When Lia and Alex woke up in Mariupol to the sound of explosions and car alarms on February 24, the young Ukrainian couple did not expect they would soon have to bury their loved ones in their own garden and battle cold and starvation as they that Russian troops have reduced the southern port city to dust.
Yet they managed to survive and leave a city that now lies in ruins, narrowly escaping death in Russian bombardment and avoiding capture by Moscow’s soldiers as they chased Mariupol’s defenders.
The pair are now seated at the new Lemkin Center for the Investigation of Russian War Crimes‘ in Berlin, telling their story in detail as part of a program to collect evidence on war crimes to help courts, journalists and future historians build a case against those responsible.
Lemkin Center field workers visited shelters across Poland and in Berlin, interviewing survivors and recording exactly what happened to them.
They distribute forms and invite eyewitnesses to recount their trauma – the kind of grueling and emotionally draining work to document war crimes that often goes unnoticed.
The center, founded by Poland Pilecki Institute in the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the name of the Polish lawyer who coined the term genocide, has so far brought together researchers specializing in totalitarian crimes and experts in international humanitarian law of conflict armed.
It also relies on a network of Ukrainian and Russian-speaking volunteers who, after being trained by the centre’s experts, have made it their mission to listen to and record anyone wishing to talk about what they have witnessed and endured in recent months. .
The testimonies paint a grisly picture of the Russian government’s intention to use all available means – including atrocities – to seize absolute control of its western neighbour, the center’s head told Euronews.
“It was clear from the start of the first day of the war and Putin’s speech that war crimes are consciously written into [his] methods and tactics”, director of the Lemkin Center Dr. Magdalena Gawin said. “It’s a kind of barbarism.”
Facing a tank to bury their grandmother
At the center office near the Brandenburg Gate, Alex and Lia remembered everything they could from the very first day of the invasion to their escape from Mariupol in a dented car which they drove to to the German capital.
After waking up to missile strikes on a harsh February winter morning, the pair managed to make their way through the industrial town on the shores of the Sea of Azov to the home of his parents. Lia despite heavy shelling.
Lia’s grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease and the family had just recovered from COVID-19, so they decided to stay put for a while. At first the shops were open and Alex even managed to buy a birthday cake, but that all changed when the electricity and gas went out.
Soon after, supermarkets were bombed. Alex recalled a crater 5 meters deep where a store once stood. Alex thinks he was targeted.
As Lia’s grandmother struggled with her health, unable to care for herself, the family – who cared for her 24 hours a day – prepared for her eventual death and found some consolation in the fact that she would not die alone.
But a big explosion at 5 a.m. one morning rushed them all to the basement. When they came out about half an hour later, their grandmother had died. Lia’s mother was screaming in grief and disbelief, the two recall.
Organized funerals were already impossible and, fearing shelling and gunfire, residents began burying loved ones in parks and backyards, with little ceremony to speak of.
A trip to acquire a coffin revealed that Russian forces had arrived: suddenly a tank was waiting outside their building. The turret started spinning, then the tank started shooting at them.
“It was the first time Lia hadn’t complained about my fast driving,” jokes Alex, his dry humor a shield against the horrors they’ve been through.
It took them three days to dig Léa’s grandmother’s grave at the bottom of the garden next to an apple tree because the ground was frozen. “It was the coldest day of my life,” Lia said, thinking her mother was still talking every day about going back to Mariupol and burying her properly.
“I was praying that we would die quickly”
Surviving took an extraordinary amount of energy and time, they explained. Fetching water became an ordeal that involved waiting three hours in a queue and carrying heavy bottles a hundred meters from an underground water source.
The same goes for collecting firewood to burn in a barrel in the living room to warm up against the harsh cold of the first weeks of the invasion.
In the occupied city, reliable information was as scarce as food and water. There were constant rumors of the arrival of humanitarian aid, but a few weeks later many had run out of food when the Russians began shelling nearby.
While at least half the population fled for security reasons, the other half remained unprotected and vulnerable. “They didn’t care if they died of starvation or a bomb,” Lia said.
Luckily, Lia’s parents still had potatoes and canned vegetables from the winter, but they didn’t know how long they would be stuck there, so they had to strictly ration them. Others weren’t so lucky, she recalls.
The bombs were closing in on the shelter, the walls were shaking from the impact. “We weren’t brave,” says Lia. “At the beginning, I prayed not to die. In the end, I was just praying that we would die quickly.
The day they left Mariupol was the first day since the start of the war that their radio signal was clear.
Hearing of the humanitarian corridor that would get them out of their town, which had become a burning prison, the family suffered another blow – the telltale whistle of a Russian projectile and a boom as their car was destroyed.
As they raced out of town in a spare car, the sky was red with all the burning buildings burning. As they left, they saw that the tank that had fired at them had been destroyed. They laugh.
They saw Russian soldiers face to face at checkpoints for the first time. Troops forced Alex to remove his t-shirt, inspecting the black tattoos covering his arms for symbols of the Ukrainian military. One of the soldiers asked them if they could buy them drugs or weapons.
“It was so ugly,” sighs Lia. They drove the dented car to Berlin, which they had visited in January and had talked about moving, but they could never have imagined the circumstances that had brought them here.
Mariupol officially fell on May 16, after the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance stuck in the Azovstal steelworks surrendered to Russian troops.
The city which once had a population of around 430,000 is considered almost completely destroyed, with around 90% of it considered uninhabitable.
Mariupol’s last paramedic safe in Warsaw
Another of the main Lemkin Center witnesses, Kateryna, managed to escape only after Moscow troops had already taken control of the city. In the centre’s Warsaw office, she told Euronews about her harrowing experience as the last ambulance driver in Mariupol.
She drove a gray St John ambulance through the bombed streets during the siege, helping nearly 100 people to hospitals and shelters. Kateryna recalled how bodies began to appear in the streets and were left there, with no one to take them away to bury them.
“People had been killed by shrapnel or bullets, but many of them, especially the elderly, had died of starvation or hypothermia. No one was removing dead bodies from the streets,” she said.
“While I was tending to the injured, people ran up to me and asked when I would start evacuating the bodies. It was a very difficult psychological experience.”
Kateryna broke down in tears as she described how she saw some 2,000 corpses with her own eyes. The shooting made it impossible to get in and help, despite desperate pleas from passers-by.
“Russian units were occupying our apartments and I saw them shooting at civilians in the streets from the apartments. I was traveling with a medical kit, trying to evacuate them to the main hospital, but Russian soldiers also captured it, using patients and medical staff as human shields.
On her last day in Mariupol, the road was destroyed, so she had to travel on foot. She saw a car that had hit a tree, with the driver already dead inside.
But then she spotted a teenage girl sitting in the back of the car. “Get out, we have to go, they’re bombing here,” Kateryna told the teenager. On the other side of the car, a woman lay in a pool of blood, moaning.
She realized they were the girl’s parents, but she knew that with projectiles flying overhead, she could only help one person – so she had to make the horrific choice between saving the mother or daughter.
Seeing that the young woman was still able to walk, she chose the girl. When she took him down the stairs to the shelter, Kateryna saw that the woman’s shirt was so full of blood she couldn’t wring it out.
When she was finally evacuated from the Black Sea port city, thousands of corpses were still on the streets, but she received messages from friends saying that Russian soldiers had forced the remaining civilians to clean up the bodies to hide their crimes.
Now safe in Warsaw, Kataryna believes she will never forget what she saw.
“Witnesses of the Time”
Created by the Polish parliament in 2017, the Polecki Institute has mainly focused its work on researching crimes committed by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
He has collected first-hand experiences from Poles through his “Witnesses of Age” project, with a number of video testimonials available on YouTube of ordinary people reminiscing about their experiences surviving in a Nazi concentration camp for children at the mass campaign of the Red Army. rape after entering Warsaw in 1944.
Testimonies from Ukrainian survivors will now be part of the same collection, keeping the memories of Lia, Alex and Kataryna alive after the war.
For Dr Gawin, the similarities between the crimes committed then and what Russian troops are accused of doing in Ukraine today show a continuation, but also a lack of consideration for his own atrocities , because the Soviet Union never conducted its own war trials.
Atrocities since February ‘reminiscent in many ways of German and Soviet occupation [of Poland] from 1939,” said Dr Gawin.
“The extermination of local elites and intelligentsia in Ukraine? This is a perfect example – Russia killed 20,000 Polish officials, officers and intellectuals in Katyn. The authors have never been punished for this.