The right to a good death
In memory of my aunt Oleksandra from Mariupol,
whose burial place is unknown
Since February 24, I haven’t written any columns or essays about the war, only a few poems as reflections on it. For nearly a year now, I’ve carried all my thoughts and feelings inside me. I often return to a realization that hit me hard last spring and still lingers: it is a great gift to die one’s own death, rather than suffer torture, bullets, shells, explosions from mines, or have one’s heart torn apart by fear during bombardments. It is also a great gift to be buried in a Christian way, rather than in a communal grave or the forest. Although we knew from the history of our land and private family stories that there had been countless deaths like these before, we never thought that we would witness them happening again.
During this war, I often think of Mariupol, the city where my cousins, sister, their children and grandchildren, and other relatives reside. Mariupol was where I first saw the sea. I’m unsure when my parents took me to visit my mother’s oldest sister’s family, perhaps in 1985 or maybe it was my first visit after Chornobyl in August-September 1986. The distance from my aunt’s house to the sea was a little over a kilometer, so we often went to the beach to swim in the warm autumn sea. To get to deeper water, we had to walk a long way between very small waves. My dad taught me how to swim and showed me how to cup my hands, so that small fish could swim in them. We watched as they swam around in our hands and then released them, letting the tiny fish swim off into the open sea.
My uncle worked at Azovstal, the same plant that in 2022 became known worldwide and which today is virtually gone. But during my childhood, none of us knew that someday the plant, the city, and its people would be engulfed in active combat. We couldn’t have imagined that in the 21st century this peaceful seaside town would become the site of war, that the Russians would come here and before taking over the city, commit a series of terrorist acts and war crimes, effectively destroying Mariupol.
I never imagined that a major war would break out when I turned forty. I remember my birthday in late January 2022 and the strange feeling it brought: „I’m forty years old now, and everything that will happen from now on will be very different from before.“ You try to push it away, but it doesn’t go away. It reminds you of biblical allusions, and you think, „Maybe all future changes will only be positive? Maybe it’s just about finally living in peace on our promised land?“ I wanted so much not to think about a full-scale war, whose smell was already hanging in the air… But it started anyway.
I will probably remember forever the sounds of explosions at 5 am on February 24 – the whistling of a bomber plane over my house several days later; the trials of a cellar as a hiding place during shelling (I even dozed off in it for an hour), and the fever that spiked up to 38.6°C the next day. I remember sleeping on the floor in the hallway with blankets and sleeping bags, and the night spent in an unheated bomb shelter on a makeshift „bed“ of car tires and pallets. I remember the decision to leave Kyiv and the taxi that took me to the station for a thousand hryvnias, the additional train to Lviv, which allowed only women and children to board… I will never forget how I cried on the platform, not wanting to go anywhere and not knowing when I would be able to return home.
On February 24, I didn’t think to call my cousin in Mariupol to ask how he and his mother, my sick and bedridden aunt, were doing. I dialed his number a few days later, on February 27, but he was out of range… Viber showed that Vitaliy had been last active between 3 and 4 a.m. on February 26… I couldn’t reach him by phone in March when I came to Lviv. I didn’t know if my relatives were still alive. I told an acquaintance, „I don’t even know how to pray for them – as for the dead or as for the living?“ He replied, „Of course for the living. We must not lose hope.“
Every day I checked Viber to see if my cousin had appeared online. But the phone showed the same date – February 26. It wasn’t until the end of March that Vitaliy finally appeared on Viber, and we were able to get in touch. It turned out that he had fled his home under fire and made his way to a village near Mariupol, but the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” had already made their way there. The area where he lived – the one near Azovstal on the left bank – was being heavily shelled. The quiet area with yards planted with fruit trees, where you had to be careful not to step on a ripe apricot or apple on the way to the sea. The wide beaches with sprawling willows, under which you could hide from the scorching sun, ceased to be safe. From there, you had to flee to save your life. But to get to the corridor towards Zaporizhzhia, you had to cross the whole city. It was impossible to do under fire, so my cousin went where he had some chance of getting to.
„And what about mom? How is your mom doing?“ I asked.
On March 6 she passed away. I never quite understood if it happened during or after the shelling, and I stopped asking. Aunt Oleksandra had said she was terrified, and perhaps her heart couldn’t take it anymore. During the bombardment, they couldn’t bury her properly, so they just carried her body to the nearby kindergarten and covered it with stones. Apparently, they didn’t have the means or opportunity to dig up the frozen earth and give her a proper burial.
A month later, my cousin was finally able to return home quickly, gather documents and other necessary items. His mother’s body was still lying next to the kindergarten. When he came back to the city in mid-May, there was no trace of her body. We may never know in which communal grave they buried her after more than a month of decomposition,being left under a pile of stones near the kindergarten.
As I write this text, I keep looking at Mariupol on Google Maps. Here’s my relative’s house, and about two hundred meters away is the nearest kindergarten. Perhaps this was my aunt’s final resting place that we know something about. Meanwhile, the nearest cemetery is also quite close to the house. It’s only half a kilometer away… But she didn’t even have a funeral…
Near the cemetery is a church – the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael. The last time I was in Mariupol, my aunt and I went there for Liturgy. And now, one can only wander through these streets on a map and remember how peaceful and sunny they once were and how they will never be the same again.
I want to see Mariupol on Google Maps from a satellite, to glimpse my relatives‘ home, Azovstal, and the surrounding areas. However, the maps do not reflect reality. They show Mariupol in its entirety, with all houses, factory workshops, religious buildings, and even the drama theater intact and pleasing to the eye. I search current satellite images and photos under the #Mariupol hashtag on Twitter. Despite having seen numerous war photos that captured immense pain, rendering me unable to cry anymore, tears still well up in my eyes. It’s tears of anguish for a city that is almost vanquished, the tens of thousands of shattered lives, and the thousands of dead denied a peaceful, dignified death and proper burial. The relatives of these lost souls deserve the right to know where their loved ones rest. It pains me. It will always pain me.
Let this text serve as a tribute to Oleksandra. Born before World War II, she passed away during the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, and the whereabouts of her eternal rest remain unknown. I have withheld her surname to protect the part of her family still living in Mariupol.
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan