“The murderers looked like ordinary people.” The story of two sisters from Russian-sieged Mariupol

This land has seen so much. The history of the city is like a mighty tree. Each new era is another branch. Chronicles testify that during the time of the Kyiv state, the Rusychi paved the way through Kalmius, which was used as an additional branch “from the Varangians to the Greeks.”

After unsuccessful sea campaign against Tsargrad in 941, Prince Oleh of Kyiv returned home via the Sea of ​​Azov, the rivers Kalmius, Vovcha and Solon. Prince Svyatoslav Ihorevych founded the city of Bilhorod on the site of present-day Mariupol. The Tatars later renamed it Bilosarai, which meant the White Palace.

In 1223, there was a battle in the Azov area on the Kalka River between the Mongol-Tatar hordes and the combined forces of the princes of Rus and the Polovtsy, which ended in a complete defeat of the Rusychi. Then the lands around the Sea of Azov became part of the Golden Horde.

Five centuries passed, and the fortified Domakha fortress officially became the center of the Kalmius palanka. It was the largest in the Zaporizhzhia Army, and included, in addition to the modern Donetsk region, parts of the Zaporizhzhia, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Rostov regions.

Those who have come to take Mariupol today are called a horde again. In fact, they are people without “clan or tribe”. They believe they can rewrite history, but no one has succeeded in it yet.

Anastasia and Anna Grechkina are twin sisters from Mariupol. They were there, in their hometown, when the full-scale Russian invasion began. Nastia insisted on going on the first day, but Ania was worried that something could happen to them on the way. Other relatives also refused to go.

So, they lived in the besieged Mariupol for 22 days, watching the Russians destroy the city. On March 17, after about two weeks without electricity, water, gas and communication, they finally managed to escape.

At first, they were concerned about their own comfort rather than safety

On February 22, a large pro-Ukrainian rally was held in Mariupol. The people of Mariupol came to the square in front of the Drama Theater (which will be destroyed in a few weeks as a result of a Russian airstrike) to show that Mariupol is Ukraine. Nastia and Ania were also there with their friends. And two days later, Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine, although he never admitted it.

Nastia began to persuade her family to leave the city on the very first day. She promised that she would find a car and a way to leave.

Anastasisia and Anna Grechkina / Photo from Anastasisia Grechkina’s Instagram

“Our opinions on this were divided. I was afraid that something might happen to us on the way. That we’ll get on the train and it’ll be fired upon right as we were moving. Secondly, it’s very hard to leave your home. And now I see it in my kith and kins from other cities that are in danger. We offer them to leave, but they refuse. They say: “We have an apartment here, we have everything here, we won’t leave,” Ania says.

Nastia could not leave her relatives in the city. For safety reasons, the family decided to stay together in an apartment in Kalmius district of the city which was the safest in terms of location. There were six of them there: Ania and Nastia, their mother, aunt and her daughter, and Nastia’s friend.

The women made a comfortable place in the corridor in case of air raids and spent a good part of their time there with their phones, browsing news and memes about the war.

Photo from the Grechkins family archive

They also arranged a basement that could be accessed directly from the apartment. But everyone decided that, in terms of safety, there was not much difference whether they would hide in the apartment or in the basement. If the house fell, they would be buried alive either way.

The sisters remember they were concerned about their comfort rather than safety, because there were animals besides people in the two-room apartment. They had to get along.

This is how they celebrated their cousin’s birthday on March 7 / Photo from the Grechkins family archive

“Our family rarely got together, so now we set a big table for every lunch and dinner,” says Nastia.

But Ania was worried about this waste of food: “Our store stopped accepting cards on February 25, and then food started disappearing from store shelves. This scared me a lot, so I began encouraging others to portion food. But then there was still electricity and the Internet, so no one took it seriously. And I was very angry when my parents opened canned food that we might need in the future.”

Grad is not scary, what’s scary is an airplane

On March 1, the city center lost electricity for the first time, and then water and heating. On March 6, the city lost gas.

“When gas was cut off, we had just kneaded the last flour. We wanted to put bread into the oven, but when we turned it on, we saw that there was no gas. The dough went bad, and I thought: now we’ll have to cook over a fire,” recalls Nastia.

Photo from the Grechkins family archive

Without gas, they couldn’t get at least a little warm, drink hot tea in the evening, or simply heat water to wash. It was so cold that steam was coming out of the mouth in the apartment.

Mass looting was added to household problems.

“I expected it to happen, but I didn’t think it would be so soon. All grocery stores had been looted by March 4, but we saw people trying to steal iPhones, generators, and industrial refrigerators from the ATB store,” Ania says.

Photo from the Grechkins family archive

One day, Nastia and her friend went to her apartment several kilometers away to take some food. The girls returned with a large wheelbarrow full of food, while people around were looting the shop. The girls were afraid that, firstly, the food would be taken away from them, and, secondly, that the police would decide that they had looted the shop.

They also had to bring water from a well and collect firewood.

In search of firewood, Ania and Nastia stumbled upon a bread stall with wooden shelves. The girls climbed into it and dismantled the shelves. They had to care not only about themselves, but also about other residents of the house, among whom were elderly women.

Shelling intensified every day. Shells began to hit the houses around, and the first graves appeared in the yard. Although the apartment where the girls lived was not damaged, the shells were landing in close vicinity.

In addition to firewood, they had to collect cardboard and paper to make a fire/ Photo from the Grechkins family archive

“When shelling from Grads began, it was not so scary. If you walk down the street and hear a Grad, you can count 20 volleys and move on. When you hear aviation, you don’t understand where it will hit. However, you cannot stop existing, that is, stop going for water or food,” Ania says.

In the meantime, they heard more and more rumors that the Russian military were already taking over the outlying parts of the city. The girls were very afraid that one day Russians would come to their house.

Each saved person is minus your chance of salvation

In mid-March, a convoy of cars managed to leave the city for the first time in a while. The Grechkins had hope that they could get out too. But they had to find a car first. The sister’s aunt had a car, but it was on the left bank and, moreover, completely out of fuel.

The girls tried to find someone who could give them at least five liters of gasoline, but people just shrugged their shoulders and smiled disparagingly, wondering, where they would get extra gasoline in the besieged city.

Photo from the Grechkins family archive

Therefore, they quickly abandoned this idea and started looking for people who had a car and could take them out. The fact that there were six of them complicated the situation. So many people simply wouldn’t fit in one car. They understood that someone, most likely, would have to stay.

On March 16, they went to the avenue and tried to catch at least some car. Dozens of other people were standing nearby. The girls rejoiced when someone managed to get into a car and drive away from all that horror, but there was another side.

I kept thinking it would be great if everyone was saved. But at the same time, those people were minus your chance of salvation,” says Nastia.

That day they could not find a place in a car. Ania decided to try again the next day, so everyone went to bed earlier.

Photo from the Grechkins family archive

At 6 in the morning, they were already standing on the avenue and stopping cars. A driver slowed down and addressed everyone standing on the road: “Come on, quickly, I need a family with a baby.” The reason was trivial – cars with children could pass quicker.

“The driver was so rude. There was a family with a baby, but they also had a dog, and he said something like, “God, you have a dog too. Okay, get in the car, I’ll tell you the price later.” That is, people took money for it. We know stories when they asked for a thousand dollars to take one person out of Mariupol. But we didn’t have that amount of money anyway,” Ania recounts.

Finally, their mother managed to stop a car. It was a big family driving in several cars. They said they could take three extra passengers and gave them half an hour to get ready. All six started packing without discussing that someone would have to stay in the city, because everyone simply wouldn’t fit in the car.

“At the same time, we realized that we could not all stay just because we felt sorry for each other. Near the cars, we started hugging and saying goodbye and those people in the cars said they were ready to squeeze up so that everyone could get in,” Ania recalls.

“I was sure that I would die that day”

On the way they saw their home city for the first time and what the Russians had done to it. And in a village near Mariupol, they saw Russian equipment and military personnel for the first time.

“It really stuck in my memory. I imagined them as if they were all covered in blood, with knives, almost beasts. And those were ordinary people who roared into my country. I was scared by the fact that killers look like ordinary people. And I was struck by the fact that they walk so calmly on the streets where they committed all this horror,” Ania says.

On the way, their driver threw into the grass the Ukrainian flag with the coat of arms, which was on the torpedo – the Russians could nitpick about it. Nastia had a blouse folded many times with the inscription “I am Ukraine. I love freedom” in her shoes.

That very hoodie with the inscription in support of Ukraine / Photo from the Grechkin family archive

“I kept thinking what would happen to me if they saw it,” the girl recalls.

At night, they arrived in Berdyansk and spent the night in the basement of a local school. It was a kind of transit point for refugees from Mariupol. In the morning, when the girls were charging their phones for the first time in many days, a guy came to the school and said that there would soon be an evacuation bus to Zaporizhzhia. People lined up for it in advance, but the girls managed to scramble aboard.

“It was the most difficult moment. I constantly had nightmares that we were going to be shot on the bus. I thought then: I can ride standing all the time, without food, water and a toilet, but just take me to a safe place,” says Nastia.

But near the village of Vasylivka, which was in the “grey zone”, the Russian military said that they would not allow anyone to pass. And people had to spend the night in a bus in a field.”

Photo from the Grechkins family archive

“There were a lot of people inside: someone cried, old women prayed – and rockets flew overhead, we could see their orange tails. I had a panic attack there. I got off the bus, squatted next to it and started to cry. I was sure that I would die that night,” recalls Nastia.

But finally they reached Zaporizhzhia. There, the girls first saw billboards with the direction indicator for the “Russian ship”, fortifications and checkpoints of Ukrainian defenders.

Now they are in Georgia, where they were met by their friends. This is a country in which Ukrainians receive huge support from the people.

“If you take a taxi, the driver, after learning where you are from, will definitely say that Zelensky is great. People constantly ask if we are Russians or Ukrainians. And when they find out that we are Ukrainians, they are immediately happy and say that they were waiting for us. And they call the Ukrainian war against Russia their war,” Nastia says.

The sisters have never been outside of Ukraine for so long, so they miss it and plan to return to their Motherland as soon as possible.

Tetyana Zhuk

Article is prepared within the project “Countering Disinformation in Southern and Eastern Ukraine” funded by the European Union.