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“We want to go home. This is not our city.” How Mariupol has been living under occupation for a year

Mariupol fell under occupation in May 2022 and has been subjected to a harrowing year since. The city's population has decreased significantly, leaving those who remain to dwell in destroyed homes and clean up rubble under the constant threat of explosions. People are afraid of expressing themselves too freely as some have been detained without reason before Putin's visit, according to Mariupol residents interviewed by The Insider. Store prices have surged, and explosions and fires are common occurrences. In the midst of the wreckage, new houses are being constructed by Russia, however, obtaining an apartment in them seems impossible. The direst consequences are faced by those who refuse to relinquish their Ukrainian passports.

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Content
  • Residential housing

  • Compensations and documents

  • Employment

  • Prices and street life

  • Ordinary people and volunteers

In May 2022, the Russian army took control of Mariupol following a two-month-long siege. Unexpectedly, in March 2023, Vladimir Putin visited the city and conversed with local residents in the courtyard of a newly erected house. While one of the residents claimed she “spotted Putin through the window and came out to meet him,” a telling video on the Kremlin website which featured an exclamation stating, “It's not true, it's for show” (subsequently edited out), testifies to the contrary.

According to Anastasia (name changed), a Mariupol resident who spoke with The Insider, 15 of her close friends were sent to a detention center the day before Putin's visit without any explanation. Similarly, Irina (name changed), a volunteer who delivers humanitarian aid to the city, reported a similar occurrence:

“People are afraid to say much. Before Putin's arrival, many people were locked up in pre-trial detention facilities. What can you say... They brought a crowd of extras again.”

Residents are afraid to say too much, she says:

“All social media posts and phone calls are being tapped and monitored. An friend of mine called me, complaining, he really wanted to leave - he had huge health problems. The next day the military came to him and said “So you say you have a bad life.” Even the walls have grown ears, it seems.”

Residential housing

UN estimates indicate that roughly 90 percent of the residential buildings in Mariupol have sustained damage or been entirely demolished since the commencement of the war. During a briefing, Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin confirmed to Putin that almost 2,000 permanent structures in Mariupol will undergo restoration. Khusnullin's presentation suggests that medical and cultural institutions, roads, and other facilities are the priority. One such structure is the Drama Theater, which Khusnullin pledged to reconstruct by the end of next year. In March 2022, the theater was bombed by Russian aircraft, resulting in an undetermined number of fatalities. The death toll remains contested, with some estimates ranging from dozens to hundreds of people. Russia denies any culpability in the incident.

In addition, the deputy prime minister reported on the demolition of several hundred destroyed apartment buildings and spoke about the construction of new ones, while Putin inspected apartments in one of them. Earlier, the pro-Russian city administration reported that construction sites for mortgage housing were being prepared in Mariupol.

“Mariupol reconstruction work”
“Mariupol reconstruction work”
Russian Ministry of Defense

A number of local residents told Verstka after Putin's visit that they were unable to obtain ownership registration for the apartments in the newly erected buildings and cited instances of eviction in cases where the tenants had other accommodation. “Almost the entire city remains dead, the way it was before,” Irina says.

“Restoring houses and giving the illusion of perpetual construction is not a difficult task. The city center remains in ruins, with only a few windows being replaced, mostly for the purpose of taking pretty pictures. The majority of people still reside in basements, tents, and ruined structures with their children. It's a difficult situation to witness, and one shouldn’t trust what is shown on television. Some people are forced to sift through garbage dumps in search of something to eat.”

None of the people interviewed by The Insider were able to move into new homes. Tatyana (name changed), a city resident, said she had three children with whom she had lived in a four-room apartment before the war:

“Personally, we were not offered to move into the new houses. They told us to wait for our apartment to be rebuilt, there was no way we could move into the new “houses”.”

Another city resident said that an opportunity to get a mortgage prompted an acquaintance of his who lived in Donetsk to move to Mariupol:

“He and I lost touch in 2014. And now he came back saying, 'Well, finally. At least here you can get a mortgage with a minimum interest rate, at least I'll be getting a house of my own.”

Mariupol residents who were interviewed by Important Stories in December claimed that damaged houses are not being repaired. A resident of a house on Morskoy Boulevard said his house had suffered 19 direct hits but no repair work has been done since March, despite the administration's pledge to restore the building by mid-October. The resident said that because of the absence of window panes and a leak in the roof four floors have been flooded, leaving approximately 50 tenants without a place to live. To keep warm and bathe, these people have to seek refuge at homes of their friends for a few days.

Because of a leak in the roof four floors have been flooded, leaving approximately 50 tenants without a place to live

Compensations and documents

Prime Minister Vitaliy Khotsenko said that residents of Mariupol will receive compensation for destroyed or damaged housing. According to him, more than 1 billion rubles ($12 million) has already been paid. Nikolai (name changed), a resident of Mariupol, told The Insider that he has not yet received any compensation and still lives in the basement:

“They told me to apply for compensation. My three houses were destroyed, but I haven’t gotten any. Ukrainian documents don't matter. They told me to re-register all my property in the “DNR,” but then I would lose even the land because they would confiscate it.”

The fact that those who refuse to cooperate have a difficult time has also been confirmed by another interviewee of The Insider:

“None of the people in my social circle, including acquaintances and friends, have received any form of aid. They have all declined to collaborate with the authorities. And the authorities don’t like it, they try to make our lives harder.”

The acting head of the “DNR,” Denis Pushilin, has announced plans to expedite the issuance of Russian passports in Mariupol. This will be achieved by increasing the number of MFCs [multifunctional centers]. Pushilin made this announcement just before Putin's visit. Local residents have confirmed this development in interviews with The Insider.

“In Mariupol they make people to exchange their passports for Russian ones. Especially those who support Ukraine's policies and want to leave. They make you change your passport first, and then promise they’ll let you out.”

Sergey (name changed), a resident of Mariupol, expressed his disapproval of the idea of swapping his Ukrainian passport for a Russian one in an interview with The Insider:

“They told me to change my passport. When I refused, they threatened me with detention. Some people have been paid to move to Mariupol while others have no alternative and reluctantly consent to the passport exchange, as they would otherwise continue to struggle to find food in garbage bins.”

Irina, a volunteer, has reported that there are significant disparities in living conditions between those who have retained their Ukrainian passports and those who have switched to a Russian passport in Mariupol. Those who hold Ukrainian passports may encounter difficulties receiving medical treatment, conducting financial transactions, and traveling beyond the city. “They bring in a lot of people who are not native to the area, a lot of unfamiliar faces. It’s being portrayed as a homecoming,” Irina says. Maxim (name changed), a resident of Mariupol, corroborated Irina's statement, adding that without a new passport, accessing medical care is out of the question.

Employment

Advertisements circulating on social media suggest that there are numerous job opportunities available in Mariupol. These openings are available in a variety of fields, such as manual labor, construction, engineering, welding, sales management, and human resources. A more extensive list of job vacancies in Mariupol can be found on hh.ru, where it is categorized as a Russian city. In addition to the professions mentioned earlier, employers are also looking for doctors, system administrators, and top executives to fill various roles.

Meanwhile, sources interviewed by The Insider claim that there is a severe shortage of “suitable employment opportunities” within the city. Maxim noted that in theory, Mariupol residents can secure jobs in rubble clearance (with known incidents of casualties caused by explosions), or on construction sites. However, there is no guarantee that they will receive payment for their labor. “If you grease the proper palms, you can potentially start your own business,” Maxim says. According to him, wages are paid “if one’s lucky.”

“A friend of mine got a job, they paid him for two months, then kicked him out. And he has three children. They said if he complained, he might not see his family.”
“If you grease the proper palms, you can start your own business”

Irina also says that employers have deceived many Mariupol residents: “They say: do your job and we'll pay you, but then they just fire you.”

Mariupol resident Ivan (name changed) told The Insider that the majority of construction work for new facilities in the city is now mostly done by people brought in by the Russians:

“We had some workers showing up at the construction sites, looking for work, but they ended up getting totally ripped off and never got their money. Instead, they brought in some Uzbeks, Tajiks to do the job. They were given some old apartments that were still intact, and some of them even got new ones.”

Prices and street life

Prices in Mariupol are very high, according to interlocutors of The Insider. “Everything is very expensive. Sometimes you have to dumpster dive for a bit of food. I have a Ukrainian passport, I'm too old to change my shoes. I got sick with pneumonia, and they kicked me out of the hospital,” Alexander (name changed) says.

Everything is very expensive. Sometimes you have to dumpster dive for a bit of food

There have been occasional explosions and fires in the city, but i The Insider's sources have difficulty to determine the sources. “It could be at a factory or in the streets. It's hard to know for sure. Sometimes it's caused by artillery shells, and other times by those devils having fun,” they say. On March 27th, the car belonging to the head of the city's police department, Mikhail Moskvin, exploded. He survived but suffered a concussion.

Prices of goods in a Mariupol store
Prices of goods in a Mariupol store

Maxim says that there are more dangers than just fires and explosions. He claims that military personnel can stop people on the streets, ask them questions, and sometimes make threats if the person “doesn’t look right”. he says public transportation in Mariupol is overcrowded. According to sources who spoke to The Insider, leaving the city is possible, but they have not attempted to do so themselves. Mariupol residents claim that the city has changed because of the newcomers. “It’s not the same Mariupol as before, with all those Chechens and Asians.”

Ordinary people and volunteers

“We want to go home. This is not our city. They're trying to remake it in the style of the USSR. They brought in those food wagons, like in the old movies,” says Oksana (name changed), a city resident. “They bring in all sorts of people, angry people, who are not from these parts. I feel very sad. It’s a living hell. I cry every day. The renaming of Mariupol’s main street from Peace Avenue to Lenin Avenue (its former name prior to 2014) suggests a return to Soviet times.

 Lenin Avenue in Mariupol
Lenin Avenue in Mariupol

Irina says that it is still impossible to bring humanitarian aid to the city from Ukraine:

“Prices on that side <occupied by Russia - The Insider> are sky-high. Each trip costs more than $1,300. Travel is very dangerous right now. Especially if you don't adhere to the policies of <Russian authorities. - The Insider>. We are being watched. We had a volunteer killed. And we don't know what will happen to us. It has become more difficult to raise money for trips. Everyone's tired. And they don't give us any receipts. It’s dangerous to carry photographs of people <who received food – The Insider>, they can be persecuted afterwards. In general, we pick up everything we can. And we bring everything we can”.

According to Irina, the volunteers were recently robbed of vital medication they were bringing for a child in need of life-saving treatment. The medicine was ordered from Europe and sent to Mariupol against all odds. “The city looks broken, as does every Mariupol resident who has left his home. People seem to be trying to do something for themselves, for their children... but it's just a mask they wear,” Irina says.

As of January 1 of the previous year, Mariupol had a population of over 425,000 people, as reported by the Ukrainian Bureau of Statistics. However, in the summer of 2022 the UN estimated that approximately 350,000 people were forced to leave the city. Furthermore, the Associated Press reported in December that over 10,000 new graves appeared in Mariupol during the occupation. In March 2023, Mayor Vadim Boychenko estimated that there are currently around 120,000 residents left in Mariupol. In contrast, pro-Russian “mayor” Oleg Morgun claimed that the city's population was 230,000. According to Russia's general plan, Mariupol's population is expected to recover by 2030, the AP reports. Vadim Boychenko believes it will take at least 7-10 years and $14 billion to rebuild the city.

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