War in Europe
Melitopol: the first days of war

A testimony from the inside of the city

An elderly woman sits in a bus as nearly 2,000 people who left temporarily occupied Melitopol via a humanitarian corridor

© picture alliance / abaca | Smoliyenko Dmytro/Ukrinform/ABACA

Only now we have received the report of an eyewitness of the Russian attack on Melitopol, which she wrote in the first days of the war. It is important to say: her description does not reflect the current situation in the city. However, it shows what it is like when war comes, from one day to the next. Therefore, the eyewitness report is a contemporary document that remains valid. The eyewitness prefers to remain anonymous to protect the members of her family who still are in Melitopol.

On February 23rd, we have all been working the whole day as usual. We’ve left at 7 pm because we’ve had an important work presentation coming up next day, so we’ve been getting prepared. At 4 in the morning I woke up to a call from my colleagues who said, “It has started. Gather your things and leave as soon as you can". I was confused and my husband was not there, he was on vacation. I could not go without him. My daughter also said the war had started, but there had been no explosions yet.

Half an hour later, it started. We live near a military unit. There were explosions there. People from other cities started calling, everyone talked to their friends and relatives. Many immediately began to pack their things and leave by car. I couldn’t leave without my husband.

In the morning, as people started to leave the city, huge queues have formed in shops and pharmacies. People were buying everything. Since our city is the first one after the Crimea, and the Russian troops came from the Crimea, there was information that that a large number of tanks are moving in our direction and that they would be in Melitopol in an hour or two. This led to big chaos in Melitopol, a second wave, around 11 am. The city was dying out.

Our military had left the city by that time. I don't know why. The police also left, so the territorial defense groups have started to defend the city. We spent the first night in the basement, as fighting started near Melitopol. Our fighters did not let them into the city the whole day and night, and then the whole following day. We could not sleep for two nights.

The next, third night, was calm. By the time we’ve had chats created to support each other. People wrote that there was a very large number of military forces of the occupiers near Melitopol on the Crimean side due to enter the city. And in the morning, fighting has already started in Melitopol.

The fighting lasted for about two days, but then the occupants entered Melitopol. They occupied the buildings of the executive committee (the city council), the police station and a few other buildings, and opened their headquarters there. By the way, they evacuated all the inhabitants of the first village on the Crimean side to Henichesk. The Russian troops used the village as the place where they lived. To this day, the troops stand between Melitopol and Zaporizhzhia, but there is also a large number of military forces moving further – to Mariupol, Orikhiv, and Enerhodar. All of them are passing through Melitopol.

A humanitarian catastrophe has started in the city

After the occupiers entered the city, they provoked looting. They stood in the shops with their machine guns and allowed people to come in and just take everything. This way they showed the people that they could take whatever they wanted under their cover. At that moment, there were a lot of such people, I don't really know what influenced them. When there is a threat to life or some horrible situation happens, people tend to show themselves in a completely different way. So they took everything they could, devastated all the shops and pharmacies. They even took cash registers and chairs out of supermarkets.

A humanitarian catastrophe has started in the city. There was simply nothing at all. Banks and markets were closed, prices went up. There was a great shortage of baby food and medicine.  Thanks to villages nearby, it was still possible to buy potatoes, cabbage, etc., but prices rose almost twice. There was also no petrol at all.

It was very dangerous in the city. People were scared to even spend the night at home. There were many cases of looting in the private sector, so the neighbors have started teaming up. We also did and agreed that if anyone heard any noise at night, they would go and help each other. The Russian military did not intervene. They said, "We have our own business, you have your own".

We quickly organized ourselves, divided into groups, made a schedule: to patrol both parking lots and neighborhoods. In principle, we put things in order. We have also created a chat about looting, where videos of these looters were uploaded. Since then there have already been cases when people returned all the things they have stolen.

The city authorities tried to ensure the functioning of the city at first. They reached some agreements, that the executive branch can function even though Russian troops enter the city. They agreed. They said the authorities could return to the executive committee and work. But there was already a Russian flag on the building. The mayor said that they would return if the Russian flag is removed so they removed the flag. Our authorities came in, but there was just complete chaos in the building – everything was broken or looted. So the mayor said, "No, we will not work here".

“Why did you come? You see, we are all well. Go home!”

On the 4th day, he gathered everyone in the city authorities in the Shevchenko House of Culture in our central square, and they started working there. They repaired everything they could in the city. Some areas were still left without heating, but everything else was functioning more or less. The mayor also created the Humanitarian HQ there and work to provide people with aid started. A reception point was set up at the headquarters, and many people brought food. It worked for about a week.

During this week, people started to go to rallies to show their pro-Ukrainian position. At first about 50 people, but every day – more and more came. They walked around the neighborhoods, shouting „Melitopol is Ukraine“, "Putin – get out!", "Occupiers – go home!", "We are the government here". I saw people trying to reason with the soldiers, asking: “Why did you come? You see, we are all well. Go home!”. The Russian soldiers only had one answer: "We carry out our orders." When the protesters went to the building where the Russian troops had set up their HQ, the military started fire into the air and into the ground. One bullet bounced off and wounded a protester, but this only happened once while I was there.

More and more people were turning out to protests. The Russians did not like it. We heard that they started looking for the organizers. But in fact there were no organizers – only self-organization. Then they started coming for the activists to intimidate them. They detained regional council member Leila Ibrahimova, director of our museum. At 6 or 7 am they came to her, searched her apartment, took her phone, and took her away. We didn’t know where she was for half a day, everyone was worried. But as she told afterward everything was "okay": they interrogated her, asked who the instigator of the protests was, and about all the activists. Then they let her go but kept the phone.

People were simply thrown into vans by force, and driven out of the city

After that I learned that the mayor was kidnapped. So rallies to support the mayor started. People came and demanded: "Give back mayor!". At this rally, our activist Olha Haisumova, who has always been open about her pro-Ukrainian position, was thrown into a van and kidnapped. People were not afraid, they still went out every day, and suddenly it started [happening to others]. People were simply thrown into vans by force, and driven out of the city towards the Crimea. Women were thrown out and left outside of the city, all their phones were taken away, and they were forced to walk back to the city at their own risk. Men were driven away even further out of the city. Some of them returned, and some still have not.

Many in the city were afraid of military actions because every day Russian forces have been shooting from our side. Their planes have been flying from our side to bomb Zaporizhzhia and Orikhiv. Planes going to Mariupol also pass our city. People who were afraid because of this were trying to leave [for the territory controlled by Ukraine]. We heard that some succeeded at getting in and out of the city; the humanitarian aid was being transported at peoples’ own risk. However, there were also cases such as when the Russian military fired at an ambulance, carrying medicine. Some civilians also drove out unofficially without "green corridors".

We also tried to leave. We were driving in several cars with children. We saw them, the occupiers, and we were scared, because we heard different stories, that they shoot at cars sometimes. Thank God they were just passing by. But at one of the checkpoints we were told that fighting was about to begin. And indeed – 10 minutes later the shooting started. If we had left a little earlier, we might have passed through, but that time we weren’t able to leave the city. Many other people wanted to leave but could not. They used some smaller routes at their own risk and I heard stories of the Russian military shooting at cars or taking their cars away and forcing people to return home by foot. Some cars were even run over by tanks, it was all filmed. It was just scary. I was “sitting on my suitcases” every day, and finally, I managed to leave.

The occupiers offered to those afraid to move to the territory of Crimea promising to provide a "green corridor" for them. They said that there even was a queue of cars at Chonhar, but it is unclear what happens to them after or whether people would not be forced to stay there for ever. Unfortunately, no one knows anything about this route.