No Gas, No Medicines, No Fuel. The City of Berdiansk Struggles to Survive while Saving Refugees from Mariupol
Unable to wait for “humanitarian corridors” and evacuation buses any longer, Mariupol residents have started to flee the town on their own. Those of them who were lucky and managed to escape have stopped in Berdiansk — the nearest relatively tranquil big city that wasn’t destroyed by attacks.
It remains unknown how many Mariupol citizens are currently hiding in Berdiansk. According to local activists, around 6K people registered through the operational headquarters of the city’s executive committee. This is an organization invented to help refugees. And just as many people could have settled around the town without registration. Ukrainian authorities try to evacuate affected people to the areas they fully control, mainly to Zaporizhzhia. On March 21st, 4K refugees got on buses and left Berdiansk. However, this process gets complicated due to military operations that take place near Zaporizhzhia. Buses run rather irregularly.
Berdiansk was occupied by Russian forces on February 24th. Since then, it has been cut off from the rest of Ukraine. Bird in Flight reporters asked one of the local volunteers to tell them how the town keeps surviving and what helps Mariupol people save themselves.
When did refugees from Mariupol start coming to Berdiansk?
The first group arrived on March 16. It was a very risky decision and they knew it. They were escaping in columns. Since that day, there have been more and more newcomers.
Where do you place them?
Everywhere. In boarding houses, in recreation centers, in summer camps that the authorities had opened to give Mariupol people a place to stay. Many of them live in schools, some have to spend nights lying on mattresses in sports halls. Every school can fit up to 200 people, sometimes even 300. A lot of locals invite refugees to their homes.
Mariupol citizens who have money and don’t want to sleep on mattresses in schools rent apartments. Some of them stay in the central hotel where they can get a room for a symbolic price of 20 hryvnias or so.
Currently, we provide almost 5K people with food daily. We cook food in kindergartens and then take it all around the town. Distribution points are located in churches and schools.
What kind of problems Berdiansk is facing at the moment?
Ten days ago, the gas supply went off. It’s cold outside so we heat our flats, schools, and recreation centers only with electrical equipment, same goes for cooking. The local power grid finds it hard to cope with such a high voltage so the power occasionally goes out in several districts at the same time.
There are no medicines. Speaking of gasoline, things are bad too. Before people came from Mariupol, the price used to be around 35 hryvnias per liter. Later, because of high demand, it skyrocketed to 200-300 hryvnias per liter. On the highway, you’ll have to pay 6K for one fuel can. You either do that if you have money or keep sitting at home without any fuel. But even if you do have money, it’s not that easy to actually fill up your car. They don’t replenish supplies at gas stations regularly so drivers have to put their names on the waiting list.
On the highway, you’ll have to pay 6K for one can. You either do that if you have money or keep sitting at home without any fuel.
In the last few days, they have been giving gas only to guys from Mariupol. And you won’t find any vacant place on that waiting list for at least three days, there are always no less than a few hundred people willing to buy fuel.
Mariupol refugees that need our town only as a transit point devastate it. Occupying forces use this to their advantage and bring here their humanitarian aid. In fact, if there won’t be any “corridor” opened specially for Berdiansk, the city, I think, won’t last longer than two weeks.
In what condition do people come from Mariupol?
There are around 90 kilometers between Mariupol and Berdiansk. Refugees need 10-12 hours to cover it. People are exhausted.
It’s important to remember that the “humanitarian corridor” to evacuate Mariupol citizens has never been created so these refugees are people who waited for a temporary lull and stormed out of their houses never caring to even get changed. Their attempts to leave the city were like, all or nothing. Some of them went by foot, some came in cars. The cars are wrecked, covered by bullet holes, the headlights are broken, pillows replaced the glass in side windows.
How do Russian soldiers behave?
Local authorities haven’t agreed to cooperate with the aggressor but still continue to support the proper functioning of the city. It seems that Berdiansk exists in two dimensions simultaneously. One of them is full of occupants, the other is the realm of volunteers and refugees. We live our lives and Russians live theirs. But it wasn’t always like this. When they entered the city, they set up their roadblocks on every street corner. Then they occupied strategic facilities and disappeared. A couple of times they came to the volunteer center looking for weapon but soon stopped showing up.
It seems that Berdiansk lives in two dimensions simultaneously. One of them is full of occupants, the other is the realm of volunteers and refugees.
I know that there have been pro-Ukrainian rallies held in Berdiansk. How do Russians react when they see them?
These rallies have been held starting from day one of their invasion. Those were peaceful demonstrations. People were singing and waving flags. Then they started to happen less and less frequently: some participants left the city, the others began helping refugees from Mariupol. Yesterday Russians confronted demonstrators who gathered at the Prymorska Square (the city’s main square – Ed.) and started frisking them. Perhaps they have gotten more active because they see that not so many people take part in these rallies anymore.
As far as I know, they arrested two activists — Vitalii Shevchenko and Tetiana Tymakova. Vitaliy was detained for around a week and Tetiana was released in two days.
Are you going to flee?
That’s a very complex question. During all this time, I’ve kept believing that the Armed Forces of Ukraine would come back to the town. However, after yesterday’s meeting and given the fact that they’ve imposed a curfew, my optimism gradually vanishes now.
If they destroy Berdiansk, it can be rebuilt. If most of the city dwellers die, new people will come here sooner or later and will develop it anew. But the worst-case scenario is Berdiansk becoming a part of the “Zaporizhzhia People’s Republic.” It’s disgusting to belong to a state that you don’t respect and don’t recognize. If this happens, I’ll be gone for sure.
Cover photo: AFP