EDITOR’S NOTE: Escape from Mariupol, as told to Connecticut author Anne K. Howard, is the story of an ordinary Ukrainian woman’s perilous journey to freedom in the face of Russia’s invasion in 2022. Life in the port city in Ukraine had been safe and predictable for Adoriana Marik. The 31-year-old tattoo artist loved walking her dog by the seaside and meeting friends at cafes and public gardens. Adoriana was forced to hide in a filthy network of basements and underground tunnels. For more than a month, under deafening round-the-clock bombardment, she huddled with little food or water, and no heat, surrounded by groans from the sick and the smell of death. Then she decided to escape. I had been holed up underground for two weeks when the auto parts store above us took a direct hit from a projectile. The store caught fire. Chemical smoke from burning paint, rubber tires, oil, and other noxious chemicals in that store poured into the shelter. I took one breath. The smoke instantly burnt my lungs. It felt like my eyeballs were pin cushions to hundreds of stabbing needles. Ahead, a panicked crowd of people ran to the exit, pushing for others to get out of the way.
I thought that I would suffocate and die. I managed to push my way up the stairway and run into the street under heavy mortar shelling. It was 3:00 AM. Outside, it was like Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell. A giant ring of tall buildings was burning from top to bottom, their balconies thunderously crashing to the ground. Windows were flying out. I could hardly see through the thick reams of smoke. It was a shadowland of chaos. Everyone was screaming.
“Stop, don’t go there!”
“The buildings are all on fire!”
“Let’s find another entrance!”
“Where did you go? I see nothing in the smoke!”
“We need to run to the hospital and go under it!”
“No, not the hospital. We need to go under that building over there!”
I joined in the cacophony. “Luda, where are you?” I shouted. I located Luda through the dense plumes of smoke. She was headed in the direction of my apartment building. “Stop, Luda!” I shouted.“It’s not safe over there!”
Russian soldiers either mistook us for saboteurs, or they did not care if they shot at civilians.
After all, they had full knowledge of the presence of over two hundred civilians hiding in our underground shelter. They opened fire on our group. I saw a bright flash followed by a loud explosion. I immediately fell to the ground and lay my face against the melting snow and broken glass. Shell fragments plastered my skin, and my ears were instantly deafened by a strong ringing in my head. Time stopped in a strangely surreal way. More high-pitched ringing. More bright flashes from falling shells.
I heard Ivan shout so loudly that his voice broke in half: “Lie down, people!”
Of course, I was already lying down. Oddly, I felt no fear. Though I was surrounded by shelling and gunfire and shrieks of terror, only silence filled my ears. In a stupor, I squinted through the fog of smoke, unable to see the building under which I had hidden for the last two weeks. At that moment, I said goodbye to life.
But Yola had other plans. She was hooked to a leash that was wrapped around my waist. As I lay on the ground prepared to die, Yola pulled me with all of her strength and dragged me to the side of the road. I don’t know what supernatural forces propelled me to then jump up and run— it was not my doing. I followed after Yola, unable to see where we were going. Yola located the blown-out auto parts shelter, entered through the door, and ran full-speed down the stairway. I flew head over heels down the steps. Thankfully, I did not break any bones.
There were two doors at the foot of the stairway. One door opened into the shelter, from which thick, poisonous smoke still poured. The other door was locked. I hid in a corner as the noxious smoke rose above my head. I heard steps coming down the stairway—men’s emphatic voices followed by a loud crash. Our leaders had kicked down the locked door that opened into a large closet with an electrical panel.
I was the first to rush into the closet. I heard the men run back to the street shouting, “People, over here! Come down here!”
I was still in a stupor but quickly awakened as people flooded into the small room and squeezed in beside me. I don’t know what was more terrible, the deafening explosions and the pervasive fear of death, or those heartrending cries of people dying in the street above. Probably, the latter.
Not everyone in the street heard the men calling to them: “People over here!”
More shells flew at the building and slammed the street-level entrance of the shelter. The men joined us in the small room. Had they not broken down the door, I would probably have perished at the foot of the stairway, as the canopy above the steps was a flimsy iron screen—a thin blanket of protection from enemy fire.
A woman ran down the stairway and called out for her child. She had lost him on the street. She stormed into the small room, screaming for her little boy. When she saw he was not there, she turned to leave.
One man grabbed her arm. “No,” he said. “It’s not safe up there.”
The woman became hysterical. She pounded at the walls. She shrieked and sobbed, making no sense of her words. That little room became a miniature madhouse. I did not have enough air to breathe as more people entered and crushed me with their bodies. With my height of 160 centimeters, they flattened me. I raised my head to try to catch a breath. Yola crouched at my feet, shaking all over.
It was impossible to hear individual shots firing in the street above. Rather, it sounded like a constant roaring rumble—the sound of thousands of bullets and shells being fired. The noise went on for the rest of the night. Despite the great number of people crammed together in that small space, I didn’t feel my legs and arms because of the extreme cold blowing in from the street.
At dawn, a man left the room and entered the main shelter to look for someone. He could not find the lost person. He returned to the closet and informed us that the auto parts store had completely burned out from above and it was safe to return to the shelter next door. Thank God, I thought, I can’t bear to stand up for one more minute.
The chemical smoke inside of the shelter gradually diminished, but the strong stench remained. I returned to the room where we had spent the last few weeks and took an inventory of my injuries. I had scratched my hands on broken glass. I had some bruises and abrasions. Otherwise, I was unharmed.
Anne K. Howard writes dramatic nonfiction. Having practiced law for 20 years, she is able to sift through large volumes of research and legal information and craft the hodge-podge of facts and ideas into gripping stories. Anne holds an undergraduate degree in English Literature from McGill University, where she graduated with Distinction. She has a Juris Doctorate from University of Cincinnati College of Law, where she graduated with Dean’s Honors. Anne writes nonfiction because she is fascinated by the human psyche and she loves the written word. She is also the author of the best-selling true crime, “His Garden: Conversations with a Serial Killer.”