Life, death in shattered Mariupol: Survivor's tale of Ukraine war
Shells were exploding nearby but Tatiana Bushlanova didn’t flinch when she spoke to Reuters in front of the shattered remains of her home in Mariupol last May. Fighting in the port city has long since ended but the pensioner is still struggling to take in the enormity of what happened.
Mariupol’s strategic location on the Sea of Azov made it a prime target in what Moscow calls the “special military operation” that it launched in Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
Russian forces captured the city in May when, after a siege lasting nearly three months, the last Ukrainian defenders emerged from the underground tunnels of its vast Azovstal steelworks and surrendered.
By then, much of Mariupol lay in ruins, and tens of thousands of people had been killed in a city where more than half the pre-war population of some 450,000 have fled.
Tatiana, who is still in Mariupol, said the death and destruction visited on the city had hardened people’s hearts.
“People lost everything. Everyone’s kind of strange now, angry. I don’t see a lot of kindness out there,” the 65-year-old said in an interview conducted near her rubble home where she still lives, ahead of the first anniversary of the war.
She recalled one of her old neighbours being killed when debris crushed him after an explosion, a neighbour’s son killed by a shell as he went about his business and another neighbour losing her hand in an explosion.
Sitting alone on a bench in the courtyard of her ruined apartment block surrounded by blackened walls and collapsed balconies, she lamented that she and her husband Nikolai, 63, had nowhere to go.
They clung on for two more months, reluctant to abandon their home of 20 years even though there was no electricity, gas or running water. Their son Yevgeny and his family fled to Crimea; the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
“We didn’t want to leave, but we did want to eat. Whenever we went out, things were flying around all over the place. It was terrifying.” she said.
They were among the last 10 families to leave the building.
She said people went to wherever they could get to.
She and her husband now live in an apartment that belonged to a couple called Andrei and Marina who were killed by shelling as the Russian military fought the Ukrainian army to take control of Mariupol.
Tatiana said weeks after their death, the young couple lay in makeshift graves outside the building until they were reburied in August.
The deceased couples’ cat, Alisa, although continues to live in the apartment.
Waiting for peace
Still traumatised by what she and her husband have lived through, Bushlanova said life in Mariupol was starting to look up a bit with the city’s Russian-installed authorities building some new apartment blocks.
“Some kind of hope has emerged,” said Tatiana, reflecting on the cataclysmic changes she has seen in the city whose name became known around the world as a byword for death and destruction.
Russian officials have announced a major long-term reconstruction plan for the city, where they have introduced the Ruble currency and switched schools to the standard Russian curriculum taught in Russian.
After moving in July, Tatiana and Nikolai tried to make themselves comfortable in their temporary accommodation, re-arranging salvaged furniture and putting up their family photographs which they had managed to save.
The couple applied for a statutory payment of 100,000 Rubles ($1,350). “They said we’d find out in 70 days’ time (if they get the handout) and if not, they’ll probably put us in the queue for an apartment,” Tatiana said.
In the meantime, they live on her modest salary as a cleaner and on their two pensions of 10,000 Rubles a month each which Tatiana said was tough given how expensive food had become.
With Mariupol still under Russian control, and no sign of an end to the conflict, Tatiana says they will stay in the city that has been their home for decades as they wait for restoration of peace.