Survived an explosion in Mariupol Drama Theatre: The war made her look at the world in a different way.

Survived an explosion in Mariupol Drama Theatre. Olesya Ustinova is building a new life in the Czech Republic. The war made her look at the world in a different way.

  Mariupol Drama Theatre.<br> AFP/Scanpix nuotr.
  Mariupol Drama Theatre.<br> AFP/Scanpix nuotr.
Daugiau nuotraukų (1)

Olga Bahareva-Grigorian

Nov 17, 2022, 10:46 AM

This story is about Olesya Ustinova from Mariupol. She stayed in besieged Mariupol till the middle of March. With two children - 5 years old Nikita and 18 years old Juliana.

She recalls going to work with her daughter at dawn on February 24.

"Then we heard the explosion for the first time at 5 o'clock or half past six in the morning. We came home very quickly, packed up. We left for Ilyich, our godmother lives there. We went back to their place," Olesya said.

The family did not have their own car, but they made attempts to get out of the city all the time.

"We wanted to leave as early as the 24th. We bought tickets, but there were no more tickets to Lviv. We took one to Zaporizhzhya. And we only bought two tickets. We were just afraid of bombing. It was scary just to go as far as Zaporizhzhya, and we did not know if we could go further from there. Then we bought tickets for February 28th to Lviv, but on the 28th all the entrances and exits were blocked and we couldn't leave any further," Olesya recalls.

The family stayed with relatives until March 8. Then, when the "green corridor" was declared, we went home to the centre," said the woman.

"We were told it was better to do it near the Drama Theatre. But there really was no 'green corridor'. We returned home on March 8, already at that time there was no electricity, no water, no communication. Already in the city centre there was a lot of shooting. We came home with the children. We asked to take us by car back home from Illyich. And at that time I remember a man said to us: "If it wasn't for your Nikita, I wouldn't have taken you anywhere". So we got home, built a fire, fried some eggs. I said, 'Come on, while the fire is burning, we'll boil some more water, so we can get hot water in a thermos. And I hear a plane flying very loudly.

And a shell hit the supermarket near us at that time. And as soon as the shop was blown up, we very quickly packed our things and went to the "School of Arts". We were accepted. We slept on the floor. There was a bed for us by the door, we took blankets from the house. There was no room in the basement itself. We were in the basement. And every night, as soon as planes flew in, everyone would yell, "Planes!" We constantly jumped up, when we had our shoes on, when we didn't, and quickly ran to the basement. The fighters were circling day and night was a fact. Aircraft after aircraft. It was buzzing and you could understand that they were about to drop a bomb somewhere".

It was lucky that people were fed in the basement," recalls Olesya Ustinova.

"We were given food, even if only for a little while. They cooked for everyone. We gave some money and tried to buy something. Volunteers brought us food and bought it. Something was free of charge. There was a separate meal for kids under 18. We tried to give them some biscuits, cheese and sausage. Well, what you could still eat, what had not vanished yet. They made soup for us grown-ups, jacket potatoes. We were given two potatoes each. We could still run home and get the grits that were left over. Naturally, all this without bread.

Olesya says she was well aware of the risks of running home from the bomb shelter.

"Yes, it was very scary. We had a neighbour who was in her 90s. And there was a dog left at home. It had to be fed too. So we'd run over to the doorways if something was buzzing. We knew there were basements. That's how we ran home."

On March 14, the city's electricity and internet began to break through," recalls Olesya Ustinova. Then messages started coming in from those who had managed to escape from the besieged city.

"An acquaintance wrote to me: 'Olesya, they opened a corridor towards Melekino on the 14th. People are going there on their own, try to get out". I replied that there was nothing to get out with as everything was all around was being blown up, planes were flying. And he wrote to me: "My aunt was at the Drama Theatre, and she asked to get into someone else's car and managed to get out by a corridor. Go to the Drama theatre". I went up to the 3rd floor at the School of Arts to respond to this message and I'm standing there and I realise there's been an explosion. And there's no wall in front of me on the 3rd floor. Stones were flying at me. There was no panic, no hysteria. I just ran downstairs because I knew there were children there. I went downstairs and saw that they were huddled in a corner, cuddled up and sitting there. Everything was covered in dust, everything was on fire. The men started breaking the windows so they could get out. We climbed out of the window.

My son shouted: "Where are my toys? Get my bear! I grabbed the bear and we ran to the Drama Theatre. We went to the woman who was housing people. She said: "There's nowhere to put you: either in the basement, but there's no ventilation. Or on the first floor in the passageway". We were afraid to go to the basement because there are no lights or candles. She showed us where we could be in the aisle on the 2nd floor. There was a pool table there. We arrived and it was cold, there were no blankets. There were no windows in the Drama Theatre. It was boarded up. I told the children to stay, and I went back to the School of Arts to get some warm clothes. In a panic I was packing up and about to leave and they said to me, "Where are you going? Didn't you hear there was another explosion?

And I was in such a state that I didn't hear the explosion. I knew I had kids in the Drama Theatre. I was running with my things and I heard a plane coming. I barely made it. They helped me carry my things in. And the children and I went to bed. It was cold to sleep, we took turns sleeping with our daughter to be alert. Not to miss the shelling. It was scary. Planes were flying. The planks are knocking. There is a terrible rumble in the building.

Already in the morning Olesya started looking for drivers who could help get out of the city.

"At 8 a.m. we went downstairs. They gave tea there. It was March 16. I saw that many people were about to leave. Asking the drivers to take us too. But all the cars were full. And everything around was in smoke. A neighbour who was staying at the School of Arts came over. Said there was another explosion. He asked me to find the woman who was staying at the Drama Theatre so that his family could be accommodated there too. He said he'd be back at noon. And so we said goodbye. At that time I heard my daughter talking to the driver, "Will he take us in his car?

And he said, "Yes, pack your bags!" I run up to the first floor, there's a bag of documents. I run up there. I grab my warm clothes, my documents and my son's toy. I go back... ...and I realize that the Drama Theatre has collapsed. But not that it's collapsed. It just went up. It got dark in a second, nothing to breathe. I'm hysterical, I realise it's dust. I try to turn on a torch, but I can't see anything. I'm on the first floor, I can't see a way out, I don't know where to go. I was guided by memory, walking by touch. I knew where the steps were and I found the exit to the ground floor. We used to go through the concert hall all the time. I run there, and from there people run back. It turns out the concert hall is blocked up and there's no way out.

I go back. I drop my stuff. I think, what do I need them for. I only took my son's bear and documents. I see people running into the cellar. Everyone's panicking, hysterical. I couldn't even think at that moment that anything had happened to my children. I just knew they were waiting for me. I'm running and I see a man climbing out the window. I went out the window, too. I ran and there were scattered stones everywhere, the ruined Drama Theatre, mountains of stones. It seemed to me that I had been running for an eternity through all the rubble. And I ran to the place where the children were. I ran towards them: there was the driver who had promised to take us away, but only my son was standing by my side. I said, "Where's the daughter?"

And he says to me: "She ran off to look for you." And I run, all the people are running away, and I'm in the middle of it, shouting like a madwoman. And I hear my daughter calling out. We finally found each other," recalls Olesya.

In the Drama Theatre there were about one and a half thousand people sheltering from the bombing," Olesya says.

"But in two days a lot of people left there. I don't know how many. People were leaving en masse. There was one car collected from two or three. Someone had survived something, someone had petrol. And they left en masse. So there was a thousand and a half, and 500 left. But that thousand stayed there.

The driver who promised to get the family out of Mariupol kept his word.

"The driver who evacuated us, his name is Sasha. He took another family: husband, wife and two children. He came for his friends in general, but didn't find anyone. And so he took us and this family. And we left. There were two explosions. When we left, it [the Drama Theatre] was completely destroyed. The basements were filled in. The first explosion, when it happened, you could go down into the basement. People came down. And when the second explosion happened, the basements were buried. The driver drove us to Yurievka. He put us into a boarding house. We were able to take a shower. The shops were already closed, but we were given a piece of bread, a tomato. And I thought it was the best dinner we had had in a long time.

The same driver helped the family to get to Berdyansk. There Olesya and the children stayed overnight.

"And we found out that volunteers were taking people to Zaporizhzhya by bus. We woke up early in the morning, it was unreal to call a taxi. It was freezing, snowing. My daughter stopped the car and random hitchhikers drove us to the buses' meeting point. The woman even took off her hat and gave it to my daughter because it was very cold. We approached the buses and there was panic. Everyone was trying to break into the salon. We were pushing too. We managed to get into the salon, too. At about 10 a.m., the convoy left. We rode standing up. And there was a pregnant woman next to us, she didn't even get a seat. It was a long ride. There was a stop before Vasilevka, so we could go to the shop and get something to eat. And at 6 p.m. we passed Vasilievka, and further on there was a 'grey zone'. We were told that the so-called DNR had let us out and would not let us back in, and that we could not go into Ukraine yet because there was fighting there. And we will have to spend the night in the field. My daughter got hysterical for the first time. Grads, shooting everywhere, we can see the shots coming out of these cars. And we have our bus standing. We stood like that all night long. It was terribly cold. They threw the teddy bear on the floor. I say, he is our savior. Like a pillow. The baby was picked up by strangers. And at 6 am we went to Zaporizhzhya and around 8 am we were there.

We didn't stay in Zaporizhzhya for long," says Olesya. Her daughter was so frightened that she didn't agree to it.

"At that time there were evacuation trains to Lviv. And if 10 people gathered, they gave a free bus. People were taken to volunteers, and volunteers put them on trains. So we had a group of people, and we got on the train. If something happened, we turned off the light on the train to make it dark. We warned everybody not to turn on their phones, to go without light. So we got to Lviv. And then we went to our acquaintances in Mukachevo.

My acquaintances helped my family to move to the Czech Republic. They helped us find a place to live, and helped with jobs.

"I haven't even been home for a month. I realized that I needed to do something. And the man who gave us a flat, he's a businessman, he helped me with my job. I am a cook by profession. He said to me: "Will you go to a restaurant as a cook?" I said I'm a very good cook in Ukraine, but the Czech Republic is a completely different country. They have different dishes. Then he advised me to try as an assistant cook. I went to a restaurant and worked as an assistant cook for three months. I mastered the language, I understood the kitchen. After three months, I was already transferred as a chef. Also, this businessman helped my daughter with her education. She is studying at the business academy. She has to study for 4 years, but if she is able to speak Czech well, she can go to the institute in a year. She is trying her best. Let's hope that everything will work out, - says Olesya Ustinova.

The younger child goes to kindergarten. He turned six in the summer.

"He is starting to get used to it. He already understands what the teacher wants from him. He can already explain something, what he wants. And he goes to swimming, he has a swimming class here. I like the fact that the children go out everywhere. Walks, hikes all the time. The only problem is we don't have a dog. He really wants a dog.

The woman says she is not going to Mariupol yet and does not miss the city.

"I understand that I don't miss it at all. What we've been through, all these emotional outbursts. I don't want to go home at all. Especially as you realise there's nothing there anymore. The last photos they sent us, there used to be some furniture there, but now there's not even any furniture in the house. And there's a shell sticking out of the roof. And I realise I don't want to go there at all. I want to live here. It's quiet, it's peaceful. There's work to do, the children had many things to do. We went to Lviv for a couple of days, we had to apply for the destroyed housing. I listened to the sirens for one day and got panic and hysteria again. And we left there, we changed three buses in half an hour, just to get away quickly," says Olesya.

Olesya was afraid of planes for a long time. And she still shudders at seemingly ordinary things.

"The first time Julianna and I walked across the bridge, we stopped, leaned over to look at the river. A bike goes by and that bridge vibrated. I don't know, it felt like it was going to collapse. We rushed off the bridge and then we realised "stop", well it's quiet here. I wondered what the people who were looking at us from the side thought.

Having lived through the war and three weeks in besieged Mariupol, under shelling, feeling the building you are hiding in collapse, Olesya has learned many lessons for herself.

"If before I was always working, working. I wanted to earn money to build something. And now I thought that I'd rather earn money, the children and I are clothed and fed. Here there is a possibility to go on vacation, to see something. Now I do not want to collect for myself on habitation. I just want to relax mentally. We try to go out. We go for walks, see neighbouring countries. I realize now that what we were doing before is collapsing in a moment. All your hard work. And it turns out that I've been neglecting the kids. I wasn't giving them the attention they wanted because I was always working. And now you know, for what? I'd rather spend more time with my kids now. To give them what I didn't give them before the war", says the woman.

Olesya is also very grateful to her new acquaintances in the Czech Republic for their help and support. She feels absolutely comfortable in Europe.

"We have a good home, everyone helped us right away. I got into a working team, I didn't know the language, they put up with me for a month or two, tried to explain. Now we got used to each other. I can speak now, I understand them. I understand them. They explain to me in short phrases. And Juliana got into a good academy. She has teachers who support and help her. There are, of course, those who have an attitude... well, as the psychologist told me, they don't understand, they haven't experienced and they don't even try to understand how we feel. There are those who at least try to understand. And there are those who refuse to think about it. I have never encountered anywhere that I was offended that I was from Ukraine. We were well received, thanks to everyone. Nikita was provided with toys, bicycles and a scooter. Yuliana got a laptop for her studies. And they brought us a TV set so we wouldn't be bored, sad, lonely. And if the neighbours have a picnic, the neighbours call us. We are lucky. Very lucky.

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