Visiting Russia’s worst war crime
In a square in the centre of Mariupol, fabric-covered scaffolding hides what remains of what was once the city’s architectural centrepiece.
The shroud bears an image of what lies behind, or at least what used to stand in this spot before the Russian invasion: the facade of a white-painted theatre, complete with corinthian columns and statue-filled pediment.
When it was opened in 1960 it was the pride of Mariupol. Last year it became the focus of the world’s attention as civilians crowded into its basement in the face of the Russian bombardment.
Now the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre barely merits a second glance from those still living in the south-eastern coastal city, like the elderly woman shuffling across the square with her shopping bags, who does not turn her head as she passes it.
Until March 16, 2022, the red-roofed drama theatre formed the backdrop to Mariupol’s old town, in a park encircled by ornate, century-old buildings and smart residential houses.
Then came the Russian siege, which took hundreds of lives and reduced the building to a shell, its roof gone, its walls riddled with bullet and shrapnel holes.
Flags of the Donetsk People’s Republic are graffitied onto the four columns at its entrance, surrounded by debris and shards of glass, stone and metal.
Inside, the majestic hallways and staircases, built in the Soviet Monumental Classical style, are completely charred and burnt by the fires that raged through them. Not a single corner of the arched passageways which once led visitors to their seating was spared by the deadly inferno; walls, ceilings and floors are covered in flaking, black material.
The middle of the theatre, seemingly where the stage used to be, is now an enormous crater, tens of metres in diameter. Overhead, the roof has been completely blown away.
After the start of the invasion, and the eventual encirclement of the city by Russian forces, the theatre quickly became a hub for information and humanitarian aid for the residents of Mariupol who had not yet fled the fighting.
Near the entrance, a narrow spiral staircase leads down to the basement that served as a bomb shelter for hundreds of civilians hiding from aerial attacks. The pitch-black corridor is filled with a jumble of furniture turned upside down, mattresses flung around, clothes, toys, children’s shoes, all covered in plaster and dust. Further inside, in what used to be toilets and wardrobes, every square metre was used for makeshift beds.
In some places, only a cardboard sheet had served as insulation against the cold concrete floor. In the back of one of the toilets, civilians had started unpacking a box of gas masks. Pots and pans, cutlery, medicines and food items are tossed around the entire area.
Witnesses and survivors described having to step on corpses to escape through the side entrances. The number of people killed in the explosion is still unknown, but one investigation claimed as many as 600 might have died. A survivor described the scene as a “big mass grave”.
Ukraine said it was caused by a Russian aerial attack - denied by Moscow - but an Amnesty International investigation concluded this was a war crime committed by the Russian invading forces.
Outside the sun is shining weakly through grey clouds, lighting up the old town, where blocks of historical buildings run downhill towards the Azov Sea and the infamous Azovstal steel factory.
Towards the end of the siege, Russian-led troops had encircled the defenders all the way into the city centre. Survivors who lived through the invasion tell stories of fierce fighting between the units, as the Ukrainian forces were slowly forced to retreat to their last stronghold – Azovstal.
The historical old town was left in ruins, as were many other areas of Mariupol. The UN has said 90 per cent of buildings have either been destroyed or damaged during the invasion. Here, the number is closer to 100 percent.
Houses are either reduced to rubble, are missing huge parts of their structure, or are completely burned out. A few cars pass by, and even fewer civilians walk up or downhill with groceries from one of the few open shops.
But besides the few remaining civilians, the city is also filled with contractors in orange vests and protective helmets. Some are laying bricks to shore up blast-damaged buildings, others construct new roofs on burned out shells. Down the hill, a group of contractors repair an electric line running across the street.
“We are all friends here, it’s just like the old USSR,” says Sam – a young, cheerful contractor from Kazakhstan. He’s part of a group of carpenters now constructing a new roof on a destroyed residential building. His colleagues say they are from Crimea, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
“This will take us approximately one month,” he continues, explaining that it’s all financed by the Russian government.
According to a number circulating in Russian media, 15,000 Russian-financed contractors are now working to rebuild the city – a project estimated to cost 176 billion rubles (£2 billion). Some buildings are suitable for renovation, while others must be torn down and rebuilt.
In some areas, Russian builders have also constructed massive complexes of apartment buildings, to provide housing for people who lost their homes.
“I used to have an apartment with three bedrooms, and now I have a brand new one with the same number of rooms,” Jenia says, motioning towards the bright, white building behind her just outside the city centre. She fled to Belgrade before the invasion and found her home destroyed upon return.
She claims the government gave her the keys and deeds to the apartment for free, where she now lives with her husband, child, and mother.
But while thousands of workers are trying to make the city come to life again, other residents are still in dire need of aid.
Olga’s neighbourhood was once a rich and peaceful residential area close to downtown Mariupol. She lived next to a small university campus and other large detached houses similar to hers. Now, most of the buildings are either damaged or just rubble, after what she describes as several weeks in hellish conditions, with rockets and grenades falling all around her house, causing huge fires.
“I was here the whole time”, she says. Now she is just trying to get back to normal life, but she needs help.
“We have electricity and water, but no heating. The water pipes keep freezing because it’s so cold, and our roof is full of shrapnel holes,” she says as she walks through a green gate bearing the scars of war.
“I’m still waiting for someone to come and fix this, as promised, but nothing has happened yet. And the pension is also bad.”
She claims she liked both Russia and Ukraine before the invasion and did not care much for politics.
“But with Ukraine we had peace, and now you can see what we have. I will have to live many more years to see the city get back to its former self.”
The Ukrainian government accuses Russia of using the rebuilding programme to erase Ukrainian culture, and says that they are “building on a city of death”.
For many, Mariupol is now a synonym for death and destruction, and everyone The Telegraph talks to in the city has a story of loss and tragedy.
The strongest evidence of this is to be found in the city’s graveyard, which was already one of the largest in Europe.
At the end of the cemetery thousands of caskets with unidentified bodies now lie in newly dug trenches on the hill overlooking the city and the calm Azov Sea. Each trench contains around 25 civilian bodies, and every casket marked by a numbered, wooden sign. One number – one life.
Early in December the graves numbered close to 4,000 in this location, but satellite images suggest there are almost 10,000 new graves.
Three administrative workers standing around the entrance to the cemetery say they do not know the exact numbers laid to rest – other than that there are “very many”. One continues to describe horrible sights of boxes full of body parts – remnants of both adults and children.
His colleague eagerly shifts the conversation to his own personal story of loss, from when a grenade hit his family’s apartment. His wife was immediately decapitated, and his son was gravely injured, he claims. He ignored the fighting and shooting around him in the streets as he was desperately running with his son in his arms, hoping to reach the hospital in time.
He heard a shot and felt a slight nudge in his arms. He says: “I looked down on my son, and he was dead.”
The Telegraph was able to visit the city through a visa provided by Russia’s foreign ministry, which has been keen to advertise the reconstruction of Mariupol. Reporters were free to publish what they wished.