“We fell on the concrete floor head and back”: the story of survival and rescue of a 17-year-old half-orphan from Mariupol

“We fell on the concrete floor head and back”: the story of survival and rescue of a 17-year-old half-orphan from Mariupol

When Mykhailo Shumko got off the train at the Kyiv station on July 27, 2023, wearing only a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers, everyone froze. He was a child in age, but he looked like a grown man. Tall, broad-shouldered. With the hard look of a person who has experienced a lot.

The child – confused, burned out – remained there, in Mariupol, where he, in fact, a 17-year-old orphan, survived as best he could. Starved, looked for food, hid from explosions, was wounded, languished in basements after being tortured for “drowning” for Ukraine and beating a collaborator, ran away from an orphanage in Russia to occupied Mariupol, if only it were his native land.

Thanks to the efforts of the Ministry for the Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, the “Ukrainian Network for the Rights of the Child” and volunteers, the boy finally returned home after crossing several countries. We tell the incredible story of Mykhailo Shumko.

The names of the characters have been changed for security reasons.

Illustrative image. Photo: NewAfrica/Depositphotos

9-year-old Mykhailik was returned to the orphanage by the guardian: “He didn’t fit”

Mother raised the boy alone. In 2013, she was deprived of parental rights, sending 7-year-old Mykhailik to an orphanage.

At the end of the week, the children threw the dirty clothes in a pile, took them to the laundry, and when they returned them, no one counted – yours, yours… Whatever you grab first, you will wear. Even in this everyday trifle, children were reminded: you have nothing of your own, everything is “common”. Orphan! Therefore, when the grandmother brought Mykhailik to the orphanage, football shoes without spikes, he laughed with joy. Finally his first thing of his own!

And when he was taken into care for the first time, the boy took bumps with him to the new family. Brought them to school – the new school year has just begun. But he did not feel how three classmates, having decided to make fun of the new one, threw his treasure into the trash.

Blood hit Mykhailika in the face. His bumps! For which my grandmother collected money from her meager pension for so long! With blind rage, the boy began to defend himself, his grandmother, his bum, and his entire burnt-out childhood.

– I left, dragged one, dragged another, Mykhailo says. – Their parents came running, almost all the teachers, the director… Well, what about me? I stood there, scolding everyone, and I was kicked out of school the very next day…

The woman who took Mishka under her care quickly lost her enthusiasm. Orphanage children from pictures, advertising posters and films – with combed hair, with pitiful eyes and composed poses, were not at all like real orphans or half-orphans. With their pain, despair, cruelty from hopelessness and inability to defend themselves “in a humane way”. Fists were their first tool of justice.

It took time for Mishko, once in a new family, to adapt, warm up, and change. But the guardian “Aunt Anna” did not wait. And she returned the 9-year-old boy to the orphanage. “Didn’t come up.”

Since then, he has changed two more guardians. Lived with them for 2-3 years. And in 2021, he wrote a refusal to stay with the regular parents-educators of the DBST. And he entered the Mariupol Higher Metallurgical School, where he received a dormitory and full state support.

In the same dormitory, Mykhailo met the war a month before his 16th birthday. Several of the same children, deprived of parental care, gathered in a group and listened to the explosions. They wandered around the city, not believing that it was really a war.

– As soon as the war started, we were promised to be taken to the west of the country. But they rudely lied. They said: “Wait a couple more days, you will be taken away.” And they really took it… but to Russia, Mykhailo says.

So when it got really hot, he assessed the situation and said to his friends: “Guys, you won’t have fun here.” And – he went home.

“Volunteers from “United Russia” did not answer our questions: “Where are we going?””

In Mariupol, the boy was the rightful user of a two-room apartment. I decided to wait there. He never dreamed that someone would take him out of Marika. Mother, who was deprived of parental rights, at his request came home once and prepared food for her son. But then she disappeared again somewhere. “Because everything was purple for her”– says Myshko with regret.

He survived as best he could. Explosions, destroyed houses, deaths, dead bodies on the streets, searching for food became everyday for him.

Once he came under fire and received a shrapnel wound. There was no time to look for help in a city where thousands of people died every day. It healed… And at the end of March, there was a knock on the door of his apartment. “Are you Shumko?” – “Well, I am.” They checked the documents and said: “Get ready, let’s go.”

The uninvited guests were in black clothes without chevrons. They put the boy in a bus, told him that he was being taken to Russia, and first brought him to the filtration center in the village of Nikolske, Donetsk region, which at the beginning of March 2022 came under the control of the so-called “DNR”.

– What was asked during filtering? Are there acquaintances among the military Ukrainians, were Ukrainians in Mariupol? Positions, surnames, the exact location of something. The phone was also checked, but nothing was found – neither photos nor videos: I hid, – says the boy.

After filtering, the bus took people to Kazan. According to Mykhailo, they were accompanied by volunteers from United Russia. The questions: “Why are we going?”, “Where are we going?”, were not answered.

– But the older children, who were without parents, were immediately brainwashed by these volunteers so that they would issue Russian passports, – recalls Mykhailo. – Like, you’ll just get a Russian passport, and “you’ll have a ten on your account.” Well, some of our fools bought it. They just arrived and began to arrange. They also told me: “Come on, do it!”. But I didn’t want to.

Children were constantly thrown from place to place. Mykhailo was placed in an orphanage in early April 2022, and then in a foster family in Kazan in June 2022. But he stayed there for only 11 days.

– I was the only Ukrainian in the orphanage. Their children started to incite me, like I’m h…hol. And I had the “Azov” chevron with me. They could not find him in the filtration camp. And the children found it, took it away, and stupidly burned it.

I dragged one, then another. I smashed all their phones against my knee. Adults came running. I proved to them that they provoked me. And I had nothing for it– adds the boy.

Mykhailo also studied at the college in Kazan to become a programmer.

– But I was expelled from there. I was suspended from studies, I actually counted, but I didn’t go. The Russians hated me. We had math and I was called to the blackboard. And I answered in Ukrainian. That is, he could have spoken in Russian, but he deliberately spoke in Ukrainian. Everyone started rolling their eyes, screaming something at me… The teacher was shocked.

After that, I was no longer allowed to study mathematics. And I went to the rest of the lessons. On “History of Russia” he proved that Crimea is still Ukrainian. Unsuccessfully! They laughed at me. They didn’t want to be friends. Because when there was any injustice, I immediately hit. And all the time I thought about how to return to Ukraine. And came up with – says the guy.

Mykhailo found out that his maternal aunt lived in Tambov: either she was also taken to Russia, or she went there herself, the boy probably did not know. He called her with a request to issue temporary guardianship for him and take him back to Mariupol.

The city lay in ruins, but he didn’t care. There are friends, acquaintances. Native land! The aunt said that she would not go anywhere with her own money, and Mykhailo paid her way from his scholarship and earnings on the Internet. I even ordered a taxi from Taganrog to Mariupol.

The aunt received temporary custody of the boy in Russia. In July 2022, they passed all the roadblocks. But as soon as they reached the Ukrainian Mariupol, the boy went to the occupation service for children and… asked to be taken out of custody. Like, his old school in Mariupol, where he studied until February 24, 2022, was bombed, and he wants to enter a new one.

The aunt did not want to hand over the documents. But in the end she gave it. In September 2022, the care was terminated. It was freedom! relative The city remained under occupation. And in the new school, where Mykhailo started studying in November 2022, they made sure that none of the children promoted Ukraine.

“Two students were expelled even for this reason”– says Mykhailo.

“One over there, in Russia, even signed a contract. This is unforgivable”

The headmistress let us in – the guy remembers. – She herself is from Mariupol. She didn’t like the fact that we were often “drowning” for Ukraine, and she called one major, also a local one. And she came with her policemen and babbled that we are very bad at heart. What should be drowned for Russia. We ignored it. And one day they still thundered into the station, when they and two guys beat one collaborator who “laid down” for the Russian.

After the interrogation, they were thrown to the ground floor, where they were beaten with sticks wrapped in plastic bottles in the dark. They could sit on a chair, tie their hands and knock out the back legs of the chair. Then we would fall to the concrete floor, hitting our heads and backs.

The boys were not allowed to eat or drink, they were not allowed to go to the toilet. Ukrainians tortured their own people.

– They did not say their surnames. Only “Hey, listen!”… And even though they were wearing masks, in military uniforms, we understood that they were ours, only in “change of shoes”. Diction, language, Mariupol has its own accent. One district in the city was specifically named in the same way as the locals call it.

We were taken to the bakery three times. Then they released. They were afraid that they would first be put in a “minor” prison, and then they would be jailed for 15 years for our “arts”. It became clear that it is impossible to live here. My apartment was damaged by the explosions. And I lived in a dormitory from my new school or with one of my friends. So I started looking for a way out.

Mykhailo contacted the volunteers. All the time he was in contact with his friend, 17-year-old Andrii, also essentially an orphan, who fled from Mariupol, where he was studying, to Donetsk, and from there the Russians forcibly moved him to Shakhtarsk, Donetsk region. With the help of volunteers, state and non-governmental organizations, Andrii eventually got to the territory under the control of the Ukrainian government. And began to pull out a friend.

In June, the Ukrainian side began preparations for the transfer of Mykhailo to the controlled territory. As if it were a sin, there was a threat of disruption of the special operation: in July in Mariupol, he was hit by a car. He got bruised on his left leg, which was put in a cast, but there was neither a crack nor a fracture. It hurt, but already on July 21, he took off the plaster on his own and left the dormitory. I got to the station, got on a bus going to another country. And he set off on a long journey that passed through several countries.

When he was in Ukraine in six days, the first thing he wrote to his friends in Mariupol. According to Mykhailo, after two boys were shot in Berdyansk, more teenagers were checked in Mariupol. Mykhailo would like his friends to all move to the territory of free Ukraine, but he understood that this was impossible.

– Their guardian grandparents will not give them permission to leave. Almost all of them are brainwashed. And the boys really want to leave, but they can’t because of the guardians… But there are such abnormal children who were taken to the raskha, and they are completely pro-Russia there. An inscription like “Mariupol – Russia” is posted on Facebook. One even signed a contract there. This is unforgivablesays the guy.

Mykhailo is currently studying at one of the Kyiv schools. Lives in a dormitory. A psychologist works with him. All documents were restored to the boy.

The follow-up will last for months, if not longer. The team of the “Way Home” project, which organized Mykhailo’s rescue, together with its partners, is trying to do everything to change the young man’s attitude to life, to teach him to trust the people who help him. Unfortunately, the 17 years that Mykhailo had behind him were an experience of disappointments and cruel trials, so the process is very difficult.

– On equal ground, only because we took Mykhailo from Mariupol, trust does not arise. Need time, – says Nataliya Yemets, head of the Department for Deportees of the Crisis Response Department of the Ministry of Reintegration. – The child needs special attention, comprehensive psychosocial support. Such a deep trauma, inflicted on her both by the war and by her previous life. And more and more such children will return. Mykhailo’s case requires the involvement of both state structures and public organizations – everyone who can help. After all, the young man is in a new city for him and no one from his family is around. We are trying to do for Mykhailo what he really needs to feel: he is HOME.”


The material was prepared within the framework of the “Way Home” project, aimed at finding and returning children displaced to the Russian Federation or to territories temporarily not under the control of the government of Ukraine. The project is implemented by the “Ukrainian Network for Children’s Rights” in partnership with the international humanitarian organization Save the Children in Ukraine.

The Ministry of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, the EDUKIDS Charitable Fund, and the Media Initiative for Human Rights are also partners of the Network in the project. The materials developed within the project do not necessarily reflect the official position of Save the Children.

Konstantin Katyshev, especially for UP. Life

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