Behind the faces of those who fled Mariupol the trauma of 45 days in hell.
There is a parking lot in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia, where those who managed to escape arrive.
It is wrong to call them the lucky ones. They experienced real horror.
This is the story of the Burak family.
We spotted husband and wife Valerie and Tatiana upon their arrival.
Tatiana, her arm cast into a rope, and her husband, Valerie, with a plaster on his face covering a jaw that seemed to be broken.
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In the tent that serves as a port of refuge where the displaced gather and eat and pick up some new clothes and wonder how they survived, we spoke. Here is their story in their own words.
Tatiana Burak: My name is Tatiana Burak and I am an English teacher from Mariupol. We managed to get out of Mariupol three days ago and then arrived in Verdansk. And finally, yesterday we tried to get out of that small town to reach this place.
But at a Russian roadblock, we were stopped and our bus was turned back. But today’s attempt was successful. Finally, we got to the Ukrainian lands and we also found some friends of Mariupol here. So we are very happy to do that because we survived 45 days of hell in Mariupol.
Valerie Burak: My name is Valerie Burak. We are husband and wife.
Mark Stone: Thanks so much for talking to us. Let’s start from the beginning. Can you take us to the moment the Russians arrived? described to me. What happened?
Tatiana Burak: Well, you know that on February 24, Putin announced this special anti-terrorist operation as he called it. We were already planning to leave on this date. But you know, fate: Our car just stopped. It didn’t work and we couldn’t get out.
As soon as the bombing started, we were in our apartment in one of the areas on the left bank. This was probably the first time they started bombing and we decided to move to another area because our friends thought it was safer there. So we got into a friend’s car and drove to another area.
Valery Burak: Indeed, the bombing everywhere was in full swing, and the Russian planes began to arrive and began bombing. Some of our friends’ private homes on the Left Bank have already been destroyed. So our friends invited us to stay with them in other areas of the center where they thought it would be safe. But somehow, just before the bridge, our car was shot at from different places and we were hit and our army helped us get to this hospital.
Treatment in a hospital under bombardment
Mark: So, Tatiana, you broke your arm and Valerie broke your jaw?
Valerie: Oh my God, yes. Three of us were injured.
Mark: This was from a shell. Russian shell?
Valerie: Well, we don’t know where the bombing came from. You know, no one can tell.
Tatiana: At this time, there were a lot of Russian terrorist groups all over the city that were trying to create chaos, you know, and show people that there’s really no way out. Our Ukrainian army was trying to find these groups. So our guess is that it was one of these groups. So we got to the hospital and had surgery.
Mark: And that was when the hospital was able to function?
Valerie: She was able to work, yes.
Mark: Now there’s no electricity there?
Valerie: Two days after we arrived, they had no electricity.
Tatiana: There was a constant flow of wounded. Many people were wounded to varying degrees by the aerial bombardment, because of everything and because of the tanks. Tanks were also bombing everything. But in fact, because of all these attacks, almost all of the patients in the hospital were put in the corridors because there was a risk of getting injured from the broken windows.
Valerie: So the wards, you know, all the patients were staying inside the corridors.
Tatiana: They want everyone to go to the occupied territories or to Russia. We had a conversation with the newly appointed chief physician of the hospital, and we asked him if we could get some x-rays, and he said, No, there is no such thing in Mariupol, but I can evacuate you to Donetsk [Russian occupied Ukraine] You will get some help. But of course, we did not want to go anywhere in the occupied territories.
Valerie: And by the way, he was a military doctor, and I think they’re going to turn this hospital into a military hospital.
Tatiana: What I wanted to say, and tell the whole world, is that our doctors, they are real heroes because the doctors and the surgeons stayed in the hospital. They did not go. For a month or more they have been working. Try to help people as much as they can. Only after probably more than a month did they start thinking about themselves and their families, and they started leaving.
Mark: And when the bombs fell in those first few weeks and you’re stuck there. Just describe your feelings.
Tatiana: It was awful, because before that, we could only imagine aerial bombs like, we saw them and heard them in films about World War II or heard about them from veterans.
But now when we were on our mattresses, on the floor, in the corridors and we heard the sound of the plane and then a terrible thunder and the whole building…
Valerie: … the whole building began to shake …
Tatiana: …shaking! Then after one of the bombs fell, the windows of our wing were shattered on one side, and all the windows were shattered. And you know we have very cold temperatures…
Valerie: … about two or three degrees Celsius in the building …
Tatiana: … below zero. It was very cold because there was no gas, no electricity, no central heating, and patients had to lie on mattresses or on their beds. They had one blanket and that was it. It was very cold. It was terrible. And people were so scared because they thought all these different bombs and artillery — we don’t even know the names of all these systems… But it was awful because we could see the multi-storey buildings burning from the hospital windows.
We could hear people crying. It was terrible. And the constant influx of people who were trying to come to the hospital for shelter because they were afraid. They brought the children. were injured. Some people were killed. Some were wounded. They were brought without legs and without arms and killed children. It was terrible.
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corpses in the streets
Tatiana: There was one week when they were [the Russians] It was especially active in the area where our hospital was because it was quite close to the entrance to the city.
Then the bombing moved a bit and people tried to get out of the hospital to find their friends. To find their relatives because there is no mobile connection. They could not contact anyone.
And so, the first thing people saw, when we came out of the hospital, were dead bodies in the streets. It was terrible. People, different people, different ages, sometimes entire families with children because of this shell or bomb and they got to the wrong place, and they got killed. It was terrible.
Valerie: People would come to the hospital and ask the chief medical officer: “We have a dead body in the house, what do we have to do with it?” She said: Just bury him. why did you come here?’ you know.
Tatiana: So people began to bury their relatives and kill neighbors in squares or multi-storey buildings and we saw all the graves.
Mark: And the school where you taught her, both of you, was also destroyed?
Tatiana: Yes, our school was built in 1936.
Valerie: He survived the German occupation.
Mark: But did you survive this?
Valery: I remember Euro 2012 when my English friend was in Mariupol for a few days during the tournament and we took him on a tour of Mariupol and showed him the dramatic stage. We showed him where the British Consulate was before the October Revolution, you know, over 100 years ago, and he was pleasantly shocked that these things were in Mariupol and we took pictures there.
Tatiana: Our city was a prosperous city. Different parks, different buildings, for a lot of people who were enjoying themselves with their kids. And we had some historical places, but now we have nothing because the symbol of the city, the dramatic theater, was bombed and many people who were sheltering in their basement were killed.
It is a ghost town. You can see the skeletons, the black skeletons of the nine-storey buildings as they burned. And we don’t even know how many people were killed inside because there’s no way to find anyone because the whole building was on fire.
A lot of people were trying to find shelter in the basements of these buildings, and when the building was bombed or when some shells landed, some people were killed in these basements because the building was destroyed, and they couldn’t get out.
Valerie: They got trapped.
Mark: Do you feel let down by Europe?
Valerie: People like us, who were there, were just shocked by the lack of reaction from Europe, because we heard that the number of casualties during this siege, you know, has gone up to 20,000, and I think it’s more than that because there are a lot of bodies, you know, not there. I’m sure there are many, many, many dead bodies in the closed apartments. Nobody can get there and people stay there, and many of them are no longer alive. So this number must be greater than 20,000.
Nothing to go back to
Mark: So what now for the two of you? What next for you?
Tatiana: The next thing is we’re trying to figure out what to do with our wounds and then we’ll join our eldest son and sister in Lviv (in western Ukraine) and then figure out where to go. Obviously we will not come to Mariupol, because there is nothing to come to.
The Russians call themselves liberators. They come and say, We set you free. From what? They freed us from our lives. They liberated us from our apartments, our money, our jobs, our relatives, because so many people were killed. So what has it set us free from? We had a good life. Our city was thriving.
Mark: Well, good luck to you both, and we’re so grateful to have you talking to us.
Tatiana: You are welcome. We’re glad we can share our story with the whole world because it’s just one story for many, maybe tens of thousands of people. And some of them will never be able to tell their story because they are killed within a few seconds. You know philosophers say that any experience is useful, but I do not want an experience as useful as the one we had. And I don’t want anyone to own it.
Valerie: It’s like you lived one life for 58 years, and then at the end of March, you started living a different life, you know, and you can’t imagine how that could happen in a peaceful city.
Tatiana: Just remember that Mariupol no longer exists, and it was really a prosperous and wonderful city. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a city like that anymore, which was too shocking. That’s why I mean, we really see what Vladimir Putin needs to be brought to court. He wouldn’t be able to bring back all those dead people, but at least he could, he could be punished in some way.
Mark: I’m so sorry and I’m so grateful that you’re okay to talk to us.
Valerie: You’re very welcome, thank you very much.