The invisible Ukrainian who walked 225km to safety from Mariupol

The aim was to be the invisible man, says Igor Pedin, 61. It was to drift, as if a ghost, with his small trolley bag of supplies and dog Zhu-Zhu, a nine-year-old mongrel terrier, through the hellscape of the besieged port city of Mariupol, out into the badlands of Russian-occupied territories and on to the relative safety of the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia – a mere 225km walk away.

The equivalent of walking by foot from London to Sheffield but through a war unseen in its scale in Europe since 1945 and towards the oncoming convoys of tanks, armoured vehicles and nervous trigger-happy Russian soldiers racing towards Mariupol; it meant sidestepping mines and crossing destroyed bridges with his dog and luggage, where an erring step would lead to a 30ft drop to certain death; he would have to pass the smouldering homes and weeping men and women with their heartbreaking stories of death and suffering and their loss of will to live on.

Pedin, a former ship’s cook, could not have known any of this – and he did not prove to be invisible, he concedes, as he recounts his tale in the safety of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Igor Pedin’s escape

Indeed, such would be his extraordinary feat that on one remarkable night Russian soldiers at one of the many checkpoints he would pass through gathered in the quiet of the evening to hear his story, stuffing cigarettes into his pockets for the onward journey and wishing him luck.

He may not have been invisible, Pedin repeats, the tears welling in a rare moment of emotion. But he was, he adds, lucky.

Pedin’s final decision to leave Mariupol was made on 20 April, he recalls, when the Russian soldiers had reached his part of the city and were going house to house, shooting at will.

There was already little left to stay for; there was scant food or water, the dead were piling up in the streets.

Pedin prepared meticulously. He packed a bag, weighed it and challenged himself to reduce the initial 70-kilo weight to 50.

The initial task for Pedin and Zhu-Zhu was to traverse the five kilometres to the city outskirts, an aim that he had little faith could be achieved.

He left his home on Tkochenko-Petrenko street near Mariupol’s port at 6am on 23 April and it took two hours to stumble through the craters, twisted steel and unexploded ordnance, north up Kyprino Street, where dead bodies were strewn, and on to the Port City shopping mall.

Russian soldiers were handing out food and water at the end of long queues of desperate ashen-faced people. He stole by the crowds, avoiding eye contact with the soldiers, and walked up Zaporizhzhia Road.

“I looked like a vagabond to them, I was nothing. I was dirty and covered from dust, as my house had been filled with a fog of smoke. I walked out of the city by this motorway and at the top I turned around. I looked back down at the city and I said to myself, it was the right decision. I said goodbye. There was an explosion. I turned and walked on.”

He walked by burnt-out military vehicles, just his dog and the noise of shelling behind him until a convoy of armoured vehicles, so heavy they made the asphalt under his feet tremble, swept past. He crouched down, taking Zhu-Zhu, terrified, into his coat, until they passed. “I was an invisible man then,” he recalls. “What am I to them: who is this shadow?”

His aim was the town of Nikolske, 20km away. By the time he reached the first houses, it was getting dark and very cold. “I saw a man ahead outside his house. He said, ‘Young man would you like to drink with me. Today I buried my son. Let’s drink to my son.’”

Pedin gave up drinking 15 years ago but he could not refuse. He had two shots of vodka, while his new friend emptied the bottle. “He told me that Russians had killed his 16-year-old son on 3 March in Mariupol. Shrapnel had taken off his head. After he had disappeared he spent weeks looking for him in Mariupol. He found the grave, and Russian soldiers said he would have to dig him up with his hands if he wanted the body. He told me, ‘I want to die – I will kill myself.’”

Pedin slept on the couch that night, waking at 6am. He knew the only way out towards Zaporizhzhia was through the town. “As I left the town there was a checkpoint: Chechens. They had seen me and two of them came towards me. ‘Where are you going? Where have you come from,’ they asked. ‘Have you been through the filtration camp.’”

A commander appeared and called someone on a radio. “A minivan turned up and three big men came out and I was put in the van. We drove 2km back to Nikolske and came to a two-storey council building, which they had surrounded with steel fencing. There were about 40 people waiting in the grounds but the van drove to the building entrance.”

Pedin left his bag outside and tied up Zhu-Zhu before being taken to the second floor. “A Russian officer sat in front of a desk asked me where I was going. I lied. I said I had a stomach ulcer and needed to get to Zaporizhzhia as I had paid for treatment. I was told to take off my top and they looked for tattoos. I had a bruise on my shoulder and they accused me of having had a rifle. He demanded, ‘where are your tattoos?’ He said, ‘You are boring me. Maybe I should beat you?’ I said, ‘As you wish, commander.’ But I was taken to another room where there were four military women with PCs, and they scanned my fingerprints, put me up against a wall and took mugshots.”

He was given a document from the so-called ministry of internal affairs of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. He was free to leave and set off again with his dog and bag to the checkpoint.

Igor Pedin and Zhu-Zhu
Igor Pedin and Zhu-Zhu are now in the relative safety of Kyiv. Photograph: Vincent Mundy/The Guardian

“The Chechens said they would get the next car to take me to the next village at Rozivka. I was there for two hours. They were bored and talked to me, giving me cigarettes. None of the drivers would take me, so I said, guys, I will just walk. One said, ‘No, this is my authority’, pointing at his gun.”

After an hour, a black minivan pulled up and the Chechens demanded that the driver, who was travelling with his wife and two daughters, aged about 18 and 20, take Pedin. “No one said a word. They took me to Rozivka. On the way, I noticed in the fields large diggers digging up holes. And further down there were crosses. I am sure they were mass graves.”

On arrival at Rozivka, Pedin walked down Lenina street out of town and came to another checkpoint which he passed easily with his new document and kept on walking. By the time he came to the next village, Verzhyna, it was pitch black. “Suddenly flashlights blinded me. There were six soldiers, they barked at me, I put up my hands. They told me to take my top off, emptied my bag. It was freezing. They ordered me to follow them. We went inside the House of Culture [a community centre] which was their headquarters.”

Pedin was given some canned beef and some soup and put in a small room that had a steel bed in the corner. He was told that if he left earlier than the morning that he would be shot – but was free to go the following day.

He crept past the sleeping soldiers in the morning and nodded to one on watch as he left. He walked for 14 hours that day reaching another checkpoint at around 8pm to be searched again. The soldiers pointed him towards a small abandoned house where he could sleep. But he was off again at 6am as the sun rose.

“I saw a big man in his 60s. He asked, ‘Where are you from?’ I said Mariupol, and he called to his wife to bring food. They gave me a bag of bread, onion, fried pork, cucumber. They insisted. And I walked on.”

By now, Pedin was exhausted and yet the greatest obstacle was to come. The road bridge he needed to pass over had been destroyed, leaving a 30-metre sheer drop on to railway tracks below. “You can cheat people but not a destroyed bridge.” The bridge’s metal frame was still in place, however, with two beams: one narrow one below and one broader one at shoulder height. Pedin tied up his dog with his bag and tested the crossing. It was doable. He went back and crossed again with his bag. Then he returned and took his dog, who walked on the beam above, with Pedin holding the lead. “I just shouted, ‘We did it.’”

They approached the next checkpoint. The soldier demanded to know where my companion was. “I said I only had my dog. Then they wanted to know how I had crossed the bridge.”

Pedin was told he could stay the night in the back half of a radio van that had been hit by a Ukrainian shell at the front. It was dark now. Pedin’s story was exactly the sort of diversion the bored soldiers needed. Five gathered around him, to hear of his adventures, and daring deeds across the bridge. “One wanted to keep in touch, he was saying that after the war I should stay with him. There was nothing for me to say.”

Pedin slept in his chair, with Zhu-Zhu under his coat. The next morning, he was told he was not allowed to carry on via the road to Zaporizhzhia but had to choose to go back or south to the city of Tokmak. Pedin headed towards the city but faced two big hills. “The dog just couldn’t go on. I had to walk up the road with my bag, and then come back for him and carry him up. I said, ‘If you don’t walk we will both die, you have to walk.’ He walked up the next hill.”

Off the road was Tarasivka, a small village. “I saw the top of the head of a man in a window and called to him. I gave him some of the soldiers’ cigarettes, I even had menthol cigarettes. The only way to Zaporizhzhia was on small roads and over a dam and then to take what he said was the smugglers’ track.”

He did as he was instructed. But after the dam, there was a crossroads – and no indication of which way to go. Pedin’s luck struck again. “A truck appeared. I called out. I said, ‘I am from Mariupol.’ The door opened. We drove for two hours, through weaving roads. I would have never have found my way. We said nothing. At the checkpoints, this man said just two words to the Donetsk People’s Republic militia and he was let through.”

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Pedin saw a Ukrainian flag ahead, where soldiers checked the men’s documents and let them go. “The driver dropped me in central Zaporizhzhia by a tent. He had said nothing on the journey but gave me 1,000 hryvnia (£30). He said good luck. He understood everything – what was there to say?”

Pedin walked into the tent, full of volunteers. He was asked by a woman whether he needed help. He went quiet and then said yes.

“The lady asked, ‘where have you come from?’ I said, ‘I have come from Mariupol.’ She screamed: ‘Mariupol!’” Pedin recalls with a smile. “She shouted out to everyone, this man has come from Mariupol on foot. Everyone stopped. I suppose it was my moment of glory.”