‘Leave a cross so they can find the body later’ A dispatch from Mariupol, a city now covered in graves
Since March 2022, group chats between neighbors in Mariupol have been full of messages about victims of the war whose neighbors buried them — sans funerals — in the courtyards next to their apartment buildings. Russia’s invasion has turned the city into a giant cemetery among the ruins. Journalist Kirill Rukov tells the story of three of Mariupol’s countless fresh graves.
32/42 Peremohy Avenue
"Asking for help! On March 13, my brother, Alexey Gospodinov, and my nephew, Stepan Gospondinov, died in an explosion. Stepan was buried in the courtyard, in the bomb crater." From a message in a group chat used by Mariupolites to share information about the dead.
In the winter of 2022, Alexey Gospodinov bought some ostriches and an incubator and started breeding the birds to sell. “A strong man, two meters tall. In March, he would have been 45 years old,” his wife Anna told Meduza. “Enterprising. He worked for nobody but himself.” After Russian forces started bombing Mariupol and the city’s electricity was shut off, Alexey continued leaving his basement shelter to run to the ostriches every day, turning on the generator for a bit so they wouldn’t die from the cold.
On March 3, the building where Alexey was hiding with his wife and sons caught on fire after it was hit by a shell (another shell hit the ostrich barn; all of the birds died). The family ran a kilometer south to another part of the city, under fire the entire time, and took shelter in a Stalin-era building with a bomb shelter underneath that contained 300 other people. That building, 32/42 Peremohy Avenue, is known as “the bank building” to locals, because there’s been a continuous succession of different banks on its first floor since the Soviet era. The Gospodinov family spent the next 10 days under constant crossfire; the “bank building” was in the middle of the Russian assault troops’ path to Azovstal.
On the morning of March 13, system administrator Yaroslav Dema went to his mother-in-law’s house on Azovstal street to feed her cats. “I was on my way home [to the “bank building”] when I saw a roof tile shoot up into the air. I thought a shell had hit the roof,” Dema told Meduza. “A few seconds later, chunks of dirt started falling from the sky. That meant it was a big one.”
After checking on his wife and children, Dema heard someone crying for help in the courtyard. “I noticed two flat figures, one of them moving; the person tried to get up, but then fell back down again. Then he sat on the ground and screamed,” said Yaroslav. “I was glad: I thought someone would hear and come out to help. But several minutes passed, and he just kept screaming and screaming, alone out there. That’s not right. You just can’t do that. So I dropped my fire extinguisher and ran out to help.”
Dema couldn’t lift the man — his legs were “like rags” — so he found a wheelbarrow. “Only then did I notice the blood spurting out of a huge laceration in the man’s thigh, though he was still conscious,” said Dema. He wheeled him 350 meters (1,150 feet) to a nearby hospital. At the hospital gate, the injured man fell silent and started shaking violently. Dema broke into a run. “I tried to get his name, but he’d already started slipping away,” he said.
A young man wearing blue gloves came out of the reception ward. He looked at the wheelbarrow and said, “Leave him here. But there’s probably nothing we can do.”
Dema ran back to the “bank building” to get another injured person he’d seen, but the person was already dead. He went back to the hospital’s reception ward, which seemed to be empty. “Complete silence,” he told Meduza. “I turned the corner and saw my wheelbarrow leaning against the wall, with the same man hanging out of it. He was dead. Then I looked around and realized there were dozens of bodies piled up. Some of them were in black body bags left from the pandemic, and some were wrapped up in carpets.”
The man in the wheelbarrow was Alexey Gospodinov. Dema later identified him from a photo.
160 Budivelnykiv Avenue
"There was fighting on the street, a Russian tank was stationed at the intersection outside the ATB supermarket. They may have hit them with mortars. It was lying there in the alley for so long. They — I can’t say who it was exactly, because both Ukraine and Russia were shooting, it’s impossible to sort out. [...] The car was on its way out and, after slowing down next to a pothole, exploded right there." From a message in a group chat used by Mariupolites to share information about the dead.
In the last few years of his life, 73-year-old Leonid Soshenko became hard-of-hearing. That may be why he didn’t hear the rumbling of crossfire overhead when he was driving back home in his silver Priora with flasks full of water for his neighbors. When the driver’s door opened, Leonid collapsed from his seat onto the ground. When the shelling let up for a few minutes, residents of 160 Budivelnykiv Avenue came out and dragged Soshenko back into the building. He was wounded in his thigh and his stomach, and one of his lungs had been punctured. He was rapidly losing blood.
A medical worker who lived in the building agreed to accompany the injured man to the hospital; unfortunately, he couldn’t drive, so a younger man agreed to drive them. Leonid’s daughter, Svetlana, still doesn’t know the younger man’s name; all she remembers is that he had a 12-year-old son.
Leonid Soshenko, who was still holding on, was put in the backseat of the Priora. The car started right up, and the three managed to travel about a thousand feet before a shell hit the car. All three men were killed.
Leonid Soshenko was born in 1949 and grew up in Mariupol. He worked as a taxi driver his entire life. In 1973, he married Svetlana’s mother, Lida. “She loved to laugh; she was always the life of the party,” Svetlana said of her mother.
After 47 years of marriage, Lida fell ill. For the last eight years, she’s stopped speaking and leaving the apartment almost completely. Leonid has continued to care for her, making sure she’s not left alone. Two years ago, he started talking to a new woman, Raisa Solodilova, one of their neighbors. “They’re both good, caring people,” said Svetlana. “She would even give my mom presents constantly. So I said, ‘Dad, I’m all for it. You’re a living person, so go ahead.”
After the explosion, Leonid Soshenko’s body lay in the car for another week. Raisa Solodilova and her daughter finally buried him after the ground thawed. Lida died soon after.
65 Pashkovsky Street
On March 3, Gennady Kovalyov was guarding a shelter full of people on Mariupol’s Pashkovsky Street. After a while, he ventured out to a neighboring five-story building to call his sister in Great Britain. When he got to the roof, he found that he had no service. Suddenly, he heard the sounds of women screaming from below: a man had jumped from a fifth-story window.
The man’s body was lying on the ledge in front of the entrance. His head was smashed, with blood dripping out of it. “I don’t know his name, but he had come to our bomb shelter with his wife, and he spent all of his time there,” said Kovalyov. “It sounds like they’d just returned from getting something from their apartment, and that’s when he lost it.” The man was over 65 and his wife was around 60.
There turned out to be three men in the area who were up to the task of digging a grave: Oleksandr, a retired police chief; Petro, a former at the Azovstal steel plant, and Gennady himself, a 55-year-old head construction mechanic. “Oleksandr pulled the body from the ledge and wrapped it up in a sheet,” said Kovalyov. “Nearby, there was a garage, three by eight meters wide, with a hole in one of the walls. We carried the body there so the dogs wouldn’t rip them apart, because hungry ones were already running around.”
On March 10, after days of shelling, the three men decided to go ahead and bury the body, as well as two other bodies that somebody had left in the garage. “The younger guys dug the holes, and we gave them instructions,” said Kovalyov. “The most important thing is to make a mound and leave some kind of cross, so that people can find the body and re-bury it later.”
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale