On the morning of February 24, Oksana was just completing her breakfast when the bombs began to fall on Mariupol.
She’d heard there was a threat of a Russian invasion. “However, everyone assumed it was merely a panic attack.”
“We had no idea how dangerous that was,” she explained. “For the past eight years, we’ve been listening to faraway gunshots and we’ve known we were always at war.”
The War Begins
As President Vladimir Putin first attacked in 2014, he used special troops and rebel allies to capture a swath of land the size of New Jersey.
It has seen some street warfare; in January 2015, it was hit by a severe bombing run.
Mariupol, on the other hand, had been mostly out of fire range in the years since; the war’s hot phase gave way to a tedious struggle of endurance. Residents got accustomed to living near a stationary frontline.
“We shrugged our heads,” Oksana explained.
Something was different on February 24, she noticed. Russian fighter jets were soon circling overhead.
Sofia, 5, holds a stuffed bunny – the only relic reminding her of destroyed home back in #Mariupol. In March a girl and her mom went outside to cook fight before Russian shells made them homeless. After 15-hour-long trip family hopes for a better future in Kyiv #RussiaWarCrimes pic.twitter.com/42RbK8OvPQ
— Oksana Ostapchuk (@O_Ostapchuk) May 28, 2022
As the bombings became more frequent, Oksana — who, like some other people in this article, asked her last name not to be used — became afraid for her children’s safety.
Her ex-husband phoned and recommended they all meet in his parents’ apartment complex; this had strong walls and a cellar and was constructed after WWII. Among the blasts, they gathered a few personal belongings and fled.
They didn’t feel comfortable there, though. They chose to relocate after learning people were assembling in a fortified bomb bunker beneath the neighborhood’s House of Arts building.
She discovered other relatives of her family, notably her 24-year-old cousin Daria, as well as about 60 other individuals, two days later in the building’s basement rooms.
They didn’t realize it at the moment, but they’d be spending the next three weeks in the freezing shelter, in the thick of winter, without ever leaving.
The Horror of War
The women claimed food and water were in short supply.
Daria claimed her grandpa, who used to be a military doctor in the Soviet Union, would bring them food and whatever else he could find.
When the power went out, they snuggled together for comfort in the dark, using a light to illuminate the refuge.
Her last words were: "I'm alright."
18-year-old Viacheslav's mother was killed after shelling hit their home in Ukraine. Through the horror and heartbreak, he's doing everything he can to make life better for his four younger siblings. #NotATarget pic.twitter.com/ivK1cjuGZg
— UNICEF (@UNICEF) May 23, 2022
Marina, Daria’s younger sister, drew a sketch of their ordeal in her diary, depicting the dark and terrible atmosphere in gray pencil.
The House of Culture’s fortifications were bombarded with artillery shells during the next few days. Daria was worried about the ceiling collapsing.
“It was evident this wasn’t a safe environment. They were aiming for the building,” she explained.
The 20 days they remained trapped in a cold, dark underground bunker, according to Daria, a freelancing book editor, “was a terror.”
To be continued…