Nowhere to Go

Nina Kostenko was alone in her home when Russian missiles began to pound Mariupol.

The port city, named for the Mother of God, in southern Ukraine was a prime target in Russia’s first wave of attacks in an unprovoked invasion of the country on 24 February 2022.

With nowhere else to go, the 84-year-old took shelter in her cold basement. Seven days passed before she decided to take up the courage and head to her neighbors.

“I saw missiles flying above me. I was walking down the street and everything was destroyed,” she told ONE magazine. “The whole city was at war. Everything was on fire. The shell holes were huge. In our garden, they were up to 10 meters [33 feet] deep.”

“I walked and walked,” she said. “God saved me and I was not harmed.”

When Mrs. Kostenko arrived at her neighbors’ house, she noticed their roof had collapsed and their windows were broken. Still, they took her in.

“They accepted me. I had a bad cold,” she said.

She stayed with them for two months, before returning home to find half of her house destroyed by shelling. She stayed there 45 days before a team of volunteers evacuated her to Zaporizhzhia. By that time, Mariupol had fallen under Russian occupation.

Mrs. Kostenko described what she saw as the volunteers drove her out of the city.

“I couldn’t recognize it. It was completely destroyed. Our city was so beautiful,” she said.

“Why were they so cruel to us, to the citizens of Mariupol?” she continued through her tears. “So many people were killed: my neighbors, acquaintances. They died under the rubble of their homes.”

Her son met her in Zaporizhzhia and took her to Lviv, where she was undergoing treatment as an inpatient at Sheptytsky Hospital. The hospital, funded in part by CNEWA, is specialized in palliative care, but it has been admitting internally displaced persons in various states of poor health since the war began.

Mrs. Kostenko sat on her hospital bed, wrapped in a two-tone blue fleece jacket, as she shared her memories of the first weeks of the war. Edentulous, she spoke as quickly as she could push out the words. She expressed her grief over those who died in the bombardment of the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater on 16 March 2022, where at least 1,000 people, including children, were sheltering during the air raids. She had worked as a custodian at the theater for 10 years, she said.

“And how many people perished there?” she asked rhetorically. “So many.”

The Associated Press reported finding evidence to indicate 600 people died in the bombing that day, one of the single deadliest known attacks against civilians in the war to date.

“I lived only by God,” said Mrs. Kostenko about her ordeal. “I preserved God in my heart and asked him to help, not only me, but all people who were in this terrifying war.”

Konstantin Chernichkin conducted the interview in Ukrainian. Mariana Karapinka provided the English translation.

Laura Ieraci is editor of ONE.

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