MEDYKA, Poland: Yulia Bondarieva spent 10 days in a basement as Russian planes flew overhead and bombs fell on the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Having reached safety in Poland, Bondarieva’s only wish now is for her twin sister from the besieged city of Mariupol to go as well.
“They’ve been in the basement since February 24, they haven’t come out at all,” Bondarieva said. “They lack food and water.”
Bondarieva, 24, recently managed to speak to her sister on the phone. The fear of what will happen to him in the beleaguered and bombarded city that is going through some of the worst fighting of the war has been overwhelming.
“She doesn’t know how to leave the city,” Bondarieva said after arriving in the Polish border town of Medyka.
Before the war, Mariupol had a population of about 430,000, and about a quarter left soon after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Leaving the besieged city then became almost impossible. Tens of thousands of people escaped through a humanitarian corridor last week, including 3,000 on Monday, but other attempts were thwarted by fighting. The Mariupol City Council claimed that several thousand residents had been taken to Russia against their will.
Bondarieva said her sister told her about “Russian soldiers walking around town” in Mariupol, and people weren’t allowed out.
“Civilians cannot leave,” she said. “They don’t give them anything.”
In a sign of the dangers for civilians trying to flee, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late Monday that Russian shelling along a humanitarian corridor injured four children who were among those evacuated. He said the shelling took place in the Zaporizhzhia area, the initial destination of those fleeing Mariupol.
The battle for the strategic port on the Sea of Azov raged on Monday, with Russian and Ukrainian soldiers fighting block by block. It is not known how many people have died so far in Mariupol. On March 15, city officials said at least 2,300 people had been killed, some buried in mass graves. There has been no official estimate since then, but the number is feared to be much higher after six days of additional shelling.
Maria Fiodorova, a 77-year-old refugee from Mariupol who arrived in Medyka on Monday, said 90% of the town had been destroyed. “There are no more buildings there (in Mairupol),” she said.
For Maryna Galla, just listening to the birdsong when she arrived in Poland was a joy after the sound of bombardments and death in Mariupol. Galla walked in Przemysl Park with her 13-year-old son, Danil. She hopes to reach Germany next.
“It’s finally getting better,” Galla said.
According to the United Nations, nearly 3.5 million people have left Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion, the largest exodus of refugees from Europe since World War II.
Valentina Ketchena arrived in Przemsyl by train on Monday. She never thought that at the age of 70 she would be forced to leave her home in Kriviy Rig and see the southern Ukrainian town almost deserted as people flee the Russian invasion for their security.
Kriviy Rig is now “half empty,” Ketchena said. She will now stay with friends in Poland, hoping to return home soon. “It’s (a) very difficult time for everyone.”
Zoryana Maksimovich is from the western city of Lviv, near the Polish border. Although the city has seen less destruction than others, Maksimovich said his children were scared and cried every night when they had to go to the basement for protection.
“I told my kids we were going to visit friends,” the 40-year-old said. “They don’t clearly understand what is going on but in a few days they will ask me where their father is.”
Like most refugees, Maksimovich had to flee without her husband – men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country and are left to fight. “I don’t know how I’m going to explain it to you,” she said.
Once in Poland, refugees can apply for a local identification number that allows them to work and access health, social and other services. Irina Cherkas, 31, from the Poltava region, said she feared her children would be targeted by Russian attacks.
“For the safety of our children, we have decided to leave Ukraine,” she said. “When the war is over, we will return home immediately.”
3.5 million people fled Ukraine
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said on Tuesday that the number of Ukrainians fleeing abroad now stands at 3,528,346, with more than 2 million crossing the Polish border.
Poland took in most of the Ukrainian refugees. On Sunday night, artists from Ukraine joined their Polish hosts at a charity event that raised more than $380,000.
The star of the evening was a 7-year-old Ukrainian girl, whose video singing a song from the film “Frozen” in a kyiv bomb shelter went viral and drew international sympathy.
Wearing an embroidered white folk dress, Amellia Anisovych, who fled to Poland with her grandmother and brother, sang the Ukrainian anthem in a clear, sweet voice as thousands of people in the audience waved their cellphone lights in response.