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‘If there’s another war, we’ll either leave or die’ How longtime Mariupol residents are faring under Russian rule
On May 20, the Russian Defense Ministry declared that the entire city of Mariupol, including the Azovstal steel plant, was under Russian military control. According to the ministry, over 2,000 Azovstal defenders had surrendered to Russian troops. Soon after, Mariupolites began returning to the devastated city. Two months later, many of them still have to cook their meals over open fires and spend each morning waiting in line for potable water. Belarusian news outlet Zerkalo spoke with people who have remained in or near Mariupol since February 24 about what it’s like to live in a war-torn city that’s been captured by foreign troops. With the Zerkalo team’s permission, Meduza is publishing an abridged translation of their article.
56-year-old Vadim has been in Mariupol for the entirety of Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine. Even in May, when his wife decided to finally leave the city to be with their children and “live peacefully,” Vadim stayed behind. While water has returned to the tap in his apartment, he still has to cook his meals over an open fire in front of the building because there’s no gas.
“Some buildings were damaged severely, some only partially. Ours only had the frames knocked out, thank God, but the Prymorskyi district as a whole suffered badly in some places. They’ve restored water in the areas where they’ve managed to deal with the damage, but in other buildings, there’s still none,” he said.
28-year-old Alexander (name changed at his request) said that workers were “actively restoring” a kindergarten by his home, and that a post office had opened nearby.
“We have water in our building, too. When there’s good pressure in the pipes, it gets up to the fourth floor. When there’s not, we go down to the fire hydrant, where they’ve added a faucet. But the left bank [of the Kalmius river] is still struggling with water. People’s homes don’t have it yet, so they have to bring it in from the outside. People have to get up at five in the morning to wait in line. And some days, it doesn’t come,” he said.
Throughout the destructive fight for control of Mariupol, Alexander lived in the city with his mother. At first, his grandmother lived with them, too, but when she suffered a pulmonary edema, there wasn’t enough medicine and there was nobody to help, so she died.
"We lived in a two-room apartment with all of our relatives. There were 16 of us. We slept in the hallway, in the kitchen, and in the vestibule. We survived, thank God. We could leave now, but we have several apartments here. Their roofs are damaged. We spent all our time working with our parents, saving money, never going on vacation, investing in our dreams and goals. Now that’s all destroyed — and we might be left without housing, too. People have been going to the city administration, saying, ‘Our apartment burned down. Where should we live? What should we do?’ They’re told to search for empty ones and live there until new ones are built,” he said.
Vadim said that Mariupol is now full of cars with Russian license plates. Russians are allowed to travel freely into the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic,” (DNR) while “coming from Ukraine is probably difficult.” There are buses running on six routes throughout the city, he said, and many people still wait in long lines to receive humanitarian aid packages with staples like pasta, canned meat, and bread. Others buy food from stores or markets.
“We weren’t expecting this ‘Russian world.’ It's not like I wanted someone to come and destroy everything. The city was blossoming — it was alive. Now, there’s at least one building where every single person sleeps in the basement and cooks meals over a fire. Other people have found vacant pharmacies and stores and moved in there,” said Alexander. “What options do we have now? Everything is decided for us ‘from above.’ We’re just adapting to our new conditions. We want to live peacefully, work, and raise our children. Russia hasn’t given us any other chance than to support Russia. If Ukraine comes back, I hope they at least solve things through diplomatic channels rather than with shells. If there’s another war, we’ll either leave or we’ll die — there’s no other option.
‘I had everything I needed’
Beginning next month, according to 25-year-old Roman, humanitarian aid will only be given to pensioners, disabled people, and families with three or more children. Others, like him, will have to purchase food in markets.
Roman has lived in Mariupol for several years; he first came here as a college student, then he stayed and got a job. He saw how the city was rebuilt after the fighting between DNR and Ukrainian forces in the mid-2010s — and then saw Russian troops destroy it again. On March 13, Roman left for the suburbs with his girlfriend and her grandmother; he now lives about 15 miles from Mariupol, but he occasionally comes back to bring food to friends and visit his girlfriend’s grandmother’s apartment to keep looters away.
“It’s painful, of course, that everything had worked out with housing, with work — I had everything I needed. Beautiful Mariupol, its beautiful streets, the downtown area, the parks, the drama theater, even the skating rink on the left bank. There were plenty of things for young people to do, and I could always find work, though I did also travel around to find extra work. And then it was all destroyed in a single moment. Nobody knows what comes next. I don’t see any prospects for Mariupol’s development anytime soon,” he said.
First on the new city authorities' agenda, said Roman, is to tear down the countless unusable buildings. The apartment building where he used to live with his girlfriend was damaged in a fire, and a sign on the building now reads “to be demolished.”
Clearing away the rubble has become one of the main income sources for men in Mariupol — including Vadim himself.
“You have to make a living somehow,” he said. “There are also city volunteers who work for rations; they seem to get them every day. We work in teams to clear the rubble, the aftermath of the shelling, and to remove garbage. In the destroyed buildings, the Emergency Services workers do everything, but we clean up everything around them. I think they’ve gotten all of the corpses by now; if they hadn’t, there would be a smell, because a lot of time has passed. There are still some [improvised] graves that haven’t been transferred out of the courtyards, though.”
‘We don't know who we are’
Yekaterina lives in a village about 10 minutes by car from Mariupol. Unlike the city, her village wasn’t damaged beyond recognition by the fighting; most of the buildings are still in one piece. But that’s because the Russian military occupied it much more quickly than it did Mariupol, and the village went for just as long without electricity, gas, or phone service. The shops, Yekaterina explained, were “looted by the locals themselves.”
“When Russian troops entered the village, Ukrainian forces started shelling them. Our school and the buildings outside it were bombed, and people were injured. They were firing because the Russian military had come into our city,” she said, taking care not to be misunderstood. “The fighting lasted several days, and the Russians moved in for good around March 3. Then they advanced into Mariupol. Beginning on February 24, we spent three weeks in our basements. When I left the village [and went into Mariupol] for the first time, I started sobbing uncontrollably.”
Yekaterina said that while many people have continued moving out of the city, many others have been moving back. In a local Telegram channel, somebody posted a video of people relaxing on the beach.
“My neighbors have gone to the beach, too, even though there are still mines. For me, that’s a scary thought. I’m still in a kind of limbo: I don’t understand where I am, what country I'm in, or what’s going to happen next. [...] We don’t know who we are. We’re certainly not going to consider ourselves part of the DNR. Of course I’m angry at Russia, but I’m angry at Ukraine, too. Perhaps they didn’t do enough to defend Mariupol. There weren’t enough troops here; we needed more. But they defended Kyiv.”
On June 27, Russian forces launched an airstrike on a shopping mall in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, killing 25 civilians and injuring many more. Yekaterina said it hurt to watch her compatriots' attention turn to those deaths when she still hasn’t had the time to process losing so many in Mariupol.
“It’s like they forgot about Mariupol. So many of our people died! [...] If it were possible to peacefully return things to how they were, I’d want to live the way we lived before — under Ukraine. But now people are just trying to live, to survive and recover, however they can,” she said.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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