All seemed hopeless until a "person sent by God" appeared on the scene.
Two Catholic priests led a convoy of about 100 cars out of Mariupol and its environs earlier this month, witnessing scenes they would not wish anyone to see but thankful for up to 300 lives that were saved.
Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, is in the Ukrainian Oblast of Donetsk. It has been under siege for two weeks by the Russian military and soldiers of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a breakaway area in the Eastern Donbas region.
Fr. Pavlo Tomaszewski, one of the two priests, described the ordeal in a Zoom meeting Friday morning organized by the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need, which has financially supported his monastery in Mariupol. Along with a third priest, who had left Mariupol earlier for medical treatment in Poland, they are members of the Latin-rite Congregation of St. Paul the First Hermit.
Fr. Tomaszewski explained how his small community had tried to remain in the city in the first week or so of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began February 24. They continued to offer Mass for the Catholic community there.
But the situation changed dramatically when fighting moved from the eastern outskirts of the city to its center. Frustrated with the lack of progress against the Ukrainian military, Russian forces began bombing the sources of electricity and water, knowing it would cut off the basics for survival, and attacking civilian areas. That included the district where the Pauline monastery is — a prominent location that “would make a good target,” the priest said.
The two clerics lost all contact with parishioners and the outside world.
“For four days they bombed and shot with hardly a break,” Fr. Tomaszewski said. “I’ve never experienced anything like this before. We had no cellar to hide in. “The shooting and bombing were so nerve-wracking. The whole house was shaking.”
He said it was impossible to go out to visit parishioners. In fact, three women did go out to look for water but were shot dead. The other priest tried to get to the eastern part of the city, but everything was blocked. It was clear they wouldn’t be able to help any of their parishioners. The town was in chaos, with many citizens looting shops.
Saved by a “person sent by God”
Finally, dressed in clerical attire, the two priests took their important documents and the Blessed Sacrament and tried to leave the city. They waited until they gathered with a small group of cars, thinking their numbers would make them less vulnerable.
On their way to Zaporizhzhia, they passed through several checkpoints guarded by soldiers of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Russia-backed militants who have been fighting Ukraine’s military since 2014.
Along the journey, they saw burned out buildings and dead soldiers lying in the streets. At one point, where the Ukrainian military had just won a battle against Russians, they had to drive around the bodies of the invading army lying in the road – some of them headless. Fr. Tomaszewski, who has been a priest in Mariupol since 2011, said that the Russian military never takes their dead soldiers back but lets the corpses rot where they are.
They came to a checkpoint where Russian soldiers refused to allow men between the ages of 18-60 to go any further, likely because they didn’t want them to be able to join the Ukrainian army. By this time, the convoy’s size had grown to about 100 cars, with two to three persons in each. It was freezing, and people were hungry and thirsty. Cars were low on fuel. Families with young children had to sleep overnight in cold vehicles. Some women fell on their knees, begging the soldiers to let the convoy pass.
The group could not go forward and could not return to Mariupol. The situation seemed hopeless.
“Then suddenly out of nowhere, a person sent by God, obviously, was passing by chance,” Fr. Tomaszewski said. “He said ‘My village is very close to here. I can take all these people in to give them food, water and not let them freeze in the middle of the night.’”
The man turned out to be the head of the village of Temriuk, an agricultural area about five kilometers off the main road.
After a night’s stay there, people of the village advised the convoy of a way to reach the main road again, avoiding the Russian checkpoint. The mayor of a neighboring town told them there was a humanitarian corridor they could use. They had to get through yet another Russian checkpoint, but when the soldiers saw how long the line of cars was, they stopped asking questions after the sixth car. Eventually, the escapees were in Ukrainian controlled territory and felt a sense of relief.
“How beautiful it is to see you Ukrainian soldiers saving us,” they told the military they met along the way, Fr. Tomaszewski said.
Asked what message he has for the world, Fr. Tomaszewski commented, “No humanitarian assistance will help Ukraine until we’ve beat the Russian military and war has stopped.”
He’s not able to reach any of his parishioners in Mariupol, who continue to live under a state of siege. But, he said, “hope dies last. Hope comes from God.”