Mariupol refugee now living in Winchester says Ukrainian soldiers will "never surrender"

  • ITV Meridian's Nicki Woodcock's speaks to Elena Popova from Mariupol

It took teacher Elena Popova 20 days to get out of Ukraine. By the time she fled the country, war was on her doorstep.

"The supplies were really scarce. And soon people got short of water and food supplies and everything. And when the gas was cut off, people started cutting trees and making fires close to their buildings, to their houses.

"I helped people to cut trees and make fire. And it was actually impossible to move around the city because of the constant shelling. 24/7 constant shelling.

"Mariupol was ruined with all kinds of weapons artillery, rockets, missiles, mines and what not."

The view from Elena Popova's window in Mariupol Credit: Elena Popova

"I felt horrible, horrible, frightened."

"People felt like hunted animals. All buildings were partially or wholly destroyed. All the streets and roads in Mariupol were covered with broken glass because of the constant shelling.

"We could hear the sound of the war planes, the sound of bombs, the sound of artillery and shelling."

Elena was forced to take shelter, like hundreds of others, in the basement of a nearby school.

"There were families, some were with ill children, some were with very small little kids. I was lucky to escape in a private car which was owned by one of the girls in the shelter. She took six of us."

Elena brought just two bags when she fled Ukraine Credit: Elena Popova

For the next 20 gruelling days the group travelled from east to west.

They were stopped at checkpoints along the way and confronted by Russian soldiers. Men were told to strip from the waist up.

"They looked for pro-Ukrainian tattoos and for signs of using a gun like on the shoulder or on the back and we had to remove and delete pro-Ukrainian photos and videos.

"It showed that they were trying to hide the truth, the reality of what was happening."

A queue of cars, many of them abandoned, line the road out of Mariupol Credit: Elena Popova

Elena eventually reached the UK where a family offered her a room in Winchester.

The Colemans have welcomed Elena into her home, and say it has been a learning experience.

"It's given us a totally different view I think on certain aspects of life in Europe, life in Ukraine and what it means to go without", said Richard Coleman.

"She's teaching me so much every day. I'm not allowed to even throw away a small bit of carrot", agrees Ann Coleman.

"We just take too much for granted, we have so many things, so many things. They're just material things and she's had to leave it all behind."

Elena says she can't thank the Colemans enough for their generosity: "I have not enough words to express my gratitude and appreciation. They take great care of me."

"They try to create a friendly, warm, nice atmosphere. And I feel actually comfortable and at home.

"I have always known that the British people are hospitable and ready to help and share. But I could not expect such a great degree or scope of volunteering and such a warm attitude towards people in need."

Despite the sanctuary - the war is always on her mind. The fate of her home city of Mariupol is still uncertain.

"My heart is breaking. Ukraine is fighting for its independence, for its independence for it to be away and to be out of Russian control. I hope Ukraine will win, but at a very great cost."