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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Frozen In Time: A Rare Look At Life In Mariupol Under Russian Occupation

Russian occupation authorities promised to rebuild housing in Mariupol by winter, but in reality, thousands of people face the cold in largely destroyed houses and apartments. Mariupol residents told Vazhnyye Istorii about how they are surviving as winter falls.

Photo of an apartment building in Mariupol damaged by war

An apartment building damaged by shelling in Mariupol

Important Stories

Russian troops shelled Mariupol for more than two months straight, and fully occupied it by May. The Kremlin needed the city to provide a land link to annexed Crimea. It is still unknown how many people have died in the city of approximately half a million people in peacetime.

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In May, Ukraine reported at least 25,000 dead but the number could be much higher. Many are buried under rubble or in mass graves, and countless others reported missing.

Up to 90% of high-rise buildings and 60% of private homes have been damaged or destroyed. Nevertheless, there are still about 100,000 people in the occupied city. Many of them have no electricity, heat, water, or sewage. People live without utilities, with tape covering broken windows, and are freezing in their homes in the absence of promised aid that Russia has failed to deliver.


Vazhnyye Istorii talked to Mariupol residents about how they are surviving the cold and how they feel about the occupation authorities.

No way out

Andrei Zonder is the head of House 66 apartment bloc on Morsky Boulevard, where 50 people now live.

On the attack and the hardship of winter: Missiles hit our building on March 5th, 11th, and 12th, with 19 direct hits. Today [at the time of the conversation on December 1st] is the 281st day since the beginning of hostilities.

If you look at the pictures from March and April, and today, you will see that there has been no change in the house. The house is cold. People are sick, myself included. I didn't sleep last night, either. There was a brisk wind at 4 am that ripped the tape off the windows, and it was 3 degrees celsius in the house. Because of the holes in the roof, we have flooding in apartments from the 12th to the 8th floor. There are also no doors or windows in common areas, or in corridors.

Our house was in the "red" zone in March, April, and May. No one was allowed to visit us: medics, the Emergencies Ministry, or humanitarian aid. The residents of our sector were right in the line of fire. We couldn't leave, and there were checkpoints all along the perimeter. You had to ask for a separate permit and sign a logbook to take out the garbage.

Now we have about 50 residents in the building. The apartments are all frozen, the water is icy, and it is hard to wash hands in it. Today my neighbor showed me that the skin on her hands is cracking.

Before June, we were given humanitarian kits from the "United Russia" (political party), sugar, pasta. But since June, they've only been giving these kits to children from 0 to 3 years old. I survive on subsistence food. Sometimes the residents share some food. You don't know what you will eat tomorrow.

About the pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian position: nobody cares what happens in politics. They don't watch the news, and they don't follow the fighting. They don't see who is advancing or retreating. They want to survive, and they want to restore at least a normal livelihood. Right now, it's inhuman. The city is destroyed, and people are doomed to extinction. I'm sitting at home; my feet and hands are freezing cold. That is why such questions are irrelevant here. If you ask about Ukraine or Russia on the street, people will say, "Does it matter now?"

Photo of women selling goods at a market in Mariupol

Two women sell toilet paper and cigarettes at a market in Mariupol.

Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS

A dead zone

Nadezhda (name changed) lives with her high school daughter, her brother, and her mother in a private neighborhood in Mariupol. Their house is partially destroyed, but they have managed to get stove heating.

When we came out of the basement, where we hid from the shelling, we had no windows, doors, or fence, and the roof was broken. We had mines flying right under our windows. We are partially patching things up and fixing the doors. Four of the seven windows are still there; others we covered with tape.

We made a wood stove, so we have a way to keep warm, but other people get cold. No one offers us any firewood or coal, and many of us can't afford to buy any. All the homes in the private sector are gas-heated, and people are freezing because they have no gas. And people have no windows, so it makes no sense to heat the streets. The private sector also has no roofs. People are hiding somewhere to stay alive.

They only gave electricity to our private sector a month ago. It is a dead zone, and no one comes here, not even humanitarian aid. There was a field kitchen in May and June, that's all.

Now we live one day at a time because you can't plan anything here.

During the shelling, we were in our basement. It was horrible and scary. And especially when they were bombing us from airplanes and tanks, which were very close by, and shells flew in front of our house. The last five days were so bad that we thought that was it. We said goodbye to each other.

It's just impossible to put it into words. Tears come immediately to my eyes. When you put a hundred grams of potatoes into a cup for a child, and the child thanks you for it... there are no words to explain it.

Now we live one day at a time because you can't plan anything here. It cost $800 to get out during the shooting. Now that price has dropped a little bit; it's $500. But again, it was likely via Russia because the road to Ukraine via Zaporizhzhia was unpaved and washed out by rain. And I think everything there is mined and dangerous. When my relatives were leaving, they came under heavy fire in Vasilievka. They slept there for five days to get through. And my mother has poor legs; she can't endure such a trip.

In March, we gave our car to our relatives to evacuate because they needed it more: Their girl was wounded, and a piece of shrapnel 20 centimeters big was stuck in her shoulder joint. We knew we couldn't all fit in the car. But we're glad they made it.

Maybe we'll get up the courage by spring or summer and get out. We hope for the best. We'll make it. We're strong.

Photo of apartment building in Mariupol destroyed by shelling

Apartment building destroyed by shelling in Mariupol

Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS

Alcohol is easier to find

Maria (name changed) left the city in May for Europe via Russia. Dozens of her friends and acquaintances died in Mariupol. Her female relatives, who live without electricity, remain in the occupation but are beginning to be influenced by Russian propaganda. Maria says she won't return to Mariupol until de-occupation.

Our two female relatives are elderly women. They are terrified to leave, and they are intimidated. They have lived there for a long time, since Soviet times. And now Russian propaganda is being drummed into their heads--that this is how it should be, that Russia will always be here, and no one needs you anymore, and if you want to leave, we can only take you to Russia and leave you there.

Now we are just waiting for Ukraine to return to Mariupol.

There's a car with a TV screen that broadcasts news from Russia. And our female relatives are starting to succumb to Russian propaganda. They think that all [war crimes] are provocations from Ukraine and they started switching to the Russian side. They can't watch the news from Ukraine. In general, they don't know what's happening worldwide. It's impossible to access Ukrainian sites, and you can only go in through a VPN. But if you have a VPN and a policeman checks you out, there will be problems because it's illegal.

Our female relatives have the opportunity to live in a house now. There's no light, but there's a stove that they use wood to heat. They are just lucky that they have a private house because a lot of people live in basements.

My relatives work in debris removal, as do many people in Mariupol. They get ten thousand rubles. There is no light in their house, and they charge their phones at work when they can.

There are a lot of people in Mariupol who started drinking. Many have lost families, friends, and relatives, and they don't know how they should live now or what is happening in the world. When you read some Russian newspaper telling you that Kyiv gave up Mariupol, that Mariupol residents are some freaks who unfortunately survived...people start drinking.

And it's easier to buy alcohol here than to buy food. It's cheaper. Food is costly, and a salary of 10 thousand rubles is not enough to live on.

Now we are just waiting for Ukraine to return to Mariupol.


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