Mariupol remembered: a bright future reduced to rubble

The story of the city, before and after Russian occupation, as told by residents.

A photo of a large body of water with a person swimming in it.
A woman wades out into the famously shallow shores of the Azov Sea in July 2021 [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera] 
A woman wades out into the famously shallow shores of the Azov Sea in July 2021 [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera] 

Maryna Holovnova used to enjoy her summer routine in her southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Before starting work for the day as a tourist guide, the 28-year-old would wake early, jog along the beach and swim in the Azov Sea at sunrise. Afterwards, she would take the bus across the city and drink her morning coffee on her favourite bench in a chestnut-tree-filled alley in Mariupol’s historic centre. On the weekends, she would cycle on newly laid roads to remote fisher villages to camp overnight, passing sunflower fields and people selling watermelons along the way.

In the summer seasons of recent years, visitors had discovered Maryna’s city, a place straddled by a sprawling seaport and gargantuan steelworks, turning it into a popular holiday destination. In the humid, Mediterranean weather, tourists would throng the pier and seaside, wading out hundreds of metres into the world's shallowest sea. Trendy bars and fancy ice cream parlours lined the newly built jetties that lit up during the warm summer evenings when the air would fill with the sounds of live music.

A photo of a pier at night with people walking along the pier.
A newly constructed pier during a summer’s evening last July [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Mariupol was a city of contrasts. Above the idyllic seaside setting, noxious, green-coloured clouds emitted by the steelworks would often hang ominously in the sky. In the centre of Mariupol, high-end cafes and restaurants could be found nestled behind crumbling historic facades reflecting a mix of architectural styles and the city's diverse cultural heritage, including several waves of Greek migration.

During the winter, temperatures regularly dropped below freezing, but the humid climate could make it feel colder. In those months, Mariupol's seaside took on a bleak, nebulous appearance as light fog mixed with smoke from the steelworks, passing over half-empty resorts and abandoned train carriages overlooking the sea.

A photo of a factory
A view of the Azovstal steelworks in the summer before the war started [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

"One of my favourite spots in the city was a kind of 'observation point' from where you could see the whole Azovstal [steelworks]," says the amiable, mild-mannered Maryna, who was born and raised in Mariupol. Azovstal, along with the Illich Iron and Steel Works Metallurgical Plant, were a cornerstone of the local economy, employing roughly 40,000 residents. Maryna says she would pass the observation point on her way to work, and every time she would marvel at the sheer scale of the steelworks.

Today, Maryna is a refugee in Edmonton, Canada, with a host family, but Al Jazeera first met her in late January 2022, less than a month before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. At the time, she said that the escalating tensions and the looming threat of a Russian attack on her city were "all I can think about".

A photo of Holovnoka on a spiral staircase.
Maryna stands on the spiral staircase in Mariupol’s water tower - a tourist attraction and cultural space hosting exhibitions - where she worked earlier this year [Morten Risberg/Al Jazeera]

Standing behind the counter at the entry to the old water tower where she worked, she had motioned appreciatively at one of her co-workers, who would help allay her fears. The old water tower was one of the city's most popular sites and offered a 360-degree panorama for visitors willing to brave its steep spiral staircase. Unveiled in 1910, the red-brick tower encapsulated the city's architectural mix by combining Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles.

A photo of a beachfront with construction in the background.
The beachfront and harbour area was a popular recreational spot for locals [Morten Risberg/Al Jazeera]
The beachfront and harbour area was a popular recreational spot for locals [Morten Risberg/Al Jazeera]

‘Precious memories’

Maryna’s love for her hometown was grounded in what she describes as "a happy childhood with lots of precious memories". However, in 2010 she decided to leave and study in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, due to a lack of job opportunities in Mariupol. "The best case was you either work at the factories or the port. So, I left," she says.

She recalls Mariupol during this period as a city that was poorly connected to the rest of the country and which struggled to attract visitors due to its industrial image. "People used to say, ‘don't stop and don't breathe’, due to the pollution," she recalls.

A photo of smoke coming out of a factory
Pollution from the steelworks had affected the city air and health of residents for years [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

When Maryna moved back to Mariupol in 2020 to work in tourism, she found a much more developed and modern city. It was a "completely different world" to the one she had left a decade earlier.

This change was made possible, she says, after a series of decentralisation reforms, initiated after the Euromaidan revolution from 2013 to 2014 and enforced in 2016. These reforms shifted power from Kyiv to local governments and authorities, and saw local budgets grow. In the Donetsk region, where Mariupol is located, Maryna explains that tourism was a priority. "We had a very ambitious goal, but nothing seemed impossible," she says. "Those changes that happened already seemed miraculous, and we were ready to do more, way more."

A photo of buildings.
In recent years, Mariupol started to attract tourists and shake off its tired industrial image [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

She lists new bicycle paths, public sports clubs, amateur theatres and annual cultural festivals as some of the changes to the city since 2016. "You never had a chance to get bored," she says.

Domestic and international tourism had risen significantly in Mariupol in recent years, and the Mariupol City Council predicted 600,000 annual visitors by 2026.

A photo of a church.
Petrykivka folk art adorned the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St Peter’s Tomb earlier this year [Morten Risberg/Al Jazeera]
Petrykivka folk art adorned the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St Peter’s Tomb earlier this year [Morten Risberg/Al Jazeera]

Symbol of independence

Nestled on a hill overlooking Mariupol’s harbour, one site in particular – a church – had drawn tourists and held important religious and political symbolic value for Ukrainians.

Al Jazeera visited the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St Peter’s Tomb at the end of January this year. It was the only church in the world to be painted entirely in traditional “Petrykivka” folk art. This decorative painting style featuring colourful flower motifs originates from the village of Petrykivka in central Ukraine and was traditionally used to decorate house walls and household items. The painting style is still used in modern folk art.

A series of blue ornamental folk decorations painted on the white church by local volunteers as part of a crowdfunded project stretched 500 metres (1,640ft) around the building. They had taken two months to complete, but more were planned. The initial brush strokes were made by Olga Cheryomushkina, a famous folk artist from Lviv.

A photo of a Roman church with a Roman Peretyatko standing in front side of the room.
The church's ground floor served as a place of worship while the newly renovated upper floor was an educational centre [Morten Risberg/Al Jazeera]

Kyrylo Dolimbaiev, a clean-cut 40-year-old with a polite, self-assured conversational manner, worked as a volunteer at the church and highlighted how the building served both as a place of faith for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, but also as a centre of cultural education.

“In the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, we believe we should divide religion and culture. That’s why people of all faiths may come and benefit from our educational centre,” said Kyrylo, who himself is not a practising Christian but describes himself as a pagan, believing in the old Slavic gods.

A photo of Kyrylo Dolimbaiev.
Kyrylo Dolimbaiev used his online presence and social media followers to attract donations to renovate the church [Morten Risberg/Al Jazeera]

The space held exhibitions of Ukrainian traditional poetry and garments, and people could learn to play the bandura, a Ukrainian plucked string folk instrument.

The upstairs library had as many as 7,500 books in Ukrainian and English. Kyrylo pulled out a copy of Harry Potter, explaining that this title was banned in the Russian Orthodox Church, which at the time still had a strong foothold in Ukraine – especially in the east.

The Mariupol church was now aligned with the new Ukrainian branch that split from the Russian Orthodox Church in 2019. This made the space an important symbol of cultural independence, "a single church that promotes Ukrainian values,” according to Kyrylo.

A photo of a building made of metal in snow.
A series of heavy fortifications and a network of checkpoints led to Mariupol in January 2022 [Morten Risberg/Al Jazeera]
A series of heavy fortifications and a network of checkpoints led to Mariupol in January 2022 [Morten Risberg/Al Jazeera]

‘Unbreakable fortress’

Such a symbol was important to city residents after Mariupol was briefly occupied by pro-Russian separatist forces in 2014 after the armed conflict in the Donbas began.

As the city’s identity evolved, there was also a growing belief among the local population that after eight years of defensive preparations by the Ukrainian military, it was one of the best-protected cities in the country in the event of a future invasion.

On a snowy day in January 2022, Al Jazeera met Valeriy Averyanov, a bearded 44-year-old local businessman with an intense stare and a deep interest in military history.

A photo of a man weaving camouflage.
Valeriy Averyanov, who led the Mariupol branch of a civilian organisation supporting the city's Territorial Defence Forces, knotted camouflage before the invasion began [Morten Risberg/Al Jazeera]

Valeriy had operated a civilian organisation supporting the city's Territorial Defence Forces out of a dingy office nestled behind a private parking compound. Although he predicted some form of increased Russian aggression in the coming months, he drew comfort in the fact that the city had received new artillery brigades, navy divisions, rocket artillery, and increased military personnel since 2014. Riding high on confidence after the news that the United Kingdom had delivered anti-tank weaponry to Ukraine, he declared the city had become "an unbreakable fortress".

Despite her fears of a Russian attack, Maryna also felt a sense of confidence that her city could withstand a Russian invasion. On February 23, 2022, she returned to Kyiv after a trip abroad and boarded an overnight train to Mariupol.

A photo of a sign.
A picture Maryna took on February 23 of the overnight train from Kyiv to Mariupol [Photo courtesy of Maryna Holovnoka]

It would turn out to be the last train into Mariupol before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the country in the early hours of February 24.

She recalls waking up as the train stopped 100km (62 miles) from the city and watching columns of Ukrainian tanks rumble past the windows. Then, after five hours at a standstill, the train began to move again towards Mariupol, a decision she says was met with collective relief in the carriage.

At the time, Mariupol "seemed the safest and the most well-prepared city for the war," she says. As the train trundled past the sprawling Azovstal factory and into the city's grey, characterless central station, she recalls, "we were all sure that we were in a safe place now, but we all were wrong."

A photo of striped barriers in snow.
Before the invasion, Mariupol 'seemed the safest and the most well-prepared city for the war', Maryna says [Morten Risberg/Al Jazeera]
Before the invasion, Mariupol 'seemed the safest and the most well-prepared city for the war', Maryna says [Morten Risberg/Al Jazeera]

Cut off from the world

After returning to her parents' apartment, where she had lived since she was two years old, she realised that her home city had turned into a war zone overnight.

She recalls hearing more and more explosions and fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces as they closed in on the city. A day later, Russian forces bombed her former school, located just 300 metres (984ft) from her home.

"After three or four days, the whole city was surrounded," she recalls. Russian forces targeted the city's infrastructure during its initial attacks, cutting off electricity, water, and gas.

Mariupol is known for its freezing winters and this February was no exception. Maryna recalls how the cold quickly crept into their homes with no gas or electricity for heating. "The temperature outside was -10 [Celsius] all the time," she says. Bonfires in yards were used for cooking food and heating water. Russian attacks had also destroyed mobile services, blinding residents of Mariupol to the reality outside their city. "We were all left without connection with the rest of the country," she says.

FILE - An explosion tears a hole in the side of an apartment building after a Russian tank fired a rocket in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 11, 2022. Ukraine’s parliamentary commission on human rights says Russia's military has destroyed almost 38,000 residential buildings, rendering about 220,000 people homeless, in the 100 days since its invasion of Ukraine.
An explosion tore a hole in the side of an apartment building after a Russian tank fired a rocket in Mariupol on March 11, 2022. At the time, some 38,000 residential buildings had been destroyed [File: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo]

After the start of the invasion, air raid sirens became an everyday occurrence around the country, warning Ukrainians of possible imminent air attacks. However, the lack of electricity and mobile services halted this service in Mariupol. "We knew that the bomber was coming only when we heard it directly," she says.

Despite its image as one of the best-protected cities in Ukraine, Maryna points out that Mariupol lacked adequate bomb shelters. "There were basements, but they were dangerous to stay in," she says. So, Maryna and her family initially decided to stay in their second-floor apartment despite the heavy shelling and bombing. Maryna estimates that on some days, Russian forces bombed Mariupol 60 times in 24 hours. "We tried not to stay too close to the windows. In case of a direct hit of a missile or bomb, we wouldn't survive anyway, so we were just hoping that the next bomb would not land on our building."

A photo of a drama theatre.
A view of the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre taken from the top of the old water tower in July 2021 [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

The Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre quickly became a shelter for those who had lost their homes, as well as an information hub for residents. The theatre, opened in 1960 and built in the style of monumental classicism out of graystone from the Inkerman quarry located in Crimea, was located in the centre of the city.

After a few days, the bombing around their apartment increased so Maryna moved into her colleague’s abandoned fourth-floor apartment with her parents. Most days, they would head to the theatre as they were cut off from mobile services and internet and in “complete information isolation”. She says police and soldiers from the front line would visit the theatre and let them know what was happening to their city and the rest of the country.

Maryna says that most of the city council deputies and the mayor had left the city before the Russians began to lay siege to it. So instead, they relied on information from soldiers and police – the ones "who decided to stay and defend the city and its civilians till the end," she says.

Visiting the theatre was also important for their morale. Maryna says that seeing people every day and talking with them “helped a lot mentally, as it was always something to look forward to”.

A woman walks past building damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, Sunday, March 13, 2022. The surrounded southern city of Mariupol, where the war has produced some of the greatest human suffering, remained cut off despite earlier talks on creating aid or evacuation convoys.
A woman walks past a building damaged by shelling in Mariupol on March 13 [File: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo]
A woman walks past a building damaged by shelling in Mariupol on March 13 [File: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo]

‘Saw my city dying’

For three weeks, those who remained in the city faced a heavy siege and relentless Russian attacks while "trying to survive, get water, get information, get to the human corridor," Maryna recalls. During the siege, several attempts were made to negotiate humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians to the west of the country, but Ukrainian authorities claimed that Russian forces violated the agreed ceasefires.

March 16 marked a turning point for Maryna and her family. Like many other days, they had gone to the theatre to meet up with friends. Thirty minutes after leaving it to return home, they saw the building destroyed by bombing from an air raid. "We were literally a few hundred metres away from it," she says.

Amnesty International and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe have deemed the attack on the theatre a war crime. The exact number of casualties remains unclear; the Ukrainian government first assessed that the destruction had killed approximately 300 people. However, on May 4, the Associated Press published an investigation concluding that as many as 600 people lost their lives in the attack. Other civilian sites that have been bombed include a children’s hospital and maternity ward as well as the Sultan Suleiman Mosque, which was housing 80 adults and children.

FILE - Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from the maternity hospital that was damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. A Russian attack has severely damaged the maternity hospital in the besieged port city of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials say.
In March, a pregnant woman and her baby died after Russia bombed the Mariupol maternity hospital where the woman was meant to give birth [File: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo]

Maryna and her parents had met a businessman from Kyiv in the early days of the invasion whose rented apartment had been hit by a missile. He had offered to take them with him in his car, which fortunately had a full tank of petrol, as soon as a humanitarian corridor opened for private vehicles. So, the family invited him to live in their apartment. He stayed with them for three weeks while they waited.

Eventually, on the same day as the theatre bombing, a corridor opened up between Mariupol and Zaporizhzhia, a city in the southeast but still held by Ukrainian forces. The four left Mariupol in his small sedan, picking up a young woman and her five-year-old child on the way, even though they feared Russia would not adhere to the ceasefire. "It was still dangerous, and people were still dying on the way to Zaporizhzhia," she recalls. Still, they were determined to escape what she refers to as "the epicentre of real hell".

Maryna says it took 27 hours to cover the distance of 250km (155 miles). They passed 15 Russian checkpoints, where "they checked our phones, private messages, pictures, passports. It was humiliating."

She had thought she would feel relief after they managed to escape the city.

However, after witnessing "burning houses, dead bodies, through the wall of smoke and neverending bombing", she says it was "one of the worst days of my life".

Before the evacuation, Maryna had tried to remain a source of optimism and hope for her family, but after witnessing these horrors, she was overwhelmed with emotion. "That day, I let myself cry for the first time since the war started," she says. "That was it. I clearly saw my city dying, and I felt so useless. I felt that we were probably leaving Mariupol forever."

A photo of the outside of the damaged Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre building with three cars in front of it.
People walk past the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre in Mariupol on April 4. The bombing of the theatre, which was used as a shelter, is one of deadliest known attacks against civilians in the Ukraine war [File: Alexei Alexandrov/AP Photo]
People walk past the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre in Mariupol on April 4. The bombing of the theatre, which was used as a shelter, is one of deadliest known attacks against civilians in the Ukraine war [File: Alexei Alexandrov/AP Photo]

‘I still keep the keys to my apartment’

The United Nations says 90 percent of Mariupol's buildings have been destroyed since Russian forces attacked the city in late February.

Kyrylo confirmed in August 2022 that he has received information posted by an adviser to the city’s mayor on the messaging app Telegram that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St Peter’s Tomb has survived the relentless attacks, although the windows were broken and the roof shattered by the heavy bombardment. The building has been taken over by the Russian Orthodox Church. The second floor of the church has been looted, all the Ukrainian musical instruments have been smashed, and the Ukrainian language books burned.

A photo of Kyrylo Dolimbaiev with a Bandura.
In January 2022, Kyrylo plucked the strings of a bandura. Today, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St Peter’s Tomb has survived, but is now in the hands of the Russian Orthodox Church while all the Ukrainian instruments within have been destroyed [Morten Risberg/Al Jazeera]

Since Maryna left her home city, she has received images and information via social media revealing that her apartment burned to the ground after shelling on March 26. Residents were unable to put out the flames as the temperature was below zero, and all available water was frozen. Still, she says she does not miss any destroyed material possessions. "It turns out everything you really might need can actually fit in a backpack," she says. Instead, what she feels is an "unimaginable loss and tragedy" is that "our home, our city, our memories and happy places were destroyed".

Maryna wants her home city to be remembered for more than its destruction. "Now the whole world is talking about Mariupol, but very few people will associate it with the warm sea, Greek culture, festivals, good food, mosaics and outstanding people who were born there," she says.

Only tens of thousands of Mariupol's 430,000 residents remain in the city. Russian forces currently exercise full control of Mariupol after weeks of fierce resistance by a few hundred Ukrainian fighters holed up in the Azovstal steelworks ended in May.

Kyrylo left Mariupol on February 27 after being notified that Russian authorities were looking to capture him due to his high-profile work with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. He is currently in Dnipro, Ukraine's fourth-largest city, located in the country's centre, where he has set up a refugee help centre with other Ukrainian Orthodox chaplains from Mariupol. He still hopes that Ukrainian forces will reclaim Mariupol. Then the city must be "cleared and built from scratch since it is 90 percent destroyed," he says.

A photo of buildings.
Both Maryna and Kyrylo say Mariupol will need to be rebuilt as 90 percent of the city is destroyed. Maryna hopes that one day it will become known not for its destruction, but for its festivals, warm sea, good food and the "outstanding people" who call Mariupol home [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Maryna describes her accommodation in Canada as comfortable but says she feels like a burden living under other people’s roofs. She has found a new job and will soon move into her own living space. Her father, who is under 60 years of age, could not leave the country due to wartime laws, so her parents are living in the relative safety of western Ukraine.

"I want to believe that we will win and Mariupol will be controlled by Ukraine again, and it will be rebuilt," Maryna says. She has kept the keys to her family's apartment.

"I know it's completely burnt, and the metallic door is melted by fire, so there is no door to open with those keys. But I'm going to keep them anyway, just as a symbol of hope that I'll return to Mariupol one day."

Source: Al Jazeera