A man with light brown hair wearing a tan HI vest stands in front of a white wall

'You could feel the ground vibrating, the windows shaking'

Mykola Havrylets is Humanity & Inclusion's explosive ordnance risk education supervisor in Ukraine. He reflects on the losses he's experienced after one year of conflict and the work he's doing to protect his fellow Ukrainians.

A week before February 24, there was constant discussion with friends and relatives that the situation was getting worse. We were all frustrated, but most of my acquaintances never believed that a situation like this could happen. On February 23, I was sitting in a coffee shop with my friends until late in the evening. We were drinking coffee and talking about whether something bad might happen. I couldn't sleep until 3 a.m. I woke up at half past 5 to the sound of explosions. I'm a heavy sleeper but the explosions were so powerful.

I lived in the city center of Mariupol. The explosions started on the outskirts of the city, but they were loud and you could feel the ground vibrating and the windows shaking. It was very clear: the war had begun.

We didn't know what to do for the first half of the day. I called my relatives and I asked them if they were planning to leave the city. They wanted everybody to leave together. Some of my relatives refused to leave and even invited me to come stay with them instead. I called my younger brother, packed my bags and went to meet him. I only took the items that I usually take with me on work trips: my traveling backpack and a pack with documents. Nothing more. I was absolutely sure that I would be back in a week.

Searching for safety

There were explosions continuing all around the city. My friends and I decided to meet in Zaporizhzhya. At first, my brother did not want to come and I argued with him, trying to convince him of the dangers if he stayed. He didn’t believe the city would become as damaged as it eventually came to be, but he agreed to join after his work said they were evacuating everyone the next day.

We got in the car and headed out of town. When we came to the checkpoint nobody was stopping the cars. There were servicemen waving us through: "Go, quickly, go!" At that moment, as we were passing through the checkpoint, shooting and shelling started around us. The men were running and shouting. They were shooting all around them. I had just gotten my driver's license earlier that year, but I couldn't practice because I didn't own a car. So this moment, with my brother, his wife, and their 1-year-old child was my first time ever driving on a highway. There were explosions and shootings all around us, with hits from a cannon nearby. It was unclear what the men were shooting at, but it seemed to be at one of the cars in the line behind us. The car flew past us, and I hit the gas pedal, trying to drive away as quickly as possible.

We met friends in a nearby town and traveled together in a line of three cars to Zaporizhzhya, where we stayed for a few weeks.

Leaving loved ones behind

My father, grandmother, and my older brother with his family all stayed in Mariupol. They couldn't leave in time. My mother was staying in a town nearby. My father didn't want to leave because of my grandmother, who is over 90 years old, blind and immobile. For years, I have received job opportunities to move abroad or to another town to earn more money, but I always refused because I wanted to stay near to my dear grandmother, who is very important to me. I knew she could pass away at any moment, so I wanted to stay near her, in case I needed to reach her quickly.

My worst fears came true. She passed away a few months ago, when I was gone and couldn't be with her. It’s exactly what I was afraid of. The war was one of the reasons for her passing. It was a great stress for her. She lived in a ninth-floor apartment with my father. There was no light in the city, and my father couldn't carry her to a safe place on his own. So, she stayed in the apartment—one of the last to remain standing while the rest of the district was burned to the ground. There was no connection or way to reach her loved ones. She didn't know what was happening to us, or where we were. She couldn't see anything. She could only hear missiles exploding nearby every day, and aerial bombs flying around. Because of this, her health deteriorated. Maybe she would have lived longer if not for all this.

I got a tattoo in her honor. It’s the symbol of Mariupol and her favorite flower. She loved chamomiles very much. Then, the letter “M” is in the middle for Maria, her name. My grandmother was a very religious person. She couldn't see and couldn't move; she spent most of her time praying. She kept praying during the shellings.

My father is still in Mariupol. He tried to find a job, but he hasn’t gotten paid. I try to send some money, but the prices are much higher there now.

I know a lot of people who were able to leave the city, who survived somehow. At the same time, I know a lot of people who died. My friends, colleagues, people I grew up with, many of them are gone.

Facing long-term impact

Since 2015 I’ve been losing friends due to the armed conflict. I think emotionally, this has made me more resilient to what happened after February 24, 2022, and it both fueled me and allowed me to carry on with my job. My father lost his best friend, who I’d known since childhood. He was under great stress from the conflict and he was diabetic. One day he had an epileptic seizure alone in his apartment. He died because no one was there to help him since everyone else had left the city.

To avoid similar incidents today, we are trying to inform people of these risks and help them keep as many people safe as possible. This way we can protect our loved ones.

I miss my home. I miss being near the sea. At the moment, I'm just dying to see my relatives in person and to hug them, as we haven't seen each other almost for a year. In the current situation, it seems like we won't see each other for a long time. There is a risk of never seeing each other again. The only person I can hug right now is my younger brother.

Read our Q&A with Mykola about HI's explosive ordnance risk education in Ukraine.