The Ukrainian city of Mariupol has become synonymous with the brutality of Russia’s war of aggression

Kateryna Sukhomlynova experienced the war there as a paramedic. She has now fled to Germany and reports there on the fate of her city.


Kateryna Sukhomlynova has worked as a paramedic for “Malteser” in Mariupol.                    Photo: Michael Leh

She has seen and been through terrible things. The Ukrainian Kateryna Sukhomlynova stayed in Mariupol for twenty-one days before deciding to flee. Now the paramedic, who worked for the Malteser (NGO for humanitarian aid) in the port city on the Azov Sea and was a member of the city council, reported on what she experienced at the Polish Pilecki Institute in Berlin. The city, which previously had 500,000 inhabitants, is now almost completely destroyed. Only about 100,000 people are said to be living in the rubble.

Sukhomlynova described life under the Russians’ bombardment and constant shelling: “Families hid in basements with their pets. Old people could no longer get out of their apartments to fetch water from a well because a Russian soldier shot at them from a neighboring house. The bodies of men, women and children lay in the streets. We couldn’t even bury them.”

Everywhere it smells of sweat, blood and urine

She describes the narrowness in the cellars and rooms where shelter was sought: “When you can no longer go to the toilet, you have to do your business in a bag and you don’t know where to dispose of it either. Everywhere it smells of sweat, blood and urine. Smells of corpses, smoke and fire, of melted plastic.” Old people could no longer leave their homes and were burned. “How should I describe the bodies I saw. The shot faces, also of children. The wounds, the bones. Countless people died every day.” No sooner had the Russians given the green light for a humanitarian corridor than they would have started shooting at people again.

During the 21 days that she was still in Mariupol after the start of the war, she tried to help people as a paramedic. “The war in Ukraine has already lasted eight years. But now it has become apparent that we were not 100% prepared for this cruel all-out war,” she said. More than 500 wounded Ukrainian soldiers are in hospitals in Mariupol. But there was no medicine. Without these, many would die. “The Russians committed murders, shootings, rapes. And the traces are blurred everywhere,” says Sukhomlynova. Again and again, the civilian population was also deliberately attacked. “Mariupol,” she explained, “is like hundreds of Buchas” — the city near Kiev where Russian soldiers had committed many murders.

She answered yes to the newspaper’s question as to whether she had also seen Chechens among the soldiers. Chechens were checkpoints. “Sometimes they could be heard shouting ‘Allah akbar’ loudly. It took your breath away.” Many residents of Mariupol were forcibly deported to Russia. In “filtration camps” people would be sorted out and forced to testify. Checkpoints would examine cell phones and video footage. “I had deleted photos and data on my phone to be on the safe side.”

The Russian soldiers would have known “who they would have to shoot first”, especially political and public figures. “Since I belonged to this group, I had to leave the city secretly. We avoided big cities by car and drove through small villages on dirt roads. After twenty days we were finally able to wash. However, I did not allow our three girls to wash their hair and face so that they would not look attractive to Russian soldiers.”

“It can happen to you too”

Kateryna Sukhomlynova emphasizes: “Today we are not only fighting for ourselves, but for all Europeans. It can happen to you too. We too sat on the terrace, drank cappuccino and didn’t think about war. I beg you: don’t be naive!” Ukraine needs help, including weapons: “Missiles are flying at us every day.” Ukrainian soldiers fought and defended their country. “We also need the protection of heaven,” added the Malteser worker. And: “A lot of people have lost everything. But we haven’t lost our courage yet. We want to rebuild our beautiful city of Mariupol.”

The Polish Pilecki Institute on Pariser Platz near the Brandenburg Gate is also involved in a variety of ways with refugees from Ukraine and Belarus. It is named after Witold Pilecki, the devout Catholic officer who voluntarily went to Auschwitz in 1940 to set up a resistance organization there. In 1943 he managed to escape again and took part in the Warsaw Uprising. After the war he collected evidence of Soviet atrocities and was sentenced to death by the Polish communists in 1948 after torture and a show trial.

The Pilecki Institute cherishes his memory, as does that of the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who in 1947 drafted a law for the UN on punishing genocide. Together with the Raphael Lemkin Institute in Warsaw, the Pilecki Institute now also organizing systematic surveys of refugees about (war) crimes committed by Russian troops in Ukraine.

* This article by IGFM board member Michael Leh appeared on May 5th in the Catholic weekly newspaper “Die Tagespost”. We publish it here with the kind permission of the author.