Oksana Stomina: ‘This is medieval cruelty boosted by modern technology and driven by the sick ambitions of a madman’
Today Mariupol is practically the most discussed topic, ‘The City of the Shot Virgin’ as it is now known, is practically the most discussed topic due to the tragedy that occurred here. Mariupol became the symbol of Russia’s genocide on Ukraine. It is called the 21st century Gernika and has been compared to Syria’s Aleppo, the destruction of which Russia was also involved in.
Blood runs cold and chills go up your spine when you hear eyewitness stories about the horrors of war in one of the most beautiful cities of our Azov region.
It is impossible to imagine how Oksana Stomina survived this. Oksana is a short, fragile, but surprisingly courageous woman; a poet, a civil activist, and a volunteer.
When you talk to her, despite everything she has survived, you see and feel the courage and unbreakable willpower inherent in this amazing contemporary of ours.
Oksana’s story is a true document of the day — evidence of crimes against humanity in the centre of the European continent in the 21st century. Proof of the fact that there may be no excuse for Russia’s crimes, no compromise with Putin's war criminals.
You have said that in recent days there became ‘less’ of you. What did you mean?
My jeans don’t fit me. But, probably not because of a lack of food or anything. I mean that I got older in those days. As my daughter said “I only hoped that you are small and hard to hit.” It’s probably why I became even smaller: to be harder to target (smiling — Auth.). Somehow, I think so.
Are you a native resident of Mariupol?
Yes, I was born in Mariupol, my entire family lives in Mariupol, my grandparents are buried there. My daughter was born there. You know, she helped me a lot to survive those days of the tragedy: it seemed that she was holding my hand that entire time. Even when there was no connection I thought I felt her presence. Then she helped us leave, arranged a route, and learned where it was safer to go. Although really,safety was out of the question when we discussed Mariupol and the roads leading out. You know, it’s all measured on a scale between ‘very dangerous’ and ‘complete disaster’. It was more or less like that.
How does Mariupol look now?
Recently we have done a lot of things in the city, built a lot. I love Mariupol. I always said that each person builds their own city around themselves. And I was building this city my entire life — gathered the brightest people whom I can trust, searched for interesting historical places, and certain information about it.
The city is completely ruined.
I did something for this city and it always did something for me. And now you can say that it is levelled. There are no intact places there: a hit here, a fire there. Almost every building was damaged. The city is completely ruined…
What exactly did you have to do to survive?
We lived close to the war for eight years, and we got used to that — something is always happening. But the things I saw this time could not be compared to anything. It was a horror movie plot, in which the role of bloodthirsty Dracula is played by Putin and his soldiers who somehow decided that it is okay to kill people in such quantities. It is horrible, it is medieval cruelty, multiplied by modern possibilities and sick, maniacal ambitions.
When and how did you leave Mariupol?
I left Mariupol on March 16th and we were travelling for too long. I got here probably on March 20th or 21st.
My husband literally forced me to get in the car.
We were travelling for so long because we were leaving as a group of four cars. One was completely damaged, there was literally no spotintact in it. Another was an old ‘Zhiguli’ belonging to our parents. My husband gave that car to a young family to provide them with an opportunity to leave.
There were many of us, although I did not count, several families, many children. We left suddenly. We had delayed packing our things for a while, but then my husband’s brother’s family ran out of patience. They could not survive it all so they packed their bags, got into the car and came to take me. My husband insisted that I should go, he literally forced me into the car. He did not even allow me to go up to our flat and so I left with a minimum of things, with a tiny five litre shoulder bag. I left my laptop with notes (I don’t think I would have gotten away with it if I was stopped at a checkpoint). Although, I did take our Mariupol souvenir — it is always with me, it is a tiny copy of a tetrapod. They used to be erected in the city to strengthen the coastline, so these grey structures were painted and later, as a symbol of Mariupol, the tetrapods became a popular souvenir.
I would have probably remained because I thought I had to be there while there was a hope, while I could do something for someone, for my Mariupolers…
However, on the day I left it was already clear that the people who remained, I don’t mean the military, but civilians like myself, they are no longer useful, in fact, they are in a way obstructing the military.
What do you know about the people who remained in the city?
There are many people whose fate we don’t know for sure. Several days ago there was news which is not yet confirmed, and we pray and hope that the confirmation won’t come, about the grandma of the wife of the man who brought me out. The grandma remained at home, she almost never went outside, she could not move on her own. When she was home the house burned down and we currently don’t know what happened to her…
“He died twice…”
There are many such stories. Recently I learned that our friend, a very cool, decent, honest, fair man, an extremely good man, Vitya Dedov, who worked on the local TV channel ‘Sigma’, died in the kitchen of his own house. Moreover, he died twice. Because there was almost no opportunity to bury people, his body remained in the house for two or three days, and then his house was hit again and it burned down. His relatives were already in the shelter, they went up to the building which was already in flames, but they could not open the doors, and Victor’s body burned with the building…
“You need to talk about the war only in this way: about specific stories of people, first-hand stories.”
Such are the stories, really terrible. You know, it seems to me that you need to talk about the war only in this way: about individual stories, not about general figures, not even about the number of dead. This is because if people do not perceive it through themselves, if they do not compare it to themselves or to their relative’s life, by and large it is all the same for them: be it ten people or one person or hundreds. One would not even imagine the scale. However, when you tell how a bomb fell in your neighbor’s yard, how your acquaintance’s husband’s or father’s hand was ripped off by shrapnel, how he took that hand and went to search for a hospital… and that nobody saw him after that… Those are eyewitness stories. Those are real facts.
I want to say that those horrible people, those animals, they did not just kill, they chased and then killed. For example, when a theatre, or a pool, or an art school was hit, those were the places — and everyone knew it — containing the people who already lost their homes. There were wounded people, mothers with children, there were newborn babies and people with disabilities from the districts that were shelled first, whom we saved from the Left Bank, from the Eastern neighbourhood. They were chased more than once, and still they tried to kill them. Just as they tried again and again to kill people who were trying to leave the city.
My friend, with whom I worked in a volunteer centre, took a car with her family through the so-called ‘green corridor’ and the car was hit, five people were wounded and a child is still in intensive care. This is a deliberate destruction of people. This is not war, this is murder.
When it all started in Kyiv, Kharkiv, I’ll be honest, I had a moment’s thought: let it come to Mariupol already. Because we already knew how it will happen. Let them hit us instead of the entire country. We are here, we are on the border, we are prepared, we strengthened the Eastern borders of the city and Ukraine at the same time. But, of course, I had no idea what it would be like…
“We have angered them.”
Why Mariupol? We all understood that our city has strategic importance. Also, perhaps, we have angered them. Because we were holding on, developing even during the war, the city was getting bigger and better, we talked about it with pride. You know, while it was all going on, I thought: who are those people who are coming to destroy?
I am a resident of a city near the sea. I always had a certain image of the sea. There are people, children and adults, who build sand castles, and there is always someone who ruins those castles. The better the castle, the more eager someone is to destroy it.
It must be in their nature, probably, the things we built and our life made them lose their sleep…
“My first books about the war are translated in several languages.”
How did the war affect your creativity?
I already wrote about the war and published books. They were translated into several languages.
When the war began in 2014, I started writing about it a year later. For almost a year I was in a stupor, I couldn’t write poetry. I still do not write poetry, only prose. I began writing poems in the shelter, in complete darkness: we were saving energy because we had nothing in the city, it was a real ecological disaster. We were saving flashlights and batteries and power packs for them, saving matches. We were mostly in complete darkness, and in it I was writing blind, making notes, because I believed it was very important. But currently it is only prose.
A few more details about your books, please. I know that some of them were illustrated by Anastasia Ponomareva.
I have various books, about the war in particular, also poems — in Ukrainian, in Russian. There are books for children, too. Nastya illustrated the guide books — one for Mariupol, another one for Ukraine. I love history, I even took part in an archaeological dig in Mariupol, so I wanted as many people as possible to learn that Mariupol is a very interesting city, especially people who moved here, and the children who grow up here but don't know a lot about their native city. And we made play guides — books in which you can write, fill in something, make notes…
Interview by Leonid Golberg. Translation by Vitaliy Konkin and Tanya Karliychuk.
Oksana Stomina is a poet and activist from Mariupol. She lives for poetry, always smiles and is full of ideas. She inspires with her empathy and her ability to do everything sincerely.
She currently lives in Truskavets, due to the war.
Her love for the harmony of rhymed words and literature was given to Oksana by her parents. She grew up with her mum’s wonderful poems. It is interesting that the first book published by Oksana, together with her sister Yulia, was a collection of their rmother’s poems for children, which they memorised and rec reated easily. Oksana's father writes light and ironic prose. He is the author of a very interesting book about his first trip abroad — to Israel.
Oksana Stomina is a primary school teacher, mathematician and psychologist. Since childhood, she dreamed of being a teacher, but, in her words, “man expects — God decides…”. As a result, she also got involved in insurance and advertising.
She was painfully aware of the events of the 2014 war and the current full-scale Russian invasion. She is currently working on a book in which she wants to write about what she had experienced and seen, about the tragedies of the people around her.
The writer emphasises “This is our history that needs to be preserved”, even while she contributes to Ukraine’s victory, and to the broader victory of peace over war:
Each one of us is just a Universe’s atom.
I know. But those eyes to adore…
God, if you need a soldier made of him,
Give him a chance to return from the war.
God! Among the madness that takes my breath,
There is no place for cause and reason.
So, if he will be a step away from Death,
Let him look away from this country’s son!
Somewhere behind the wall of dream the cuckoos keep silent,
And there is no sun under the faith’s shards.
But let him be saved from bullets violent!
God, send him an angel that would keep guard!
If you really need him for anything so odd,
Which is not punished by your right hand?
Let him make the first shot, oh God!
And… forgive him when it all ends.”