“Dad, You Have to Come—Or We Will Be Adopted!”: One Ukrainian Family’s Harrowing Wartime Saga | Vanity Fair

Three children survived the siege of Mariupol, forced relocation, their father’s horrific detainment, and their own exile—to Russia.

by UKCHP_Admin

While the Mezhevyi family was sheltering at Zaven’s, Yevhen would run over to the Mariupol Municipal Hospital No. 4, which had a generator; there, he could charge the family’s power packs and phones. He would also help volunteers take out the bodies of the dead. At the hospital, Yevhen met one of the volunteers, a man who called himself Ziuzia. As the shelling intensified, Ziuzia encouraged Yevhen to move with the children to a bunker in the building.

After a shell fragment flew into the hallway outside the apartment—which, until then, Yevhen had considered more or less safe—he decided it was time to relocate to the hospital bunker. Matvii remembers it well. The family loaded their belongings into a single supermarket shopping cart and fled on foot, running a mile in 15 minutes. “The worst thing was that the shelling could start because the sky was full of planes. Yet, they did not drop shells; they were just flying around,” the boy says. “Black cars drove along the roads, as if patrolling—cars with license plates painted over or covered with duct tape so they could not be identified.”

When they arrived, on March 19, the hospital was already sheltering around 90 people. The Mezhevyis occupied the ventilation room, where Yevhen brought in several hospital couches and benches as makeshift beds. On the first night, Matvii couldn’t sleep due to the cold: Despite wearing three sweaters and a jacket, he shivered until daybreak. At first, their father wouldn’t allow the kids to even venture into the hallways unattended; he said they all needed to get to know everyone and get used to the potential dangers of their new surroundings.

For illumination, they made lamps out of bandages and oil, which gave off a lot of smoke and made it hard to breathe. They had scant access to water. Adults were designated to go out and search for water from whatever source they could find. They drained it from old reservoirs. They climbed into destroyed houses in search of water heaters that might still have some reserves trapped inside. For meals, people cooked food on a fire in the hospital yard.

By the end of March, they had new neighbors: Russian soldiers, who had come to the building, which served as a hostel for the elderly. They set up a base and installed their equipment there. Once the troops moved in, the Ukrainians—now refugees in their own town—started cooking food in the stairwells of the hospital bunker, on the uppermost steps. As Yevhen moved about the building, he tried not to cross paths with the Russians; he knew that if anyone asked to see his papers, he could easily be identified as a former military man.


Every day, more and more people filled the bomb shelter. By early April, 140 people were hiding there. The Mezhevyis now shared a room—only 50 square yards in all—with 20 others. In March, the people of Mariupol had melted snow to get water. But now it was almost mid-spring, and water sources were getting harder and harder to find. The shelling did not stop, and, according to Yevhen, three residents of the bunker, who had gone outside in search of food or water, were killed. Shelling claimed Ziuzia as well, the man who had persuaded the family to move into the shelter in the first place.

On April 7, at lunchtime, two soldiers with DPR patches and white armbands—worn by Russians and those who collaborated with them—came to the Mezhevyis’ bunker. Matvii was sitting at the table opposite the barricaded door. But when the boy saw armed, uniformed men, he ran to Yevhen in the other room. Yevhen recalled the soldiers’ words: “We want to evacuate you to a safe place because there will be a severe ‘sweep’ followed by Chechen units conducting it. You have half an hour to pack your things.” They made it sound like it was a voluntary evacuation; in fact, the four of them, along with a group of fellow displaced Mariupol residents, were being forced from the building.

While some people remained in the shelter, Yevhen and his family did as they were told. “We quickly packed, took food that could be prepared, a pot, and left the toys for the children who remained,” Matvii recalls. “I took them out into the corridor and said that anyone who wants to can take them. There were toy cars and robots, Legos, a lot of drawing paper, and a suitcase that we played with.” Matvii kept only one item for himself: his Rubik’s Cube.

Matvii hadn’t been outside in weeks. So when he emerged from the basement, the daylight stung his eyes. The family, along with others, got into a minibus and were taken to Vynohradne, a village on the outskirts of Mariupol. Everything there looked like it had come from a different country: Russian banners, DPR flags on every fence, and the letter “Z” emblazoned on cars—denoting vehicles controlled by the Russian Armed Forces and their proxies. The children were given sweets.

Yevhen approached the checkpoint where he, Matvii, and the girls were about to be processed. During the verification of documents, Yevhen showed an insert to his ID card, which indicated his residence permit: Yavoriv, Lviv Oblast, military unit A0998. The whole family was taken to a separate room under the pretext that Yevhen needed to provide a more complete explanation about his papers. A few hours later, Yevhen recalls two vehicles arrived: a bus for evacuating the children and other detained Ukrainians, as well as Yevhen’s transport—a Russian car with a contingent from the DPR.

Yevhen asked a friend from the shelter to look after the kids while he was away. He gave her his bags, gave Matvii his phones, and said goodbye to the children. “They told us dad would be released in half an hour,” says Matvii.

All of them—the father by car, the three children in an evacuation bus with strangers—were brought to Bezimenne village, one of the main sites where so-called filtration was taking place in Donetsk and occupied by Russian forces. Yevhen was escorted to a filtration center and the children to the so-called House of Culture.

As the days passed, Matvii says he witnessed hundreds of new people being brought in. They passed through checkpoints, some receiving travel permits. The children also saw how several thousand men from Myrnyi, a district in Mariupol, were processed for filtration. These detainees, according to Matvii and other people in the House of Culture, had simply been caught on the street.

Days turned into weeks, but the children had no idea where their father had gone. Nine-year-old Sviatoslava says she was even told that her father might not return for five to seven years. The children decided to initiate their own independent search and drafted an announcement about Yevhen’s disappearance. “Matvii wrote it, and I hung them on the doors and the walls of the House of Culture,” she says.

At one point, Matvii remembered he still had his father’s phones. The boy found the Facebook profile of Zaven, with whom they’d stayed in Mariupol, and used his father’s phone to send him a message. A few days later, Zaven responded. He was happy to learn that the children were alive. Zaven then started his own search for Yevhen, whom they had not heard from for several weeks.

[Source: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2022/10/one-ukrainian-familys-harrowing-wartime-saga]



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