War came suddenly to Mariupol, Ukraine.
The first Sergey Toporkov knew of it was feeling the shock waves from incoming Russian shells at his workplace at the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works.
The explosions of shells falling in Mariupol shook the Soviet-era heavy industrial plant at around 6:30 on the morning of Feb. 24, barely half an hour from the end of his 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift.
At that moment the 26 year-old senior manager in programming and software engineering could think only of his wife Olena, 28.
A process control engineer employed at another department in the plant, she was off-shift and should be at home, in one of the two apartments they maintained, with their beloved pet, a ‘Scottish Fold’ cat named Barny.
Unable to reach her on his cellphone, he tried her mother’s number.
“I called Olena’s mom and told her the war begins,” he told Peace Arch News.
“We’d heard that war was coming, but a lot of us didn’t believe it will happen. No one believed that Putin will start the war.”
‘Shock and disbelief’
Now sitting comfortably half a world away on a couch in the South Surrey home of Sergey’s uncle and aunt – Canadian residents for the last 30 years – the couple continued their story. Sergey and his Aunt Vera helped translate for Olena, who understands some English but is not fluent in it.
“When the war began, I couldn’t believe it was happening,” she recalled. “I thought maybe it was a thunderstorm.”
“In Mariupol, living close to the sea, when a thunderstorm starts it can be very loud,” Sergey explained.
Throughout the city – in peace, a place of orderly tree-lined boulevards, parks and cultural centres, even with its close proximity to heavy industry – people were reacting with shock and disbelief.
Most of them had gone to sleep on Feb. 23 in a normal world, Sergey said. The next morning they were supposed to be waking up thinking about all the usual things, like going to work or school, or going to buy groceries, not being shaken – literally – by the violence of exploding shells.
“We couldn’t believe that something like this was happening to our country,” he said.
From workplace to stronghold
The Azovstal plant has latterly become world famous as a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, the place where members of the ‘Azov Regiment’ militia took advantage of its huge fortress-like construction.
With some four storeys of the complex underground, it was a logical place to hold out and protect civilians displaced by the Russian attack, until the absence of water and food and medical supplies forced many to surrender a week ago.
But when the war began, the plant was not under attack, and the close-knit community of professionals who worked there (“it was like a second home,” Sergey described it) were thinking only about the safety their loved ones.
Fortunately, as far as Sergey an Oleana can tell, all of their professional colleagues have since managed to be safely evacuated and are re-establishing contact online (“some of them are now in Poland, Romania, some in Germany, some even in Colombia,” he said.)
It took until 8 a.m. on Feb. 24 for Sergey and Olena to finally connect by phone. “I think the shelling had knocked out a lot of communications aerials,” he said.
Amid their relief to find each other was safe, the couple – who met nine years ago as students at Pryazovski State Technical University, and have been married for the last three – started to make hurried plans about where they could stay, and what they could do to retrieve at least some of their possessions.
One of their apartments was already part of the war zone, in the middle between invading Russian troops and Ukrainian defenders, Sergey said.
”In the first video posted online by Russian troops of the bombardment of Mariupol – the wrecked building you see is our home,” he added.
Both of the couple’s apartments were ultimately destroyed in the continuing bombardment, Sergey said – along with many possessions they were forced to leave behind.
Gone, now, are Olena’s prized collection of vintage Polish 1960s dolls and much of her art and art materials (in her spare time she had been a skilled painter and clay sculptor and budding tattoo artist).
Gone, too, are some of Sergey’s athletic equipment and clothing (before the conflict he had been a prize-winning athlete and martial artist).
On Feb. 26 Sergey was able to get back to the apartment they kept closest to the Azvostal plant, but only had enough time to stuff one backpack with all of their possessions he could carry (including) their documents and I.D.s, diplomas and a couple of cameras and laptop computers, plus water and food.
For the next week, until March 1, the couple took refuge in a bomb shelter in the basement of a school on the left bank of the Mariupol River.
Overrun with fighting
Barny was with Olena’s mother in a larger bomb shelter nearby, until he could be moved to her grandmother’s house, outside of the city (sadly, they later learned that he had disappeared when the area was overrun with fighting, and Oleana’s grandmother had been forced to flee.)
“We were melting snow for drinking water, and to boil eggs and potatoes,” Sergey said. “When the snow is gone we went to the river for water, which we boiled, but it was so smelly and awful.
“Also when we are trying to get water from the river you’d hear gunshots and bullets flying over your head - zip, zip, zip,” he said.
“But the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life is the Russian aircraft,” he recalled.
“They were always flying low, and they’d make two passes over you; one to set targets and the second time to release bombs and rockets.”
From March 1, Sergey and Olena moved to his mother’s apartment building and stayed in the basement there, he said.
Relocated to Russia
On the morning of March 18, Russian troops arrived on the doorstep and informed them that they would be relocated to Russia. They were fingerprinted and photographed then bused across the border to the town of Taganrog, and then to Rostov on Don.
But once there, Sergey and Olena found themselves being helped by Russians who generously gave them clothing, food and water.
“These were civilian volunteers who were not afraid of Putin, not afraid to speak of the war,” he said. “They told me they thought the war was stupid. I think that many of the Russians are good people, even a lot of those in the military. They can’t escape from the situation they’re in.”
It was in Rostov that Sergey convinced two Russian officers that he wanted to take his wife to his residence in the country of Georgia (formerly under Russian rule) and settle there, and they offered no objections.
The residence was fictional, but the ruse worked, Sergey said.
“They were trying to give us Russian I.D.’s and Russian passports – I thought it was better to lie to them,” he chuckled.
Path to Canada
In Tbilisi, Georgia, they were able to able to apply to the Canadian consulate for visas and emergency travel permits, which came through in a matter of days.
With those in hand, they were able to book a flight from Tbilisi to Stamboul in Turkey, another from there to Frankfurt in Germany, and finally a flight from Frankfurt to Vancouver, where they arrived on May 11.
Ironically, the couple said, they were both nervous about flying as they’d only ever been on a plane once before. Now they count themselves experienced air-travelers, they laughed.
Although they have been in the country less than two weeks they have already been able to gain social insurance numbers, medical coverage and bank accounts – and Sergey said they want to get jobs as soon as possible.
Eager to ‘give back’
“We want to give back to society for the help Canada has given us, to say thank you to the people who have helped us and the government that has helped us.”
“I’m a very good programmer and software engineer, but I’m willing to take any job at first,” he said. “Perhaps I could help translate at the airport for other people who are coming from Ukraine.”
And while Olena’s English is not yet good enough for her to resume her profession, she’s wondering if she could find an interim job, possibly in retail, to help her improve her language skills.
While Sergey and Olena maintain they are, by nature, very apolitical, they reject outright the reasons the Russian government has given for invading Ukraine.
“There are no Nazis in Ukraine,” Sergey insists. It also didn’t surprise him that Ukrainian resistance to the invasion has been so strong, he said, and he is convinced that Ukraine will ultimately triumph.
“Ukraine has the most powerful army in Europe,” he said. “And everybody helps Ukraine. With the help of our partners in Europe and Canada and the USA we will, together, win the war.”
They would eventually like to return home to be with their families and rebuild the country, they added.
“It will take time, but, hopefully in five or eight years, everything will be fine,” Sergey said.
Values changed by war
Formerly a self-confessed workaholic, the bitter experience of war has taught him to value every minute spent with Olena and their loved ones, he said.
Another bit of news has given them added hope for the future, Olena said – she recognized Barny’s picture, posted on the internet by a woman who has been doing animal rescues, who recovered him from the basement at Olena’s grandmother’s house.
“He’s well and doing fine,” Vera translated. “Hopefully we can get him back with Olena’s mom.”
Anyone who may be able to help the couple find employment are welcome to call Sergey’s cell at 604-968-0405.