At first glance the spacious house on the outskirts of Warsaw looks like the perfect family setting. There’s a large yard with a fish pond, a sprawling deck for barbecuing and a driveway big enough for at least three cars.
Inside, the place hums with activity. On Tuesday, four women chatted casually as they prepared a lunch of borscht and salad while a young girl sat at the table drawing pictures and three boys ran down a hallway laughing.
But the homey atmosphere belies the heartbreak and pain that’s just below the surface. All of the people living here – six mothers, one grandmother and six children – arrived from Mariupol, Ukraine, last week. And now they’re all trying to find their way in a new country while grappling with the death and destruction they’ve left behind. Each one of them spent weeks living underground in shelters, listening to bombs fall on neighourhoods they cherished and wondering how many more friends and family will be killed.
One woman saw babies slowly die because their mothers were so starved they couldn’t produce enough breast milk. Another said she stole food from bombed out shops to keep her family alive, and one more added that her only source of drinking water was melted snow.
“I’m okay,” said Sofia Rakitskaya who arrived here with her 13-year-old son, Mark. “I’m alive.”
Mariupol has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. The besieged city has endured weeks of Russian bombardments that have killed hundreds of civilians and left nearly every building damaged. Tens of thousands of people remain trapped without electricity, running water or heating fuel.
Warsaw’s Relief House opened last week and it’s a unique project run by the HumanDoc Foundation, a Polish charity that’s among the few aid organizations still operating in Mariupol.
HumanDoc has had a long association with the Mariupol’s Women’s Association and, within hours of Russia’s attack, the two groups were working together to bring people to safety and ensure badly needed supplies got in. Even now around a dozen volunteers from the organizations dodge the fighting and drive into the city on a regular basis and help those who are desperate to leave.
“It very, very risky,” said Stanislaw Brudnoch, who works with HumanDoc. “There is no official humanitarian corridor so people are really, really frustrated. They just want to survive and they are trying everything to leave the city.”
Mr. Brudnoch said each trip in and out of the city costs around US$2,000 in fuel and bribes for Russian soldiers. And while they’ve yet to lose a volunteer, one of their drivers was recently shot at. “They are brave,” he said. “It’s crazy, really crazy.”
The groups have also organized a complex series of bus routes that bring people to Zaporizhzhia, northwest of Mariupol, and then on to Dnipro in central Ukraine, before finally arriving in Warsaw, a 1,500-kilometre journey that can take more than a week, if everything goes well.
So far HumanDoc has evacuated 300 people from Mariupol to Poland. Around 100 have since moved on to friends or relatives across Europe, but 200 remain in the charity’s care. And Relief House is now a key part of the agency’s program.
The group acquired the house thanks to a generous donor who renovated it from top to bottom and then handed over the keys, telling the organization to pay him a minimal rent whenever they can.
There’s enough room for 18 people and, along with offering a quiet respite from the horrors of war, HumanDoc also provides a range of services from counselling to medical care, legal aid and help finding housing. A former school principal from Mariupol, who also fled to Warsaw, has also started an online school program for children at the house, drawing on a team of refugee teachers in Poland.
For the women and children staying here, the house is a welcome haven, but the trauma of what they’ve gone through is never far away.
Lali Dmitrieva has been driven out of her home by the Russians three times. She used to live in Abkhazia, an enclave in Georgia that became the focus of a Russian invasion in 2008. Then she moved to Crimea but left after it was annexed by Russia in 2014. Ms. Dmitrieva thought she and her family could finally settle down in Mariupol. She opened a restaurant serving Georgian food while her husband, an architect, took a position with a firm in Odesa.
Now the family is on the run once more, only this time they’ve been split up. Ms. Dmitrieva and her 16-year-old son, Mikhail, have headed to Warsaw while her husband and elder son, who is 18, remain in Ukraine because of a Ukrainian government edict that bars male adults from leaving. She’s applied for a visa to Canada and hopes that one day they can reunite there. “It’s my dream,” she said with a smile.
But the past few weeks have been haunting. She hasn’t heard from her parents, who refused to leave, in 10 days and she has no idea if they are alive or dead. She spent two weeks living in a basement, too afraid to go outside, and she can’t shake the memories of the babies she watched die. “There is no city now,” she said through tears. “Every day the situation is worse and worse.”
Her son, Mikhail, copes by doing what he loves – manicures, hair dressing and makeup. He brought his makeup box and supplies with him, including a nail dryer and a sterilization machine, and he now does the nails and hair of each woman in the house.
Down the hall, Liliia Kravchuk, 33, sat on her bed and tried not to think too much about what she’s endured.
She and her daughter, 10-year-old Eva, and her mother, Galina, tried to keep one step ahead of the Russians. They moved three times in Mariupol after the war began and barely escaped with their lives when a bomb slammed into a building adjacent to where they’d taken shelter in the basement.
Then, just as the Russians nearly surrounded the city, Ms. Kravchuk, her mother and her daughter managed to get a ride to a nearby village. Then they found their way on to a convoy of buses heading to Zaporizhzhia. But the buses were stopped by Russian soldiers and it took 10 hours to negotiate their departure. “That was very scary,” she said. “We didn’t know if they would keep us as hostages.”
Now she’s just trying to think about the future and how to start over. “It’s a chance to start something new, maybe better than in the past,” she said. “I have to be optimistic and have a positive way of thinking. And not think about what I have lost.”
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