Now Safe, Mariupol Mother Shares Her Family’s Heart-Wrenching Tale With the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation’s Voices of the Peaceful

When armchair pundits air their so-called expert opinions on war, the sweeping generalizations they use often rely on broad strokes. The talking-point jargon they bandy about, such as “targets,” “objectives,” “conflict,” and even “casualties,” are deceptively nondescript, cloaking the jagged, painful edges in the purposely vague language of verbal camouflage. But the truth of war is only found in the thousands of human stories of those who’ve lived through it. Ukrainian billionaire philanthropist Rinat Akhmetov has long understood the distinction between the questionable historical value of self-serving commentary versus the real, enduring worth of eyewitness testimony to unspeakable acts and events.

Knowing the crucial importance of documenting survivors’ stories, Akhmetov, who heads Ukraine’s preeminent mining and manufacturing corporation Metinvest, used a generous portion of his fortune to create numerous charities including the Museum of Civilian Voices. Under its aegis, the Voices of the Peaceful Project has recorded more than 90,000 retellings of first-person wartime experiences.

An Account From Mariupol: One Mother’s Inspiring Story

While it’s easy to think of war in terms of the military troops fighting front-line battles, sadly, the most tragic casualties are often innocent civilians. So, imagine you’re a woman raising four children in the city that’s always been your home. It’s where you shop, where you worship, where your kids go to school. It’s where you catch up with your friends over a cup of coffee and help your elderly neighbor carry her groceries upstairs. It’s the place where you feel grounded and secure … until, in one unimaginable moment, your everyday reality is shattered by war.

For mother of four Oksana Samsonova that city was Mariupol. As she recounted the terror her family endured in a video interview for the Voices of the Peaceful Project, Samsonova says in many ways, the events that began to unfold on Feb. 24, 2022, seemed like a nightmare from which she has yet to wake up. However, the morning after the first rockets exploded, the devastation of her cherished city became all too real. Samsonova told actor-presenter and Voices of the Peaceful ambassador Oleksiy Sukhanov she’ll never forget the experience — explosion after explosion — she says was akin to a terrible dream.

As the war dragged on, the Russian assault on Mariupol

was unrelenting. In those desperate days and nights, Samsonova did what she could to calm her children. Before she went outside to cook their meals — “on the fire under fire” — she’d hug them and lock them in the bathroom to create at least some sense of security. Samsonova told Sukhanov she’d made two attempts to flee Mariupol with her children; however, they were unable to escape the city either time.

Then calamity struck.

One night at about 2 a.m., the family was blasted awake by a loud bang and a bright flash in the hallway. In the space of a few seconds, the door was blown off and the walls decimated. “Everything was flying … [there was dust everywhere],” Samsonova recalled. “It wasn’t clear what was happening. We were pressed against the wall. [It was as] if someone … grabbed all this [stuff] and threw it at us. Thank God no one was killed or injured.”

With their home in shambles, as dangerous as leaving was, Samsonova made the decision to evacuate her family. Somehow, her eldest son’s car had survived enemy fire. As they drove away, Samsonova was stunned by the images of the human tragedy in which she was both observer and participant. “People were walking in crowds, small children with backpacks,” she recalled tearfully. “Everyone who could walk … was walking. Those who could not walk were dragged in wheelchairs and on crutches.”

In a Life Displaced, Hope Remains

Oksana Samsonova and her family have joined the growing ranks of internally displaced persons, which is defined by the United Nations as “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights, or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.”

They’re living in Dnipro in temporary housing made possible and subsidized by the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation. While the respite is much appreciated, Samsonova dreams of returning to Mariupol when the war is over. She dreams of rebuilding. She dreams of helping bring her beloved hometown back from ruin. Even in the face of recurring nightmares of Russian rocket fire that continue to trouble her sleep, she dreams of all the mundane things that make up everyday life — like sending her kids to school or simply sharing a chat with a friend — and that are, in reality, priceless.

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