One year later, a photographer reflects on his time in Mariupol as Russia invaded
Last year, I spent my 35th birthday in Mariupol, Ukraine, in a coworking space called 1991 — named in honor of the year Ukraine gained independence.
I'd flown to Ukraine as a freelance journalist. I rented an apartment in one of the city's Soviet-style high-rises and wandered the town every day, talking with those employed in the tech sector at the co-working space, going out for drinks and dinner at local restaurants and pubs, ice-skating and even getting a haircut at a barber shop that had been around for decades.
A month later, none of this would be possible.
A mostly Russian-speaking city, Mariupol held strategic importance under the Soviet Union, including as a major steel producer and port city.
In 2014, Russian-backed separatists took up arms across eastern Ukraine, even briefly occupying part of the city in 2014, until a group of volunteers and a far-right militia known as the Azov Regiment, based just outside of Mariupol, came to the city's defense, pushing the separatists back and helping to establish a front line east of Mariupol that Ukrainian forces would hold for the next eight years. During that time, the city grew rapidly, as people displaced by the conflict in the Donbas region sought refuge. Alive with modern energy, new construction, the installation of high-speed internet, new startups, bars and even coffee shops that served avocado toast popped up across the city.
On my birthday Feb. 14, my new friends, including Viktor Semenov, 28, Maryna Moloshna, 23, and Alina Beskrovna, 31, who were also moonlighting as my translators and helped me find stories, brought me heart-shaped balloons, blue roses and a cake. It was a special moment, as I had spent the last several weeks traveling around the city with them, gathering people's thoughts about the threat of war, reactions to Western media, and their experience, living less than 15 miles from the front lines.
Many people felt there was no way Mariupol would fall. Or, at worst, the city might experience pockets of fighting, but residents would, for the most part, be able to carry on with life, ignoring it. Since people had lived with the tension that comes with living so close to the front lines in a conflict for so many years, there was a sense that nothing worse was going to transpire. Their confidence even led me to doubt that war would ever happen. Sharing so many ties to Russia — including food, customs and culture — some of the city's residents leaned more toward Russian ideals while others more toward Ukrainian ones, but after the events of 2014 and 2015, most agreed they did not want violence.
On the morning of Feb. 24, I was awakened by the sound of explosions. Viktor and I went around town, gathering images of the damage and reporting on the city's plan to keep its residents safe. As events unfolded, Viktor and Maryna were offered two seats in an evacuating car and decided to leave; with tear-filled hugs, they asked me to look after their cat and its four kittens. The next day, I moved into their apartment and spent the following few days wandering around Mariupol, reporting what I was seeing for NPR.
The city quickly became more and more isolated as the days dragged on and Russian forces encircled the city, blocking main roadways and cutting off power and cell service. It was becoming harder and harder to report on the situation on the ground, and so I knew it was time for me to leave. The Greek embassy had arranged a convoy for its diaspora and any foreign journalists to leave the city, and I was able to secure a seat.
On March 2, we loaded into the cars and made our way out of the city. The Greek government had arranged for a temporary pause in the shelling to allow our convoy to pass. Shortly after leaving the city, we came upon a Russian tank, pointing at our convoy. We stopped and, out of the fog, we could see more and more soldiers, tanks and personal carriers headed in our direction, as soldiers, looking tired and on edge, held us for nearly an hour, until we were finally allowed to pass. We continued on down the road, which was lined with Russian-backed separatists, all headed toward Mariupol.
Days later, I'd made it safely to Moldova. It would be some time before I heard from my friends at 1991, the coworking space in Mariupol. Some, like Alina, had remained behind in Mariupol for a few more weeks before evacuating west into Ukraine or east into Russia, while others had joined Ukraine's national defense force. The space itself was destroyed in the fighting, and Viktor and Maryna's apartment sustained significant damage, and they were never able to retrieve their cats.
According to other reporting by NPR, Mariupol's defenders fought for two more months before the city fell to Russian control, with the last 1,700 Ukrainian soldiers surrendering, most of whom were hiding in the Azovstal steel plant. The city has shrunk from around 450,000 residents to just 100,000, according to local officials, and little of its infrastructure was left untouched by the shelling and street fighting.
A once thriving city now in ruins.
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