Mariupol to Montreal: Ukrainian mother escapes 'hell on Earth' with two daughters

Hanna Kovalenko was leading a comfortable lifestyle with her husband and two little girls in Mariupol, Ukraine, when suddenly her hometown became the epicentre of a full-scale war.

Since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, a once-peaceful city of nearly 500,000 people turned into rubble in a matter of weeks, forcing Kovalenko to begin a difficult journey to Quebec where she and her daughters received a warm welcome from a fellow Ukrainian family and the Montreal community of Pierrefonds.

LIFE IN MARIUPOL UNDER FIRE

On the morning of Feb. 24, Kovalenko recalls turning on the TV and seeing Kyiv being bombed live on air. Hours later, explosions from the screen were now in front of her eyes, as she watched the nearest district get bombarded from her ninth-floor apartment.

As the top floors of nearby buildings were obliterated by Russian missiles, Kovalenko brought her daughters, seven-year-old Sofiia and five-year-old Veronika, into the basement of her friend's house. "It was freezing cold, below minus 10, so we couldn't even take off our boots or winter coats while we were hiding in that tiny basement," she said.

"There was no electricity or Internet, so we were completely cut off from the rest of civilization," said Kovalenko, adding that she had no way of contacting her husband, who was working in Kyiv at the time.

Her daughters could only have five sips of water at a time, as the water supply in Mariupol was critically low. Since gas was no longer available, they had to make a fire outside under constant bombardments to warm up a meal.

"Why did we deserve this? We did not need to be 'liberated' — not once have I faced discrimination for speaking Russian in a city where most of us speak Russian, where we can choose what language to speak!" Kovalenko exclaimed, referring to Vladimir Putin's claim regarding "the discrimination of the Russian-speaking population" in eastern Ukraine earlier in February.

Around 21,000 civilians were killed in Mariupol during the 85-day siege, according to the port city's mayor Vadym Boychenko. This includes nearly 600 civilians who died in the Mariupol drama theatre from the Russian strike of two 500kg bombs — which Amnesty International has called a "clear war crime."

The once-lively streets had turned into a cemetery under a grey sky. Kovalenko recalls seeing graves next to shops and schools, with many of them missing information on who exactly was buried.

"I saw two little corpses covered by a blanket: two children who were killed by a missile inside their apartment. Some were leaving bodies on elevated surfaces so that at least they wouldn't be torn apart by hungry dogs — and this is in the 21st century," she added.

A HIGH-RISK JOURNEY TO SAFETY

As living conditions were becoming unbearable and resources were scarce, Kovalenko decided to escape the warzone with her daughters. On March 17, as Russian troops marched down the streets of Mariupol with assault rifles, Kovalenko got into her small car and drove her girls out of the city.

The path towards Ukrainian-controlled land was "a near-death experience," as Kovalenko remembers Russian soldiers shooting at the rows of cars full of civilians as they tried to exit the city. Most of the damaged vehicles had signs on them saying "CHILDREN" in Russian.

"Some of the cars behind me were missing a roof, others were missing doors and a windshield," she explained.

Just like all civilians evacuating from the area, Kovalenko had to pass through numerous Russian checkpoints in the occupied region of southeastern Ukraine. Soldiers searched her vehicle each time and checked her phone for any images or messages that would negatively portray the Russian army.

Six days later, Kovalenko reached the city of Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine. She stayed in the region for nearly a month while waiting for her biometric data to be updated so she could apply for a visa to her final destination: Canada.

After many delays, the family received the temporary visa, known as the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel, in Poland. Kovalenko and her children then flew to Toronto and finally landed in Montreal on May 24.

A WARM WELCOME IN CANADA

Lyudmyla Peregudova and her husband Oleg Peregudov welcomed the family into their home in Pierrefonds, in the West Island of Montreal. Also originally from Mariupol, Peregudova came in contact with Kovalenko through a common family friend and did not hesitate to provide them with a safe place to stay.

"If the roles were reversed, I'm sure they would've done the same, as it is our duty as Ukrainians to help each other in these horrifying times," she said. Moreover, Peregudova noted that support came from outside of the Ukrainian community as well.

As the owner of Atelier Chic, a tailoring and clothes repair service in Mount Royal, Peregudova managed to transform her business into a local hub for donations with the help of her clients for the many Ukrainian families in need, including Kovalenko and her daughters.

Some have contributed financially, while others have donated clothing, mattresses, beds, toys, gift cards, and even gymnastics apparel for Kovalenko's oldest daughter Sofiia, a gymnastics champion of the Donetsk region who wishes to pursue her passion while staying in Montreal.

"All Canadians came together as a community, and I cannot thank them enough for their generosity," said Peregudova.

To better integrate into a new society, Kovalenko will start taking French-language courses next week, while also making sure that Sofiia finishes Grade 1 as soon as possible. Kovalenko said she wishes to eventually find a place of her own in Montreal, as it remains uncertain when the family will be able to return home.

"Our home has been completely wiped out, there is no Mariupol anymore," said Kovalenko, confirming the statement of Ukraine's Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba from April that "the city doesn't exist anymore."

The war in Ukraine has now lasted 130 days, with no clear end in sight. However, Kovalenko and her daughters can now live under a peaceful sky, hoping that one day, normal life will return to their home country as well.

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