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Inna Strumskas
Industrial safety expert, labour safety engineer

Mariupol — Khrestivka (Donetsk oblast) — Vilnius (Lithuania) — Kamianske (Dnipropetrovsk oblast)

Before the full-scale war, I'd never moved anywhere, except for moving within Mariupol itself. In 2015, we moved from the Eastern residential district to the city centre. For most of my life, I have lived in Mariupol with my husband. My two daughters Anastasia and Oleksandra (Sandra) grew up there, and my granddaughters were born there.

On February 24, 2022, I woke up and started getting ready for work as usual. I was putting on my makeup, curling my hair, and listening to music. And then I got a call from a friend in Kyiv: "Inna, it's war!"

I can't even describe the emotion. I just felt numb. I went to my mother-in-law's house. She's 90 years old and has little dementia, but she understands what's going on. I said, "Mother, can you imagine it? It's a war!" And she: "It can't be..."

I didn't know what to do. I got a call from work notifying me that we would be working remotely that day. But how could one work hearing those explosions? I got a call from Sandra, the youngest daughter. She used to live in Kharkiv, but before the war, she was offered a job as a restoration architect in Lviv. So the invasion of 2022 found her there. She asked me what I planned to do, and I replied that I didn't know. My daughter said: "Mom, why don’t you get down to work?"

But it was impossible to work in such a situation. The Russian-Georgian war came to mind: kaboom and that was it. I imagined it would be the same in Ukraine. Never could I have imagined that a real hell was waiting for us.

A little while later, I went to the shop because I ran out of eggs, cat food, and essentials. That was how my February 24th went by.

On November 8, 2021, my husband died. It seemed to me that the night I spent with him the night before he died was the most terrifying night of my life. I had no idea that the biggest horror in my life was yet to come.

I was used to having my husband decide everything. I felt like a stone wall behind him. So on February 24, I just didn't know what to do. My mother-in-law said she didn't want to go anywhere, and where would she go? So we stayed at home in Mariupol.

My eldest daughter Anastasia, my son-in-law, and their two little children (aged three and six), my grandchildren, immediately moved in with close relatives who lived in central Mariupol, not far from the Drama Theatre. My mother-in-law and I were in the Eastern residential district until March 1. But my daughter insisted that we move closer to them, to the city centre, for the Eastern district was on the outskirts. It seemed that it would be safer downtown.

My friend Lena, who lived in the centre of the city, invited us to her house. My daughter found volunteers to help us leave the Eastern district. There were no more taxis or public transport. My mother-in-law and I packed up and moved in with Lena.

As early as at the beginning of March, it was no longer possible to go out because of the shelling. The electricity was the first to be gone. Then the water and gas went out. It was good that we were in a private house. I can't imagine how I would have survived under such circumstances in a high-rise. I remember Lena telling me: "If we survive in this war, there will be nothing left to fear."

In early March, the situation in the city was already desperate. There was no communication, we didn't know that the civilian evacuation was organized. Besides, we didn't have a car for evacuation. In addition to that, my mother-in-law could barely walk. I understood that we had nowhere to go. And I was scared: not only of the bombing but also of the idea of starving to death.

We met a girl, a mother of two, who lived in a neighbouring house. Her house had no heating, and Lena had a fireplace. So this girl would come to us to get warm and to bathe. We used snow instead of water: we collected and melted it.

On March 16, exactly on my birthday, Lena's rabbit had babies. Also, the Christmas cactus bloomed for the second in a row. I was thinking, "These are such good signs, there will definitely be peace and victory!"

I remember one night it was so quiet, and the sky was dotted with stars. We woke up and it was still quiet. We thought, "Maybe the war's over already, and we're sitting here without a clue." However, it turned out to be a moment of silence before a terrible storm.

The next day, the city overflowed with such violent and terrifying sounds of explosions. My friend said that we would later find out on the Internet what kind of weapons they used against us. Our house was shaking from side to side. I don't know how my eardrums could take that sound. How did my grandchildren take it? How did my youngest daughter, Sandra, take it? She didn't know anything about what was happening to us the whole time. She was even about to go look for us all in Mariupol.

On the eve of March 21, the neighbour came to Lena's house. The one who had been coming over to get warm. She said that her neighbour was planning to evacuate. He was taking everyone who wanted to leave the city with him. I said: "I want to leave", for there might not have been another chance for me and my mother-in-law.

On March 21, we left the city in a minibus with other 18 people. It was so horrible. The bombing went on, and everybody was praying. We were evacuating from the left bank of Mariupol, through the village of Bezimenne in southern Donetsk oblast near the coast of the Azov Sea. Therefore, we left for the temporarily occupied territory of Donbas.

And there, after the filtration, my brother took us to his house in the occupied Khrestivka (Donetsk oblast). But I didn't manage to stay there for long. In fact, we found ourselves surrounded by enemies. My father and brother supported the war.

In Khrestivka, there was a neighbour, an Ossetian woman. She was 90 years of age, with a daughter and grandson living in Kyiv. And she said: "I am for the war." But how is it possible? It was hard for me to believe it. You know, I argued with them every day. And when I was leaving, I wished my father and brother good health. I want them to live long enough to see the whole truth about the Russian crimes on the territory of Ukraine. And then they will ask me to forgive them. That was very hard.

I went to Vilnius to stay with my late husband's relatives. I also met my daughters there. I found out that on March 16, my eldest daughter Nastia with her husband and children had evacuated via Berdiansk to Ukraine-controlled territory.

When they reached Berdiansk, they ran out of fuel. It was nearly impossible to find it. Then my younger daughter, Sandra, managed to order some petrol from Zaporizhzhia with delivery to a roadblock in Berdiansk, for 200 hryvnias per litre. After that, Nastia and her husband came to Kamianske in Dnipropetrovsk oblast. Some friends helped them rent a place to live and even brought them hot borscht. My son-in-law had worked at Azovstal before the war, so he found a job in Kamianske.

When we left Mariupol, none of us knew if our buildings and apartments would survive. That city is the place where I spent my whole life. I lived my happiest years there. As we were leaving Mariupol, we didn't know if we would ever come home again.

A piece of my soul and heart stayed in Mariupol. And it hurts like a wound because Mariupol is the city of my dreams. And I can't believe that this nightmare happened to it.

After the sunny, beautiful, and elegant Mariupol, Kamianske looked grey to me. Nothing felt the same as at home, where we were in so much love with our homes for 20 years. Well, can you live in another city after that?

That was a really hard time for me. But little by little I started going downtown, looking for nice places, some cafes. The younger daughter said: "Mom, the main thing is not where you live, but how and with whom you live there".

My relationship with Kamianske started to change. I've grown to like this place because I know that I am here not just for a couple of days. The locals are good people, they are very understanding. I've got a job, started doing sports, and taken English classes, and my daughter works as a teacher. I know the best places to go for walks to get some fresh air. Life seems to be settling down more or less. I accept this place.

Still, Mariupol is my universe and my only home. As soon as the war ends and the de-occupation of all occupied territories is over, I'll immediately go there to rebuild and revive the Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

Recorded by Valeriia Merenkova
Translated by Volha Mikhnovich
Photographed by Vladislav Yevdokymov