How I saved my mother and sister from the hell of Mariupol

Maksym Yali’s three photographs depict the story of Mariupol. In the first, taken a year ago, his mother, Kateryna Yali, looks vibrant and glamorous as she celebrates her 77th birthday. The second, shot last month, shows bombed out Mitropolytskaya Street on the edge of town where Kateryna lived. The third, taken last week after Kateryna’s dramatic escape from her on her 78th birthday from her, evidences more than words ever can the devastating impact of living under constant bombardment – ​​a haunted, traumatized-looking Kateryna appears to have aged 15 years in six weeks .

“You cannot imagine how sad it is for me to see my mother looking like this,” said Maksym, 42. “She is in a terrible psychological state. But the most important thing is that I got my mother and sister out – and that they are alive.”

For weeks, Maksym, a professor of international relations in Kyiv, had been desperately trying to get his mother, a Russian language teacher, and sister, Natalya, 56, an engineer, out of Mariupol. This is the story of how, after losing contact with his mother and sister and not knowing if they were alive or dead, he managed to do so, getting them to relative safety in Russian-controlled Berdiansk – only for the humanitarian corridor from there to close and for them to face a perilous journey once again.

Their order began in earnest on March 2nd when the Russians cut off electricity and all communications to Mariupol. Maksym said: “My mother lived in one of the most dangerous parts of town because her home de ella was on the southern outskirts next to an open field from which the Russians were shelling. At the beginning of the invasion, I begged my mother to leave but she refused. I said, okay, I am going to wire you some money, please use it to stock up with extra food and water. Again, she was resistant but thank goodness she listened, because without it, she would not have survived.

“For the first few days, my niece Katya was able to check on her, but then the bombardment became so relentless she was unable to do so, and then Katya and her family managed to flee to safety and after that, we had no word if my mother and sister were alive. As the weeks dragged by, there were reports that people had run out of food and water, that they were eating melted snow and drinking from dirty puddles. The Russians cut off the gas from 5th March which meant they had no means to cook food except on open fires in the street. There was no heating apart from these fires.”

Maksym frantically set about finding someone local to get them out. “After three weeks, working with my niece, we finally found someone in a village about 20km from Mariupol who had a car and petrol and would do it for $100. The challenge was getting him the money because the Russians had shut down the banking system. I found a friend with relatives in his village of him who delivered the cash and I gave him the address of my mother and sister, who lived nearby. On 23rd March he went in to find them.”

Maksym’s mother Kateryna and sister Natalya today after reaching safety


But that first attempt ended in failure. “My mother was not in her home. The driver spoke to her neighbors who told him she had been sleeping under her blown-out windows exposed to the freezing cold while buildings burned and smouldered all around her – and that she had moved to a friend’s house that was safer. He found where my mother was staying and then headed to my sister’s de ella but she was nowhere to be seen and my mother refused to leave without her, so he came back empty-handed. I was devastated.”

The next day the driver tried again. “This time, when he went to pick up my mother, my sister was there. They had spent the night together hoping he would return.” On 24th March, the day Kateryna turned 78, Maksym got the call he had been waiting for. “We crossed the line,” his mother said.

Maksym said they could barely speak, they were so traumatized and exhausted. “They had driven through a destroyed city and had seen dead bodies lying in the street and had to negotiate a dozen Russian-controlled and very tense checkpoints.

Bombed out Mitropolytskaya Street on the edge of town where Kateryna lived


Maksym’s sister told him she had nearly died checking in on their mother. “Natalya said the most terrifying thing was the air bombing. She said you could hear the plans but she couldn’t see them. As she arrived one day at our mother’s, she heard missiles incoming and sprinted inside and slammed the door and hit the deck. Two seconds later a bomb hit three meters from the house, exactly where my sister had been standing. She was two seconds from being obliterated. Another bomb fell on a basement 200m away, a direct hit. My sister said 80 people hiding there were killed.”

Kateryna’s life has been shaped by war. Born in 1944 during World War II, she had been orphaned when her father and mother de ella died at the hands of the Nazis. Now she had reached relative safety in Berdiansk, a port city 85km from Mariupol still occupied by Russian forces but crucially not under fire. There was talk of a humanitarian corridor opening up and Maksym was hopeful he would get his mother and sister to central Ukraine and then across the border into Slovakia within days.

Maksym, his mother, and his sister Natalya, 56, on his mother’s 77th birthday


It did not happen. “The Russians turned off the Ukrainian cell phones in Berdiansk which meant that, again, I couldn’t reach them,” said Maksym. “There were reports a humanitarian corridor had opened up and on 2nd April, several buses managed to get from Ukrainian-controlled Zaporizhzhia to the outskirts of Berdiansk, but I had no means of telling my mother where to go to access the buses. Then, when we did get word to them, they went only to find no buses had been allowed through that day.”

There were five attempts to evacuate his mother. All failed. Then last week they found a volunteer with a minivan who agreed to drive them out. Maksym said: “They were not on the official government transport and I was terrified they would be stopped at Russian checkpoints and brutalized because of their connection to me. I have been outspoken against the Russians on CNN and even on Russian media and the Russians would kill me if they found me. I told my mother and sister to delete all links to me on social media. Luckily, they did so because they went through 15 checkpoints and their phones and computers were searched thoroughly. It took them seven hours to travel 200km to Zaporizhzhia, but from there, it was quick to Dnipro.”

The Russian bombardment of Mariupol has wrought terror upon its population


Maksym said it was hard to ask his mother how she was feeling. “She has lost a lot of weight,” he said. “She told me that with all the bombing, she was too stressed to eat. When I see footage of her street from her, I feel shocked she survived. From what I see, there are no windows left in Mariupol.”

For Maksym, it has been “40 days of hell”. “I have many feelings,” he said. “Anger – against the Russian terrorists who want to kill as many civilians as they can. Worry – about the hundreds of thousands of civilians stuck in Mariupol and about the women and children being forcibly deported to Russia – just like in Stalin’s time. But also, immense gratitude to have got them out. My mother told me: “Leaving that hell of Mariupol is the best birthday present I ever had”.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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