“I’m Afraid of Dying and Leaving You Alone”: 13 Letters a Mother from Mariupol Wrote to Her Son

The mother of the 20-year-old Oleh Koptsev refused to leave Mariupol but kept sending him heart-wrenching messages from the besieged city. We publish these short texts documenting the experiences of a person hoping to survive and see her son again.

The 20-year-old Oleh Koptsev hails from Donetsk. In 2014, he moved to Mariupol with his family and later entered a university in Kharkiv to study programming. When the war broke out, Oleh left Kharkiv for Lviv, but his family was reluctant to leave Mariupol, which already was shelled at the time. His parents refused to “flee their home again”.

As the city came under heavy shelling, Oleh’s mother regularly texted him, detailing the life in the city under enemy shelling, how she and her husband looked for water, and her fears to die without seeing her son again.

It is impossible to pinpoint the exact message dates because they arrived with delays due to problems with cell service in the city. Sometimes, a few arrived at once, even though evidently sent days apart.

His family survived and evacuated to Zaporizhzhia. Once they were in safety, Oleh shared the 13 messages sent to him by his mother while in Mariupol. We publish them here with his permission.

March 3

Dear son, I’m writing this in case the connection returns and the message gets sent. We are alright, but we have only gas now. Rumours are, though, that it’s not for long. There is heavy shelling here. We have had no electricity and running water for two days already. But we hold on. *** came today, and we gave her some food. What terrifies me is that we don’t know what is going on. We love you and hope you will be alright.

March 4

Good morning, my boy! It’s 8:20 a.m. on the 4th of March. We have survived another night. We hardly slept at all this night because of relentless shelling. It was somewhere close by, it seems. I’m so afraid of dying and leaving you alone. But it’s morning now, and we are all alive. We still have gas, thank God. But it is the only thing we have. We love you so much. Stay safe there, dear!

March 5

Son, it’s 9:33. We are OK. It’s 15 degrees above zero in our flat now, but we have managed to warm up a little. And again, our thriftiness has paid off. We have found a box of Christmas lights with batteries and a torch! So, we have lights now. If our phones run out of charge, try to call grandpa’s phone at noon and 9 p.m. We will keep it on at these times. We love you.

March 6

Good morning, my boy! I find myself thinking that I’m writing a diary, like Anne Frank. We are alive. Our every morning starts with checking gas and taking stock of our water supplies. We still have gas, thank God. And there are four big bottles of water. We switch off our phones for the day and power them on in the evening to read a little. Also, we have one more battery left. We keep it for later. Yesterday, we went to the 12th storey with the phone and the tablet and turned on the mobile connection. MTS showed one bar, but we had no luck sending messages or making a call. People came back with empty bottles yesterday. They couldn’t find water. We saw one man scoop water from a puddle with a dust pan.

It’s terrifying. I fear every day. I fear what tomorrow will bring. I’m afraid to sleep. I’m scared they will shell us again tomorrow, and we won’t take shelter in time.

And I’m so sick of the looters. In the first days, they were trying to break in everywhere and robbing the shops all over the place. They just kept taking everything. They carried bags of perfumes…, coats…, a crate of herring, barrels of cabbage, and even nappies. People from our block of flats also started looting, even the blonde Nina, who feeds cats. Who could have thought that we live among people like these! It happened because the police were at the frontline. Now they can finally patrol the streets. Now, when a looter gets caught, police pull down their knickers and leave them butt-naked.

We love you so much! Stay safe, dear! I’m so looking forward to hugging you and holding you tight when this hell comes to an end! Kisses from us with dad, and until tomorrow, dear!

March 8

We are alive. Dear son, it’s been two days since I last wrote… and things got even worse here. A missile hit our house at the crawl space between the roof and the very top storey. The explosion was terrible—all windows were shattered on the higher floors. Gas was cut yesterday. It’s getting totally hopeless. People are looting, robbing all shops, and I fear they will soon switch to looting flats. The city is in chaos. There are heaps of rubbish everywhere and not even a semblance of order. But we are still alive. We go to the 12th storey every day, hoping to get a cell connection.

It’s the 8th of March, and we are alive. It’s been the happiest day for us because we have finally heard your voice! Thank God you are alright! We will survive somehow. We have small victories here and there. We managed to get some water. Also, we met some people sharing our views while standing in the queue near the city water services company from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. It was so pleasant to talk to them. Also, we charged our phones a little and made friends with people from our block of flats. Now we make fire outdoors, gather firewood, and cook food together. Also, we cook a little in advance in case we can’t go out because of shelling tomorrow. We boil water and pour it into thermos flasks and only then start cooking. The meals have some ash in them, but having something hot to eat is good enough for us. Then we come back home and wrap the food in the blankets to keep it warm. It is cold in our flat, so we live in the anteroom on an airbed. Dad wears gloves while reading, and we all put on our hats when we go to sleep.

Some man gave flowers to all women from our block of flats who cooked outside today. Each one got one. The military opened a flower booth and gave flowers away to people. What a holiday!

We want to get a wash so badly but have enough water to cook and wash the dishes. In the morning, we gathered some snow. Good thing we have some extra food to share with friends or relatives. We heard the sad news today: our neighbour *** was killed in the left-bank part of the city.

March 10

Hello, dear son! We are alive, and our hell continues. It’s the 10th of March today. We spent the night in the basement with ***. We are so thankful they took the four of us in. There was a horrible blast yesterday—a plane dropped something on Hospital No. 3’s maternity ward. The glass in the kitchen window shattered, and the balcony doors broke. We were lying on the sofa in the bedroom when it happened. Later, we heard on the radio that it was a bomb that left 10-metre shell crater. We all rushed to the anteroom in our socks. And then it dawned on us: if it’s like this here, how bad could it be at grandma’s place?

Dad ran outdoors and looked at their windows. There were none—all gone together with the frames. Scared for her life, we took bandages and hurried there. Fortunately, grandma and *** were alive but in panic. We met them with their bags packed on the threshold of their flat, or rather what was left of it. The blast was so strong that it blew off all their windows, balcony, and even the locked doors. It all came flying at them, but, mercifully, they remained unharmed. We took their bags and went to our place, everyone shaking with fear. Many of our houses now have just black holes for windows. In mom’s neighbour’s flat, the door flew open from the explosion.

March 11

…permitted. We came back for our things, grabbed whatever was within reach, got into our car and rushed here amid resounding explosions. Here, we spent a night in the basement. It was terribly cold—everyone was shaking. We slept on the ground on foam plastic and thin rugs with all our clothes on. We took some throw blankets, albeit those were not enough for us four. Also, we took only the food we had prepared, and there was little of it. Our balcony was littered with glass. We wanted to go home and get food and things but couldn’t because of the air raid. We can’t even cook, having to sit in the basement all the time. It’s terrifying. Today, a missile hit the 8th storey of a multi-storey building close by. It’s so cold in the basement where we sleep that the dad is worried about his kidneys. I don’t know if we will make it. We hope that you are OK. Stay safe, my dear.

March 12

…candy or biscuits. We have a lot of potatoes, but we can’t cook them, and there’s little water left anyway. In the morning, we drink peach juice to save water. We keep listening to the news and hope that help will arrive. We will give our last to survive. It’s so cold here, but we took a blanket and my sheepskin coat, so we are all here muffled up. For over two weeks without a bath, we put on all the clothes we can and sleep in hats, coats, five jumpers and socks. We talk little, mostly listening to the news. Some play cards. We had a little reading time yesterday with Christmas lights on. The time drags on slowly, and everything is drowsy. Yesterday, dad helped *** reinforce doors and windows on the third storey. I worried myself nuts waiting for him. I want to survive so much to hug you, at last, my dear. *** hugged *** yesterday, and I wept silently. I’m happy that you are not here with us, though. I want you to be alive and happy so much. We pray to God that they stop shelling the city and everyone can go embrace their families. We love you so much. Be safe, my dear. You are our most precious.

I want to survive so much to hug you, at last, my dear. I’m happy that you are not here with us, though.

Hello, dear son! How are you? Is everything OK? We are so worried about you. Your city came under shelling, too, we heard. Hopefully, you are safe. We are still alive. It’s Monday, and we are all huddled in the basement. It gets worse day by day. Yesterday and the day before, we had the courage to return home for whatever we needed, but now it’s scary to go even to the ground floor to use the toilet. Our soldiers set up their positions somewhere near ***, and there are horrible sounds [heard] all the time. Sometimes, enemy shells hit the place. There are fascist planes in the sky. Oh, the horror. We can hardly cook at all, because we need to do it outdoors, near the garage, but it’s very dangerous there. We are running out of water, and everyone is afraid to go get it. We eat little, sharing a meal of my usual size between two people. Dad is hungry all the time.

March 13

Son, my dear! I am writing to you from dad’s phone because mine has long run out of battery. Today is the 13th of March, and we are still alive. It’s been a long time since I last wrote—I’m saving battery power. I don’t know where to start even. You know the horror that we are in. Most of the city lies in ruins, it seems. In addition to Grad shelling and other things, a plane keeps dropping bombs from above. ***’s friends visit us and share the news. Yesterday, a bomb hit the post office, splitting it in two. There were people in the basement there, and nobody knows if they are alive. There is nobody to get them out of there. We risked our lives twice to go home and get food and blankets. We even brought two bags of potatoes, boxes with biscuits, tea, and sugar to show gratitude for the shelter.

March 14

…. I only went to get vegetables. There was heavy shelling yesterday. We dropped potatoes on our way and took shelter in the building’s entrance hallway. What a horror. My hands kept trembling for a long time after I ran back, and I was crying. I cried from horror, from helplessness, from pity for our flat. It is in such poor shape that we have nowhere to return. All windows are broken, all window frames are twisted. A piece of window glass has pierced the microwave in our kitchen. The entire kitchen has been shredded with glass shards. All glass is shattered in the kitchen and on the balcony. Balcony doors are gone, other window frames partially have glass in them, but they are all broken and won’t close anymore. Looters can easily get inside. It’s dangerous to do anything about it, so we took the food and ran. So yeah, there’s that. I can’t imagine what we would do if not for ***. It is zero degrees in our flat now. Nobody brought water to where we used to get it for two days already. Needless to say, it is dangerous to stand in queues. We have run out of firewood, but few are willing to go outdoors and cook. Everybody is terrified.

March 17

Son, my dear. It is the 17th today, and my phone still has some battery charge left. We are still alive, but we thought that we were about to die more than once. We are in hell. Grads are shelling us, bombs are falling from the sky, and mortar shells are blowing up everywhere. There are no undamaged buildings in the city—the city is in flames. We are even afraid to crawl out of the basement, which becomes crowded at night because people from the entire neighborhood flock there. We are hardly sleeping at all, just huddling ourselves in the corner and praying, terrified. Our car’s rear window was smashed by the blast wave, and there is a huge shell-hole behind it now, so there is no chance to use it. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow and whether we will survive or not. God, what did we do to deserve this? We pray to God that the basement saves our lives. *** has to feed everyone. The poor thing is a saint. The meals get smaller and smaller. Dad is hungry all the time. Cooking has been moved to the garage, but it’s still scary. All the windows and doors in the building are gone. Dad and *** keep trying to block the holes under shelling. It’s freezing in the basement, about 5 degrees above zero, and it’s dark. We pray that you stay safe and be happy. You are a smart boy, and you will make it. I want to hope that we will survive and meet again. We love you so much, so very much. Stay safe, dear.

Photo: Koptsev family archive

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