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‘We’ve been left to die’ In their own words, Mariupol residents describe life under occupation as winter sets in
Original story from iStories. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
At the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine, Russian troops spent more than two months shelling Mariupol. By May, they fully occupied the city. It’s unclear how many Mariupolites have died as a result of Russia’s invasion; in May, Ukraine reported at least 25,000 casualties. Many are still buried under collapsed buildings or in mass graves and are officially considered missing. Up to 90 percent of apartment buildings and as much as 60 percent of private homes in the city have been damaged or destroyed. Nonetheless, about 100,000 people still live in the occupied city — many of them without electricity, heat, water, or plumbing. Unable to communicate with the outside world and denied the assistance promised by Russian invaders, people are now freezing in their homes. The independent Russian outlet iStories spoke with Mariupol residents about winter in the city and about their attitudes towards Russia’s occupation authorities.
‘We’re freezing, sick, and suffering.'
Andriy Zonder is the building manager at 66 Morskyi Boulevard, which is home to 50 residents. He’s been fighting to have the building restored for months, to little avail.
Most of the damage to my home came on March 5, 11, and 12; there were 19 direct hits. On March 5, a missile exploded over my apartment, and all of my windows immediately shattered. Today [December 1] is the 281st day since the start of combat. Absolutely nothing has been done [to fix the damage] in my building. If you look at the photos that were taken in March and April and compare them with today, you’ll see that nothing has changed. It’s bitterly cold inside. People are sick, including me. I didn’t sleep last night — at 4:00 am, a heavy wind broke through the film I had on the windows, and the temperature inside dropped to 3 degrees [Celsius, or 47 degrees Fahrenheit].
At all of the meetings with the city [occupation] administration and with the Ordzhonikidze District authorities — I have them on video — they promised that everything would be repaired by October 10. They said, “Just calm down and wait: all of the work will be complete by October 10.” They promised to replace the windows and fix the thermal circuit that includes the roof, the walls, the doors, and the shared windows. But in reality, nothing has been done.
Because of holes in the roof, apartments on the 12th–8th floors are flooded. Not a single window has been installed. 16 apartments in the building are completely hanging in the air: there’s nowhere to install the windows because there aren’t walls. The common areas, the hallways, also have no doors or windows.
Not everybody in the building has space heaters, but even those who do have them can’t turn them on. Because when people turn on their heaters, it overloads the grid. The only things we do have are electricity and cold water. We went for more than six months with no water. We would go to the cars that brought in water, stand in line, and carry home 5–6 liter bottles. We used that water to wash our things, eat, clean our homes, and bathe. People have been through very severe hardships.
Recently, we were visited by people from the federal autonomous authority Roskapstroy. They promised to monitor our situation carefully. Then some military experts came. They said everything would change the following day. A month passed, then a month and a half… I’ve already lost track. There’s been no progress. We don’t even know if they plan to restore our building or demolish it.
The city and its buildings are destroyed; people have been left to die out. I’m sitting at home with my legs freezing and my arms numb. So questions [about Russia and Ukraine] are beside the point. If you ask about Ukraine or Russia out on the street, people will say, “What the hell difference does it make?” I just need to save my neighbors.
‘This is a dead zone’
Nadezhda (name changed) lives with her school-age daughter, her brother, and her mother in a house in Mariupol. Their building has been partially destroyed, but they’ve managed to keep it warm with a stove.
When we crawled out of the basement, where we’d been hiding from shelling, we found that we no longer had windows, doors, or a fence, and that our roof had been damaged. Mortar shells hit our windows directly. We’ve since managed to fix it somewhat, though nobody helped us. We’ve partially patched things up and put the doors back up. Four of our seven windows are gone; we put oilcloth over them.
We used to heat our home with gas, not with a stove. But the house had stove heating a long time ago, and we managed to [get it working again], so it’s warm.
But other people are freezing. Nobody is being given any firewood or coal, and many people can’t afford to buy it. All of the homes in our neighborhood had gas heating installed, and people are freezing because they have no fuel to burn now. Nor do they have windows, and there’s no point trying to heat the outside. They’re also missing roofs. People are huddling together, hiding, trying to save their lives however they can.
In our neighborhood, we got electricity just a month ago. It’s a dead zone here; nobody comes here. While they brought some radiators to the apartment buildings, no kind of assistance, not even humanitarian aid, was brought to us.
They brought some kind of field kitchen here in May or June, and that was it. After that, they said people here were acting too wild, and they stopped bringing it. But how do you expect people to behave when they can’t even buy bread? They weren’t trying to get it for free; they truly couldn’t buy it, because the lines were so long. The bread truck would come at 11:00 am, and at 5:00 am, people were already in line 10 kilometers (6 miles) from our district. And if you arrived at 6:00 am due to the curfew, you were already 600th in line, and they only brought 300 loaves of bread. So naturally they wouldn’t have any for you. So how do you expect people to behave at the field kitchen? Of course they’ll behave wildly. But then they stopped bringing the bread, too.
‘Alcohol is cheaper than food’
Maria (name changed) left Mariupol in May, going through Russia to Europe. 10 of her friends have died in the city. Many of her relatives are still there; they currently have no electricity, and they’re starting to buy into Russian propaganda. Maria says she doesn’t plan to return to her hometown until after it’s liberated.
Two of our relatives are elderly women. They’re very afraid to leave; they’re intimidated. They’ve been living there for a long time — since the Soviet era. And it’s being drummed into them right now that this is how it should be, that Russia should be there forever, and that they don’t need anybody else. [...]
There’s a car that drives around the city with a big screen broadcasting news from Russia. And our relatives are really starting to succumb to the Russian propaganda. They believe all of these [war crimes] are provocations by Ukraine, and they’re starting to switch to the Russian side. They can’t get news from Ukraine. They have no way of finding out what’s happening in the world. The Internet goes out frequently, and websites are blocked. It’s not possible to go on Ukrainian websites with SIM cards from Phoenix [which is the only mobile operator in the city]. The only way is through a VPN. But if you have a VPN and a police officer inspects your phone, you’ll have problems, because you’re not supposed to use them.
A friend of mine tried to get out of Mariupol. In order to get out, he tracked information through volunteers and used a VPN. [But] he didn’t have time to delete it before filtration, and he was held for questioning for several days; they thought that since he had a VPN, he was trying to transmit information to the Ukrainian media. [...] He’s not the first person they’ve caught with a VPN, because they [the occupiers] are afraid that people will start getting an accurate idea of what’s happening there. And all they show [on the news] is construction in a few regions; they don’t show that the rest of the city is in ruins.
Some districts have electricity, but many don’t. Our relatives, for example, don’t have power. Recently, they couldn’t contact us for a week, and we had no way of knowing what was going on.
Our relatives are able to live in a house. They don’t have power, but they do have a stove, which they keep going with firewood. They’re just lucky to have a house, because it would be very cold otherwise. Quite a few people are living in staircases and basements because their apartments have turned into wind tunnels. I don’t know how those people will make it through the winter.
[But] they don’t have any other options. Our friends were told that if they don’t like something, they should go to Ukraine and ask for help. But while they’re here, they should be happy with what they’re given. [...]
Like many Mariupol residents, my relatives make a living by sorting through ruins. They earn 10,000 rubles (about $158) per month. They don’t have power at home, and they charge their phones at work whenever they can. Officially, they work from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm, but in reality, they don’t get home until late at night; they’re not allowed to leave any earlier. They’re told that they work until 4 only on paper, but that they actually need to stay longer.
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A lot of people in Mariupol have started drinking alcohol. A lot of people have lost their families, their friends, their relatives, and they don’t know how to go on living or what’s happening in the world. When you read a Russian newspaper that talks about how Kyiv has abandoned Mariupol and how Mariupolites are freaks whose survival was unfortunate, then you start to drink. A friend told me that before he left, he also bought beer every day to help him cope with the situation. Because when you look at all of it, you can’t believe it’s really happening.
Plus, alcohol is easier to buy than food: it’s cheaper. Food is very expensive, even in rubles. And a salary of 10,000 rubles, of course, isn’t enough to live on.
A relative of mine served in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and in March, he was taken prisoner on Snake Island. I had some photographs of him. Because of that, I was interrogated [while leaving Mariupol]. They asked, “Who is this guy? What are you doing with these? Is he a relative of yours?” They threatened me and my family and said that if I didn’t confess, things would get even worse. But I made it through. I went through multiple filtrations. We went to Russia and continued from there to Europe, because at that point, it wasn’t possible to go to Ukraine.
My boyfriend had a very hard time getting out [of Mariupol], because he had a Kyiv ID, though he’d been living in Mariupol for many years. They tortured him and asked how he ended up in Mariupol. They told him, “You were probably one of the people lying there in Bucha, pretending [to be dead].” And at that point, we didn’t even know [about the murders of civilians] in Bucha — we didn’t have Internet. The DNR officer held a gun to his knee and said, “Tell me or I’ll shoot.” They held him in a cell for several days and ultimately let him go — only because he was born in Russia.
Now, we’re just waiting for Ukraine to return to Mariupol. We absolutely don’t want to live there under the DNR. I don’t want to go back.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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