Alina is one of the lucky ones. She’s not dead from starvation or a Russian bullet or missile in Mariupol.
The world is witnessing the horror of Russian war crimes in Ukraine — as revealed in Bucha after Russian troops withdrew from the town near Kyiv. Yet the torture, executions, and casual killing of civilians in Bucha is only a fraction of the ongoing horrors in other besieged towns and cities such as Mariupol. There, in Alina’s home city, more than 100,000 desperate civilians are being prevented from leaving by Russian shelling.
Alina’s story reveals how tens of thousands of ordinary Ukrainians are confronting an occupation unlike anything Europeans have experienced since the Nazi invasions of World War II.
‘We didn’t think it would happen to us’
I met Alina Beskrovna on my February trip to Mariupol, when she worked alongside me as a translator and appointment fixer. An IT specialist with an MBA from Lehigh University, she spent a high school exchange year in Williamsport, Pa.
Alina had never imagined what lay ahead for Mariupol.
Just three weeks after we said effusive goodbyes at the Mariupol train station on Feb. 5, her city lay in ruins and she was hiding in a basement.
So I was thrilled to learn last week that she finally made it out of that besieged city on March 23. She traveled first to Poland, then to Denmark, where friends can host her while she seeks a visa to the United States or Canada.
Even though everyone expected fighting farther east in the Donbas region, “we didn’t think it would happen to us,” she told me last week via WhatsApp. Yet what she endured, for almost four weeks in a freezing basement in a once beautiful port city the size of Miami, is what tens of thousands of Ukrainians are enduring daily from Russian sieges.
Soon after the war started, Alina and her mother, along with their three cats, moved from their nine-story apartment building (which had no air-raid shelter) to the basement of a four-story apartment building where a friend lived.
There they joined 31 others, including children, many of them from families of retired Soviet military officers who served before the breakup of the Soviet Union. “Everyone thought there would be a little fighting, but they never expected the total annihilation of the city,” she recalled. “It turned the most pro-Russian people into vicious Russia haters.”
The cellar dwellers all brought food supplies from their homes, especially nonperishables like pasta, buckwheat, canned food — and bottled water. They set up makeshift beds across the cellar, with boards on bricks, or simply cushions.
But a few days in, when temperatures were near freezing, the electricity, water, and gas went out, along with the internet. The group had to learn to live in total darkness day and night after the small basement windows had been blocked with foam to protect against flying glass.
“The lack of light totally changes the atmosphere,” Alina told me. “We used flashlights while the batteries lasted, and whoever had cars could charge their phones [as flashlights] so long as gasoline supplies lasted.” Going outside was always a risk, but when there was no shelling, children would open the cellar door for light and use colored chalk to draw on the cellar walls.
Finding water soon became a serious problem. “It was a couple of miles to some wells,” Alina recalled, and some men risked their lives dragging a shopping cart carrying a 20-liter bucket to bring back well water polluted with sand. (One of the intrepid water carriers was badly injured by a rocket.)
To be safe, drinking water had to be boiled on an outdoor stove that some cellar dwellers assembled in the building’s yard from bricks and a sheet of metal. “It tasted disgusting,” Alina said, and when there was a light snowfall, people ran outside to gather snow for drinking. “There were no showers, no water for bathing or teeth or hair.”
With no toilet available for 32 people, the men built an outhouse in the yard by digging a small pit, then building a makeshift structure over and around it with wood pilfered from a nearby construction site. When it was too dangerous to go outside, they used buckets indoors.
Wood had to be found to burn in the stove. “We had some drunk neighbors who would go wood hunting at construction sites,” Alina said. It often took the courage born of drink to venture outside, and firewood was so precious that some neighbors protected their supplies with guns.
Constant shelling, mental anguish
The most terrifying part of the day was listening in the dark to the sounds of war and worrying when a missile would hit them.
“Some days there was constant shelling,” Alina said, “and four or five times they hit so close it felt like it went into your soul, and the house wouldn’t stand. The nine-story building across the street took so many hits from Grad missiles that it looked like 9/11, with flames raging and papers flying. One family from that building ran across the street into our basement. They were in shock and their 15-year-old daughter was having a nervous breakdown.
“You quickly learn to tell the difference in sound between incoming and outgoing missiles. And if the missile is closer you feel the vibration. The doors of the basement are shaking and you’re absolutely not safe.
“Sometimes it feels like an earthquake. You sit there hoping the missile won’t come to you.”
Trapped in the basement, Alina and her mom had no news from outside except when some brave individual ventured out and turned on a car radio. “We could only get Russian stations, but we decided the opposite of everything we heard was the truth,” she said. One brave (and drunk) cellar dweller drove into the city center on a quiet day and returned with news that the city, along with the Mariupol drama theater, had been destroyed.
“Your body reacts in a really bad way, once you find out they are targeting where people live,” she related. “Surprise takes your energy. You don’t have any energy for emotions. You stop caring.”
Finally, Alina’s friend decided it was time to risk driving out to the nearest unoccupied city, three hours away. “At the first Russian checkpoint, a soldier asked if I was a sniper because I had calluses on my hand from cooking in the open air.” The men were stripped to search for tattoos that the Russians believed would mark them as Nazis.
After 18 Russian checkpoints, and many scares, the car finally made it to the city of Zaporizhzhia. “I felt as if I was in a different universe, as if my hands were detached from my mind,” Alina said. She still has a hard time hearing in one ear from the constant noise of the shelling.
Alina and her mom have lost nearly everything they owned, but as she recuperates, here’s what disturbs her the most: “Right now, two weeks after I left, things are much worse in Mariupol. People are dying of hunger and diseases.” And Russians are still attacking efforts to organize humanitarian bus convoys out of the city.
The world must confront Vladimir Putin’s war crimes. Now.