Kolya in July 2022: He's the only member of his family who survived the siege on Mariupol.

Kolya in July 2022: He's the only member of his family who survived the siege on Mariupol.

Foto: Anne Gabriel-Jürgens / DER SPIEGEL

Kolya from Mariupol The Boy Who Lost His Family But Not His Hope

Kolya had just turned 17 when the Russians bombed Mariupol. His parents and sisters died in the shelling, but he survived. He also had a bit of luck when strangers helped him flee the worst. He now lives in Western Europe, where he is sharing his story and rebuilding his life.

Kolya is lying in a cellar. The only thing separating him from the bare earth is a bit of Styrofoam to protect against the cold. The walls are moldy, the air icy and damp. Kolya wears two pairs of pants on top of each other, two pairs of socks, a cap and he's wrapped in a blanket, he will later recall. And yet he's still freezing. It's March in Mariupol, and temperatures are dropping below zero.

DER SPIEGEL 35/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 35/2022 (August 26th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

There's no more electricity and no water. No safety. Barely any food. The Russian army has surrounded the city, and now it is starving the population. Bombs rain from planes, Kolya can even hear them in the basement. A whistling noise followed by a tremendous thunder. The walls tremble as if he were lying in a house of cards that could collapse and bury him at any instant. A bullet recently hit the neighbor's house and a man died. They buried him in the vegetable patch. They didn't dare go any further because of the fighting.

Kolya's sister Polina, 11, is lying next to him in the basement. She snuggles up to her father Vladimir, a slender, serious man. Polina is the youngest of the three children. Varya, 14, lies at Kolya's feet. Next to her mother Natalia, whose corpulence keeps her warm. Between them is Kolya, who has just turned 17 years old.

He's not religious, but he is praying right now. In his mind, he will later recall, he speaks the same sentence over and over again: Everything will be alright, we'll get through this. But he doesn't really believe what he's saying. Kolya is certain he'll die in Mariupol. And his family with him.

Mariupol in March 2022: The think smoke is from the Russian bombing / Video: Private

Before February 2022, Kolya had been a teenager who had discovered his love for Metallica and dreamed of changing the rigid Ukrainian school system as a civil servant. His sisters Polina and Varya were fond of folk dances and painting. Parents Vladimir and Natalia, both 47 years old, sometimes lacked the energy for three children. But after many conflicts during puberty, Kolya was growing closer to them again.

Today, six months after the start of the Russian war of aggression, they are dead. Polina and Varya, girls with long braids and high cheekbones, were likely killed by debris in the basement of their home. Vladimir, the father, died in the apartment, perhaps he had gone upstairs to get some air. The body of their mother still hasn't been found to this day, presumably her body got pulverized by the explosion.

The only one still alive is Kolya, a child from whom the war took everything: his home, his family, his future and even his past. He no longer has anything except a pair of jeans and wool socks knitted by his mother. Kolya's clothes, his identity papers, the people he loves – all these things lie under the rubble of Mariupol. Just like the other tens of thousands killed by Russia in its campaign against Ukraine.

Kolya's family before the war (from left): Polina, 11, mother Natalia, 47, and Varya, 14

Kolya's family before the war (from left): Polina, 11, mother Natalia, 47, and Varya, 14

Foto: Privat

A few days after the invasion in February, the Russian army cut off the city's connection to the outside world. The network collapses, and it's not a coincidence. The world isn't supposed to see what is happening in Mariupol. To this day, there are few images from the city, and Russia has dismissed the ones that do exist propaganda.

But Kolya witnessed what happened in Mariupol. He is able tell you about it without hesitation or faltering, as clearly and distinctly as only someone who has nothing left but their story can. To corroborate his account, DER SPIEGEL spoke to Kolya's former neighbors and friends. Videos and satellite images provide proof of the destruction of his childhood home. But only Kolya can still report about his family. He says he owes it to them to speak out about what happened. If he couldn't save them, the world should at least be told how they died.

"My family is from Mariupol, but I was born in Donetsk, on December 19, the day of St. Nicholas. My parents named me after him: Kolya. They had to wait nine years for a child. The fact that they were able to then have daughters gave my parents great joy.

Dad worked in a steel factory and Mom was an accountant. They worked like slaves. Together, they earned 23,000 hryvnia a month, about 600 euros. It was enough for a small house. Varya and I shared a room, Polina slept with Mom. Dad slept on the sofa in the living room.

He was on shift duty and often had to work at night. He was always tired. Dad and I fought over little things, like the fact that I was supposed to do more to help around the house than my sisters. Today I think: how silly.

In the end, though, I would say the relationship in our family was ideal. All the problems seemed to have dissolved. Maybe also because I had grown up and become more serious. I could understand my parents and sisters better. Our lives had just begun."

Kolya's parents Natalia and Vladimir: "Our lives had just begun."

Kolya's parents Natalia and Vladimir: "Our lives had just begun."

Foto: Privat

On February 24, a Thursday, Kolya wakes up to go to school. He's still in bed when, half asleep, he hears his mother tell the girls in the room next door that class has been cancelled. Putin has declared war on Ukraine.

Many people in Mariupol still believe they're safe. They believe that the troops won't harm them. Putin allegedly wants to protect the Russian-speaking population with the attack, and it would be hard to find a Ukrainian city that is more Russian than Mariupol. More than 90 percent of the residents speak Putin's native language in everyday life. Many feel closer to Russia than to Ukraine.

Kolya's parents count among those people. They grew up in the Soviet Union, they speak Russian with their children and they stay out of politics. Their only desire is a modest, worry-free life. They hardly cared at the time whether that be under the Russian or Ukrainian flag.

During the first hours of the war, Kolya's family, whose last name will not be used here to protect Kolya's identity, buys food, but they don't flee. They wouldn't even know where to flee to. They're simple people without relatives or relations abroad. Kolya never left Ukraine before the war. The family decides to ride out the Russian attack like it's a thunderstorm.

As Kolya and his parents wait in line in the few supermarkets that are still open, the Russian army draws a ring around Mariupol. Already in the first hours, Putin's military had shelled residential buildings and a school. Nevertheless, three quarters of the inhabitants remain in the city. They trust their "brother people," who are pretending to protect them.


Kolya's family is holed up in their building, a one-story structure on a quiet side street. The parents get out games for the children, and Vladimir, the dad, watches "Lord of the Rings" on TV. The shelling is still far away, and they can still tell themselves that the war isn't affecting them. Kolya leafs through books he would otherwise have no time for because of school. He gets caught up in George Orwell's "1984," a story about a country turning into a totalitarian surveillance state. Between explosions, Kolya thinks about how much the plot reminds him of Russia.

"In the early days of the war, we even had online classes. There were explosions outside, but the teacher was talking about how we should do our homework. Everyone believed the Ukrainian army would be able to hold out in Mariupol. That it was only a matter of time before everything would return to normal.

One evening I was watching 'Star Wars' with my friend Vika, with each of us as our own computer. Vika and I know each other from school, we have been a couple for two years. Her family also stayed in Mariupol. We lived only 10 minutes from each other. Visits weren't possible, but we shared our screen on Skype and watched TV together.

Suddenly, the picture froze and the sound stuttered. I said: Vika, I can't hear you anymore. Then there was a bang outside, sparks flying in the sky. The power went out."

The Russians cut more than a dozen power lines in the first weeks of the war. After that, the only things providing warmth were the open fires many lit on their balconies. By now, at the latest, the residents of Mariupol are coming to realize that Russia has deceived them. But it's too late. The way out of the city is already mined and blocked.

"It was freezing cold at home. We wore four sweaters on top of each other and also wrapped ourselves in blankets. It didn't help, it was always cold. And then, just when we thought things couldn't get any worse, the water disappeared.

At first, it was still dripping out of the tap. At some point, though, nothing came at all. That was the beginning of the apocalypse – I don't have any other way of describing it. We lived like savages. We could no longer wash, and instead of a toilet, we used a bucket or plastic bags. To get water, we had to leave the house and go up the street, where there was a spring. The path was dangerous and the water was dirty. We boiled it over the fire. But it still tasted terrible."

In the beginning, the family still lives in the house, they sleep in their beds and eat at their table. Although the rumblings of war are approaching, their dad initially refuses to prepare the basement as a shelter.

Each family member is confronting the threat differently. Kolya's dad Vladimir with stoic denial, his mother Natalia with concern for her children. Polina, the youngest, is overcome by nervous hysteria: Instead of crying, she laughs herself silly all the time. Kolya, for his part, shakes uncontrollably, and he is no longer in full control of his hands and legs. He can barely sleep at night out of fear he won't live to see the morning.

Then a shell strikes their neighborhood for the first time. Screeching, it flies over the building before dropping on its target with a bang. The ground shakes like an earthquake; Kolya feels it too.

The Russians destroy a gas station located only 200 meters away. Why, Kolya asks, would you fire on a gas pump? Russia, he says, explaining the attack, doesn't even want to leave a few liters of gasoline for the population.

After the attack, the family does move into the basement, which is barely 1.70 meters high. They usually store canned cucumbers and tomatoes here, supplies for the winter. But it has now become the place where they sleep. They find some Styrofoam panels in the garage that they had bought to insulate the house. They lay them on the ground and place all the blankets they can spare on top of them. They only go upstairs to fetch water or to cook on the fire.

Kolya hates the basement. The walls are covered with mold, and there's barely enough room for the family. But it muffles the sound of the carpet bombing of the city.

"The building shook with every impact. Dust settled on my face. I used to be ashamed of getting close to my parents, but now I wanted to be as close to them as I could. I took turns hugging my Dad's and Mom's shoulder, telling them I loved them.

Every day, I was prepared to die – even if I couldn't understand what for. I was lying in the basement, listening to the explosions and wondering: Why was I brought into this world in the first place? Will I ever accomplish anything to be remembered by? Or if I die now, will it be as if I never even existed?"

Kolya, a child of 17, utters these sentences with the seriousness of an adult. During hours-long interviews with DER SPIEGEL, he doesn't cry once – he doesn't even sound accusatory. He just talks about what happened to him, and sometimes it seems as though he's surprised anyone actually cares.

Kolya during the summer of 2022: "Every day, I was prepared to die."

Kolya during the summer of 2022: "Every day, I was prepared to die."

Foto: Anne Gabriel-Jürgens / DER SPIEGEL

In the second week of March, Kolya remembers, a Russian rocket hit the building next door. And then further buildings on the street. When the bricks burst from the heat of the explosions, the sound penetrates all the way down into the basement. When, in a quiet moment, Kolya steps out onto the street, the asphalt in front of his door looks as if it has been dug up.

Kolya's building is also slowly succumbing to the war. A blast wave damages the roof and the windows burst. The chandelier in the living room crashes down, along with part of the ceiling. At one point, an explosion is so powerful that parts of the kitchen walls bury the basement hatch. It's only with a little luck that the family are able to dig themselves free.

It now just feels like it will only be a matter of time before they die. There are few search teams left in Mariupol. People who are trapped – and there are many – are rarely rescued. People are dying in their basements, in their living rooms, in a school and in the theater where hundreds of people seek refuge. Ninety percent of all buildings in Mariupol are damaged during the war. Anyone who has seen images of the bombing, of rockets indiscriminately launched at the city, inevitably wonders how anyone could survive here.

Vladimir, Kolya's father, presses himself against the farthest basement wall day and night and stares into space. Kolya's mom is no longer able to calm the children. Once, she wants to stroke her son's cheek, whisper to him that everything will be all right, but when Kolya feels his mother's hand, he collapses. Natalia's skin is scratchy like sandpaper, scraped up from the debris. She notices his defensiveness and bursts into tears. "Is it my fault our building was bombed?" she cries. Then they cry together, mother and son, both helpless and vulnerable. This moment burns itself into Kolya's memory – he still remembers every detail months later.


When the Russian shelling subsides somewhat, Kolya musters up his courage. He hasn't heard from his girlfriend Vika in two weeks, he doesn't even know if she's still alive. He decides to take the 10-minute journey to her home to see she she's doing.

Kolya's home, part of a quiet residential neighborhood, had seemed especially safe to him at the beginning of the war. But Vika lives in a 14-story building, visible from far away – an ideal target for the Russian army. When he arrives at Vika's building, it's almost unscathed.

Vika's apartment building in Mariupol. Kolya survived only because he took shelter there.

Vika's apartment building in Mariupol. Kolya survived only because he took shelter there.

Foto: Privat

Of course, there's no guarantee the people will survive here either. Here, too, people are buried in the yard; and here, too, residents are running out of food. But maybe, Kolya thinks, it would make it easier for him if he lived with Vika for a while. His family would have more room in the basement and one less person depleting the supplies. Vika's parents agree.

"When I went back home, I said: Mom, I'll probably move in with Vika. We were totally crammed into the basement. She agreed.

I packed a few things. Then I wanted to say goodbye. I don't remember what my sister Polina was doing at that moment, but Varya was sitting in the basement, crying. She had always been strong, but she could no longer handle it. I stroked her head and tried to comfort her: We're going to make it, everything will be OK. Please don't cry.

When I was almost out the door, I turned back to my father. I said: Dad, I'm leaving now. He had been in a state of shock for days, lying on the floor and breathing heavily. Dad sat up, looked at me and said: 'Well, go.' It was the last time I saw my family alive."


On March 10, Kolya moves from his parents' house to his girlfriend Vika's apartment. Meanwhile, the third week of the Russian war of aggression is raging. The first mass grave is dug in Mariupol. On March 13, the municipal government reports that the last water and food supplies have been consumed.

Vika's family prepared and have supplies. They stored pasta and grits, and even the gas tank in the kitchen is still filled. Kolya can hear the impacts here, too, but at least he is no longer crouching in the cramped basement, but in a windowless hallway, the safest place in the apartment.

Vika, now 16 years old, seems lively and bubbly, Kolya serious and composed. They both like Nirvana and astrology, wear dark clothes and have a penchant for mysticism. They pass the time by talking about the war: What are the odds that Russia will win?

But it's a useless endeavor: There has been no mobile phone network and no news for weeks. They can only guess the course of the front. Instead, Kolya and Vika consult their tarot cards. Vika pulls the card with a man standing on a hill, his gaze fixed on a sea full of ships. They conclude that a fleet will come to save Mariupol.

The reality, though, is that Mariupol is falling, district by district. In mid-March, there's a sudden knock at the door of Vika's apartment, with a man's voice demanding in harsh Russian: "Open up! This is an inspection!" Putin's soldiers are standing at the doorstep. They search the rooms and threaten to take the men away. Kolya is too young for them, and Vika's father happens to be out looking for food. The Russians are combing all the floors, and shots are fired on one of them. Later, a neighbor tells Kolya that two bodies have been carried out to the street.

The Russian army now controls Vika's neighborhood, and the shelling shifts to the southwest, where Mariupol's main military unit, the Azov regiment, is still resisting. The fighters have retreated to the local steel factory, and Kolya's family lives nearby. When he looks out the window, he sees Russian tanks being refueled and then driving off in the direction of his parents' house. Kolya says he feels like he was a traitor. As if he had abandoned his family.

That's also why he decides to stay in Mariupol when Vika and her parents leave the city. Since Russia has control of large parts of the area, it's possible to get to Crimea. On March 21, his girlfriend gets into the car and drives off. Kolya stays in their apartment on his own.

"When everyone was gone, I burst into tears. I thought: What do I do now? Would it have been better to go with them? But I wanted to wait until my parents showed up. I was sure they would come for me at some point. And then I wanted to be there so they wouldn't have to worry.

It wasn't easy living alone in the building. The gas had since run out. I had to cook with fire and I had never done that before. Fortunately, a neighbor helped me. A family that had stayed in Mariupol lived a few floors above Vika. The man's name was also Kolya. One of his sons spotted me on the balcony trying to make myself something to eat. He told me how to do it, and they also gave me some food later.

One night, it was March 24, I dreamed about my parents. I saw my father standing in the yard of our building. He had no arms left, as if someone had chopped them off. I screamed: 'Dad, Dad, what have they done to you?' Then I woke up. I didn't know what the dream meant."


The next day Kolya asks a neighbor to accompany him to his parents' house. It's a potentially deadly journey because of the fighting, but he wants to see how his family is doing. By now, all the remaining residents know the boy who lives alone on the fourth floor. The neighbor, a devout Christian, agrees to go with Kolya during a a break in the shelling. They say a last prayer and then they set off running.

Kolya in Mariupol in March 2022. A neighbor who owned a solar panel used his mobile phone to document the siege of the city and Kolya's struggle to save his famil.

Kolya in Mariupol in March 2022. A neighbor who owned a solar panel used his mobile phone to document the siege of the city and Kolya's struggle to save his famil.

Foto: Privat

They head in the direction of the Prospect of Metallurgists, a central avenue that was leafy during more peaceful times and filled with neon signs. Now buildings are shot up, trees have fallen and street lights are strewn all over the place. There isn't a human in sight.

The first streets in Kolya's neighborhood give him hope: The homes are battered but not destroyed. He sneaks around mines left by the army along the way. Finally, he's standing in front of the gate to his house.

A mine in front of Kolya's house. Soldiers presumably laid it to block the enemy. / Video: Private

At first, he thinks: everything as usual. Then he looks again – and realizes that his parents' home is no longer standing. Meter-high chunks of stone are piled up where the dining room once stood, the ground is churned up like a field. Bricks are lying on the wood, the ground and on pieces of furniture. Kolya's home, the place where he spent his whole life, looks like someone ran it through a meat grinder.

"I looked at the ruins and didn't grasp what had happened. I called for Mom, for my Dad, for my sisters. I ran around the house looking for the basement hatch, trying to squeeze through the rubble to them. But it couldn't be done, it was too tight.

Suddenly, the neighbor said: 'Kolya, look, there is a piece of clothing or a toy. What is that?' I looked, it really looked like clothing, perhaps with fur trim. I moved closer and realized: It was Dad. He was lying face down, most of his body buried. Only his hands and head stuck out. His eyes were squeezed shut, his nose broken. He looked as if he had aged decades.

I began to dig for him with my hands. I was certain: If I managed to get him out, he would get up and run. But then I touched him with my fingers and his body was completely cold and hard. My Dad no longer felt like a person, but like a bag of dirt.

I lost it. I screamed, I cried. I yelled that I loved him. That I was sorry because I didn't say goodbye the way I should have. Because I really thought this war wasn't going to hit us."

In the days that followed, Kolya tried to shovel his family out with the help of neighbors. One helper recorded the rescue attempts on a mobile phone: You see people pressing against the concrete with spades and metal rods. They couldn't do it. Only an excavator could lift the debris. And there have been no excavators to dig out people buried in Mariupol for a long time.

Kolya digs in the destroyed home as he tries to find his mother and sisters. This picture is a screen shot from a video made by a neighbor as they searched for Kolya's family.

Kolya digs in the destroyed home as he tries to find his mother and sisters. This picture is a screen shot from a video made by a neighbor as they searched for Kolya's family.

Foto: Privat

Videos of a rescue attempt like this are also a rarity. In Mariupol, where there is no electricity, most mobile phones are out of juice. But a neighbor in Vika's apartment building deals in electronics and happens to have a solar panel. He regularly charges his phone on it and films what is happening around his building. Dozens of recordings document the Russian siege. One of them shows Kolya standing in the ruins of his parents' home, his face frozen with shock. As he and the neighbors try to make their way to the basement, loud bangs can be heard above them.

"I didn't know what to do. I wanted to look for my mother and sisters, but I thought: If we stay here any longer, I'll wind up getting us all killed. And even if we make it to the basement, the chances that Mom, Polina and Varya are still alive are slim. People in the other buildings said the rocket hit our house on March 17. That was more than a week ago.

I squeezed through the rubble with a flashlight, almost to the basement. The hatch was slightly open. I called out, but no one answered. I saw that there were bricks in the entrance to the basement. I couldn't see any people.

I briefly held out hope that maybe Mom and the girls weren't in the house when it was hit. That they had gone to church to pray or something. But I also had to realize that this was unlikely. If Dad was in the house, then Mom and my sisters were there too.

I realized that we would not find them alive. And that we had to stop digging for them so we wouldn't die as well.

I wish I had come sooner and brought them over to where I was staying. I could have saved them. I felt so guilty."

Kolya returns to his parents' house only once after that. He has a homemade sign with him: a peg, broken from the door of an abandoned daycare center, along with a piece of wood he found. He writes the names of his family on it with a black felt-tip pen: Vladimir. Natalia. Varya. Polina. Born between 1974 and 2010. Died on March 17, 2022.

Kolya's sign in front of his destroyed home. The stains are blood: Kolya injured his hand as he tried to hammer the sign into the ground.

Kolya's sign in front of his destroyed home. The stains are blood: Kolya injured his hand as he tried to hammer the sign into the ground.

Foto: Privat

Kolya takes a brick and hammers the sign into the ground in front of the destroyed house, as a message to the Russians, who have since also taken control over this part of the city. They will begin removing the rubble, and they should know that there are still people under the concrete. Kolya hopes that they will dig up and bury the bodies of his family. But probably, he thought at the time, they would throw them away like garbage.

After Kolya puts up the sign, he once again sees his father lying among the rubble. The sun is shining over the city now, spring is getting closer. The bodies are starting to decompose and Kolya can smell it.

He climbs over the debris of his family home looking for something to cover his father with. Amidst the rubble, he finds a green down jacket that belonged to his sister Varya. There's a video of it: Kolya asked his neighbor to record the impact site. He doesn't want anyone to be able to claim later that he made all this up.

It shows Kolya throwing the jacket over the corpse of his father. He looks for a second garment in the rubble and places it over Vladimir's head. After that, he leaves the destroyed building and walks away, perhaps forever.

Why did Kolya's family have to die? According to international law, civilians are given special protection in war. But no price was too high for Russia's army to conquer Mariupol. The soldiers shelled residential areas and hospitals, escape routes and shelters. It was intended to make Mariupol residents feel unsafe wherever they were. It looked like chaos, but it was calculated hell.

A hell that Kolya has been left to deal with alone. His family is dead, his hometown destroyed. A young man left to cope with this catastrophe on his own. He spends three days in Vika's apartment: He remembers crying, beating the floor with his fists and convulsing. There's still no electricity, no water, barely any food. Kolya knows he can't survive without help.

The neighbors living a few stories above him turn out to be his salvation. The father of the family, who share's Kolya's name suggests: "Move in with us. We'll take care of you."

Kolya's neighbor is also called Kolya. He took the boy in after learning about the fate of his family. They now live together in safety in a country in Europe.

Kolya's neighbor is also called Kolya. He took the boy in after learning about the fate of his family. They now live together in safety in a country in Europe.

Foto: Anne Gabriel-Jürgens

"His son had once helped me to make a fire and his wife told me how to boil noodles. Otherwise, I barely knew the family. But the man immediately said: 'You no longer have a father, so I will be like your father. We won't leave you alone.'

He and his children were there when we tried to dig out my family. They were the worst moments of my life, and they experienced them with me. That brought us closer together. I also had no choice: I had no one and nowhere to go back to.

The fighting in Vika's neighborhood ceased in April, but everything was destroyed. No one knew if civilization would return in a month or in a year. So, the family that had taken me decided to leave Mariupol. They had a few cans of gasoline on hand and two cars that were riddled with shrapnel but still roadworthy. We left on April 18."


From the windows of the car, the buildings they drive past look like Armageddon. Entire sections of the city are burning, cars are shot up and turned over. Kolya remembers an "atmosphere of death," with mines lying all over the road. And his fear of not surviving as they escaped. But they make it to the front line, the border between Russian-occupied territories and Ukraine.

In the town of Manhush, the family waits for a week in a line of cars of the people fleeing. Hundreds are waiting for Russia soldiers to conduct checks on their cars. When the time comes, many men are taken away, but Kolya and his neighbors are lucky. Because they have Ukrainian and Russian citizenship, the soldiers wave them through. Kolya, the teen in the back seat, goes unnoticed.

He only remembers some of the rest of the trip. He no longer knows how he found out about their destination, nor how they got the to border with the European Union. Nor how the officials waved him through even though he has no identification papers – they burned in Mariupol. He only knows that he arrived in early May in a country he had never heard of. A green and quiet place, surrounded by mountains. We are not publishing the exact place where Kolya lives in order to protect his privacy.

Since July 2022, Kolya has been living in a refugee shelter, with six people sharing a few square meters. The family with whom he fled Mariupol lives there with him. It's cramped, but Kolya is happy he's not alone. The conversations with his rescuers keep him in the present, like an anchor that prevents the past from sweeping him away.

He calls it "losing touch with reality," and it happens to him a lot. When it does, he no longer sees the meadow in front of his house or the blue sky, but instead the ruins of Mariupol. The worst, Kolya says, is when he lies awake at night. He then stares at the ceiling above his bunk bed, and in his eyes, the room becomes the basement where his family died.

"I miss Dad most of all, maybe because I saw him dead. I remember how he laughed and how I hugged him. He was very warm and soft. Later, when I found him, he was so cold.

What were Dad, Mom and my sisters thinking at the moment of the explosion? Did they have time to realize that this was the end for them? Did they feel fear? I imagine what it would have been like to be with them. Then I get scared."

Mariupol has been fully under Russian control since May 20. There's still no water in many places, and residents collect it from puddles using buckets. Dead bodies aren't recovered by search teams, but by volunteers who receive food in return. Some young men have recently been forced to do military service and fight against Ukraine, their own country.

Kolya knows this – he follows every report from the city. On the only table in his room, there is a laptop that is almost always showing the news. He manages not to let the reports get to him too badly. People who have experienced trauma often compartmentalize what they have experienced afterward, and perhaps this explains Kolya's composure. There are two Kolyas: The one who lies awake at night thinking about death. And the one who tries to look ahead so that he doesn't break.

Kolya is now attending six-hours a day of language school. He bought himself a guitar, and the seller even gave him a discount when he heard that Kolya was Ukrainian. He spends his free time doing homework and dealing with the bureaucracy of his new country. And with Vika, his girlfriend, who against all the rules of probability is with him again.

He calls her just before he leaves Mariupol. He tells her that he's alive and that he loves her – then the connection breaks off. The next time they talk by phone, Kolya has already reached Western Europe.

Vika's family is living in Crimea at this time, but they don't want to stay there. On the phone, Kolya asks her to come to him. Vika agrees. At the end of May they fall into each other's arms at the train station, and there's a video of that moment.

Vika now lives with her mother in a hotel rented for refugees from Ukraine. It's located just a few streets away from Kolya's accommodation. They are attending the same language school and spend time together every day.

They formed a band together with other refugee kids, with the local youth center providing instruments. When Kolya is on stage there, he smiles between songs. He teases Vika, who only recently started playing drums, when she can't keep up. In the evenings, they sometimes ride bikes that people had thrown away to McDonald's and eat fries.

Kolya says he owes it to Vika that he's still alive. He says that when he feels her gaze, it grounds him again, brings him back to the present. Then he's able to focus on today and push yesterday away.

Kolya has two wishes for the future. One goes like this: He wants to become an interpreter and rent an apartment, move in with Vika and marry her. He wants to do his family proud, even if they weren't able to live long enough to see it.

The second wish is about Mariupol. Someday, Kolya would like to walk along the sea there again. He wants to show his children where he lived and where their grandparents died. He wants to see his hometown in peace and in Ukrainian hands.

As soon as they are legal adults, Vika and Kolya want to get married and move in together. They hope that their children will eventually be able to return to Mariupol.

As soon as they are legal adults, Vika and Kolya want to get married and move in together. They hope that their children will eventually be able to return to Mariupol.

Foto: Anne Gabriel-Jürgens / DER SPIEGEL

Kolya knows that moment may never come. There are rumors that Russia is planning to annex the city, which would make it unreachable for Kolya. Posters are already hanging in the streets emblazoned with the words: "Russia is here forever."

A relative still holding out in the city recently wrote Kolya that helpers had recovered the bodies of his father and sisters. They have since been buried in a mass grave. Kolya hopes to one day be able to search for them and give them a proper burial.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in German on August 26, 2022. The English version was published later as a result of the positive resonance the article has received and requests from readers.

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