Dozens of Jewish families manage to flee besieged city of Mariupol

‘Mariupol looks like Chernobyl,’ says Vika Korotkova, who spent 2 weeks in shelters with husband, daughter; Viktoria Smyrnova makes contact after two weeks without internet

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Vika and Ksiusha Korotkova in Mariupol, Ukraine in September 2021, on the day Ksiusha left for Israel. (Courtesy: Alina Gryadchenko)
Vika and Ksiusha Korotkova in Mariupol, Ukraine in September 2021, on the day Ksiusha left for Israel. (Courtesy: Alina Gryadchenko)

Several dozen Jewish families have managed to flee Russian-besieged Mariupol and the surrounding area, with one telling The Times of Israel that “Mariupol looks like Chernobyl.”

Vika Korotkova, her husband Sasha, and daughter Sofia were among those who managed to get out on Wednesday, reaching the city of Zaporizhzhia.

On Thursday, they were heading for Dnipro, some 300 kilometers (185 miles) to the northwest of Mariupol, where Sasha has two aunts.

The Korotkova’s elder daughter, Ksiusha, flew to Israel in September within the framework of the Jewish Agency’s Naale program for high school students from the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. Ksiusha, 14, is studying at a religious school in Jerusalem.

On March 8, Vika risked her life to drive to a location where there was still telephone reception to get a message to Ksiusha saying the family was still alive.

A second message from Vika, conveyed several days later and far more macabre, said the family’s food would run out in two days, and that Ksiusha should always remember that she had a little sister.

Ksiusha Korotkova shows the new Israeli passport given to her on arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in September 2021. (Courtesy: Alina Gryadchenko)

Some 400,000 people are currently trapped in Mariupol, located in southeastern Ukraine. Under a brutal Russian siege, with ongoing air attacks and shelling, many are without water, food, electricity, or heating.

At least 2,500 residents have been killed, according to the local authorities — likely an underestimate.

On Tuesday, some 20,000 people managed to leave the encircled city through a humanitarian corridor agreed with Russian forces.

On Wednesday, the Korotkovas, who have been moving between basements for the past two weeks, spontaneously decided to visit Vika’s mother and brother in the city and were amazed to discover that the roads were relatively quiet.

As Vika Korotkova explained to The Times of Israel by telephone, they decided on the spot to flee Mariupol, although her brother was too frightened to go with them, and so Vika’s mother decided to stay behind with him, in her home’s basement.

Vika, Sasha, and Sophia made it through Mariupol, amidst the sounds of gunshots in the distance, entering districts controlled by Russian forces, where there was electricity and Russians were giving out food and candies. They managed to leave the city safely.

Evacuees from Mariupol arrive at the car park of a shopping center on the outskirts of the city of Zaporizhzhia, which is now a registration center for displaced people, on March 16, 2022. Exhausted, shivering evacuees speak of harrowing escape journeys and rotting corpses littering the streets. (Emre Caylak/AFP)

Vika, who is Jewish, said the family wants to emigrate to Israel, but needs to check how long it would take before Sasha, who is not Jewish, would be allowed to go too. Until the war, non-Jews could immigrate to Israel if they had been married to a Jew for at least a year. With Aliyah in mind even before the war, Vika and Sasha had officially wed in December.

“Mariupol looks like Chernobyl,” Vika said. “Only five percent of the buildings are left, at most.”

Asked about the family’s health, Vika said that Sophia and Sasha were fine and that when the family’s food had started to run out, they had located supplies in the Mariupol synagogue.

Vika herself is unwell, however. Before the war, she was receiving hospital treatment for a medical condition, but that stopped after the Russians attacked.

Elsewhere, Viktoria Smirnova, who spoke with The Times of Israel during the tense period that led up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, contacted this reporter by Whatsapp on Thursday to say that she was still in a village near Mariupol.

Electricity and water had just been restored after two weeks without either, she said.

Viktoria Smyrnova and son Mark. (Courtesy)

“I’ve had no internet,” said Viktoria, who in 2014 fled to Mariupol from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine after Russian-backed separatists declared independence from Ukraine.

“Every day, we hear the warplanes flying overhead and the sounds of bombs exploding in residential areas,” she wrote. “Eighty percent of Mariupol has already been ruined, yet they [the Russians] continue to bomb and their warships in the Azov Sea are shooting in all directions.”

A woman and children take cover in a school bomb shelter in Sartana village, 17 kilometers (11 miles) northeast of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine, which is controlled by the Government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, on March 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)

The Azov Sea is an internal sea connected to the Black Sea by a strait running through the border between the Crimean peninsula and Russia.

Smirnova, 37, has a son, Mark, and a husband, Ivan. Ivan would not be allowed to leave Ukraine because all men aged 18 to 60 need to remain in case they are needed for the war effort.

She said that Mariupol’s Chabad Rabbi Mendel Cohen, who is currently in Israel, was sending food and financial help to the Jewish community and arranging free shelter for those driving out to safer cities.

Cohen, who has also been in touch with the Korotkovas, was relieved Thursday to hear of that family’s escape.

“Thank God,” he said by phone from Israel. “They’ve managed to get out of hell.”

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