WARSAW, Poland — Olena’s journey begins in the smoldering shadow of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, but whether her escape to safety will end in a suburb of Warsaw, Poland, or thousands of miles away in Dublin, Ireland, remains unknown and reflects the unsettling nature of life as a war refugee.
Olena’s only child, Kateryna, 32, affectionately known as Katya, and Olena’s grandsons, ages six and nine, moved to the Azovstal steel plant days after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, at the urging of Kateryna’s husband, a member of the controversial Azov regiment. Founded in 2014 to defend Ukraine from Russian-back separatists, the regiment began as a far-right-affiliated militia and has since been folded into Ukraine’s National Guard. In early August, the Supreme Court of Russia declared the Azov regiment a terrorist organization. That ruling will enable extended prison sentences and harsher punishments for members of the regiment, including the death penalty.
For security reasons, Olena requested that full names and images be withheld, as her son-in-law was captured by Russian forces and remains imprisoned in an unknown location. The Russian military has since made many attempts to locate and likely to detain her daughter and the couple’s young sons.
But despite her son-in-law’s insisting that Avozstal, the sprawling steel plant with a labyrinth of underground bunkers, was the safest place in Mariupol at the time, Olena, 54, who is divorced, decided to stay behind at home to care for a 79-year-old relative who wouldn’t survive on her own. It was a shortsighted decision that became a “huge regret,” Olena told PassBlue in an interview in Poland’s capital of Warsaw in July, where she now lives in a refugee center with other women and children who fled Mariupol. “I thought Russia’s attacks would be for a short period, like in 2014. It would be two weeks and then everything would calm down, but it didn’t.”
Instead, Russian forces unleashed a carpet-bombing campaign on Mariupol — a major port city on the Sea of Azov, of roughly a half-million people and about the size of Long Beach, Calif. — grinding concrete to dust, cracking buildings open like eggshells and spitting charred bodies onto the streets.
“I saw all of it,” Olena said, through a translator. “[Russian] tanks shooting civilians and houses . . . planes dropping bombs . . . this was my reality.” Then, on March 9, she witnessed the Russian military bombing a maternity hospital complex, killing three people and injuring 17 others, sparking worldwide condemnation. On Twitter, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the attack an “atrocity” and implored Western allies to close the airspace over Mariupol, a move that NATO and the United States repeatedly rejected.
During a press conference soon after, Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign affairs minister, called the world’s outrage “pathetic” and insisted the Azov regiment had infiltrated the hospital. Before the attack, Lavrov added that all “mothers and nurses were chased out” of the complex.
In a recent text message to PassBlue, Olena described Lavrov’s comments as “bullshit.”
While launching large-scale attacks on civilian infrastructure in Mariupol — including one on March 16 that targeted a drama theater, where an estimated 600 civilians had been hiding and died — Russia simultaneously scaled up its bombing of the Azovstal plant. Months later, Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, described Mariupol as “the deadliest place in Ukraine” and the humanitarian situation on the ground as “devastating.”
Under the pretense of liberating the Ukrainian people from fascists and Nazis in the city, Russian forces starved it of food, water, electricity, Internet and cellphone service. Now under Russian occupation, life in Mariupol has been described as “worse than hell” for the roughly 100,000 residents who remain there, according to a report published in The Guardian.
“I had no connection with my daughter,” Olena said in Warsaw, recalling the days she was still in Mariupol. “I didn’t know if [Katya] was still in Azovstal.” But knowing her daughter, it wasn’t crazy for Olena to imagine that Katya had escaped. “Everyday, I went all around the city, leaving notes for her in shelters and apartment buildings. I was hoping she was anywhere but Azovstal.”
Born in 1968 in a village outside Mariupol, Olena’s parents died when she was six years old. Raised by her grandmother, who Olena described as “quite old,” they moved to the city when she was 14. Predominantly a Russian speaking city — only 30 miles west of Russia’s southern border — Mariupol’s proximity to the Black Sea made capturing the city a priority for Russia.
“In my child years, I managed to rescue everyone else,” she said. “Today, if I start to think about myself, I feel sick.”
On April 11, Olena fled Mariupol for Kyiv, the capital, where she planned to “knock on every door” to spread the word that there were civilians trapped in Azovstal. “I felt like I had to help in any way I can.” She brought only a small backpack with a change of clothes and a battered Ukrainian flag she found outside a bombed-out building. “People told me to get rid of it, that I’d be safer without it,” Olena said, “but I wasn’t going to let those [Russian] bastards walk on this flag with their shoes.”
But escaping from Russian-occupied territory to other parts of Ukraine that were relatively safe — cities farther north of Mariupol, like Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro — was risky. Without reliable humanitarian corridors, civilians trying to flee were vulnerable to Russian bombing and missile attacks; one attack occurred on April 9, when 50 civilians were killed while waiting for a train in Kramatorsk. Or civilians were forced through Russian-led filtration camps where people were reportedly being fingerprinted, interrogated and, in some cases, sexually harassed or forcibly deported to Russia.
When Olena reached one such camp in the village of Nikolske, in Donetsk province, she told the Russian officers that she “refused to go through filtration.” When accused by a soldier of having connections with the Ukrainian army, she asked, “What kind of connection could an elderly woman have with the Ukrainian military?” The soldier said she could’ve been a cook, and Olena replied, “Since when did feeding people become a crime?”
When asked where she found the courage to challenge the Russian soldier, Olena, clutching her cellphone and a pack of cigarettes between her palms, softly replied, “I was really angry, and I didn’t give a damn.”
Nikolske was the first village Olena reached after leaving Mariupol. The trip would have taken 30 minutes by car, but on foot, it took Olena over five hours.
In July, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Russia to “immediately halt its systematic ‘filtration’ operations and forced deportations” in Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine. The State Department estimates that “Russian authorities have interrogated, detained, and forcibly deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children, from their homes to Russia — often to isolated regions in the Far East.” Additionally, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in a July 14 report described Russian filtration camps as an “alarming phenomenon” that according to witness testimony includes “harsh interrogation,” “humiliating body inspections” and reports of sexual assault.
In a mid-July text message to PassBlue, a spokesperson for the Russian mission to the UN said filtration camps did not exist. Instead, he said, “there are security checkpoints which all civilians exiting combat zones have to go through.” The Russian military “does not create barriers for civilians but detains all fascists and bandits,” he added, noting that reports of “humiliation and sexual assaults” were “unsubstantiated speculations and allegations.”
Spotting Katya’s jacket
For Olena, Russia’s denial of the camps isn’t surprising. She described Russian-occupied territories in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine as “informational vacuums,” where Ukrainians have access only to Russian state television. Miraculously, Olena got “desperate,” she said, for news (after weeks of no contact with her daughter) while she was in Berdyansk — another port city on the Black Sea, west of Mariupol — and turned on the TV, where she learned that Katya and hundreds of other civilians were evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant through a deal brokered by the International Committee for the Red Cross and the UN in late April.
“On the television, I saw the video about rescuing people from Azovstal, and I saw Katya’s jacket” — black with thick, horizontal stripes of bright yellow, green and red. “In a single moment, I saw her,” Olena said, “but the bad thing of this news was that the Russians said these people wanted to go to Russia.” Olena was certain, however, that wasn’t her daughter’s wish. “I already had a thousand plans on how to get her from the Russian side.”
The Azovstal rescues began on April 29 and finished about a week later as the world watched on social media and TV the civilians lumbering out of the decrepit underground barracks to be relocated to safe havens. According to a report released on May 12, by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha), a total of 152 civilians were evacuated from the plant. Yet in an email to PassBlue, an Ocha spokesperson said that the conditions within Azovstal made it “very difficult” to establish the number of civilians in the plant before the evacuations began.
In a text message to PassBlue, Olena shared a picture of Katya and her sons taken inside an Azovstal bunker. Against the backdrop of a lime green wall with a crusty strip of black wire hanging from the ceiling, Katya and her boys embrace while sitting on what appears to be a mattress covered with a purple and blue duvet. Katya’s eyes are closed, her brown hair is matted and her face is pale and puffy.
After being rescued from the Azovstal plant, Katya and her sons arrived in Zaporizhizhia — a city along the Dnieper River in southeast Ukraine (now under heavy fighting) — on May 3. From there, they moved on to Dnipro, a town 50 miles north of Zaporizhizhia, where Olena, Katya and her boys were at last reunited. Yet for Olena, the weeks of stress of escaping Mariupol and everything it entailed caught up with her in Warsaw, and some of the details about where she was and for how long got fuzzy in her retelling. But what she does know is that when she left Mariupol on April 11, it took her nearly two months to get out of Ukraine.
Olena’s escape from Mariupol is almost cinematic: After skirting the Russian filtration camp in Nikolske, bartering a ride to Berdyansk and sleeping on a bench in a playground, moving on to the village of Vasylivka with no food or water and then heading to Zaporizhizhia and to Dnipro, in early June (where she was reunited with her daughter and grandsons), they decided to head to Warsaw, where the city was open to refugees fleeing the war.
Olena never got to Kyiv.
Shortly after arriving in Warsaw, Katya and her sons decided to return to Ukraine, in the relative security of a western city to try to find Katya’s husband through authorities there, as he is still being held by Russia. Olena described her daughter’s decision as “complicated.”
“I know in my mind why [Katya] had to do it,” Olena said, “but in my heart, I feel worried . . . there are no guarantees.” For months, Russia’s military has been focusing on overtaking the east — primarily the Donbas region, especially after Russia failed to capture Kyiv. However, in late July, Lavrov, Russia’s foreign affairs minister, announced in an interview with Russian state media Moscow’s intention to expand its military aims in Ukraine beyond the Donbas in the east to a “number of other territories,” including the city of Zaporizhzhia, north of Mariupol. The Donbas includes the pro-Russian breakaway regions that Russia calls the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. In early August, President Zelensky ordered an evacuation of civilians from the Donetsk region, presaging more vicious fighting ahead.
A worn-out welcome in Poland?
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 1.2 million refugees from Ukraine have been documented to be living in Poland, mostly women and children as well as older people and people with disabilities. Documented refugees in Poland refers to those who have applied for and received a Polish national identity number (Pesel), which provides access to various social services and benefits. Applying for a Pesel is not mandatory, so the number of Ukrainian refugees in Poland is likely to be much higher.
Since the full-scale war began in Ukraine on Feb. 24, an estimated six million “individual refugees from Ukraine” have been recorded across Europe, the UNHCR’s data portal says.
In Warsaw, Olena has been living in temporary, community-style housing — in Babice Nowe, a village located 30 minutes by car from the capital — with about a dozen other women and children who fled Mariupol. The facility and all related services, including food, psychological and gynecological support, art therapy activities and legal assistance, are funded by Women for Women, a global nonprofit organization that helps women survivors of war and conflict. The center is managed in Warsaw by HumanDoc, an international nongovernmental group, in partnership with Bereginia, a women’s association founded in Mariupol during the 2014 conflict instigated by Russian proxies in the Donbas region. Bereginia no longer operates in Mariupol but provides services to Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw.
Although her daily needs are taken care of, Olena’s future, whether it is in Warsaw — where she doesn’t speak Polish — or back in Ukraine, where she worked in a furniture shop in Mariupol, hinges on the cruel unpredictability of war. An extended stay in Poland requires housing she can’t afford in a market that was already exhausted before millions of refugees flooded into the country.
A UNHCR Europe report published in July profiling Ukrainian refugees — in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania and Slovakia — found that of the 2,300 refugees interviewed in Poland, 40 percent are living in “hosted accommodations,” or housing offered by private citizens whose generosity can extend only so far. According to Helena Krajewska, the spokesperson for Polish Humanitarian Action, a nonprofit group that provides aid to victims of humanitarian crises, private housing of refugees in Warsaw isn’t “sustainable.”
Polish “people are getting very, very tired right now,” Krajewska told PassBlue in an interview in her office in Warsaw, despite “overwhelming solidarity” in the country for Ukrainian refugees. “We try to tell them it’s a sprint and not a marathon and that their energy and willingness to help will be needed in the years to come but they’re overwhelmed,” she added, referring to her fellow Poles.
In a Washington Post interview in March, only weeks into the war, Warsaw’s Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski warned that the sudden influx of Ukrainian refugees was pushing the capital to its “brink,” straining the education and health care systems and swallowing up the city’s housing supply. “We want to take everyone who needs help,” he said, “but how. . . . ?”
In another interview, Mayor Trzaskowski called on the European Union and the UN to “step in” and “coordinate efforts” to “deal with the magnitude of the problem” in Poland.
In separate emails, PassBlue asked the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, and the UNHCR whether they have discussed plans to coordinate their efforts in assisting Ukrainian refugees. A spokesperson for the Commission emphasized the European Union’s commitment in such areas as education, housing and financial support to protect people fleeing war in Ukraine and to help European countries that host them. Yet there was no direct mention in the spokesperson’s response about long-term coordination with the UN.
The UNHCR did not respond to PassBlue’s request for comment.
Additionally, PassBlue contacted the Polish mission to the UN, which said it was coordinating a response with colleagues in Warsaw, but PassBlue has yet to receive a final comment.
Of the 4,900 Ukrainian refugees who were interviewed for the UNHCR Europe report, 16 percent of respondents said they planned to return to Ukraine, of which 60 percent said that they didn’t know when. Whereas, 65 percent of respondents said that for now they preferred to stay in their host country, with more than half of the respondents saying it wasn’t safe to return to Ukraine. Overall, the respondents “highlighted a shared uncertainty about the future which impacted their ability to form secure long term-plans.”
To deal with the uncertainty, Helena Krajewska said humanitarians working with Polish Humanitarian Action “focus on establishing a new ‘temporary everyday’ for refugees.” Which means providing them with funds to support themselves, access to jobs, language classes and housing — what she called the “core parts of human life.” But the most important component, she said, is psychosocial support. “This is crucial as often psychological and mental issues are left behind while thinking about first response to a crisis,” Krajewska told PassBlue in an email, “it is as important as providing food, hygiene, products or shelter.”
As for Olena, Warsaw isn’t home but neither is Mariupol, as she says “there’s nothing to go back to.” That is why she’s considering a future in Ireland with Katya, her son-in-law and their kids. “My son-in-law has a brother who lives there so, it will be sort of a small family reunion,” Olena said in a follow-up call with PassBlue in late July. That same day, an explosion rocked a detention center in the Russian-occupied town of Olenivka in the Donetsk province, killing at least 53 Ukrainian POWs assumed to be from the Azov regiment. Olena told PassBlue that her son-in-law was O.K., that he wasn’t at the center, but that he’s still in captivity in an unknown location.
While grim, the news gives Olena a moment of hope in a future that’s tangled up in Russia’s web of war, with no end in sight. Yet she remains acutely aware of how quickly things can change. “It’s not like nothing can happen,” Olena said, “there are no guarantees.”
Kuzma Kolesnyk translated the series of interviews with Olena.
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