Illustrated by Dasha Klochko
Tetiana Makarenko, a native of Donetsk, is 68. If it were not for Russia’s war against Ukraine, she would take care of her grandchildren – she has four of them. Instead, the woman has not had her own home for eight years – Russians destroyed her house in Donetsk back in 2014, during the first stage of the offensive against Ukraine. Since then she has been living in Berdiansk, which was occupied by Russians on February 28, 2022. And she dreams only of seeing her children and grandchildren one day – they were forced to leave for Ulianovsk, Russia.
“Eight years ago Russians came to Donetsk to liberate us from the Nazis. I would like to see where they are?” The woman resents. “I had a normal life: work, family, friends… But then the liberators appeared. When I moved to Berdiansk, I was over 60. It is difficult to start a new life at such an age. But I settled down. Everything just started getting better, I just got rid of depression, they came to liberate me again!”
Berdiansk is a small city in Zaporizhzhia region. There was a cozy atmosphere of the resort here – it is located on the coast of the Sea of Azov. Tetiana worked as a saleswoman in Donetsk. In Berdiansk she earned money by taking care of an elderly woman. She sought solace in her faith – she went to a small church and found new friends there.
At the end of February the Russian army started bombarding Mariupol. Exhausted residents of Mariupol started coming to the occupied but calmer Berdiansk. Together with the community of her church Tetiana started helping refugees. She was standing in numerous lines to buy bread for them. When bread ran out, she herself was baking flatbreads from flour and water. She was helping placing migrants, collecting clothes for them.
Many needed a simple human conversation – not to be judged, to be listened to and supported, the woman recalls.
“I remembered a ten or twelve year old girl the most. She was so quiet and sad that I wanted to hug her. But people said that it should not be done, because her hand was injured. It turned out that the hand had been treated in the basement with improvised means and without anesthesia… Can you imagine what this child has gone through?!”
The woman tells that people who were entering Berdiansk church after a month’s stay in the basements of Mariupol were as if frozen. Their eyes were the most impressive – glassy and sad. They marveled at light and warmth, rejoiced at the opportunity to take a shower and they shared food equally. They spent the night and drove on.
“It was as if they were thawing till the morning,” Tetiana says. “Their looks became clear, smiles appeared on their faces. It is very pleasant now to receive words of gratitude from them from all over the world.”
Every month the number of Mariupol residents decreased, but the number of those who needed help in Berdiansk only increased. These are elderly people who were forcibly left by their relatives; pets also left under occupation; the sick who could not buy medicines for themselves.
Residents of Berdiansk needed medicine for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and diapers for adults most of all.
Pharmacy shelves were almost empty, the post offices did not work, so private carriers took over delivery. Drivers were taking people out of Berdiansk to Zaporizhzhia and were bringing back ordered items. Because of the hostilities, parcels had been covering the distance of 200 km from Ukrainian Zaporizhzhia to occupied Berdiansk for three-four weeks. Tetiana was compiling lists of medicines, ordering them from the carriers and, after receiving them, was selling them at the pharmacy price, by receipts.
Berdiansk runs out of cash every day. That is why Tetiana has begun collecting money from residents of Berdiansk on her card and asks the very carriers to withdraw cash on Ukrainian territory. She gives money back to people without interest. Although the local money changers ask 10-12% of the amount for such a service.
“Now at this time people do not have money. And profiting from the misfortune of others is a sin.”
Every month life under occupation becomes more difficult. Since the end of May the signal of Ukrainian mobile operators has been jammed in the city. Banks do not work.
“No matter how many times we signed up for the lines to banks, the lists reached 6 000 people, it all was in vain. Instead, there are wild lines to the Pension Fund to submit documents to receive one-time assistance from Russia. 10 000 RUB are given per person. It almost ends in a fight! People also actively buy Russian SIM cards – there are 100 RUB in the account, that allow a user to connect to the Internet and Russian operators. At first the SIM cards cost 240 UAH, now you can find them for 70. But the connection is still bad.”
Because of a weak signal, people gather in groups at the points where it is possible to catch at least some kind of a network. Most VPN services do not work.
“Russian TV channels are broadcast on TV,” the woman says. “Russian frontline songs are played on the radio. I do not watch and I do not listen to them – I am saving my nerves.”
In June Russian passports began being offered to Berdiansk residents. Tetiana is upset by the lines of those who take them. In her opinion, they do not believe in the liberation of the city and have obeyed the new authorities.
The city has turned into a spontaneous market of the 1990s. Everything from alcohol to underwear is sold from the improvised counters. After the trade wraps up at 3-4 p.m., the streets become empty. Patrols go through the city to catch violators of the curfew, which starts at 8 p.m.
Food products have appeared on the counters again, but the prices are high. Instead of “ATB” supermarkets, stores of the Russian chain “Mera” opened. Payments can be made only in cash. Prices are in RUB and UAH.
Since June 28 the occupation authorities of the city have established a new exchange rate of the Ukrainian hryvnia to the Russian ruble: one and a half Russian rubles are equal to one Ukrainian hryvnia.
Medicines have also started being brought in, but the variety is limited.
“The pharmacist said that she had not received anything Ukrainian since the beginning of the war, everything was Russian,” Tetiana says.
In addition to communication problems, the city has difficulties with electricity. Thus, since June 12 half of the city had been in darkness. Then, on Russia Day, which was celebrated here by the invaders, there were three explosions in the area of the electrical substation near the shopping center “Amstor”. After a few days adults were as happy as children when electricity was restored.
Gas supply was stopped in February.
Every day explosions are heard from the port area of Berdiansk. There were 14 of them only on June 20. The invaders say that they are demining the port, and the partisans say that they are not letting Russians relax. And while the ammunition is detonating, residents are shuddering with terror and praying, Tetiana says.
Always friendly and energetic, now she hardly communicates with anyone. Friends take care of acquaintances’ abandoned houses and pets. There is even nobody to go to the sea with.
“It is hard for me to experience the occupation again,” Tetiana confesses. “I try to switch: I pray a lot, admire nature, knit clothes and blankets.”
Despite the difficult times, the woman made a firm decision for herself – to stay in the city and wait.
“I am not going anywhere, because there is nowhere to go,” Tetiana explains. “My place is here and I do not want to move anymore. We are waiting for our freedom, we are waiting for Ukraine!”
Author – Aliona Semko
Editor – Oksana Mamchenkova
Illustrator – Dasha Klochko
Translator – Khrystyna Mykhailiuk