Far From Home, Never To Return: With Those Who Fled Mariupol's Hell
Almost immediately after the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mariupol found itself under siege. After weeks of devastating battle, the Russians took over the city. Ukrainian news analysis and opinion website Livy Bereg spoke to Inna Shumurtova, a member of the city's Jewish community, about her escape from Mariupol.
On Feb. 24, 2022, Inna Shumurtova, a resident of Mariupol, was awakened by a 4:30 am phone call from a friend in a nearby city.
"Inna, it's war," he said.
"What war?" Inna replied, still half-asleep. "Call me in three hours; I'm still sleeping."
After dozing off for another half an hour, she woke up and checked the news feed, only to learn about the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. On the same day, the Russian siege of Mariupol began.
Inna Shumurtova lived in the center of the Black Sea city. She worked for a public organization focusing on HIV prevention, belonged to the city’s Jewish community, and actively engaged in human rights activities where she supported the LGBT community. She is also the daughter of a soldier currently serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
The Russian invasion drastically altered her life. She witnessed death and suffering, going through what she describes as hell. Miraculously, she was able to leave the Russia-occupied city. Her recollections provide evidence of the existence of Russian fascism and the ruthless nature of the aggressor. Inna witnessed bodies being denied proper burial, corpses scattered in yards, Russian soldiers defecating in water and food containers, and the denial of food to the people. Additionally, she went through filtration camps in Donbas and Rostov, where she and her mother, who suffers from diabetes, was subjected to interrogation by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).
Inna Shumurtova's story is not merely an individual's account; it paints a vivid picture of the hellish conditions that the Russian army inflicted upon Mariupol.
A living hell
When the war began, Inna couldn't believe it at first.
"I thought it might be similar to 2014, with sporadic bombings," she said, referring to the town of Shyrokyne, where the Ukrainian government was fighting Russia-backed separatists since 2014. But when news of a full-scale Russian invasion broke out, panic took over.
"The warning system wasn't working. The sirens remained silent, and people started rushing to buy food. Looting began," Inna recalls. "By March 2, hope seemed to have died. It turned into a living hell, an information blackout."
Electricity and communication were cut off, and later on, the water supply also ceased to function.
Russian shelling was the scariest.
“I lived right in the center of the city, not far from the city water utility building, and they started bringing water there,” she says. “We started queuing at 6:30 in the morning, stood for 7-8 hours amid shelling in the freezing cold, collecting water for neighbors and friends.”
On March 5 or 6, the gas supply to residents stopped, the Russian air raids and urban battles started, and Inna descended with her diabetic mother into the basement, with some 15 other people.
Inna cooked for everyone in an improvised kitchen in the stone cellar, where temperatures could drop to -10 °C Celsius (14 °F). In addition, their supplies started running low by the second half of March. To get some lighting after the power outage, they took batteries and LEDs from abandoned restaurants and smashed cars.
But for Inna, the Russian shelling was the scariest. She explains how many “instinctively” learned to differentiate between different kinds of attacks — where a missile or shell was coming from, where one needed to move, and what to expect.
“When "Grad" rockets or mortar shells were fired, you knew you had a few seconds to run somewhere, hide, lie down, or dive into a trench,” she says. “But when you heard the distinct sound of a bomber, the unmistakable roar of an aircraft, you knew it was death, and there was no escape.”
From Tel Aviv, Inna contemplates prayer and faith in her Instagram caption from Temple Mount, Jerusalem. August 12, 2022.
Strewn with corpses
“When people sought shelter during an air raid, they left their water containers behind, and the soldiers would shoot at these containers, destroying the most valuable thing the people had,” she says. “They also defecated into food containers, which was utterly disgusting.”
You would pretend everything was normal because there was a soldier standing behind you with a rifle.
When Inna’s mother went to a store to buy a “Phoenix” sim card issued by the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), she queued for six hours.
“The process of purchase was demeaning. They scanned your passport, took your photo, and then thoroughly scrutinized you,” Inna says. “When she returned, my mother cried for several hours.”
As products from Russia started to appear, people mostly bought alcohol and cigarettes. According to Inna, many opened the alcohol bottles “right there and then” and drank directly from the neck, getting drunk “right before [her] eyes.”
“Near our refuge area, there was a field kitchen. There they distributed porridge that even pigs wouldn't eat. Loaves of bread were lying on a garage floor, confiscated by the DNR, all bundled in a dirty rag,” she says. “When you asked for a piece of bread, they would cut off a slice and throw it at you — be grateful even for that. But people still stood waiting for this handout. That was the most terrifying part.”
The city was strewn with corpses, which people were not allowed to bury.
“You would be cooking in the courtyard, and nearby lay the bodies of children or of the elderly who died from illness because there was no medical help available,” Inna says. “And you would pretend everything was normal because there was a soldier from the DNR standing behind you with a rifle.”
May 2022 drone footage reportedly showing mass graves in a cemetery near Mariupol.
Nothing left of Mariupol
On April 5, the occupying forces allowed Inna, her mother, and several other members of the Jewish community to be taken out of the city.
“It was thanks to the efforts of several rabbis, especially Rabbi Menachem-Mendel Koen of Mariupol who understood that the community needed to be saved,” Inna says.
You understand you won’t be able to return?
They were taken by DNR troops to a filtration camp in Donetsk for registration and interrogation before they were transferred to Russia. During their stay there, Inna noticed posters posted everywhere, urging people to report suspicious individuals or conversations to the counterintelligence hotline.
In Donetsk, the authorities took Inna’s fingerprints and captured front and side profile photos. An interrogation followed about whether she knew people fighting in the Ukrainian army. To protect themselves, Inna and her mother had to lie.
“They extracted all the personal information from my mother's phone and checked it four times,” Inna says. “During the whole process, chills were running down my spine.”
On April 13, they left for Rostov-on-Don in Russia, where the secret services again interrogated them for two and a half hours. They asked Inna about her family, friends and went through her laptop and personal belongings. When asked about her father, she told a lie that she never knew him.
The secret services asked her where she was going, to which Inna replied she and her mother were leaving for Israel. The officers' reply was always similar: “You understand you won’t be able to return?”
“I hope never to,” Inna would reply.
As Inna and her mother were waiting for the plane to Tel Aviv, they felt calm for the first time in weeks. She is now in Haifa, Israel with her mother.
“My father is serving in the northern part of Donetsk Oblast. My mother and I are in Haifa. To say that it's painful is an understatement,” she says. “But we didn't have a choice ... In Mariupol, I took a pro-Ukrainian stance and supported the LGBT community. For that, the Russians could have killed me. Not to mention the fact that they could have killed me just for being the daughter of a Ukrainian soldier.”
According to estimates, the siege of Mariupol destroyed 95% of the city. Inna does not plan on going back.
“Some people stayed in Ukraine, defending it and volunteering, while you are far away and can't do anything because we first needed to help ourselves,” she says. “There is nothing left for us in Mariupol, in fact there is nothing left of Mariupol.”
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