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POLITICS

«Graders were used to remove corpses from the streets.» What's happening in occupied Mariupol

Diana Fishman

In the second half of May, Mariupol came under the effective control of Russian troops and the so-called DNR forces. According to the local authorities, during the two months of continuous shelling and blockade, more than 20,000 civilians were killed and up to 90% of buildings were destroyed. Russian propaganda claims that normal life is returning to «liberated» Mariupol, but in reality the ruined city is facing a humanitarian disaster and is on the brink of an epidemic. The Insider spoke with Mariupol residents who managed to escape to Ukrainian-controlled territories about how they survived the siege and occupation.

ALL CARDS
  • Evgeny Sosnovsky: «A DNR fighter said to me: «Didn't the Chechens cut your heads off? Well, we will.»

  • Anna Gubenko: «The smell of corpses in the houses is unbearable»

  • Vladimir: «They brought a grader and scooped up the bodies»

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Evgeny Sosnovsky: «A DNR fighter said to me: «Didn't the Chechens cut your heads off? Well, we will.»

Our neighborhood was in the epicenter of hostilities because it was in close proximity to the Azovstal plant. My wife's relatives lived ten minutes away from us – her mother, brother and his family. Her mother is bedridden, so every day we visited, cooked for her, took care of her. On March 15, I was making a fire in her yard when heavy shelling started. The first shell fell in the neighbor's vegetable garden, and I ran into the house to check on my wife. I did not find her in the house, jumped out onto the veranda, and at that moment a shell flew in one and a half meters away from me. The veranda was shattered, I heard whistling and instinctively fell to the floor. There was a terrible rumble, then complete silence and darkness. My first thought was: that was the moment. Then I realized that my arms and legs were moving, and I began to clear out everything that had fallen on me – bricks, beams, slate. There was a yellow haze all around, and an unpleasant smell. I walked towards the house where my wife's brother lived - they were all there. I was shell-shocked and could hardly hear anything. My grandmother, fortunately, was only covered with dust from the explosion.

A shell flew in 1.5 meters away from me. There was a terrible rumble, then complete silence and darkness

Two days after that, there was a knock at the door to our apartment. It was our niece and her two children, all dusty and bloody. Their yard was shelled again, their father was badly wounded, he couldn't go anywhere (we buried him later right in the garden). She also brought the children to us under the shelling. They were wounded too: my niece had a piece of flesh ripped out of her arm, and the wound on her leg was literally pulsing with blood. The boy also had a laceration on his back, and the skin on the girl's head was split open. My wife and I, of course, were in shock. We couldn't find a doctor, but our soldiers gave us a roll of bandages and painkillers, and our neighbors brought us hydrogen peroxide, bandages, and gauze. We tied a tourniquet around the boy's leg and washed the wounds as best we could. Of course, the boy was in a lot of pain, he woke up in the night and cried, but he persevered through all the anguish.

A few days later, during another shelling, we were hiding in the hallway as usual, but the sounds seemed particularly strong, the whole house was shaking. We literally had Russian tanks standing in our yard, firing at Azovstal, and we thought that was why the walls were shaking. But it turned out our house was hit. The fire started, the tenants panicked. And all of a sudden, the Kadyrovites burst through the entrance. Three of them rushed to our first-floor apartment and demanded in a rough manner that we leave immediately. They didn't even give us time to gather out belongings. We managed to grab our rucksack with our IDs and our camera bag, some clothes and two thermoses with water, that were standing by the entrance. We couldn't go far, my niece could barely move leaning on two sticks. So we just went to the basement of the house next door (where we spent the next two weeks).

We literally had Russian tanks standing in our yard, firing at Azovstal

Literally an hour later, we heard a woman screaming loudly upstairs. The woman kept repeating the same phrase: «Why did they come out, why did they come out, why did they come out?!» As it turned out, during the shelling, a shell hit one of the apartments, and the woman's son, Denis, ran outside through the entrance to see which floor was on fire and to try to put out the fire. At that very moment a sniper killed him with a bullet to the temple. His father rushed to him - and the next shot killed him. They lay in front of the house for a week. Then a big orange dump truck arrived, half loaded with bodies, and the DNR people threw the bodies of those two guys there. Denis's mother (she was in the basement with his wife and year-old daughter) was given the IDs and personal belongings found on the dead. They couldn't remove her son's ring from his finger, and one of the DNRs suggested cutting it off. Can you imagine what kind of attitude they have toward people? The woman, of course, refused, then a tenant brought oil, and the ring was finally removed.

They couldn't remove her son's ring from his finger, and one of the DNRs suggested cutting it off

After moving into the basement, we were left without food. The next morning, I decided to go back to our apartment and, if possible, pick up some food. But when I went outside, I saw that what was left of our house was just black walls with empty eyeholes of windows. Everything in the apartment had turned to ash, glass canning jars had melted together - that's how strong the fire was. In the end the children were fed with butter found right there in the basement and walnuts gathered under the balcony. The children were happy, but, of course, it was not enough. I went in search of food, and as I passed the ruined bakery where we had bought croissants and buns before the war, I saw a couple of candies on the floor near the entrance. I climbed inside, picked up the candy, turned around, and saw an assault rifle pointed at me.

Apartment of Eugene Sosnovsky
Apartment of Eugene Sosnovsky

I saw a group of Kadyrovites, and a Belarusian among them, with a Belarusian flag on his patch. «Over here! What are you doing here?» I explained I had two wounded children in the basement and they needed something to eat. They said, «Take off your clothes!» They started examining me, looking for tattoos or traces left by a bulletproof vest. When they made sure I wasn't wearing anything of the kind, they checked my ID and let me go: «Get out of here, don't ever come back.» I took a parallel road back, but again I ran into patrolmen. One of them checked my hands for gunshot residue and said, «Don't hang around here anymore, we have orders to shoot on sight. And if anyone else stops you, tell them Seyfullah checked you out.»

Destroyed Mariupol
Destroyed Mariupol

There was another unpleasant meeting, I think, with officers of the DNR Ministry of State Security. They went from door to door asking the tenants if they knew anyone from the SBU, any Ukrainian military servicemen or activists who lived in the houses. One of them obviously decided to curry favor with them and rated me out, saying that I had been filming everything with my camera. They called me up: «Well, reporter, tell us what pictures you took.» «Nothing special,» I said. «I filmed people cooking on campfires. But the pictures are too, destroyed by the fire. Over there is my apartment, if you want, I can show you what remains of my two cameras.» In the basement, where we lived, I had another camera, a working one, and my entire photo archive. So, it could have ended very unpleasantly. I remember him asking: «Did the Chechens cut your heads off?» - «No, thank God.» - «Well, we will.» Nevertheless, they left me alone. And the guy who wanted to earn «points» at my expense was later punched in the face by them: he wanted their help to get his neighbor's apartment, but they obviously didn't like it.

After three unsuccessful attempts to get on an evacuation bus, we found a private carrier who took us out of Mariupol on April 30. I know it's getting harder to get out with every passing day. In some areas there is water, somewhere even light, but there is still no gas. People are given rations, sometimes we manage to buy something - villagers come to the city and sell their produce.

Huge piles of garbage had accumulated near the houses, with no one to remove them for months. There was a stench, unsanitary conditions all around, because the heat wave was approaching. Many of the houses were reduced to rubble, and the bodies of the residents were still lying there. Just imagine them starting to decompose, getting into the soil and into the water. No one is going to clean it up. People are already complaining that the drinking water they receive has a bitter taste and is impossible to drink. The Russians keep saying they will rebuild Mariupol, but it's hard to believe it. We have the example of Donetsk in front of us, which no one has been cleaning up after 2014-2015.

Anna Gubenko: «The smell of corpses in the houses is unbearable»

They started shelling the eastern part of the city on the first day of the war. We had been hiding in the cellar since February 25. As long as there was electricity, at least a faint siren could be heard. But when the power went out, we could not even hear the alarm or receive air raid alerts, so we stopped running for shelter. And on March 6, a mine hit my house. I was standing a few meters away from that place. The explosion destroyed the wall and started a fire.

Anna's ruined house
Anna's ruined house

My son's friends were trapped on the second floor. Luckily the firefighters were nearby: they pulled up a ladder, opened the windows, and got them out. I managed to run into the house, grabbed my suitcase, my phone, and some clothes. Everything was hidden by a thick black smoke, and I couldn't see anything. Our dog managed to escape, but I couldn't get the cats out. That same day we moved to my mother's basement, she lived in the private sector. There were twenty-two of us, including five children, and three dogs.

1/4

In those days, there was already no electricity, no communication, no water, no gas. It was very cold, minus thirteen Celsius at night. We searched for springs, collected rainwater, snow - filled all the containers and used that water for domestic needs. We went to the sea for water. Compared to other people who were huddled in basements in the dark and without sanitary arrangements, we lived relatively normally. My brother's friends, who were sitting in the basement with us, had been in the restaurant and grocery store business, they made trips to their stores under fire in search of leftovers. There were ruthless looters in the city, and the police themselves let people break into the stores, because there was nowhere else to get food. But who would call a man looking for milk for his child a looter? He is a survivor.

Would you call a man looking for milk for his child a looter? He's a survivor

And then my brother was killed. He came under fire along with a friend who managed to escape. There was fierce street fighting, it was impossible to get to that place, so we couldn't take his body right away. For four days he lay in the street near a bomb shelter where my sister-in-law's relatives were sitting. They had been walking past my brother's body and didn't even know it was him. Then they buried him, and the other day he was reburied next to our father's grave. We were lucky his body wasn't lost in a mass grave, and we know where he is and how he died. In March huge mass graves were dug in the city. At first corpses just lay in the streets, including headless bodies, then they were buried in courtyards, on playgrounds, on stadiums, on roadsides. Russian tanks drove into yards and shot at the houses.

Relatives had been walking past my brother's body and didn't even know it was him

My brother's wife had broken her leg while running away from artillery fire. But two days after her brother's death she managed to get behind the wheel and drive us out of Mariupol - with a broken leg! We drove in a huge line of cars - they said that almost three thousand cars left the city that day. The day before, a similar convoy of cars had been fired upon on that road, and people were killed, but we still took our chances. We were moving very slowly: Berdyansk is a few hours away, but we drove for almost 12 hours. It was anguish and mockery at the same time, we passed through twenty checkpoints. They were stopping and checking us endlessly. At one of the roadblocks on the way to Berdyansk, one of the occupants, seeing that my daughter-in-law was in tears, asked what it was about although he knew that we were from Mariupol. «My husband was killed, my house destroyed,» she replied. To this he said with irritation: «We didn't come here to celebrate either.» And the other one, after asking if there were children in the car, started offering candy or cookies.

«My husband was killed, my house destroyed.» – «We didn't come here to celebrate either»

After we left, our acquaintances who stayed in the city told us Russians had occupied my mother's private home and cleaned out everything they could. My friend's tenant was also unceremoniously kicked out of the house: they simply kicked the door in and threw her out on the street without her belongings, saying they needed the apartment as a firing point.

I know from those who stayed in Mariupol that there is an unbearable stench of death in the houses. Having failed to restore the water supply, the occupiers have installed mobile showers. A special pass is required to enter and move around the city. On the way out of the city, they distribute humanitarian aid consisting of Ukrainian food products disguised as aid from United Russia.

Many people in Mariupol have developed Stockholm syndrome because of the information blockade and war. Some are even calling on us to come back, saying that everything is fine there, there is no shooting, there is humanitarian aid. Unfortunately, they have a mishmash of Russian propaganda clichés in their heads.

Vladimir: «They brought a grader and scooped up the bodies»

My house was on the west side of the city, and they shelled it less frequently at first. But when our windows blew out, my wife and I moved downtown to a relative's apartment. Then a mine flew in there too - the balcony doorframe fell out and almost killed me. After that we went down to the air-raid shelter, where we spent about three weeks. There were more than twenty of us, four cats, and one dog.

There was no silence at all, shots were being fired all the time. Walking through the streets was risky, you could get killed any moment. But I walked anyway, carrying things and supplies left in our apartment. Once I passed a house, and a minute later a rocket hit it and I was flung back by the blast wave. In the second half of April the shooting stopped, and it became easier to walk around. However, there were checkpoints all over the city, people were stopped to get their IDs checked, some were forced to undress.

There were checkpoints all over the city, people were stopped to get their IDs checked, some were forced to undress

They started cleaning the rubble and looking for bodies, the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations was in charge of that. I saw a grader arrive and scoop up the bodies. There were guards standing nearby, making sure no one drove up and filmed what they were doing there. The remains of what was left of the Drama Theatre were also cleaned up. I walked by and saw that everything inside was burned out. A while later, a Russian military officer of Caucasian descent came to our yard and also asked if there were any corpses. He seemed to be very concerned about that. He did not talk aggressively, but he kept flicking the safety of his gun nervously.

Mariupol has been turned into ruins. Many houses are burnt out, some destroyed in their entirety, from the ninth to the first floor. There are craters in the ground from bombs dropped from airplanes, about ten meters in diameter. All of the electrical substations are out of order, many are completely destroyed. The Russians promise electricity will be restored soon, but I don't see how that's possible.

On the eve of May 9 they started cleaning the streets - they had to make them look good on TV. I heard from people that the cleaning was done by locals for rations. There was nothing to eat, so they agreed, of course.

On the eve of May 9 local residents were forced to clean the streets in exchange for food – to make them look good on TV

Many people had left the city in their cars. We had no car, so we tried to evacuate by bus. Several times, when we heard an announcement that a humanitarian corridor had been opened, we went to the assembly point on the western edge of the city and waited there all day, but no one came. The evacuation buses were simply not allowed through! The occupiers would arrive at the point where people gathered waiting to be evacuated and announce over the loudspeaker, «Missile attack warning! Everyone take cover!» That is, they wanted everyone to rush back to their basements, and they would film the empty streets and then produce a picture: look, no one is evacuating, no one wants to evacuate.

We had no communication and could not inform our relatives that we were alive. We were rescued on May 6 thanks to the Jewish community; they knew my whereabouts. There were several women in the car with us, including elderly women, so they let us through without filtering. At the checkpoints my friend had his phone checked, they were looking for tattoos on his body, even though he was 65. He had been very active on the Internet and he was prudent enough to clear his phone, so we were lucky. On the way to Zaporizhzhya I met my classmate - he was driving although he had one arm amputated. Once I was within range of a mobile network, I began gradually learning about the fate of my other acquaintances: one was killed, another was killed, yet another wounded...

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