dudar).

Melting snow to survive  

An estimated 150,000 people are believed to be trapped in the city, many having to go without electricity, heating or running water since 2 March.  

People had to resort to melting snow and sieving water from the radiator systems.  

"Thousands of people are forced to flee under fire," Anton said. Others have "to sit in cold and damp basements". 

Anton is livid that the Russian state, through state-controlled media channels, is telling the Russian citizens that their army is only targeting military objects.  

Anton's residential block of flats had been hit three times. He describes the airstrikes as chaotic, with the intent to cause the most damage. He does not know what is left of his home.  

"Our city was being erased and us along with it," the sports journalist said.  

After spending a week sheltering from the airstrikes in the basement "breathing nothing but dust", Anton and his family decided that they had to flee.  

Almost every building in Mariupol is damaged (Picture: Anton Dudar).

Leaving was 'quite an ordeal'  

The family planned to leave on 19 March, but their car had been damaged by airstrike shockwaves and debris. The battery was dead, and the windows were shattered. 

While trying to charge the battery, heavy bombardment broke out all around him. Anton recalls being engulfed in smoke and dropping down to shield next to the closest single-storey building.  

A dead woman was lying next to the wall, she had been there for around a week-and-a-half.  

The next day, Anton took his aunt's car out of the garage. The windows had been shattered by a shockwave from an airstrike, but it was in driveable condition.  

Anton was unable to take his mother out of the city, as she has kidney disease and has to regularly go to the hospital for dialysis. He was unable to get back to the hospital because of intense fighting in the area. 

The former Mariupol resident does not know if his mother is still alive, having seen her last on 9 March. 

The dead bodies next to where Anton took cover during strikes (Picture: Anton Dudrar).

Passing Russian checkpoints  

Anton left Mariupol at midday on 19 March with his wife, daughter, his aunt, and a neighbour with her child, cramped in a windowless car. 

By the time they were leaving, a Russian checkpoint had been installed on the way out of the city.  

It took them two days to travel overnight to get to Zaporizhzhia, a city in southeastern Ukraine that has received thousands of refugees. During that time, they had passed more than 20 Russian checkpoints.

As the only man in the car, Anton was searched by the soldiers. They even scrutinised his tattoo. 

One of the Russian soldiers advised the family to go to Russia because the 'special operation', as the war is called in Russia, is happening all over the country, suggesting that if they stay in Ukraine, they will experience what they just went through in Mariupol all over again.  

Anton is indignant about the process of being searched and questioned. "I can't come to terms with this," he said. 

"I don't understand why I am driving through my own country, and I have to show these people from Russia my documents?

"What are they doing here? Why do I have to explain anything to them?"

Reaching safety 

Once the checkpoints ended, the journey became even more terrifying as the family, according to Anton, drove into "no man's land".

For miles, they were the only car on the road surrounded by abandoned and destroyed military equipment until they reached a bombed-out bridge.  

At the bridge, they joined up with a few other cars that were trying to flee as well, and joined a column of vehicles that were being escorted by the Ukrainian military to Zaporizhzhia.  

After reaching safety, Anton got in touch with the neighbours who he shielded alongside in the basement.

They stayed behind and told him how, while they were hiding in freezing conditions underground, the Russian soldiers ransacked their apartments and slept in their beds.  

Anton's wife and daughter made it safely to Israel, flying out of Moldova. He cannot join his family because men of fighting age are barred from leaving the country.  

Right now, he is in central Ukraine, helping to drive refugees between cities. He says he no longer has a home and does not know where he is going to be tomorrow or the day after. 

Katia says that their two-year-old daughter is now scared of thunder and shudders when she hears loud noises.