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“Let’s run faster, because they are killing us!” A story about escape from besieged Mariupol 

Mariupol is a city on the shores of the Azov Sea. In 2014, it had been occupied by Russia for about a month before Ukrainian forces liberated the city. Over the next years, Mariupol developed rapidly and virtually became the center of an unoccupied part of the Donetsk region.

With the start of the full-scale war in 2022, the Russian army besieged the city, began to wipe Mariupol off the earth with constant shelling, and created a humanitarian catastrophe. In addition, there were no safe ways to escape the city. Mariupol became a symbol of horror and brutality brought to Ukraine by Russian troops. 

Mariupol after the full-scale Russian invasion. March 2022.
Photo: Maximilian Clarke / SOPA Images

Denys and Kateryna Reutsky spent their whole lives in Mariupol, and faced a full-scale Russian invasion there. Here is a story about the family’s attempts to escape the besieged city, during one of which Kateryna was killed.

The text was prepared by the documenting platform “Memorial”. It tells the stories of civilians killed by Russia and deceased Ukrainian soldiers. 

Kateryna Reutska with her husband Denys on vacation.
Photo from the family archive

39-year-old Denys and 35-year-old Kateryna were married for 17 years and went through different periods of their life together. At first, they didn’t even have the money to rent an apartment and had to settle in a summer house near the sea, where they spent several years. But over time, they got on their feet. 

Denys got a job as an electrician at the Azovstal metallurgical plant with a decent salary to support his family. Kateryna was a housewife and took care of two children – 13-year-old Eva and 17-year-old Yehor. The family bought a large apartment, made renovations, and later bought a car. 

Kateryna Reutska.
Photo from the family archive

Kateryna had health problems caused by the endocrine system disease. Recently, she barely weighed 40 kilograms. Sometimes, due to her illness, she could have been harsh, the husband recalls, but never with children. Kateryna was a great cook. Relatives say that her borshch was beyond the competition. On weekends, the family had a tradition of grilling kebabs. And in the evenings, they watched comedy series together, which Kateryna loved so much.

Every summer, Reutsky traveled around Ukraine. But Kateryna wanted to see Europe. She had never been abroad, and in the fall of 2022, the family were planning a trip to Poland. They wanted to visit museums, admire the architecture, and “breathe different air.”

“We lived in peace and harmony in Mariupol, a wonderful city where investments from the European Union began to flow. There were new roads and parks in every district, many illuminations and sports grounds. Mariupol ceased to be a shabby Soviet city but became modern and cool when Ukraine restored independence. It was a very comfortable place for us to live. And if you have a nice loving family waiting for you at home, and you are well-backed, what else do you need in life?” Denys says.

Mariupol city center before the full-scale Russian invasion.
Photo: Ukrinform

The family understood the broad Russian offensive was inevitable and that sooner or later, Russia would try to return to their city. And in the winter of 2021-2022, this threat was getting more and more tangible

A chance for evacuation was missed

On February 21, Denys took a vacation and told his colleagues that they were unlikely to see each other again. On February 24, his brother Maksym called him in the morning: “They hit the military airfield near me.” Kateryna insisted on immediate evacuation. Although she was not shocked by the news about the war, she trembled and cried: “Let’s go, let’s go.” By the evening, the family packed their things, and on February 25, they left for Zaporizhzhia.

By that time, Russian forces took over all the roads from the city, except for one. When the family was on their way out of Mariupol, Denys’ brother called again. He said that the news about the advance of tanks from the east were just a rumour, that Russians were just checking the readiness of the troops, and that nothing terrible would happen to the people of Mariupol. The family discussed their plan in the car for an hour and decided to return home. They wanted to stay for another 2-3 days and observe the situation. They missed their last chance, Denys will say later. 

Kateryna Reutska with her husband Denys and their children Eva and Yehor.
Photo from the family archive

On February 26, highways were closed for civilian vehicles, and the railway service stopped. It was impossible to find out what was happening around the city and inside it: the news contradicted each other, and soon the network and mobile signal disappeared altogether with electricity, heat, and running water…

Kateryna encouraged her husband and children to spend the night in the basement of a neighbouring house. Denys resisted: he thought that the corridor was fine. On March 2, a bomb exploded 800 meters away from their house. After that, family moved to a shelter. It was -10 °C outside, and +10 °C in the basement. Up to a hundred people were hiding here. They cooked on fire some simple dishes such as porridge and pasta. Food had to be saved in advance because it was incredibly hard to get in a war-torn city. Denys ate less to leave more food for his wife and children. The family melted the snow and collected water from the water pipes when it rained.

The shelling was getting closer and closer, and bullets and fragments of mines flew overhead. One day, their neighbour was killed: he fell in front of the entrance and blocked the passage. The rescuers arrived, but they were able to drag him only to a nearby flower bed. They began to bring other victims of shelling there, as well as an old woman who died of heart failure. All of them were just lying on the flower bed frozen as it was still freezing outside.

The car was probably fired at from a grenade launcher

On March 15, one of the strangers who came to the basement said that he managed to leave Mariupol and then get back to the city. The family decided to follow his route. Denys went to check his car, which had been damaged by shelling. It had a dead battery. He was supposed to fix the car the next day with his neighbour Serhii. But on the morning of March 16, the rumours were spreading that the area they were stayed in would be bombed.

Panic broke out. People around started running, throwing things into cars. Kateryna was nervous: “Let’s run faster, because they are killing us!”

The neighbour did not have a chance to help Denys with the battery, so they decided to run away together in his car. Serhii sat behind the wheel with his wife and a 6-year-old daughter on her lap next to him. Kateryna was next to them. Surrounded by thrown suitcases and backpacks, Denys and their two kids could barely fit in the back. Accompanied by shouts, the car drove off.

“The driver did not know the road, circled, and made mistakes. I asked him to let me drive or at least listen to the directions, but he was terrified. Finally, he drove into a dead end with a barricade of two buses. I had to turn around in some yard. All of a sudden – “Boom!” I don’t know what it was… But if it had been a mine, there would have been nothing left of us all. I think we were fired at from a grenade launcher,” Denys recalls.

Everyone sitting in the front of the car were thrown out. The neighbour’s arm was torn off, and his wife lost both legs. They screamed wildly. A six-year-old girl was thrown by the blast wave. Denys and the kids rushed to Kateryna. She was lying in an unnatural position with her eyes closed. Denys checked his wife’s hands and feet – they were unharmed. Kateryna was unconscious. The pulse sometimes disappeared, then appeared again. In a moment, she let out a deep breath, wheezing. Her husband and son carried her to the hospital about 600 meters away. Due to malnutrition and exhaustion, they moved slowly…

They ordered him to take a shovel and bury his wife

The Russian invaders have already taken over the hospital. Denys recalls that the doctor who came to see him smelled of alcohol. He examined Kateryna and said one word: “Cargo-200” (dead body). 

– “She has just breathed!” shouted Denys, who was sure he was taking his wife alive to the hospital.
– “It was agony,” said the doctor.

Denys took another look at Kateryna’s body and noticed wounds on her back.

The doctor ordered him to take a shovel and bury his wife near the medical facility. But the husband was indignant and agreed to take his wife to the morgue. Someone suggested putting a note with the date in her jacket pocket.

After that, Denys was made to clean up after the wounded in the hospital: carry out dirty dressing, bandages, and gauze. He fell into prostration, not understanding where he was or what he was doing. When he woke up, he saw a drunken Russian soldier clinging to his 13-year-old daughter. He took the girl away. Denys broke a cup over the head of a drunken soldier, locked him in a storeroom and ran away with the children as fast as he could.

They reached their shelter on foot and spent the night there. In the morning, Denys took the battery from someone’s shot car for his own, and the family were able to get to their country house by the sea in the village of Melekino. “We rested there for several days, there was water, electricity, and communication in the country. Then we left for Zaporizhzhia through the coastal villages, buying fuel at speculative prices (200 hryvnias per liter ($5,5), at least four times more than the average in Ukraine),” says Denys.

“I want to flip through our photo albums so much: to recall the wedding, our happy years”

After the tragedy, Denys wanted to receive а death certificate of his wife Kateryna. Without this document, he could not take the children to Poland. But since Mariupol is still occupied, a plea had to be made to the occupying authorities. In May, a reply came saying that Kateryna was buried in the village of Mangush in a grave number 60. Most likely, it is a fraternal burial. In May, Denys learned that his brother Maksym had also died in Mariupol.

In the summer, Denys received a copy of Kateryna’s death certificate, but the original was needed to prepare documents for departure to Poland. In the end, one of the Ukrainian human rights organizations helped Denys, and in the fall, he left for the Polish city of Rybnyk together with his children. He works there as an electrician, and the children started attending a local school.

Kateryna Reutska with her husband Denys and their children Eva and Yehor.
Photo from the family archive

“I am going to return to Mariupol when it is liberated by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. If Kateryna’s grave is there, I will rebury her closer to home, and put up a headstone. I will plant flowers. It is hard without her. I have only a few photos of her on my phone. Our acquaintances have hidden a whole package with our photo albums in Mariupol. I want to flip through them: to remember our wedding, our happy years,” Denys says.