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Faces of War - reports from Mariupol, Ukraine

Fleeing Mariupol

Kateryna Sukhomlynova was so many things until the war began in Ukraine: A Malteser employee in Mariupol, a paramedic, a member of the city council and a volunteer in the local police association. Today, the 44-year-old is one of millions of refugees from Ukraine and homeless. But Kateryna Sukhomlynova is a strong woman. She travels tirelessly through Europe, together with her 17-year-old daughter, reporting on what she experienced in Mariupol during the first weeks of the war.

"I am an ambassador. People need to know first-hand what is happening in Mariupol, what is going on," she says.

Before the war started at the end of February, Sukhomlynova worked for Malteser in Mariupol. She used to look after children with disabilities, orphans and children and young people in need. Many families suffered from the economic impact of the pandemic and came to seek support. Since 2020, Malteser International has distributed food to these families. Kateryna and her colleagues also offered first aid courses at the Malteser facility. The office was bombed shortly after the war began in early March.

Under constant attack

Since the 44-year-old could no longer go to the office, she went outside to help people in need. "I brought injured people to the hospital. But that became more and more difficult because I had to cross a bridge to get there. And that bridge was under constant fire of Russian forces."

Dead bodies, corpses on the street and in homes - Sukhomlynova saw many of them. She will not forget these images. "No one dared to leave the houses anymore. Corpses lay in the flats and no one dared to bury them. The fear was too great that the relatives would be shot while taking the dead bodies to the street," she reports.

At the beginning of March, Kateryna took a pregnant woman to the hospital. The mother, who was expecting twins, wanted to take her three children, but Kateryna asked her to leave them with her neighbours. It was too risky to drive the children through the war zone. In tears, the mother said goodbye to her children. "At that moment, none of us knew if the children would ever see their mother again," says Kateryna.

At the hospital there was no incubator for the twins. It was too dangerous to go to another hospital and the doctors could only save one of the two babies. Or none. "That moment was terrible. I don't know if the mother survived. If the babies survived or if at least one got a chance at life. I had to move on," Kateryna reports.

At first, the former Malteser employee still had a car at her disposal, but at some point there was no more petrol available and she walked in order to help others. "There was smoke in a car at the side of the road. I looked inside and saw a man, he was dead. The woman next to him was badly injured. A 16-year-old girl was sitting on the side of the road. Looking closer, I saw that her hand was injured. When I went to bandage it, I discovered a hole in her neck. I remember wondering how she was even alive and holding her head. It was horrible," says Kateryna.

"No one can imagine what it is like to live in war unless they have experienced it themselves".

The girl's mother, who was sitting injured in the car, asked her to take care of the girl. And so Kateryna tore her jacket, made a bandage and took the girl her to the hospital. "We are in contact. She actually survived. A miracle." Sukhomlynova does not know what happened to the girl’s mother and her father’s body. Her daughter has also lost contact with her mother. When Sukhomlynova returned to the car, the body and the seriously injured woman were gone.

In mid-March, three weeks after the war broke out, Sukhomlynova had to leave the country for safety reasons. Together with her husband, their 17-year-old daughter and another family, they fled Mariupol in two cars. Her husband, like most men between the ages of 18 and 60, stayed in Ukraine. She crossed the Polish border with her daughter.

But she wants to go on. She is restless and driven by the desire to help the people in her homeland by reporting on the atrocities in Ukraine that she has personally experienced. So that this war will come to an end.

"No one can imagine what it is like to live in war unless they have experienced it themselves. Every film, every documentary shows only a fraction of what is actually happening. The reality is unimaginably cruel. But one day there will be peace again in Ukraine. As long as this war goes on, I will report on the faces of war," says Kateryna Sukhomlynova.

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