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Editor and Contributing Writer

Photograph: Marina Suponina-Calland

(Editor’s Note: Marina Suponina-Calland has written a letter to Opelousas residents Bruce Gaudin and his wife Bernadette Gaudin detailing her thoughts about the current war in Ukraine. Suponina-Calland formerly of Mariupol, Uknraine, is living in England with husband Tim Calland and her mother that she rescued in March.

Marina-Suponina has provided St. Landry Now with permission to print her current letter e-mailed to the Gaudin family. She provided St. Landry now with a recent update that is at the end of this letter.)

Dear Bruce and Bernie,
I am so impressed and grateful for all the work you do to both raise awareness about the war in Ukraine and now for the fundraising too. 

Your personal contribution will make a huge difference, added to all the funds raised, I am confident it will make the lives of many Ukrainian refugees a lot more comfortable. 

So many of my friends are now refugees, I cannot tell you and all of them rely on the volunteers, local governments and local and international organizations. 

You will remember the Mariupol newspaper I wrote for when I lived with you: a local youth paper “Hi, Guys!” – the one which printed a photo of your house? 

The paper’s editor, Lyudmila Kasatkina is also a refugee. I spoke to her on the phone a few days ago and her story made me and my mum cry. 

Her flat was located on the “Left Bank” of Mariupol – on the east side of the now famous Azovstal still plant – the last stronghold of the Ukrainians in the city. It was the first area to be attacked by the Russians. 

On the 23rd of February, one day before the war started, Lyudmila went to the hairdressers. As she was having her hair cut and blow-dried, the talk in the salon was of war. 

“Gosh, you may not need this nice hair, the war will start soon!”

“No! Never! They won’t, will they?”

They did. In the first couple of days the shelling and air bombing started.

All the windows of her flat were blown out. The heating was cut off (it’s properly centralized still. No individual boilers. The whole neighborhoods get heating from once source). It was -14C (6.8F) outside, so maybe -7C (44.6F) inside. And no windows to keep the cold winds out.

“I moved into my hallway, covering myself up with all the clothes and blankets I had. I even rolled myself into a rug. It was so cold, I had to break the ice to get drinking water from a bowl.” she recalled. There was no
electricity either. No way of boiling a kettle.

She stayed in her flat for ten days. At the beginning her neighbors tried to block the windows, to make the flat feel warmer. They piled books onto windowsills, her collection of Russian literature. But that didn’t last long. “I thought I would die there and then. [The bombing] was relentless, so scary. After a few days I stopped worrying about the rockets, but the air bombs frightened me.”

Then a couple of neighbors showed up and urged her to go to the building’s cellar. 

You need to understand, that those cellars were not built as shelters. They are small, dirty, with low ceilings, lots of rusting pipes all over the place: “At some point, the ceiling was so low, I had to crawl on my stomach
through the dirt to get to a bigger “room”. The place stunk. It was full of people, pets. People were burning oil lamps. Strings of fabric, dipped in the cooling oil.”

The atmosphere there was not very nice either. People of different upbringing and background, crammed together in a tiny, cold space, scared for their lives with scarce food supplied didn’t get on. Kasatkina, the
intellectual, was not too welcomed. 

“They called me The Professor and put me near the toilets (a bucket in the corner of the cellar). I lived next to these people for so many years, I didn’t realize they disliked me that much. It was proper prison rules.”

“One couple had their parrot there and they spent days trying to teach it to talk: Kesha say Daddy give me some sugar! Give me some sugar! Give me some sugar!”

At the beginning people were coming outside to cook. They set up a griddle near the house’s entrance and made tea, porridge, boiled potatoes. But then one man was killed by a rocket, while they were cooking, so people moved the cooking facilities inside the building. There were no windows, it was well ventilated, and they put a metal cupboard to protect themselves from the shrapnel.

The shelling was so fierce, the concrete ceilings were shaking. Dust falling in between the cracks: “I was sitting there for days, hoping I would get\ killed in one go, so I didn’t have to wait for my death for too long.” 

Dirty, cold, and thirsty, she spent two weeks or so in the seller. It was too dangerous to leave. Shelling, shooting, rockets. Nonstop. Day and night.

Water was hard to get by.  “We were allocated 1.5l (1/3 of a gallon) between two people for two days. We were all dehydrated. Thankfully we were still able to boil some water on the open fire to keep warm.”

“We had no connection with the outside world. Most mobile telephone masts were destroyed. Once every few days a neighbor, a radio enthusiast, would come over to tell us scraps of news he heard on his home-made radio.”

On the 23rd of March, soldiers from the DNR (one of the “republics” created by Russia in Eastern Ukraine) appeared in their seller and told them to get out, because “all hell will get loose here soon”. Lyudmila and all her inmates climbed outside. 

“To get out of the cellar, you had to pull up. There was no easy way to do it. My arms were shaking. I asked my neighbor to help me. He told me to do it myself.” She climbed out to see the devastation. 

She went to her flat – everything was in shreds: fabrics, books, appliances, plastic objects – shreds. She found her old smart phone – it was turned into a plastic mesh. But her second pair of glasses and a laptop, which she kept in the hallway survived. She already had her bag of essentials with her – some documents and some medicine. The rest was ruined. She was now homeless.

Lyudmila came down and sat in the communal stairwell. Many people left. She then saw her other neighbors – before the war, they just done up their ground floor flat – now it was also devastated. But they built a personal cellar near it, this is where they were sheltering with another family. They were planning to stay in Mariupol. They apologized; they didn’t have a place for her. 

“I didn’t care. I said, give me some potatoes and I will just sit here, on the stairs! I didn’t have a car and I was too weak to walk to the filtration camp in the east, especially as all the roads were covered in rubble. “
But they wanted to help her. The Left Bank is in the East part of Mariupol, closest to the occupied Donbass and to Russia. 

They went to the main road east. Loads of cars were heading that way. Those that survived the shelling. One after another. None stopped. The neighbour lay on the road to stop the traffic. One car stopped. “Please take this granny with you!” he said.

In the front seats sat a man and a woman, with their 17-y.o. son at the back. A huge dog sat next to the son. Next to the dog sat a granny with a cat. They put Kasatkina on their laps, pushing her legs in and closed the door. “Like a fetus”. 

The man has just survived a stroke. The woman was constantly crying. She just buried her mother in the flowerbed of their high-rise house. They were escaping the city. 

Thus, she made it to the first camp. She needed to speak to her son and to a friend. Her phone was dead, but she asked one of the men in military uniforms\ for help. They used their phone to call her son: “This is the Security Service of the DNR (the fake “republics”) they introduced themselves.” 

“We couldn’t speak for too long after such an introduction. I just said I was alive and going East.” 

She travelled like that – from one place to the next, in crammed and uncomfortable minibuses and trains until she reached Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea. She was questioned by some Russian security personnel – the KGB types.

“They constantly checked and re-checked our papers. I used to be pro Russia. I am Russian myself. But I hated them all now. I was trying to explain to them that their city could be in ruins too and how it felt. All they could say was – what a few windows blown?” 

There is almost nothing left of Mariupol now!  

A local journalist greeted her in Astrakhan. “How do you like it here?”

“I shouted at him: we all have one question: WHY?” He stopped asking.

By then all of us, her former youth correspondents created a Telegram group called Save Kasatkina and a few were organizing her escape from Russia. Through their personal network contacts and with the help of local volunteers, who risked being arrested for helping Ukrainians, they sorted a ticket to St Petersburg for her, then found people who would take care of her and put her on a bus to Estonia and then from there
to Helsinki.

She is an older woman, her eyesight is terrible. Her asthma flared up after days in a dirty and dusty cellar in the middle of a war zone. She had no access to medicine. She lost her home and all her possessions and had to travel halfway across Russia to safety in Finland.

In Helsinki, more volunteers helped her find a place to stay, got her to see a doctor and got her a smart phone! We could now speak to her again! This is how I learned her story. 

I sat there, listing to her, thinking of the horrors of war. How it brings the worst. How desperate need makes us all very selfish, cruel even. And yet some manage to keep their humanity.

Look at me with my humanist and liberal values, I delight in every burned Russian tank and sunken warship. I do not think of the young men going to their death. I only see the enemy who burns and bombs and rapes and kills.

Look at those people in the cellar, who bullied her. Couldn’t even give her a hand to climb out of it when it was safe to do so. All those cars driving past her.

There were of course nice people. When they were hiding in the cellar, the only source of fresh water was from a solar panel powered pump at a private home nearby. The owner gave water to everyone. People offered to pay him, but he refused to take their money or food. Even the “DNR Security Service”, who let her use their phone to call her son. And all those volunteers who help people cross the borders and find homes. 

But wars turn most of us turn into animals. Like the Russians in Chechnya and in Bucha, like the Americans in Mai Lai. It is surprising we get on so well otherwise. 

The Russians in Mariupol now opened one school. I think there are only two that weren’t bombed out of 69. They launched an academic year there, following the Russian curriculum, a Russian flag waiving from the roof. The curriculum where Russia is great and Ukrainians are under-humans. 

They also surrounded the Azovstal steelworks. A couple of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and around a thousand civilians are hiding in the underground tunnels there, starving, the wounded dying of sepsis and loss of blood. That will soon be a mass grave. 

I watched a video of a drive through the city on a Russian newspaper website. I could barely recognise it. Before the 24th of February it was a thriving, be it not too attractive industrial town with kids going to school and their parents to work. Now I can barely recognise its main streets. 

Putin continues to hold the world hostage, threatening a nuclear war. This is totally insane. I feel fearful, and angry. Very, very angry. 

This will go on for a long time. Without weapons for the Ukrainians more cities will fall like Mariupol. But the fate of the world is decided in Moscow not just on a battlefield. Russia has many weapons and many more men to use them. The solution lies in the change of government there. 

There will be no revolution in Russia, the majority of Russian citizens support this war. Those who don’t are arrested and thrown in prison. The only way is for Putin to go. So it’s either death or a palace coup. 

Till that happens Ukraine must stand and fight. So, it is still all about weapons and financial support for Ukraine, catastrophic sanctions for Russia, so Putin’s cronies feel they are better off without him, and about support for the refuges. Because, boy, there are a lot of them – millions – everywhere! 

The West must have the nerve to deal with this too. Even when the petrol/gas prices go up. This is a challenge like no other. 

With lots of love, Marina x


Updated Note from Marina
You need to know that since I wrote this email to Bruce, most of the civilians were rescued from Azovstal and returned to mainland Ukraine with the help of international aid organizations. 

The wounded Ukrainian soldiers and their comrades remain in the surrounded Azovstal  steelworks’ tunnels. They ran out of wound dressings and many are dying in great pain. The Ukrainian authorities are trying to get them out but with no success. The Russians continue to bomb the plant. 

Mariupol is all but occupied. There is still no water, sanitation or electricity there. The residents that remained by choice or because they couldn’t get out are working for food. They are clearing the rubble,
funding dozens of dead under it. 

Russian TV using the city as a major propaganda tool, often showing footage from other East Ukrainian cities as an example of a “thriving Mariupol after “the Nazis” were cleared out”. 

My mum still hasn’t heard from half a dozen of her friends. We do not know if they are dead of alive. Though most got out either to the Ukrainian side or to the Russian. There was not much choice where to go, the occupants didn’t leave people choice. It is estimated that over a million of Ukrainians were forced to go to Russia. 

Lyudmila described how in Taganrog – a border Russian town people and the first place most Ukrainians got sent to, daily trains too them to various Russian regions – no one was asked if they wanted to go:
Arkhangelsk, Magadan, the Far East, Cheboksary, Saransk, Kazan. A few, like her, manage to escape, helped by friends and local volunteers. But there is a clampdown on the helpers. It’s getting more dangerous to
help Ukrainians. 

 I feel angry and helpless. Like all Ukrainians I know I help the war effort and Ukrainian refugees. I also try to share the news from my homeland far and wide. 

I hope my letters help Americans understand just what kind of evil we deal with here. They bomb us, say we did it to ourselves and then come and “save” us from their own war. It makes me sick. 
With best wishes, Marina