Skip to Content

A Mariupol family fled the horror of Russian attacks. But they had to leave their parents behind


By AnneClaire Stapleton, Ivan Watson, Khrystyna Bondarenko and Tom Booth, CNN

Dmytro and Tania Shvets spent the first 23 days of the war hiding in their cellar in Mariupol with their 7-year-old daughter, Vlada, and their parents. The family managed to escape the besieged Ukrainian city on Thursday, but their parents stayed behind.

Having fled northeast to the central city of Dnipro, Tania told CNN that Russia’s bombardment has effectively wiped Mariupol off the map, and it’s only a matter of time before other cities in Ukraine face the same fate.

“There is no longer any city there. There is no longer a city of Mariupol…there isn’t a single residential building left. Only 10% of the people are left there. Just retirees without money or (those without) cars who can’t escape (and) people who can’t walk,” Tania said from the relative safety of a temporary shelter in Dnipro.

“We did not bathe for three weeks, (we) went to the toilet on a bucket and in a bag,” Tania wrote in a diary she updated each day from her underground hiding place. She shared her diary entries with CNN.

The family rarely left the cellar unless it was absolutely necessary to survive — leaving only to find food and water, and once to help bury neighbors killed by Russian artillery while waiting in line for food.

“The problem is that in our city, we didn’t have anything. No mobile connection. No internet connection. Everything was cut. The gas supply, the water supply. The lights,” Dmytro told CNN. “We were cooking outside, making the fire. Taking wood from the parks. Because there was no other option to survive — sharing food with our neighbors, our relatives.”

The couple said it felt like Russian forces were targeting groups of civilians waiting in line for food, water, or at a pharmacy.

“They were just killing us. If we gathered together in a group to find water, they just shot at us,” Tania said.

On the 11th day of the Russian invasion (March 6), she wrote in her diary: “A hard attack has begun. They were shooting from everything and everywhere, there was a shelling of houses again. Today there is not a single kiosk left, even empty ones are being opened and people take out everything from there: bags, cartons, vitamins from pharmacies … looting has become a way of survival.”

Dmytro said he doesn’t blame Russian citizens for what is happening in Ukraine, but he doesn’t understand why Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps targeting civilians.

“Why the killing of civilians? Why? For what? We respect all (of) the world,” he told CNN.

Dark jokes become reality

During the first few days of the conflict, Dmytro and Tania joked that if food became scarce, they could always eat pigeons.

“In the beginning it was like a joke. Oh, maybe we’ll kill a pigeon to eat,” Dmytro told CNN.

Now, he said that’s no longer a joke, but rather a matter of catching the few pigeons that have survived the incessant Russian attacks.

Dmytro fears his parents and in-laws are going to starve.

“I don’t know how they are going to survive. Because there is no food anymore. My dad told me we don’t have food. Maybe…one week. Maximum,” he said with tears in his eyes.

“I don’t know if I’m going to see my parents or listen to my parents again. I have no idea,” he said, adding that they are just living from day to day.

“Today we are alive, tomorrow — maybe not. Nobody knows,” he said.

A ‘river of blood’

The few times Dmytro left the cellar to search for food and water, he saw crosses made with two wooden sticks, marking fresh graves dug in heavily-shelled residential neighborhoods. This is the only symbol families have available to mark their loved ones’ lives.

“We were burying people in front of their gardens, in patios. Our neighbors asked us to help to dig the graves for their sons, for their kids,” he said.

Dmytro said a bomb fell in front of him while waiting in line for water, killing three people. He had to help bury them.

Tania added, “We gathered many corpses, people put them either in ditches or in buildings, while it’s cold. Some people from Mariupol took (dead) people in their cars because they want to bury them.”

She said that every day that passed in Mariupol saw more deaths and more damage.

“The rivers of blood flow down the street,” she wrote in her diary.

Tania thought that she was prepared for war, and she had plenty of cash on hand.

But now she says that she wished she had listened to her grandparents when they told her to always have flour and sugar on hand — a mentality left over from World War II.

“We didn’t know that this would happen… instead of all the money and phones, you need to have two suitcases at home that have batteries, candles, matches, medicine and a change of socks … you need a suitcase that will save your life. We didn’t have matches or candles. Where can you get them when you have money but there are no pharmacies or stores?” she said.


On March 18, Tania and her family left her home city as “victims” and “survivors.”

“This is a cemetery of our relatives, friends, neighbors, residents, buildings. We have buried our dreams, goals, careers… lost everything that has been achieved over the years with hard work,” she wrote in her diary.

Dmyrtro said the decision to leave the city — and his parents — was agonizing, but “the only option.”

“My mother was completely destroyed mentally, (she) was like (in a) complete depression, sitting in the cellar — she hasn’t left the cellar since the beginning of the war,” he said.

“The last day I saw my father, he begged, ‘please guys, leave somewhere, I don’t know where, just escape this, escape this,'” he said.

It was the first time Dmyrtro saw his father cry. “He told me ‘please… son, just leave…just leave and take your family out.'”

The drive out of the city — a journey that would normally take 45 minutes by car before the war — took them 15 hours. It was one roadblock after the other, most manned by what they believe were Russian soldiers.

At one roadblock, Dmytro said he had to take off his shirt to prove to soldiers that he didn’t have military or Ukrainian nationalist tattoos. The couple were afraid of their phones being hacked by the Russians, so they deleted everything — erasing the horror of the previous three weeks — only keeping their parents’ phone numbers.

In Dnipro, the couple’s 7-year-old daughter Vlada is missing home. But she understands why they had to leave.

“A small child understands everything, even if he cannot speak because he is too small,” Vlada said.

“I want the war to end quickly,” she added.

In the many hours that CNN spent with the family at the temporary shelter in Dnipro, the couple were constantly checking their phones for any communication from their parents still in Mariupol.

As we were about to leave, Dmytro said that Tania had just received a call from her mother who was weeping and saying goodbye, because she did not believe she would survive the night.

™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - Europe/Mideast/Africa

Jump to comments ↓

Author Profile Photo

CNN Newsource


KVIA ABC 7 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content