"Life has not stopped but it is life in constant fear". Mariupol residents about daily life in the occupation

Concrete blocks are being erected on the sites of destroyed historical buildings. Some buildings in the city are restored only on the outside – just for show. Illustration by Inga Levi

The defense of Mariupol lasted from February 24 to May 20, 2022 – 86 days, 82 of which the city was besieged. Thousands of Mariupol residents died from hunger, exhaustion, lack of medicine, from Russian shelling, under the ruins of houses, schools, and hospitals. The Russians hit with aerial bombs the maternity hospital and the Drama Theater, where hundreds of civilians were hiding. As the residents of Mariupol say, they were in a real hell.

Mariupol has been occupied for two years. The Russians are intensively trying to make it Russian — both in appearance and atmosphere. Concrete blocks are being erected on the sites of destroyed historical buildings. Russian employees have been brought to hospitals and schools. Reconstructed housing is sold to the Russians. In the city, everyone lives with a Russian passport and rubles are used. At the same time, people still disappear or are detained and tried on fake accusations. Those who want to leave the city have to go through the filtration procedure.

It is difficult to find a person who remains in Mariupol and is ready to tell about daily life because people are afraid. As one of the characters of this text says, "The city is infected with fear". Even those who have recently left the city do not want to talk about life in the occupied Mariupol.

However, we managed to talk to several residents of Mariupol who are still in the city or recently left it. They told about how life is arranged in the occupation.

Atmosphere: fear, anxiety, and hope

During the first year of the occupation, Kateryna (the name has been changed for security reasons) tried not to leave the house, and if she did, only within the neighborhood: to the store, to the clinic, to the pharmacy. "When you go to the city center, you immediately feel depressed. Everything there is foreign and lifeless," she says. "Life in Mariupol has not stopped, but it is life in constant fear."

Kateryna remains in Mariupol for family reasons. She agreed to the conversation because she says that otherwise, no one will know what is happening in the city, and this leads to generalizations and hatred towards those who remain there. In addition, the Russian propaganda quickly fills the information vacuum. That is why Kateryna decided to speak, "Is it scary? Of course. But I am very careful."

Inna (the name has been changed) has already left Mariupol. Her aunt remains in the city, but she cannot visit her because Inna’s husband serves in the Ukrainian army, and therefore, she says, there is every chance that she will be detained by the Russian special services upon entering (about how Ukrainians enter the occupied territories with a Ukrainian passport — read in our material). Inna describes the atmosphere in the city as "suffocating and depressive".

Her best friend remains in Mariupol. He takes care of elder relatives. "Of course, he does not tell me everything. There are things that cannot be voiced in Mariupol even in a telephone conversation, — Inna explains. — Men’s documents and mobile phones are often checked there. If my friend talked to one of the Ukrainian journalists, the occupiers would quickly get to know about this. Can you imagine what it means to live there now?"

The woman says that the Russians especially check young people, because "they want to live better and tell about it on social networks". Among older people, she says, the prevailing position is "we do not want war; we just want to have something to eat". "My aunt is like this: she is not for Russia, but not for Ukraine either; she is rather for a comfortable life in her home," says Inna.

"Life in Mariupol has not stopped, but it is life in constant fear". Illustration by Inga Levi

"The available jobs are physical and hard"

"At the beginning of the occupation, few residents were still staying in Mariupol. There were not even any birds. Only stray dogs dragged human limbs along the streets. People started drinking a lot, just not to lose their minds," recalls Anna Murlykina, the editor of the Mariupol portal 0629.com.ua. She left the city in February 2024. "And then people from Russia began to come to Mariupol, and they started intensive construction work."

Last year, Mariupol mayor Vadym Boichenko said that during the siege, the Russians had destroyed 50% of high-rise buildings (934 buildings), and had damaged more than 38,000 private houses. Currently, they are trying to rebuild the city — they have already demolished 465 buildings with about 33,500 apartments, and instead built about 4,600 apartments. The Illich metallurgical plant, where part of the Mariupol garrison were holding defense, has partially resumed work. The Azovstal [metallurgical plant] is being dismantled for scrap metal.

Both Russians and migrants from Asian countries come to the construction sites. Salaries are almost twice as high as average in the Russian Federation. They claim they are building for the people of Mariupol who have lost their homes, but it is not really true. Valentyna (the name has been changed for security reasons) remains in the city. The woman is already retired. She says that she had two apartments: one in a building overlooking the sea, the other — in a historical building. The latter belonged to her daughter who left in the first days of the full-scale invasion. Both buildings were damaged by the Russian shelling. The occupiers demolished the house overlooking the sea. "There is no hope that it will be rebuilt and I will be given an apartment there. Now in Mariupol, apartments are given to the Russians who come to work or are sold. You can apply for a mortgage on the apartment that was destroyed and has been rebuilt now. This is nonsense!" the woman is indignant.

The building that housed Valentyna’s other apartment has been restored. However, in order to keep this home, her daughter would have to come to Mariupol, get a Russian passport and confirm ownership. This must be done by 2026; such a deadline is specified in the Russian "order". All this time, the owner of the apartment must pay utility bills, otherwise the apartment will be declared unoccupied.

It is not possible to issue a power of attorney for an apartment so as not to lose it. Inna tells how she tried to issue a power of attorney for her aunt who remains in Mariupol. "Lawyers issued a general power of attorney in Ukraine. Then it was brought to Russia through European countries, it was translated into Russian and notarized by a local lawyer. But in Mariupol, my aunt was told that only I and only with a passport of the Russian Federation can confirm ownership."

"At the beginning of the occupation, few residents were still staying in Mariupol. Then people from Russia began to come, and they started intensive construction work". Illustration by Inga Levi

Some buildings in the city are restored only on the outside — just for show. Russian propaganda channels shoot news, in which realtors show destroyed apartments, "but in nice houses and in a nice place". "For Russians, Mariupol is a business project. No one thinks about the people or the history of the city," says Inna.

Jobs not related to construction are much scarcer in Mariupol. They mainly employ women, especially in the service sector. The men are employed reluctantly because few people in the city believe in postponing of mobilization. Kateryna says that her friend and her husband opened a small shop, but did not register it in the Russian state services "in order not to disclose information about her husband because a military summons will come".

Kateryna herself does not work "so as not to communicate with the Russians". She sold one of her apartments and lives on this money. She recalls how at the beginning of the occupation, she went to the village with a friend to collect food and sell it at the market in Mariupol, "Then we were stopped by the people from Donetsk. They beat the man [her friend] badly. They took him to the commandant’s office. They told the man that they would throw him in the basement and would take the car away. I asked for what. And they answered: for non-payment of taxes. What taxes? There was no electricity, no water, no food in the city!"

During the past two years, both electricity and water supply have been restored in the city, but everything operates with disruptions. "The water is of poor quality from the Old Crimea reservoir. The communications are destroyed, so there are often disruptions. The same story is with electricity. Backup lines were connected from nearby settlements, but there is not enough capacity, disruptions happen all the time," says Anna Murlykina.

"In Mariupol, apartments are given to Russians who come to work or are sold. You can apply for a mortgage on the apartment that was destroyed and has been rebuilt now". Illustration by Inga Levi

"Everything is available, but products are Russian and expensive"

One of the volunteers from Mariupol, who is involved in evacuating people abroad, says "builders, money changers, and carriers" live well in the city. In Mariupol, all financial transactions are in rubles but you can transfer hryvnias to Ukrainian bankcards to relatives. In the end, money changers exchange them for rubles.

"At first, we used to go to Rostov for groceries. In Russia, the prices are lower than here, and the choice of goods was better, — says Valentyna. — Now, everything is available in the city — products made in Russia or Belarus, but they are expensive. Sometimes you can still come across Ukrainian sunflower oil or some canned food, but I think it is from old stocks."

Mariupol residents post photos of product prices on thematic forums; on average, they are one and a half to two times higher than Russian prices. For example, salami costs starting from 1,050 rubles (about 315 hryvnias) per kilogram, while in Rostov — 722 rubles (216 hryvnias), eggs in Mariupol cost 180 rubles per ten (78 hryvnias), while in Rostov — 113 rubles per dozen (34 hryvnias).

Kateryna also tells about high prices, "I went to Taganrog. The prices are lower there, but the atmosphere is Soviet-style. And everywhere there are advertisements for memorial dinners and ritual services — they understand what is happening."

A limited list of items from Ukraine-controlled territories can also be transferred to Mariupol. It is mainly about some memorable little things — children’s drawings (without Ukrainian colors, symbols and inscriptions in Ukrainian), photo albums, gifts, clothes. Carriers bring these parcels via Europe.

Health care: lack of medical facilities and doctors

The Russians damaged or destroyed 64 health care facilities in Mariupol. In September 2023, the Mariupol City Council informed that the occupiers had closed all children’s departments in hospitals: now children in severe condition must be taken to Donetsk.

Valentyna says that there is a shortage of doctors in the city, especially those with a narrow specialization. There are queues in medical facilities. To get a consultation at the clinic, you need to come at five in the morning (when the curfew ends). "Many doctors have left, some have died, Russian doctors are coming to replace them, but there are still not enough of them," says the woman.

To get medical assistance and free medicines, such as insulin, you must have a Russian passport. These medicines for vulnerable groups are Russia-made. "I have diabetes and I get them for free," says Valentyna.

"Many doctors have left, some have died, Russian doctors are coming to replace them, but there are still not enough of them". Illustration by Inga Levi

Education: empty schools and Russian narratives

According to Human Rights Watch, during the siege of the city, the Russians damaged the buildings of 86 out of 89 educational institutions, in particular, all 15 city’s universities. "The Russians are building kindergartens and schools, but most of the institutions are half-empty because there are not enough students, — says Kateryna. — There is also a problem with teachers, they are brought from Russia."

The schools in Mariupol have switched to the Russian language and curriculum and a five-point grading system. Russia publishes manuals for them — instructions on "patriotic" upbringing and Russian historical narratives: the princes of Kyivan Rus presented as "Russian historic figures", the Russian Federation is fighting "Ukrainian Nazis", Ukraine is a "project of foreign special services".

[Soviet-style] pioneer organizations and museums are being created in schools; they should "correctly tell the history of Russia and Donetsk region". Kateryna recalls May 9 — on that day, she says, Mariupol schools hosted costume performances by children dressed as Soviet soldiers with St. George ribbons.

There are few cases when Mariupol children still study online in Ukrainian schools. However, it is risky, our characters say. One of them notes that staying in the occupation with children is a crime, because "in a few years, they will become Russian children".

"There is no mass mobilization, but the people of Mariupol are being recruited into the Russian army"

"In 2023 and at the beginning of 2024, there was no mass mobilization in Mariupol, as it had been in the autumn of 2022, — says Anna Murlykina. — But there were individual cases. Men who were receiving Russian passports had to register in the military office. Some have already been sent to fight. I know that they conscripted students, people at enterprises who were 30 years old or more. But it was not en masse."

This spring, the "Russian Army" tents appeared in the center of Mariupol. In them, Mariupol residents are encouraged to join the Russian armed forces. However, locals say, not many people enter these tents. In addition, the Ukrainian Center of National Resistance reported that in the occupied territories of the south and east of Ukraine, the Russians began to force children to register in the military offices: "According to the plan of the military offices, from March 2024, 17-year-old teenagers must register for the Russian military service."

According to the Mariupol City Council, at least a thousand people will be conscripted in the city in the near future. Men born in 1994-2006 are subject to the "conscription".

"The Russians are building kindergartens and schools, but most of the institutions are half-empty because there are not enough students". Illustration by Inga Levi

"People are returning to the city"

Before the full-scale invasion, Mariupol had 500,000 residents. Now, according to various sources, there are 100,000 of them, including Russians and labor migrants from other countries. Some of the Mariupol residents left. In addition, in the first months of the siege, the occupiers forcibly removed tens of thousands of people from Mariupol to the occupied territory of Donetsk region or to the Russian Federation. Then the Ukrainian authorities managed to verify 33 thousand of such people.

According to the city authorities, more than 20,000 people died in Mariupol. At least 147 murdered children have been identified. However, the exact number of the killed cannot be established. People were buried under destroyed houses, some were buried on the outskirts of the city in mass graves, and some were buried just in yards.

In total, there is no data on 150,000 Mariupol residents, says Anna Murlykina. A large number of townspeople are still considered missing. "The Russians have not yet dismantled the department store in the city center, people died in the basement there, — says the journalist. — I do not rule out that the bodies of the dead are still lying there. People were hiding there from shelling. In 2022 and partly in 2023, it was impossible to stay near the department store because there was an unbearable stench of dead bodies." Exhumation has not been carried out in the Drama Theater either, on which the Russians dropped two aerial bombs on March 16, 2022. According to various sources, from 300 to 600 people died there. Now the occupiers are building a new theater on the ruins of the old one.

"The composition of the city’s population has changed, I think, by half. It is possible that there are now fewer locals than there are newcomers, — says Murlykina. — During the first year of the occupation, it seemed that only pensioners remained. However, people are coming back now. And there are more young people now. It is hard for people to live outside the city, in particular, financially."

More than 20,000 people died in Mariupol. The exact number cannot be established. People were buried under destroyed houses, some were buried on the outskirts of the city in mass graves, and some were buried just in yards. Illustration by Inga Levi

"People are detained but it is prohibited to talk about this"

24-year-old Iryna Navalna left Mariupol in May 2022. However, in September, she returned to visit her grandmother. The girl decided to come to Mariupol after several of her friends had visited the city and returned back home. The girl had spent a month in Mariupol, and when she was supposed to return, she disappeared. On September 27, 2022, she was stopped for a document check and was not released. In the evening of that day, a story was shown on the Russian television about a woman detained in Mariupol. She was allegedly preparing a terrorist attack at the polling station — at that time, a fake referendum was held in the city regarding the accession of Donetsk region to the Russian Federation.

"For a month, we did not know what had happened to her, — says Oleksandra Stoliar, Iryna’s mother. — She was kept in the Donetsk pre-trial detention center, she was beaten. When one of the girls from "Azov" was swapped, she told that she had been in detention with Iryna, she told about terrible conditions, beating."

Iryna Navalna is currently "on court trial" in Rostov, she faces up to 20 years in prison. "I think three factors played a role here: the fact that Iryna’s stepfather serves in "Azov" and is now in captivity. The fact that Iryna worked in the call center of the Mariupol police. And the third thing is her last name. When she was going through the filtration procedure, they put a gun to her head and mocked, saying, "Who wants to see Navalny’s daughter?" Oleksandra says.

Lidia Tarash, a journalist and documentarian of the Media Initiative for human rights, says, "Earlier, people reported on those who were missing. Now it is more difficult with it. The Russians do not inform the names of those detained, and people do not write on social networks who exactly was detained. In our list of the occupied Donetsk region, there are more than 200 verified cases of detention, but there are more."

"There is such fear in Mariupol now that people do not trust their neighbors. Everyone might be an informer. No one talks in the queues. Can you imagine? There are reports of arrests only from the occupation forces," explains Murlykina.

"Mariupol is a territory with no law"

Mariupol residents say that it is difficult for people who are not in the occupation to imagine the full picture of life there. Anna Murlykina calls the city a "lawless zone" and explains: the more the Russians build in Mariupol, the more the local people understand that liberation will not come soon. When they see this gigantic Nakhimov School built in the park, they think, "Russia would not invest such huge money to then leave from here." They are losing hope for the return of the city to Ukraine. And they more and more collaborate with the occupiers. Even those who did not want to do it. However, the majority are indifferent, they do not care what flags they live under."

"Most people understand what happened, who did it all. In a conversation with me, even the construction workers who came from the Russian Federation note that Russia captured the territory of Ukraine. People are just infected with fear, that is why they do not express their opinions or doubts," says Kateryna.