Imagine being a seafarer, working on board miles from home, and hearing that your family has been caught up in a war in your country. Imagine losing contact with them for nearly two weeks while the city where they live is bombarded with shells and rockets, not knowing where they are or if they are safe.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, millions of Ukrainian families were displaced and thousands lost their lives or were injured in the subsequent conflict. In March 2022, on behalf of the Seafarers International Relief Fund (SIRF), ISWAN launched the Ukraine Crisis Support Fund to provide urgent financial assistance to seafarers and their families affected by the crisis.
One seafarer from Ukraine, whose name has been withheld, was working on board when the war began. His family were forced from their home by the conflict and his father was injured by a Russian sniper. The seafarer contacted the Marine Transport Workers’ Trade Union of Ukraine (MTWTU) who applied to the Ukraine Crisis Support Fund on his behalf, securing a grant to pay for treatment of his father’s wounds and to cover the cost of searching for and renting safe accommodation. This is his account from those harrowing days, waiting to hear that his family had escaped with their lives.
This story includes content some may find distressing.
The war found my whole family in Mariupol while I was on the voyage. Fortunately, there was internet on the ship, and we could stay in touch.
For the first few days, the situation in Mariupol was more or less calm. Explosions and rocket hits were far away. Mariupol had not yet been surrounded.
A few days later, gasoline had already begun to run out. It was an obstacle to evacuation from the city, which was possible only by own transport.
When the circle around Mariupol began to close for the first time, the aircraft flew from the sea; lights in almost the entire city turned off. There was no light for about a day, after which it was restored. After that, communication with the family began to disappear. Because of the blackout, almost all mobile connection was lost. Then, the electricity and gas were turned off. My family lived in a private house, which made surviving in such conditions a little easier. The availability of food stocks was preserved for the first time. The number of working stores in the first days of March was about 2 or 3, by 5th March, there were no working shops left.
These days, the most terrible things began. Random shelling of the entire city from artillery and rockets. It practically did not stop. Communication with the family was completely lost for almost two weeks. People who had relatives from Mariupol, but were outside of it, gathered in Viber, Telegram, and Instagram groups. They shared bits of information about the city – where rockets flew, which house was safe, how to leave, and so on. The only reliable source of information was Azov's Telegram channel, which posted photo and video reports. There I saw that the front line was coming closer to my house.
It was possible to catch communication in the only place in the city, thanks to the solar panel on the antenna. A lot of people fled there to call their relatives, so I scheduled calls with my relatives at a particular time and planned each next call. One day I saw a report and a photo that the rocket fell right in the place where people gathered to communicate with the outside world. There was a burnt-out car in the middle of the road and corpses on the streets. Every person from Mariupol saw death personally; if not seeing how someone bleeds in front of you, then simply witnessing corpses covered with rags on the streets.
At that moment, my wife was on the other side of the city. She lived in an apartment and had to cook food on fire near the entrance and walk to the nearest source of water. Both of these tasks were very dangerous. I personally know people who were injured or died from shells while preparing food outside. Even a little nine-year-old boy who went to cook with his father was among them. The father survived, but the son did not. No less dangerous were trips for water as Russian artillery purposefully hit there. I also personally know people who lost relatives who stood in line for water.
One day, communication with my parents was interrupted. For several days there was no information. Then I received a message that they were fine. A plane dropped several bombs – it destroyed two neighboring houses and engulfed children asleep in the basement. Then my family decided to move to friends. There they were under fire for almost a week. There were days when it was not possible to go outside at all and even cook something.
Then my father found a connection on the ninth floor and went there to send me a message. And at that moment, a Russian sniper shot from a neighboring house. Miraculously, the bullet ricocheted, fell apart into two parts, and hit my father's arm and face under the eye. Nothing serious was hurt. After that, the Russians came to check what had happened. They were shocked and sent him to the hospital. At that time, the hospitals did not provide proper care. They only treated people who were hurt with very large fragments. They did not even stitch the wounds. The number of dead and wounded was awful. The doctors talked about how many people needed help, but they were unable to do anything. There were pregnant women with their bellies torn off; totally burned but still alive people; people cut up by fragments who began to rot and died from sepsis without proper medicine. In the hospital, my father got two fragments out and was sent back. He could not eat and drink normally; something was wrong with his palate and caused serious pain. The face began to swell more and more.
Then my family members finally got the opportunity to leave by their own car, which miraculously did not suffer. Although there were many cars in the district, all were destroyed by rockets and crushed by armored vehicles. If not for this chance, everything could have ended tragically. Already on the territory of Ukraine, my father underwent an examination. Several smaller fragments were taken out and stitched. The doctors prevented sepsis.
The trip from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia took almost a day. There were a huge number of occupiers' checkpoints. They checked the phones, interrogated, and more.
According to the stories, the worst was not the rockets from the Multiple Launch Rocket System but the aircraft. It operated non-stop, each dropping four missiles. Some days people counted about 150 aircraft flights per day or two. 15 minutes, a plane, four missiles. 15 minutes, a plane, four explosions. It could last days.
The most dramatic thing is that the most powerful attacks that hit the city in early March occurred in:
Thus, almost two weeks of ignorance, lack of interest in life, and complete apathy passed – I did not know where my relatives were and what was happening to them. Are they alive? Do they have food and water? When I read the official reports on the approximate number of dead, I calculated the chances that my family was not a part of this number.
Let me remind you that the number of civilians killed in Mariupol (the city with a population of 500,000) is estimated at more than 20,000. In recent weeks, it has risen to 90,000. The figure may seem insane and unrealistic. But then you learn about the entire buildings with residents wrecked; apartment buildings burned down in just tens of minutes. You remember there was a shell burying the whole family in the house. And the only survivor who went for water found out that he had lost everything in a second – the shell destroyed his home and killed his wife, children, and parents.
I do not know how to end this story. I would just like people to devote half an hour to read this long text of one resident and learn about the tragedy of Mariupol. I was not there, but I felt pain and anxiety for my family. I listened to the interview and looked at the records from the burning city. In a week, peaceful and flourishing Mariupol turned into ruins, burying thousands of its inhabitants underneath.
ISWAN would like to thank the Marine Transport Workers’ Trade Union of Ukraine (MTWTU) for coordinating this seafarer’s application to the Ukraine Crisis Support Fund and enabling him to share his story with us.