Mariupol is a frontline city, and it could have expected the war could get eventually arrive at its doors. Did you have any preparations in early weeks of 2022? Was there any coordination campaign for possible evacuation as they would have needed some refuge? And what was any plan for saving material and cultural valuables?
We put up some fortifications back in 2014 – we used metal plates, 6 meters long and 20-30 cm thick. We made shelters that could stand out fires coming from any artillery and multiple rocket launchers. There were three lines of defense, where we expected they could launch an offensive. It was done by the Ukrainian armed forces –they were getting the city ready for defense.
Apart from it, like in other cities, it was decided to have territorial defense units, there were certain instruments that could give additional advantages. In two years before the war, we, I and head of military administration [Pavlo Kyrylenko] formed a battalion – he became its commader. As a municipal authority, we realized all the proposals about where to place the fortification objects. By the way, on February 23 we adopted a decision to transfer a separate facility to accommodate two brigades of territorial defense, we also spend our city budget funds to redesign them the proper way. Territorial defense units had trained for 2 years, 2 and a half, probably. They were training and getting ready.
On February 24, I came to the military unit #3057 led by colonel Denys Shlega who oversaw the defense of Mariupol – he later was among the fighters in Azovstal. Unfortunately, he is in captivity now. He told what where and when this or that thing should be delivered. The fortifications, their locations. When the war was announced, we provided full support to him. We practicall had ‘zero’ authority at that point. From day 1 we communicated and followed orders of military administration head Pavlo Kyrylenko. There were two chains of command with Denys Shlega and Pavlo Kyrylenko at the top of those. If they gave us orders, we followed them.
In the first days, when we had no understanding about what would happen after the war was proclaimed, we have some people evacuating on their own, and the military administration head asked Ukrzaliznystsya to run more trains. An evacuation was not announced, as there were no reasons for that, in my view. Trains would go only 20% or 30% full – in 4 days before the Russian troops overran the city, some 100 thousand people moved to the territory of Ukraine.
Later, we saw the city was besieged, the Russian troops changed their tactic as earlier they would try to storm the city and were successfully going down. Eventually they paused, brought multiple rocket launchers into the city suburbs and started grinding it. We reached out to the enemy trying to secure evacuations. It was into 5th day of the wear, and we were in situation when you have to seek an agreement with the enemy. How is that? On March 3, Mr.Antony Blinken cited my words, and from that moment on our evacuation got underway. On March 5, we announced an evacuation. My mother found herself entrapped, too. She showed up after an evacuation warning – you must understand that we had no mobile connections in the city on March 3. All the mobile network towers were destroyed. There were just 2 left and we had to keep them going using diesel generators. A few city officials knew that and they were in touch with their superiors, providing updates on the situation and getting instructions.
This is why, the evacuation happened only on March 5 because Russia wanted to move people only to Russia. It was exclusively Putin’s initiative. Why so? When on March 9 they dropped a bomb on the maternity ward, killina a new born child and her mother, a meeting of Lavrov and Kuleba, Russia and Ukraine’s foreign ministers, was arranged in Instanbul. Kuleba called me, we had a talk with him, he was trying to ask Lavrov to establish a corridor so that city resident could evacuate. According to our minister, 80% of the 3-hour talks with Lavrov was about Mariupol. It ended up in Lavrov’s arguing he had no authority to make a decision about Mariupol.
Unfortunately, all out evacuation efforts throughout March 5-10 failed as our buses were destroyed. We provided the Russian side with all the necessary information – the number of people and buses, their routes. And this information served was used by them for coordinating their artillery. On March 9, we had only 9 buses left, and they were out of order. After the maternity ward bombardment, the French president stepped in – he called me, and we talked about how to make the evacuation happen.
To my regret, only on March 13 when Marcron, Erdogan, and even patriarch Cyril intervened– the latter reached out to Putin, and the stories came about thousands of killed people in Mariupol, it is only then they opened a safe passage as you can’t wait anymore. Yet there was no ceasefire. I led the evacuation, we were in occupied Berdyansk then, and they didn’t let us come into occupied Mariupol. We were held up in Berdyansk, and they never let us go on. They were frightened by the fallout, [people] learning about killings in other cities, and images [showing those]. They didn’t want the international mission to reach the city and see what they had done there. We were part of the Red Cross mission, there were 11 priests there, and yet they failed to reach Mariupol. In other words, Russian just let people exit only. People were going to Berdyansk and get on buses. This route worked unitl the late April. There were attempts to evacuate people – we did some things successfully, others failed, but we kept working on it. 105 thousand people got from the occupied territories to Ukraine-controlled regions. Today, at least 200 thousand of Mariupol residents are in Ukraine-controlled territory.
There was little information about the evacuation campaign; it was more about the word of mouth from the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion as communications’ infrastructure was destroyed in the enemy bombardments. Power and internet connections were cut off, making it impossible for locals to have timely alerts of coming evacuation efforts. The city was under fire coming from multiple rocket launcher and planes. They even had a daily plan – the first plane would come to drop bombs, then came two more, then three, and they would drop bombs every 30 minutes. It went on for a month. The sense of impunity led to the situation when their ship arrive and started to shoot. There were Grad, Solnstepok, Smerch, Uragan rocket systems around the city, there were ship in the sea, there were fighter jets, and all of them pounded the city every 30 minutes. It was really tough, and this word of mouth helped – it reached the certain number of people, and this is when the information started to spread. This is how 100 thousand were evacuated. But it happened only when Putin gave this order.
Why do I claim so? On March 3, when a group of people were leaving and going to Nikolske, they got held up at a check point – by then there were check points around the city. ‘We have an order not to let out a single person from Mariupol’. There was a priest traveling with that group, father Pavlo – I know him. He stands there, with several Russian officers around him, and the Grad rocket system is nearby firing rockets at Mariupol, and he is told they have to go back to Mariupol. He said he was a clergyman and asked if the group he was with could stay for a night somewhere around that site. There were some 30 people, they slept in the little forest there, and later sneaked into the nearby village and fled going along some pathways. But it is an exception. Usually, they shoot in the air and make you go back to the city. Not a single international mission managed to get into Mariupol. The only exception was Azovstal [fighters]. They, though, left the city via Novoazovsk, bypassing Mariupol. Were going from the eastern side, not the western one. Then, the occupiers put the fighters on their buses and take them to the filtration camp where they would go over to our buses to leave the city. In other words, not a single person from the outside got into the city. Nobody could see what they (Russians) had done. And they had done a lot. 50% of the city was destroyed. You should know that before the invasion Mariupol had 2600 multi-storey buildings, but they turned 1356 of those into ashes.
City services kept functioning in the first days of the war, they came out to clean up, provide repairs. When did you realize the situation was out of control, everything was bursting at seams and city services just failed to fix all things?
You must understand that Russian also were getting ready for this war. They understood everything about where the critical infrastructure was [in the city]. They had some people, working for them there. Now we understand that it was all the Opposition Platform for Life city council representatives. They went over to the Russian Federation, now call themselves local authorities in the occupied territories and are working there. We have a big system called Dhzerelo supplying water to the city. We have no water resources; we draw water from Siversky Donets that is 200 km from Mariupol. Before the war happened, they destroyed this water supplies’ line. We switched to the reserved reservoir that can last only 9 months, but they destroyed that too. We were without water, energy, and communications. On the 10th day, we were cut off gas, and heating. We tried to restore power- it was dangerous, but we did it. The realization that things are a lot worse came on the 7th day.
When did you realize it was impossible to be in control over the situation in the city and you needed to evacuate?
Our officials worked till March 21. My deputy, Mykhaylo Kogut, and district administration heads, and city services executives tried to keep working. You have to understand that the front lines were coming from both west and east. They surrounded the city from all the sides and blocked the access to the city part that lies on the left bank of the Kalmius river – it intersects the city near the Azovstal plant. That neighborhood had 100 thousand residents. They pushed our troops making them retreat to Azovstal, and, at the same time, they were kept putting pressure on us. I gave a command to get out of the city on March 21, when street fighting started. You were just not able to perform your duties as city officials couldn’t step out of the basements where they were sheltering. It was dangerous and unreasonable. We stepped out of the basements on March 21 but then certain events happened that had consequences.
The deputy mayor was put under surveillance and it was hard to get rid of it. What are the chances for the occupational administration to get the city ready for winter to help remaining Mariupol residents live through it?
No chance at all. For instance, we have a city company overseeing gas supplies- we asked them how much time will it take to restore the damaged lines? They said it will take18 months if you deploy 20 repair teams and have them work non-stop, without holidays. The Russians just destroyed the gas supply network, and its reconstruction will take time. They may do something for their propaganda show, say, take one building, connect it to gas and power lines, and will say that the entire city is restored. But it is [staged] only for their domestic audience. Back at home, they show they are bringing ‘peace and development’, are ‘liberating’ from the oppression while in reality it is only grief, anger, and ruin. Even today, talking to Mariupol residents, we are receiving the information that the city is totally ruined, with no power, water, gas, and practically, no food. Let alone, the impunity of Russian troops who intimidate the local people, making you work, clean up the debris, or help them loot.
Are they still plundering the city? There were reports they were stealing medical equipment, public transport.
They stole trolleybuses, medical equipment, all the most valuable things. They took away a fontain. When German Nazis overran the city in 1941-43, they also took away the fountain. The Ruscists are doing the same thing. They are also dismantling children playgrounds, taking them to Donetsk where they say they come fro Putin-led party ‘Yedinaya Rosiya’. The same thing happens to medical equipment. We had built many modern schools in the city, and now they are taking things out of them.
Let me ask about the filtration camps. When were those set up and how many people were deported to Russia?
Before March 18, there was still some little ‘window of opportunity’ allowing to leave Mariupol [without filtration]. When they ‘opened’ the city on March 13, there was no filtration going. In those five days, we managed to evacuate many people from the city.
Was it ‘vetted’ by Russians or you could just leave without restraints?
It was approved by Russians. But even when we were trying to get the go-ahead, they kept shooting. People were evacuating, and Russians continued to shell. My parents were evacuating and had to keep the doors of the battered car shut. Most of the cars were much like this.
Starting from March 18, filtrations camps started to work. They were set up in 4 places – Mangush, Bezimenne, Nikolske, and Kozatske. Bezimenne and Kozatske are close to each other, they had two of them in the very same place as they forced to undergo screening all [the people living] on the left-bank part of the city. My godmother had to undergo it. She had stayed for a month in school 56 until March 28. Then Chechen troops came and said they had to evacuate – the people were taken to Bezimenne. They kept them for a month there, practically without food and water. Later they allowed her to go her way- she went to Russia, and then back to Ukraine, via Estonia.
Are you documenting all the cases for future investigations?
Yes, we have passed over many things to our law-enforcement agencies, as it is very important to record the cases of abuse, killings, destruction, and looting that were recorded by certain services.
How about collaborators?
There were about 20 notices of suspicion issued. Everything is known about those [men], and the information was passed to all the [Ukrainian] checkpoints. If they are going anywhere, they will be ‘met’ there. It is critically important, and we played this ‘game’ back in 2014. The most important thing now is identify all of those who assist or welcome the occupiers. The officials in all posts -from the lowest to the highest rank. It goes for educational sector too. Medical care is an exemption. I don’t agree it should be so as there is one hospital head [in Mariupol] who got an award from Putin.
The collaborators don’t reside in the city, they go to live in the nearby villages. There were some even in Zaporizhzhya, at least on March 3. On March 9, ‘main’ collaborator Kostyantyn Ivashchenko who proclaimed himself the city mayor, was in Crimea, and on March 16 he came back to Mariupol. Just a side note, on February 23, he was at the city council meeting, was all smiles, and coming up with questions.
For your understanding, this is how they act in the city- they are telling Mariupol people: ‘You had no water? Now you got it. You had no food? Now you got the humanitarian aid. You had no electricity? Now here is a generator! And you can wash over there, in a tent!’ We had had power, water, transport, and development [before the invasion]. They brought 5 buses while before the invasion we had had 260 buses!
How many people remain in the city?
The rough estimate shows there are about 120 thousand people in the city now. According to our statistics, 220-240 thousand people are now in Ukraine-controlled territories, 40 thousand of Mariupol people are abroad, while 50 thousand were deported to Russia.
How many people died in the Russian onslaught?
They killed 22 thousand people, and this figure is rather ‘optimistic’. If we calculate it [including] multi-storey buildings destroyed by Russians, even without the separate households, 40% of which were also burned down, so the multi-storey buildings would have about 50 people sheltering in basements. And they were burned down. We documented everything we could, but Russians are covering up [the casualties’ numbers], they are dumping [the remains] in landfills, bury in hollows, burn in crematoriums. Even today, when you speak with Mariupol residents, they tell us that the city reeks of death. Dead bodies’ smell.
Do you have any communication with the people who were taken to Russia? Maybe through some international organizations?
There is work going. There are contacts. I know people who were there and returned to Ukraine. I have a chance to talk to them, find out what torture the occupational troops used agains Mariupol people. For instance, our housing and communal infrastructure department head was interrogated 32 times. There is a girl Julia who went through this filtration – she now leads I, Mariupol group in Ivano-Frankivsk. She saw them beating our man when he tried to intervene protecting some person. They beat him, put a bag on his head, and dragged him away. She also tried to protect someone – she got threats. There were other cases.
There is one family from Mariupol- they were evacuating from the city. Their elder daughter works in Kyiv law-enforcement. At that moment, the Russians had all the records. The family was trying to get out of the city, but Russians at the check point looked up the files, saw she was working in law-enforcement, and told she was a Nazi. She was traveling with her little child. The Russians threatened to take the child away, claiming the family would raise it as a Nazi. They beat the child’s father after he confronted them over the claim. The Russians eventually returned the child. That is the way they are abusing people.
The fleeing people were made to sign documents, telling all the destruction, killings that had happened in Mariupol it was not [the fault of] Russian troops, but the Ukrainian armed forces.
Speaking about ‘de-occupation’ of the city, how much time can reconstruction of the city and its industries take? Is it a tangible task?
We have five stages. The first thing was the evacuation and we carried it out. More than 200 thousand people were relocated to Ukraine-controlled territories. We are also developing I, Mariupol campaign, setting up support centers. The main task is not to let people lose faith in themselves and in Ukraine. We have opened 10 such centers, with 3 more set to be open in the near future, and 4 more are still an option. It is asocial direction. There will be also culture and sports.
Another important aspect is employment. We have discussed these issues with our partners. We want to create a platform featuring all the vacancies in the country, making all of them accessible.
A person comes looking for a job, he or she can be experiencing psychological pressure as they have to make a decision about going for this or that available opening, and they get assistance from a trained person. Mariupol has been a city with high wages – when its residents go to Ivano-Frankivsk or Lviv they can get discouraged about pay rates. There should be an understanding you can’t get any job you want now. And job specialist should convince a job seeker to go for the currently available jobs. You take what comes your way, but things will get better later. And you see vacancies in Vinnytsya, Kyiv, Chernivtsi. And people will need to choose where to live and work.
The aspect #4 is housing. There is a law draft 7198 aiming to provide housing for people [who suffered in the result of war events led by Russia]. We plan to add some amendments to this legislation – it is about Mariupol residents who lost everything, getting some quote [for them] added. We also want to amend the financial aspects of it, it is about housing prices.
The last aspect is about returning home. We are now working in two directions. The first one gets assistance from our American friends, who have been by my side all these 7 years, helping me to design a new image of the city, work our the strategy. We want to make an architectural inventory to late restore Mariupol. We make it public, and Mariupol people will decide which of the city parts will be restored. We had this kind of feedback effort back in 2018. Starting from September 1, we are going to start the project with other friends who were also were inspired by the makeover we gave Mariupol before the war. We were the most transparent and accountable city in our state for 2 years in a row. Our partners will give us 4 million euros to work out a plan for the city reconstruction. In 6 months, we will estimate the damages caused by Russia and will see what is needed for restoration. Then, after our army boys, it is due in December or January, de-block and liberate Mariupol, we will go tot the city with the experts and estimate the damages and will restore it step by step. We have a plan that we will need 10 years to restore a half of the city – it will cost about 14 billion euros.