Anne K. Howard

“20 Days in Mariupol” vs. Escape from Mariupol: A Survivor’s True Story Pt. 1

20 Days in Mariupol

20 Days in Mariupol


This is the first installment in a three-part series reviewing the film, 20 Days in Mariupol as it relates to the book that I co-authored with a Ukrainian refugee, Escape from Mariupol: A Survivor’s True Story.

Mstyslav Chernov’s award-winning documentary, 20 Days in Mariupol, offers a disturbing look into Russia’s ruthless siege of Mariupol, Ukraine, in the early weeks of the war. If Chernov’s film provides an inside view of what happened in Mariupol, the non-fiction Escape from Mariupol: A Survivor’s True Story provides an inside view of Chernov’s inside view. Here’s why:

Mariupol was a Ghost City

Footage from 20 Days in Mariupol reveals empty city streets bereft of human activity. Small groupings of looters pilfered the stores, otherwise, there was hardly anyone around. Mariupol had a prewar population of 430,000. Around a quarter were thought to have left the city in the early days of the invasion, with tens of thousands escaping thereafter.

This begs the question: if approximately 130,000 civilians fled the city early on, where were the remaining 300,000? Chernov’s camera captures small groupings of civilians hiding in small basement shelters, or in hospital corridors, but where were the masses?

stating, Mariupol was a Ghost City

Credit: Diana, a Ukrainian refugee living in America

Hiding underground

My book, Escape From Mariupol, tells the true story of Adoriana Marik, a Ukrainian woman who survived five weeks in a basement shelter located beneath a high rise building in downtown Mariupol at the start of Russia’s invasion. Adoriana hid alongside over 200 civilians. With very little food or water, the people starved for days at a time and suffered severe dehydration. They fought amongst themselves, they stole, they wept, they shouted with rage.

Angelic characters, like the men in the basement who risked their lives to find food for the shelter’s inhabitants, restored Adoriana’s faith in humankind.

Of course, this was not the only crowded basement shelter hosting hundreds of civilians. Similar pockets of Hell existed throughout the city including the tunnels beneath the sprawling Azovstal Steel Plant. The larger the basement, the more civilians it attracted, and when one large basement suffered casualties from aerial assaults, the injured civilians that remained would flee to other crowded basements for protection.

Imagine, then, as you view the empty streets in 20 Days in Mariupol, the thousands upon thousands of civilians who hid like moles to protect themselves, not from the harsh winter elements, but from the deafening cluster bombs that dropped from the sky at all hours, especially at night.

The Sound, the Fury, and the Silence

In the opening of 20 Days in Mariupol, Chernov insightfully states “Someone once told me, wars don’t start with explosions, they start with silence.” However, in Escape from Mariupol: A Survivor’s True Story, the war began when Adoriana was awakened by a very loud explosion just before dawn.

The sound of that aerial strike marked the abrupt end of a safe and free existence in the city that Adoriana loved. She immediately gathered her documents and fled her apartment with her dog tied to a leash around her waist. In the streets below, cars frantically whizzed past in the direction of the exit leading out of Mariupol as a low siren sounded.

In the weeks that followed, Adoriana’s ears were assaulted by the deafening sounds of bombs dropping at all hours of the day, and especially at night. She compares the noise to the sounds of high-speed trains crashing into houses.

Credit: Diana, a Ukrainian refugee

So, whose view is objectively correct? Chernov’s, which emphasizes the silence, as evidenced in the above video depicting Russian tanks circling in silence, or Adoriana’s, which emphasizes the loud bombs and ensuing chaos? Here, two seemingly contradictory observations can at once be accurate. Adoriana remembers the loud explosions, while Chernov recalls the silence. As science fiction and fantasy author Bao Shu states, “The difference between perspectives, collectively, create(s) objectivity.”

Please keep Ukraine in your thoughts as it struggles to defend its very existence. Join me in January for the second installment of my comparative review. :

  1. Cara, Anna, “Civilians fleeing Mariupol describe street-to-street battles” The Associated Press, 21 Mar 2022, Civilians fleeing Mariupol describe street-to-street battles (