Mother’s daring mission to rescue more than 100 people from city of hell

Published by The Daily Mail (27th March, 2022)

As Russia’s barrage of bombs, missiles and shells lays waste to Mariupol, fearful families cowering in the city’s cellars try to work out when a momentary lull might allow them to dash to any flats still standing to grab food or fresh clothes.

But when the mother of a nine-year-old boy called Vlad returned briefly to her home, she lost this highest-stakes gamble – and was killed instantly as their apartment was hit by a shell.

Her body was found by her own distraught mother who was with grandson Vlad and the terrified pair became trapped under the Kremlin’s bombardment in the southern Ukraine city that has symbolised the horrors of this cruel war.

Their situation seemed hopeless. A boy, his granny and her small dog stuck in an apocalyptic urban wasteland. But they did not know Vlad’s aunt, a prominent beauty blogger and model, was using social media to beg for help to rescue them.

And their plight had been noticed by a woman who escaped the horrors herself and was running a remarkable rescue operation to save others.

Kristina Khoroshilova, a 30-year-old mother of two, had assisted more than 100 people out of the basements and into safety. ‘We just helped as many people as we could,’ she said. ‘I wanted to show that people should not be afraid.’

She worked with her husband Alexander, 36, and another couple – although the man went missing on a rescue mission last week, leaving his pregnant wife scared that he has been detained by Russians or killed.

After driving out of the city, these four friends vowed to help others flee.

This followed the nightmare of seeing their city pulverised for 20 days, sheltering in a basement with 100 others, cooking food outside on open fires and melting snow for drinking.

It has been reported that 300 people may have been slaughtered when the port’s theatre where they were sheltering was targeted, even though the word ‘children’ had been written in Russian on the ground outside.

‘It was horrible watching so many lives being shattered, watching everything we cherished being destroyed. It was devastating to see children hurt and losing their parents,’ said Kristina.

So, based in a holiday house in Yurievka, a village 15 miles from Mariupol under Russian occupation, they co-ordinated a small team of men to go back into the city, dodge the explosions and pull people from the battered basements.

Typical was Yuriy, 50, a former taxi-driver who made up to four trips a day despite enduring three days in Russian detention. ‘Please, don’t portray me as a sort of hero or something,’ he said. ‘I’m just doing what I can.’

But it is hard not to see such efforts as heroic when he tells of Vlad’s rescue. He says he drove through street-fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces, passing tanks and troops along roads filled with bomb holes, shrapnel and shattered glass.

Having finally found the boy and his grandmother after a five-day search by the team, Yuriy had just put them in his car when he ploughed into an armoured personal carrier blazing away at a building.

‘I drove back really quickly, ducked into a yard and we all ran into the basement where we spent the night as the fighting continued.’

The next morning, Yuriy attached a white flag to his car and drove out, cramming everyone into his car, including the Chihuahua dog,.

‘The roads are covered with glass and pieces of shrapnel and I was afraid I would get a puncture. The whole city is destroyed. There are dead bodies on the side of the road. And there is fighting everywhere.

His bravery and skills succeeded. ‘I’ve never seen people so emotional,’ said Yuriy. ‘When I brought the boy and his granny out, they were all crying and hugging.’

Yet this was just one couple saved among many by the mercy missions run by Kristina, who fled her birthplace of Donetsk in 2014 with her husband after Russia stirred up the separatist insurgencies that led to conflict in the Donbas.

‘We lost our jobs, our apartment and started life from scratch again. Now we must experience this again,’ she said.

Before the war, she developed restaurants in shopping malls. Initially, she assumed the invasion might be on a similar scale to 2014 – until the shelling shifted rapidly to the centre of Mariupol and she was suddenly unable to leave.

Her family’s sturdy Soviet-era block had big basements, which soon filled with families – including 25 children. ‘We tried to protect them from the horrors outside, as what we were going through was hard to comprehend even for adults,’ said Kristina.

After other families left the city, the couple decided to risk joining a convoy of cars driving out.

Kristina says they wanted to get the message back to Mariupol that it was possible to escape the city. So the men decided to head back to spread the message while Kristina used social media to tell stories of those helped out. She was soon flooded with thousands of messages from people who wanted help to find friends and relatives.

Two days after their departure, the parking area at their residential block in Mariupol was destroyed by shelling, a missile struck the home above their own, a nearby nine-storey block of flats was in flames and the yard where they had been cooking food was repeatedly targeted. ‘It feels like we escaped on the last train out,’ said Kristina.

For a week they stayed at the holiday home in Russian-occupied terrain to help others escape. At first, it was just her husband and the other man who joined them, then three others teamed up.

They dodged Russian troops, sent spare drivers to help those who could not drive and towed cars without fuel through burning and shattered streets. ‘We helped as many people as we could – we were able to take out more than 100 people.’

Last Tuesday, their friend was detained in his ancient Zhiguli car, which they were using in Mariupol. ‘We still don’t know what has happened with him. It is a sad story –that car helped many people to escape.’

Meanwhile, Kristina was getting many messages about the plight of the boy who had lost his mother.

The rescue team tried repeatedly to find Vlad before Kristina was able to call his aunt with the happy news that the child was safe. ‘It was such an emotional moment – everyone was crying.’

The next day, Kristina and her family escaped again from Russian-held terrain, back into land under Ukrainian control where they are staying with friends in Dnipro. ‘We do not plan to go back to Mariupol,’ she said firmly.

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