A mother has told how shells were falling around her as she prepared to flee besieged Mariupol – after weeks of hiding in a bomb shelter where people had to melt down snow to use as drinking water.
Kristina Dzholas told Sky News that her family was forced to flee because “it was just a matter of time” before they were killed in the city which has suffered the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the war, with hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in basements with no food, water or power.
Mrs Dzholas, her husband Ivan Ivanov, and their nine-year-old son Svyat were among 200 people, including 50 children, who had been hiding in the basement of a school in the blockaded city.
“When a shell hit the school, a woman was wounded in the hip… she laid there for 24 hours with a piece of shrapnel in her hip, screaming, asking for poison so that she would die because the pain was so bad, ” Mrs Dzholas told Sky News correspondent John Sparkes in Ukraine.
“There was nobody to come and pick her up.
“Thank god the Red Cross came the next day. I hope she is OK.”
‘You wait for a bomb to fall but don’t know where it will land’
Mrs Dzholas also told how on a separate occasion a “bomb fell in our yard” and “blew off one of the legs of a man there, he was bleeding to death and nobody could go and pick him up”.
She added: “Humanitarian convoys are not working in the town and there are no ambulances.”
Mrs Dzholas, who used to work for Mariupol city council, said there was “constant shelling” and that the walls of their makeshift shelter would “shake, day and night” as they hid from Russian forces.
“While you sleep at night, everything in you shakes, you wake up, cover up your child and wait for a bomb to fall.
“And you don’t know where it will fall. This is really scary. There were 470,000 people in Mariupol. Nobody evacuated them. They are all living in that horror now. This should not be happening in the 21st century.”
Mrs Dzholas said residents usually knew to hide when a shell was coming because they would hear a “whistling” sound as it fell.
However, she said sometimes the shells would travel through the air without making a sound.
“One time a shell came while I was on the ground floor, thank god, the windows did not blow out. If the windows had blown out, I would not have a face.
“I heard, bang, bang. And it came from nowhere. And the walls begin to shake. You get no warning about the danger at the moment of such a shelling.”
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People leave shelters to collect snow for drinking water
Mrs Dzholas said fresh water was unavailable in the shelter and so people would go out to collect snow from the ground, rooftops and cars.
“We melted it in pans. We used that water to cook pasta. We tried to clean the toilet because 200 people lived in that bomb shelter. When the snow ran out, there was no more water.”
Mrs Dzholas also said Mariupol has become filthy because rubbish is not being collected.
She became tearful as she continued: “You live in a basement, with all those layers of clothing.
“You wake up every morning and fall asleep in all those clothes. You have no water, everybody coughs around you, there are sick people.
“People in our basement, they got sick, there was an epidemic there, because it is cold there, there is no heating either.
“This is not just war. This is about survival.”
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People are ‘trapped in flats while apartment blocks burn’
Some people have died while cooking food outside on campfires, Mrs Dzholas said, and a mass grave has been dug in a park because there is nowhere else to bury dead bodies.
Mrs Dzholas added that many people are stuck inside their homes or apartment blocks with nowhere to go.
“They are just hostages,” she said.
“There is footage of nine-storey buildings. If footage actually showed people burning in those buildings, the world would be less calm about this because this is horrible. These people are inside those blocks of flats while those buildings burn.”
The family fled Mariupol after someone told them it was possible to escape by driving to the nearby village of Melekyne.
“At that moment a shell fell in our yard,” she said.
“I ran to another man, he talked courage into me, and I then ran to the shelter and said [to my family]: ‘Let’s go’.
“Our car was in the garage, thank god, the car was intact. If our car had not been spared, we would not have been able to leave.
“We picked up our little boy from the bomb shelter, we put him in the car. When we were putting him in the car, a shell fell in the yard next door again.”
Many choose not to flee out of fear of being killed
Mrs Dzholas said they drove under hanging electricity cables and a plane was flying over them as they fled the city.
“Shells were flying, There was fighting, it was dangerous, but the chance to leave was the most valuable thing for us at that moment,” she said.
“Eventually we saw some Ukrainian soldiers at the exit from the town, not many of them, and they let us through.
“Then we drove on and we did not know what to expect. We saw a traffic jam. It was psychologically comforting that we were not alone, that there was traffic there.”
Ms Dzholas and her family are now in the central city of Dnipro and plan to travel to Vinnytsia.
However, the parents of both Mrs Dzholas and Mr Ivanov are still in the city because they chose not to flee.
Many others have also remained in the Mariupol because of the risk of being killed by Russian forces if they try to escape.