Bucha To Bakhmut, Mariupol To Maryinka: Our Brutal Introduction To Ukraine's 'Hero Cities'
The world has come to know Ukraine’s geography through decisive battles and unspeakable war crimes in places like Mariupol, Bucha and now Bakhmut. We zoom in on what these places mean for the war, in both strategic and symbolic terms.
Before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Bakhmut, an eastern city of just over 70,000, was known across the region for its sparkling wine and salt mines – and around the world, it was barely known at all.
Through cruel coincidences of fate and geography, the names of places like Bakhmut have become iconic as they appear in newspaper headlines, day after day.
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Now, Bakhmut joins the annals of history alongside places like Iwo Jima, Gallipoli or Falluja that appeared on the map in pitched battles. Or like Aleppo — introduced to many around the world as the site of atrocities during the Syrian Civil War, though known to both history and food buffs for its UNESCO-recognized ancient souk and thousands of years of multicultural culinary wonders.
Over the past 15 months, the world has come to know Ukrainian geography, often in the most tragic circumstances. Just a few weeks after Russia's full-scale invasion in Feb. 2022, the Ukrainian government recognized 14 cities, including Kherson, Mariupol, Bucha and Irpin, as “Hero Cities” – a distinction dating back to World War II, when the Soviet Union recognized cities like Kyiv and Stalingrad (present-day Volgograd) for their residents’ bravery and determination in the face of the Nazi invasion.
After more than a year of full-scale war and as Ukraine's long-awaited counterattack nears, we look at some of the places that have become the site of crucial battles in the ongoing conflict, forever seared into posterity:
1. Bakhmut — Frontline Since 2014
Those who have followed the violence in Ukraine since 2014 will know that, when the war in Donbas began, a battle was already fought and won in Bakhmut (then known as Artemivsk). In May 2022, Bakhmut became a frontline city and was regularly shelled. The city came to widespread global attention in August, when Russia made it a priority, believing that taking Bakhmut would cut supply lines and grant access to the rest of Donetsk. Ground attacks were launched by Wagner Group mercenaries, and by winter Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described Bakhmut as “burnt ruins,” with fighting having descended into trench warfare around the city.
Currently, the situation in Bakhmut is uncertain.
Russia claims that at least 15,000 Ukrainians have been killed in Bakhmut so far, while the U.S. estimates as many as 100,000 Russian casualties. While these figures are uncertain, information from Ukraine has made clear that there are scores of civilian and military casualties each day, “in fighting reminiscent of the First World War.” Zelensky compared the destruction of Bakhmut to Hiroshima while in Japan for the G7 summit.
In early 2023, nearby Soledar was captured, and by April, Russian forces had penetrated Bakhmut’s center. In late May, Wagner mercenaries claimed to have taken the city, which Ukraine denied. Currently, the situation in Bakhmut is uncertain, but fighting in the vicinity continues.
2. Kherson — Reconquered
The port city of Kherson was targeted from Day One of the invasion, as Russian troops rolled in on Feb. 24, 2022. On March 2, 2022, Kherson – targeted for its tactical value on the Black Sea and Dnipro river – became the first major Ukrainian city captured by Russian forces. Locals held protests as Russian FSB Secret Service forces were tasked with destroying resistance and began transforming the city into a part of Russia.
Kherson made the headlines for Russian war crimes under its occupation, as well as during its later annexation in Sep. 2022. There were hundreds of accounts of torture, rapes unlawful detainments and civilian disappearances, and at least 824 new graves were reported.
But the city would take on its iconic dimension for Ukrainians on Nov. 11, when Kyiv’s forces retook the city as a part of the southern counteroffensive. While Russian forces have been expelled, leaving looting and destruction in their wake, shell fire is still exchanged. The Dnipro River is no man's land between the two forces, with islands being used as a staging ground by the Ukrainian military ahead of the promised 2023 counteroffensive.
A view of buildings damaged by the shelling in Mariupol.
3. Mariupol — Under Siege
Due to its strategic and symbolic location on the Azov sea (already encircled by Russia which controls the Kerch strait), Mariupol was shelled and under siege from the first day of the war. The siege lasted three months, with conditions quickly becoming dire and aid workers faced with a humanitarian emergency. Russian forces knocked out power and water access, also creating food shortages.
After images circulated of air strikes in March 2022 that killed hundreds of women and children, war crimes were denounced by the international community. Russian bombs struck a maternity ward, which Zelensky called "proof of a genocide", and bombed a theater serving as an air-raid shelter, killing around 300 people. The UN confirmed that at least 1,348 people died in Mariupol, while Ukrainian authorities say that over 25,000 were killed. As Russian forces advanced, soldiers and civilians took refuge in Azovstal steel works. They held out for weeks, but finally surrendered on May 16, 2022.
Currently, Mariupol is under Russian control. By March 2022, 75% of its population had already left, and the technique used to cut-off the city has since been compared to Aleppo. Its administration, media and education have been switched to Russian ones. A majority of the damaged city is being torn down and rebuilt in Soviet style, removing traces of war crimes and its Ukrainian past.
4. Bucha — Never Forgive
Bucha was attacked early on as a part of the Kyiv offensive Moscow launched to encircle the capital. On Feb. 24 and 25, they tried to take neighboring Hostomel airport as a base, destroying the world's largest transport plane, the Ukrainian Mriya. Russian forces then broke through Bucha, trying to continue through Irpin into the capital. After heavy losses, the western suburb was captured on March 12, until it was liberated by Ukrainian forces on March 31.
But what put Bucha on the map of infamy first came to light on April 1, 2022, when the first photographs began to circulate of massive destruction and streets littered with corpses in civilian clothes, some with their hands tied. The UN counted at least 73 dead civilians, some executed, and local authorities raised the count to 458, including a mass grave of 280 people. Zelensky visited Bucha three days later, saying “We know of thousands of people killed and tortured, with severed limbs, raped women and murdered children.”
Russian authorities dismissed the photographic and video evidence as a “hoax, a staged production,” despite eyewitness accounts of the events. A year on, Zelensky called Bucha "a symbol of the atrocities" by Russian forces and that Ukraine would "never forgive. We will punish every perpetrator." The city now seems to have been almost totally rebuilt, with viral images of Vokzal'na St, Bucha from 2022 compared to today, where no trace of the destruction remains.
Children walk past woods on the pavement as builders renovate the roof of a bombarded house in Bucha.
5. Maryinka — Post-Apocalyptic
Maryinka – a home and the setting of cherished memories for many – Eighty miles from Bakhmut, Maryinka also experienced violence in 2015 during the war of the Donbas. The Ukrainian army fought against paramilitary separatists, the Donetsk People's Republic. Ukraine eventually regained control after heavy artillery and tank combat, the front running along the outskirts closest to separatist held Donetsk.
Drone footage showed the city was completely destroyed.
In 2022, violence returned when Russia recognized the separatists’ sovereignty on Feb. 21. Shelling began in February, and the city changed hands numerous times until fighting intensified in August as DPR and Wagner forces made ground little by little in the city. Ukraine claimed the city had been completely evacuated by Nov. 3, 2022.
By 2023, fighting was described as “hellish” as it was in close quarters, with almost all the urban cover having been destroyed. Drone footage from this February showed the city was completely destroyed, reduced to what media outlets called a “post-apocalyptic wasteland”. Today, Maryinka and Bahkmut are the epicenter of fighting, with attacks targeting infrastructure facilities, including people's homes.
6. Zaporizhzhya — Nuclear Risks
Zaporizhzhya is home to the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Two days after the invasion of Ukraine started, shelling began in the city, with fighting on its outskirts. On March 3, 2022, a Russian assault on the plant included grenades launched near the reactors, close calls which raised fears of a nuclear meltdown.
The plant was occupied by Russian forces the next day, joining the semi-decommissioned nuclear plant Chernobyl on the other side of the country. In Aug. 2022, the nuclear plant was shelled, once again causing international panic. Since then, the region has regularly been the site of intensive shelling, with the nuclear risk never really dissipating.
Most recently, the plant lost power for the seventh time earlier this week, disconnected from the national electricity grid, forcing the plant to run on emergency diesel generators. Ahead of a Ukrainian counteroffensive, Russia has begun displacing people from the Zaporizhzhya area, including children. They are apparently being sent to Berdyansk, a Russian-occupied port-city on the Azov sea, but Ukrainians fear they may be placed there as human shields.