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The saviour of Mariupol: How fearless mechanic rescued 180 people in besieged city

It started with a Russian artillery shell that brought the house down on top of them.

“We were buried under rubble in the basement. My son, my wife, my mother,” Aleksey told Sky News.

“I used a crowbar to break through a brick wall. It was a miracle we got out.”

Aleksey and his family had been hiding in a dark cellar on the outskirts of Mariupol when Russian shells destroyed the home that stood above them, trapping them underneath.

Aleksey standing with his car, which he sees as the true hero and calls his ‘war bride’

They had moved there from their high-rise apartment in Mariupol’s Cheryomushki district hoping it would be safer from the fighting. They were wrong.

Freezing, wearing just underwear and whatever else they could grab, the family freed themselves and jumped into his Soviet-era saloon car. Shells landed all around them as they raced through the pitch black.

It was the beginning of the war. They headed to the city’s Primorskiy district, where they thought they would be safe.

The next day, Aleksey, a former submarine engineer who now repairs cars for a living, drove back into his neighbourhood and found scenes of utter devastation.

Buildings were on fire. Injured civilians wandered around, dazed.

“Those poor people: wounded, desperate people, walking along the road,” he said.

“I am a human being, I am a man. I understood that I had to rescue them.”

He had gone there in search of warm clothes. But it was people he brought back.

These few strangers were the first of 180 civilians Aleksey would go on to rescue from Mariupol.

At first, he took them from besieged parts of the city to safer areas.

But as the fighting spread, he began helping people leave the city altogether.

Aleksey says the car has been damaged by shrapnel during the trips into Mariupol.
Aleksey says the car has been damaged by shrapnel during the trips into Mariupol

Mariupol has been devastated by Russian bombardment since the early days of the war, those trapped inside with little to no access to food and water.

Some 5,000 people are thought to have been killed, according to the city council. Hundreds of thousands are estimated to have fled.

And it is everyday civilians like Aleksey that are some people’s only hope of rescue.

He initially took those he rescued to stay near the railway station in Primorskiy district, where he and his family were sheltering.

But when the airstrikes began to rain down on the city centre, Aleksey realised nowhere in Mariupol was safe.

“I saw a stream of cars racing out of the city and I told my family, let’s get into the car, let’s leave everything behind and get out of this city,” he said.

The family bundled into his car and sped down Primorskiy Boulevard, the incessant thud of shells around them as they weaved through the debris.

“An explosion went off suddenly ahead of us. We drove around a bomb crater. We kept driving. I saw people who had stopped and begged for help,” he said.

“Even though our car was practically full, we picked those people up.”

Approaching the edge of the city, they joined a convoy headed for a road they had been told was a humanitarian corridor.

Suddenly, they heard the thunderous crack of Grad missiles falling on the field next to them.

They do not know where or who the missiles came from – but some of those in the convoy were hit.

“We stopped. We were shocked and did not know what to do,” he said.

“I had 15-20 seconds to decide whether we would drive through these explosions or return to the city.

“I thought, we either die here or there. And I said, let’s move forward. And we escaped from this hell.”

Five of the cars in the convoy, including Aleksey’s, made it to a village where many others who had escaped Mariupol were sheltering. Some of the cars in the convoy never made it.

It was when he reached that village that Aleksey made another choice.

“I remember the words of a great human being, Winston Churchill: ‘War is when innocent people die for the interests of others,'” he said.

“And I remember my grandpa’s words: ‘It is better to die than to live all your life in fear.’

“I decided that, under these shells, under these Grad missiles, living or dead, I would continue rescuing our innocent people.”

In the village, there was a boarding house where children were being cared for by parents, family friends and volunteers.

But some parents were still stuck inside Mariupol. They had sent their children to safety without them and there was not enough room in the cars for all of them to go together.

“I was asked by many relatives to go there and pick up their parents and others at specific addresses,” Aleksey said.

“I filled the car with food and went to the addresses without knowing if the building would be intact or destroyed.

“If the building was intact, I would rush to the backyard and shout. I did it fast, before shells fell on me, and people who ran out in response to my calls, I put them in the car and drove them back.

“I have changed the wheels on the car five times now. They were sliced by shrapnel, glass. Nine people fit into this saloon. Can you imagine this?”

Word soon travelled that Aleksey could help people leave Mariupol and he began to get calls from desperate relatives across Ukraine and even Poland and Germany.

People began to give him money to help them, which he uses to buy fuel and fix any damage to his car from the shrapnel and debris.

Aleksey fills his car with supplies to bring to those in need: eggs, food for children, bottles of water. He says food for those under one year is particularly scarce.
Aleksey fills his car with supplies to bring to those in need

Aleksey and his family are now staying with relatives in another city.

While the internet connection and phone signal mean he can better coordinate his rescues, he now drives eight hours through 26 Russian checkpoints to get to those he helps.

And he still goes into Mariupol as often as he can, filling his car with food, water and other vital supplies to take with him.

Aleksey’s wife Helen says she worries about him every time he returns to help people.

“But perhaps it was thanks to his courage and his do-or-die attitude that our family managed to survive and get out of that nightmare.” she told Sky News.

“And now he continues to help the same ordinary families like ours to flee from that hell.” she said.

But the city is becoming harder to access. Aleksey slept in his car for two days while he waited for the road into town to open on his last trip. In the end, he had to turn back.

He did manage to deliver supplies to those sheltering in the village outside the city, however.

There is a fairy tale that the Slavic people of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus read to their children.

It is the story of Grandpa Mazay, the tale in which an old hunter rescues a band of hares trapped by rising floodwaters and takes them to safety on his rowing boat.

“After I have brought many children and their parents to a safe place, I learned that they jokingly began to call me Grandpa Mazay,” he said.

“They say: ‘As long as Grandpa Mazay’s car runs, we will stay alive.’”

A motor enthusiast, it is clear Aleksey sees his car as the true hero in this story.

Sky's Mark Austin will interview Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov
Sky’s Mark Austin will interview Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov

He smiles proudly as he gestures towards it in videos he sent to Sky News.

“This is her, my war bride,” he says.

“All these rescues are possible thanks to this vehicle.

“I think that when the war is over, I will buy the best air freshener for my car, I will wax it all over.

“I will put it in the garage and say: rest, my darling. You have saved so many children.”


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