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CHAPTER I: Destruction

Each time Yekaterina films the streets of Mariupol, she knows she may be caught. Every day, this resident of the Russian occupied Ukrainian port city shoots images of destroyed buildings, charred windows and numerous bullet holes in walls that are still standing.

She films what is left of her city, which is still suffering the consequences of the devastating siege of March last year. Any Russian soldier in the street may check her phone, or someone may grass on her.

With these videos, which Yekaterina shares with her thousands of followers on TikTok, she wants to show what life looks like under the Russian regime. She started making them last summer when she saw short videos on this social medium about ‘how everything supposedly went so well after the “liberation” of the city,’ she says in a chat with de Volkskrant.

In the first place, however, the videos are ‘for my compatriots who have left Mariupol,’ she says. She often makes them by request from residents who have fled the city. In the videos she takes them on a tour of the remnants of houses where they once lived, shops where they bought their groceries and parks where their children played.

Via their accounts, TikTok-ers are approached by residents who fled the city to show them specific spots or houses in Mariupol.

Yekaterina is not the only one doing this. Dozens of Mariupol residents visit destroyed buildings on request, filming them with their phones and sharing the footage on TikTok. The social medium now has thousands of recent videos of the city.

Since the city fell in Russian hands in mid-April, the situation in Mariupol is unclear. The two last remaining Western journalists, Ukrainians from the French press agency AFP, left in March and for months the lack of electricity and Internet made communication as good as impossible. Through the images and stories of the residents it is now possible for the first time to see what daily life in the city actually looks like.

De Volkskrant has analysed more than two thousand video images on social media and had chat conversations with eight residents who either remained in Mariupol or returned to it. They tell us how they survive, how Russia eradicates all that is Ukrainian from public space, how the Russians take repressive measures and how some residents keep resisting, wherever possible. Because of the risk of reprisals by the Russians all the names in this report are fake, details about the participants’ lives have been left out and no video images are shown of the residents with whom we were in contact.

It’s not that Yekaterina stayed behind voluntarily. She tried to escape from Mariupol three times. First she was stopped by tanks, then by planes that were bombing the city, and the last time her car was hit during shelling in the night. She would still rather turn her back on these ruined streets, but the only available route out of the city leads to Russia.

Now she and her child have no choice but to stay with the other stay-behinds. Daily life in the city is difficult for her. ‘I no longer have a job, my son doesn’t go to school any more. He is fed up with being cooped up with me all the time,’ she says. ‘We gave up playing outside a long time ago. After 3 PM we don’t dare to leave the house anymore. Even in the daytime we don’t feel safe in the streets.’

Yekaterina is staying in the house of friends who did manage to flee the city and are now elsewhere in Europe. There is little left of her own house. Like many other residential blocks, it was destroyed by Russian bombardments in March and April. All her possessions went up in flames.

Many other residents de Volkskrant spoke with, have sent photos and videos of what once must have been living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms. Videos on social media show residents walking past the charred and partly collapsed residential blocks. ‘All my dreams were buried here,’ writes a man while passing a collapsed house.

To get an idea of the destruction de Volkskrant analysed thousands of satellite images of the city. These show that in the city centre alone, one third of the buildings was damaged. The sheer scale of the destruction becomes evident when the damage buildings are superimposed on the city map of Mariupol.

Of the 7000 analysed buildings, more than 2,600 show clear signs of damage seen from the air.

In reality probably many more buildings were destroyed as from the air only broken rooftops are visible and you can’t see the damage to the sides of buildings. After the siege, Ukrainian soldiers spoke of a ‘city that is destroyed for 90 per cent’.

An unknown number of civilians were killed during the siege or died from hardship. Ukrainian government estimates that more than 25,000 people lost their lives.

Between waves of shelling, families buried their loved ones in improvised graves, in inner courtyards and city parks.

When the fighting stopped, many of them were reburied. Some residents who had fled, returned to give their loved ones a dignified funeral. Fields full of white crosses emerged around the city. Satellite images still show the contours of these fields with graves.

There may very well be the mortal remains of several people buried in a single grave.

At the large cemetery of Stary Krym just outside the city some 8,500 graves have appeared since March, an analysis of satellite images from November last year shows.

The residents de Volkskrant spoke with have also lost family members and friends. Galina’s mother-in-law was killed by the Russian bombardments in March. Maria was ‘one of the lucky ones’: she didn’t lose any family members, but many ‘friends, acquaintances and neighbours’. ‘I’ve seen many dead bodies in the city when we had the chance to go out into the streets again,’ she says.

Yekaterina’s uncle was killed when his house took a direct hit. ‘He died together with a friend who was with him at the time. Almost nothing was left of them. We don’t even know whose remains we buried. From the house only the foundation remains.’

‘I remember the shelling, the fear, the hunger, the cold, the thousands of bodies, the hundreds of graves in inner courtyards, the stench of corpses in the destroyed houses,’ says resident Galina. For her this was one of the reasons why she and her son fled Mariupol last summer. Her husband didn’t want to leave and stayed behind. After one month in a refugee camp, Galina decided to return with her son after all.

Since then, she’s been trying, together with residents who did stay and others who, like her, returned, to pick up their lives again. On social media residents demonstrate their resilience, sharing encouraging words with their followers. In videos of the destroyed city they write – in Russian, as a form of resistance – ‘We shall live.’

CHAPTER II: Life in the Destroyed City

Until a few weeks ago, Anna was living in the darkness of her boarded-up house. It was heavily damaged during shelling in March and her windows were blown out by ‘three huge explosions’. Together with her husband and children she has been trying to rebuild their lives.

‘We found some old window frames that still had glass and we put them in so we had some daylight in the house again,’ she tells. ‘My husband repaired holes in the roof as best he could. We are now living with the entire family in two heated rooms where we can keep the temperature at 18 to 20 degrees.’

In May, after the Russian military had taken the city, Anna and her family left Mariupol for a short while. However, fearing for their possessions and the house they left behind and being concerned for their relatives they went back home again after two weeks. ‘No matter where you are, the thoughts of your birthplace never leave you,’ she says. ‘Home sweet home.’

Especially during the first few months the stay-behinds were struggling to survive in mediaeval conditions. The inhabitants of residential blocks were compelled to prepare food on open fires in their inner courtyards.

They would fetch water from ponds, wells and streams while the grenades were coming down around them. There was no communication with the outside world.

‘For eight months we lived without water or electricity,’ says Anna. Since this summer the Russians have started repairing the electricity, gas and water grids. TikTok videos show residents filming how the burners of their ovens are working again and tap water is available again.

Still, life is far from normal. The streets are much less busy than before. According to Ukrainian estimates there are only some 100,000 of the original 430,000 residents left. The majority of shops are either empty or destroyed. And even those who have by now been hooked up to electricity or gas again have to deal with frequent failures.

Residents then have to fall back on emergency solutions that are reminiscent of the days of the siege. They have to ‘go out again and cook on open fires,’ says Yekaterina. ‘And if there is no water for a longer period of time, we go to the well. Which is quite some distance away.’ In various Telegram groups messages are posted about living rooms where temperatures drop below zero this winter.

Civilians who have gone for months without heating, electricity or Internet, or who are homeless, turn to local authorities or ‘write letters to Putin’s assistants,’ says Yekaterina. A photo shows a banner with the words: ‘Help us, we are freezing. No heat, no gas, no power, no water.’

Up until the summer, the Russians provided humanitarian aid, say residents. On TikTok people are showing what was in the food packages. In ‘unboxing videos’ they show tins with fish or meat, bags of flour, bottles of water, sunflower oil and pasta.

Meanwhile only pensioners, people with disabilities and children under the age of three are receiving emergency aid, according to a document of the Russian authorities that de Volkskrant has seen. The other residents have to buy food in the markets or in one of the few shops that are still open.

The regional government has opened state shops these past few months, and these are by now well-stocked. Pro-Russian TikTok-ers point their cameras at overflowing shelves while stocking up on groceries.

But scarcity and inflation have pushed up prices in the state shops. Yekaterina often cannot buy certain things or goes and looks for cheaper offers in markets or from private citizens. ‘If you wish to buy things for a more or less low price, you have to visit half the neighbourhood.’

On top of that, many residents hardly have any income because of the lack of jobs in the city. Yekaterina sits at home, unemployed. Some residents, like Galina, find temporary jobs. ‘I work in a shop, for very little money. There is no heating, the temperature doesn’t rise above ten degrees and I receive the equivalent of twenty dollars for a twelve-hour workday.’

Most shops can be found in demolition and construction. Anna and her husband opted for that type of work. ‘Even without experience, you can start right away,’ she says.

After the conquest, Moscow promised to rebuild the city. Denis Pushilin, of the illegally annexed province of Donetsk, even saw in Mariupol ‘a future bathing resort’. Russian job sites list dozens of calls to come and work in Mariupol; from roofers to plumbers and from construction workers to land surveyors.

Buildings that were shot to pieces or burnt down are being levelled in great haste.

Throughout the city notices are posted to inform owners or tenants about the demolition. TikTok-ers, such as Karina, film the buildings before they are razed to the ground. ‘I make images for the sake of history,’ she says about her videos.

Residents also use this social medium to show the contrast between the devastation and what Mariupol was like before the war. A prewar video in which students are dancing in their still intact dance school cuts to images of the same dance room, only this time with broken windows looking out on ruins.

Another video by the same maker features her classmates and the words: ‘There are six of us left. There were eighteen of us.’

The Russian authorities focus on the reconstruction of the city and use it for their propaganda. Immediately after the first newly built apartments were completed in early September, the municipality organised a festive opening. On a small platform, surrounded by Russian flags, the first tenants were presented with the keys. The Russian state television broadcasted a report of the event.

Pro-Ukrainian TikTok-ers responded with cynical videos that show how the inhabitants of the new, pristine-white apartment complex have a view of the destroyed residences across the street from their balconies. Pro-Russian TikTok-ers on the other hand film only the newly constructed neighbourhoods.

An analysis of satellite images shows how the Russians have thrown up at least nineteen blocks of flats since they started construction in June. Fifteen more blocks are still under construction. This contrasts sharply with the thousands of destroyed and mostly uninhabitable buildings elsewhere in the city.

A residential block built by the Russians in the heart of the destroyed city.

Many people who no longer have a home are still waiting for a place to live. According to residents, most housing is allocated to pensioners, people with disabilities, and residents who display a cooperative attitude towards the occupier.

Construction workers from Russia also are immediately given a house. Many of the displaced people are now on long waiting lists.

‘None of my friends was given a home,’ says Yekaterina. ‘The Russians have tons of excuses: you either have the wrong certificate or you don’t have all the documents you need.’

Many residents take a pragmatic view. Anna, for example, views the building of the Russian apartments as ‘a good opportunity’ for people to have a roof over their heads again.

To others it feels unpleasant to live in houses built by the Russians who have all but destroyed the entire city themselves. ‘Of course it’s a good thing that houses are built,’ says Galina.

‘People need places to live. But this is not a gift, it is just compensation for what has been destroyed.’

CHAPTER III: Russification

‘Blasphemous for the city, for the survivors and especially for the dead,’ is Maria’s qualification of the diligence with which the Russians build new residential blocks on top of the ruins of her city. Not only does she see how Russian apartments are constructed in Mariupol, but also how the Russians remove everything that is Ukrainian. ‘This is unpardonable.’

It’s a miracle how Maria survived the siege in the first place. For days on end, she and her husband remained in the stairwell of their building, which had no bomb shelter. ‘The worst part were the planes. Then the whole building would tremble like in a heavy earthquake.’ The situation became untenable when their neighbourhood came under heavy fire on 12 March. ‘All around us houses and cars were burning. It was just hell.’

They gathered some warm clothes and food and left on 14 March. ‘That was the last time we saw our house.’ While the bombs were falling all around them, she and her husband fled to a suburb of Mariupol. A few days later, their apartment building was burned to the ground. Now Maria stays with family on the outskirts of the city and looks after her ageing mother.

Maria tries to keep the memory of prewar Mariupol alive. On TikTok she watches videos of the demolition of residential blocks and of the undamaged city in better days.

Many others on TikTok post similar images, such as a video that shows the letters of the city’s name in Ukrainian blue-yellow, welcoming visitors to the city. These letters have now been painted over in the Russian tricolour.

Over the past few months, the city has been ‘russified’ at full speed. The Russians are intent on transforming Mariupol into a Russian city. They are rebuilding it to their own design, systematically erasing everything that has to do with Ukrainian history and culture from the streets.

Russian flags now line the streets. The city’s central square – the Freedom Square – has had a makeover. It featured 25 stone pigeons, representing the freedom of each Ukrainian region.

The Ukrainian symbols on the pigeons – traditional embroidery – have been removed and the square itself has been renamed Lenin Square.

Amidst the 25 pigeons now flies the Russian flag. A mural that was popular among many residents was also removed by the Russians. The metres-high work portrayed Milana, a girl whose mother was killed during Russian shelling in 2015. Milana herself was wounded and lost a leg. A video on social media shows how two men are painting over the mural. ‘It’s a disgrace,’ is one of the comments.

Recent footage shows that the mural has been replaced by a pro-Russian banner with the name of the new ‘sister town’ St Petersburg.

The mural of Milana was removed.

And that’s not all, as the changes also directly affect daily life. For example, the people of Mariupol now receive only Russian TV stations and, following the Russian example, there is no longer daylight-saving time, which means that it is now one hour later in Mariupol than in the rest of Ukraine.

Many shops now only accept Russian roubles, the currency imposed by the Russians. Gradually the Ukrainian grivna is disappearing from people’s wallets. The same goes for identity cards. Restrictions are imposed on those who have only a Ukrainian passport. Without a Russian passport it is impossible to work as a teacher, a doctor, a police officer or civil servant.

The Russians are also covering up the traces of their own war crimes. In December they started tearing down what remained of the town’s theatre, where in a Russian bombardment on 16 March hundreds of sheltering civilians are presumed to have been killed.

Very little evidence remains of those horrors. Veiled scaffolding surrounds the theatre.

The screens bear portraits of great Russian playwrights such as Lev Tolstoi, Alexander Pushkin and the Ukrainian-born Nicolai Gogol.

Behind the screens excavators are removing the debris and a new theatre is built.

The russification extends to schools. ‘Students are taught in Russian and the teachers are newly certified and trained in Russia,’ says Maria. According to Yekaterina, her young nephew has to learn the Russian anthem. ‘It’s just terrible. In school they now teach children that Ukraine is bad and Russia is good.’

Ukrainian school children are given Russian educational material.

Russia also organises ‘summer camps’ for youngsters as an introduction to their new country. TikTok videos from November show how busloads of children return to Mariupol’s Freedom Square after a trip to St Petersburg.

They were a ‘third cohort’ of ‘350 pupils and 19 teachers who are introduced to the northern capital during a two-week visit,’ the regional government of St Petersburg writes on the social medium VKontakte. It is unclear whether participation is voluntary. Last August, the Russian state press agency Tass reported that some children ‘had been treated in specialised institutes in St Petersburg, on doctor’s advice’.

According to Ukraine, Russia even goes as far as deliberately separating children from their parents and grandparents. On an archived version of a meanwhile no longer existing Russian government website money and support are offered to people who are willing to adopt children from Mariupol. According to this site ‘more than a thousand’ children were brought to Russia from the city. Adoptive parents received a ‘one-time benefit’ of 20,427.77 roubles (some 273 euros) for each adopted child.

CHAPTER IV: Repression and Resistance

Before going to the office of the police district a few months ago, Yekaterina cleaned up her smartphone, as a precaution. She purged her photos and videos and deleted incoming calls and text messages so the Russians wouldn’t be able to find anything. She had heard from others what to expect and she knew that not everyone had successfully completed the so called ‘filtration’ procedure.

Yekaterina was given a single sheet of paper. ‘There were questions on it about where I was at the beginning of the “special military operation” and whether I had relatives or friends that support Ukraine.’ She was asked if she had been present at Euromaidan in 2014 – the large-scale protest that led to the fall of the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. ‘They then fingerprinted me and photographed my face. I was taken to be “interviewed” and a soldier checked my phone.’

She told them there was nothing on her smartphone because she didn’t have Internet at home. Yekaterina ‘passed’ the filtration, was handed a stamped document, and could return home. A man who had been interviewed that same day was less fortunate. ‘He came out with a broken face,’ Yekaterina says. ‘I asked him why they had beaten him. Instead of “special military operation” he had used the word “war”.’

Although residents describe the procedure euphemistically as ‘not pleasant’, many, like Yekaterina, undergo it voluntarily. This is because the screening is needed to obtain all kinds of documents, such as a pass to leave the city, which is surrounded by checkpoints. Without having been screened it is almost impossible to go anywhere; residents call the filtration paper ‘the most important document beside your passport’.

Resistance in Mariupol is limited to images on social media displaying Ukrainian symbols.

The filtration procedure is one of the clearest examples of repression by the Russians. They use the screening to ‘filter out’ residents with pro-Ukrainian sympathies and members of the Ukrainian forces and thus prevent resistance.

From interviews with residents, it is clear that the filtration procedure is being widely applied in Mariupol. Some people were taken away after the screening. Human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch have accused Russia of detaining people in special ‘filtration centres’.

Those without proof of filtration are subjected to a barrage of questions at checkpoints, says Maria. Residents have to undress so they can be checked for pro-Ukraine tattoos. Their smartphones, laptops and bank accounts are checked. ‘Everything is aimed at finding out any political beliefs and connections that may pose a threat according to the new government, such as ties to the Ukrainian forces or providing support for them.

Russia tries to eradicate everything that refers to Ukraine, but the residents of Mariupol keep writing slogans such as ‘Slava Ukraini’(glory to Ukraine) or the Ukrainian trident on walls.

During the first weeks of the occupation, the Russians even went ‘from door to door to check people and search houses,’ says Maria. ‘It didn’t happen everywhere. In some places people were lucky.’ Yekaterina tells how in one of the districts ‘all the men under 65’ were taken to ‘filtration camps’ outside the city.

‘My uncle was taken,’ says Yekaterina. ‘He stayed there for almost a month and was allowed one phone call home each week. He was constantly interrogated. In the end he was given a stamp and was allowed to go home.’

Residents interviewed by de Volkskrant report that not everyone ‘passed’ the filtration. ‘Some friends of mine ended up in a cellar or prison,’ says Maria. In the door-to-door operations some civilians were taken from their homes when the Russians found something they didn’t like. ‘Their possessions, cars, food, and drugs were taken from them.’ It is not clear what has happened with these people since.

Ribbons with the Ukrainian blue-yellow in bushes and among the rubble, as tokens of resistance.

In other areas that have been under Russian control for a long time, such as Kherson, illegal prisons and torture chambers were found after they were liberated. Some people were arrested for espionage in retaliation for having a relative in the Ukrainian armed forces or because of pro-Ukrainian resistance. None of the people we spoke with knows of any such examples in Mariupol.

There doesn’t seem to be any widely organised or armed resistance in Mariupol. Residents state they haven’t heard about it themselves. There are some signs of resistance on social media. ‘You will be mowed down’ can be heard in the background of a TikTok video as the camera slowly zooms in on a Russian flag waving over the streets of Mariupol. ‘Everything has become uglier’, is the text in another video with a Russian tricolour.

Also, images circulate in which the Russian flag has vanished from the Freedom Square. In some places in the city pro Ukrainian graffiti has appeared on walls: the battle cry Slava Ukraini (Glory to Ukraine) and ‘3CY’, the abbreviation of the Ukrainian army. Or the letter ï, the counterpart of the by now well-known Russian Z. This letter is not in the Russian alphabet and also looks a bit like a trident, the symbol of the Ukrainian armed forces.

What resistance there is, is mostly silent and subtle. Residents of Mariupol deal very differently with the occupation anyway. Some are ‘specifically against Ukraine and are deliberately collaborating with the Russians,’ says Yekaterina. A large group prefers a ‘neutral’ or ‘apolitical’ stance. According to Yekaterina, some of them are ‘convinced that the intruders have come here to stay’ and adapt to the circumstances.

A large part of the pro-Ukrainian population is mostly ‘scared and waiting for the return of the Ukrainians,’ says Maria. The filtration and repression make it basically impossible to organise resistance, she says. ‘Very few people can put up resistance against men carrying guns.’

Besides, many people simply long for some quiet. ‘People have been morally destroyed,’ says Maria. ‘No other city in Ukraine has been through such a hell as Mariupol. Now many people simply want peace and a return to at least minimally comfortable living conditions,’ she says.

While the remaining residents of Mariupol are trying to survive, the city keeps reminding them of the horrors of the siege. Resident Galina says how the city still gives her ‘a feeling of hopelessness’.

Maria feels this pain too. ‘Nothing is anymore like the normal civilised life that we had until 24 February,’ she says. ‘I don’t even want to talk about the dead, about the crippled and destroyed lives. Still, even in such a half-dead, once flourishing city people try to lead their lives.’


Distribution: Emilie van Kinschot
Editors-in-chief: Xander van Uffelen and Peter de Greef
Online coördination: Geart van der Pol
Translation: Leo Reijnen

With thanks to: Pieter Sabel, Tiemen Hageman, Sofia Robben, Corinne van Duin and Anouk Gras.