Mariupol: The torment of a city that is no more
By Svitlana Dukhovych
"It is very difficult to understand what is really happening in Ukraine unless one experiences it personally.”
From 2011 until 5 March 2022, Father Pavlo Tomaszewski, along with two other priests of the Order of St. Paul the First Hermit, carried out his mission in Mariupol, the Ukrainian city that, due to its strategic location, is suffering more than others from the invasion of the Russian army.
The priest managed to escape, along with his brother priests and some parishioners, and is now in Kamjanec-Podilskyj, his hometown in the southwest of the country.
Speaking during an online meeting with journalists organized by the Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) foundation, he told his story to help us understand what so many other people, who are still trapped in what he calls "an apocalypse", are going through.
They cannot tell their story: still today Father Pavlo has not been able to contact those who are trapped in Mariupol because there is no electricity and mobile phones do not work.
An unexpected invasion
"Although Maruipol has been on the line of conflict since 2014, the invasion that began on 24 February, was unexpected," said the priest, adding that right from the start the Russian army shelled the surrounding villages and the eastern part of the city, hitting not only the Ukrainian army but also civilians.
The noise of the shellings reached the center of the city where the parish of the Mother of God of Czestochowa, cared for by the Pauline Fathers, is located.
"I understood that the situation was serious and that we would probably have to evacuate people," Father Pavlo continued, "however, at first many parishioners did not want to leave because they did not believe that the bombing would spread throughout the city."
Bombardments 24 hours a day
So the two priests (the third was in Poland for medical treatment) decided to stay with the people, to help them, celebrate Mass and pray with them.
After 4-5 days the situation had gotten much worse, the Russians had started to strike the residential neighbourhoods in the centre of the city with different types of weapons.
"The firing didn't stop for almost four days, 24 hours a day," the priest recalled. "The intensity of the launches was so incessant there was no time to catch one’s breath. Throughout day and night, not even half an hour of silence.”
The two priests didn't even have a shelter in which to hide; to feel a little more protected, they moved into the room of their house furthest from where most of the bombing was coming from.
Fear and flight
On about the third day of the attack on Mariupol, the city was left without electricity and water. Leaving home meant running the risk of being killed.
Father Pavlo lost contact not only with his parishioners, but with the entire outside world. In the brief moments when the internet worked, they would read some news on their cell phones or listen to the radio in their car, but not for long because they needed to save fuel.
"It was not easy to take the decision to leave,” he said. “On the one hand, we were afraid that our house, once empty, could be looted; on the other, we were aware that a bomb could destroy both the house and us. And then, we were also afraid of falling into the hands of the Russian army that had surrounded Mariupol."
In the end, the two priests put their most necessary things in the car, took their documents, put on their clerical clothing and headed for the Zaporizhzhia exit, which is 220 km from Mariupol. On the way, they joined 5-6 other private cars trying to get out of the city.
Driving through the streets the scene was heart-breaking: destroyed buildings, burned cars, people searching through abandoned stores. The small column of cars passed a few Russian army checkpoints where their IDs were checked and they were allowed to continue in their journey.
At one point, after about 20 km, they came across another Russian checkpoint where they were told that the day before the soldiers had received orders to not let any more men through, only women and children.
"You have to imagine this scene,” Father Pavlo said. “We were in the middle of the fields, in the cold; there was a long line of cars (about a hundred), the men at the driving wheel, their wives and children in the passenger seats. And there was no possibility of turning back either. Some didn't have much fuel. People would walk up to the soldiers, women would kneel down, begging them to let them through, also because many of the women didn't know how to drive, but it was in vain."
The greatest hope
After about five hours something suddenly changed: the mayor of a nearby village arrived and said he would like to offer hospitality to all the people in the cars for the night.
The inhabitants of the village welcomed the people from Mariupol (about 400 people) into their homes.
The next day they managed to find another road avoiding the checkpoint that had blocked them, and they headed towards Zaporizhzhia.
They came across more checkpoints, more anxiety ensued, but they managed to carry on and finally arrived at their destination, alive.
For Father Pavlo these events are still part of the present, and he does not want to forget them because, in Mariupol, his parishioners remain stuck.
"What concerns me most of all, and it is also my greatest hope right now, is that the people of my parish stay alive. I hope God will protect them," he said, imploring everyone to do what they can to stop this massacre.