After almost three months of relentless assault, Mariupol has fallen. Ukraine’s military says its combat mission in the besieged port is over. More than any other Ukrainian city, Mariupol has come to symbolise the ferocious brutality of Russia’s assault and the stubbornness of Ukraine’s resistance.
On Wednesday 23 February, Ivan Stanislavsky left his camera bag at the office. He was on his way to see the layout of his new book on Mariupol’s Soviet-era murals at a colleague’s house, and didn’t want to lug the gear around. He could always pick it up the next day.
But on Thursday, as he stood in the street outside his locked and deserted office, he could hear thunderous sounds rolling in from the east. The city was under fire.
As the conflict intensified, and gunfire became audible to the west too, Ivan moved his mattress into the hall. He piled up his large collection of art books – including the Encyclopaedia of Ukrainian Rock Music – against the windows of his flat in the district of Primorsky.
“Let’s say it was not a waste of a library,” says the 36-year-old photographer, who is also a press officer at Ukrainian premier league football club FC Mariupol.
Across town in the neighbourhood of Kalmiusky, businessman Yevhen was also taking precautions. The 47-year-old had told his family to pack so they could escape the city. But when he returned from the office, he found no packing had been done. His family refused to leave.
In an apartment in the same block, metallurgists from the nearby steelworks, Nataliia, 43, and Andrii, 41, were already slicing the last two loaves they had been able to buy, leaving them to dry out so they could eat them piece by piece over the weeks ahead.
Volodymyr, a 52-year-old paramedic in Kalmiusky, was also in his kitchen, trying to absorb the news. When reports came in of Russians marching through the village of Chonhar – on a strategic road out of Crimea to the west – he choked. This was a coordinated attack, he realised.
The ambulance dispatcher was on the phone. She instructed Volodymyr to ignore routine calls. “Find the wounded”, he was told.
Twenty-two-year-old engineering graduate Mariia thought the first explosion she heard was simply a storm. Then she heard a second.
“We didn’t know what to do,” says Mariia, who like Ivan, lived in Primorsky. “I didn’t have time to think about my future, my plans. I had to think about what I’d eat and drink… [And] what to do with the cats.”
It suddenly dawned on her why, in the past few days, soldiers had appeared in the paint shop where she worked, asking to buy blue and yellow tape. They needed it to mark their uniforms.
Four days into the war, with the fighting closing in, Ivan and his wife sought shelter in a basement underneath his local supermarket. It offered good protection, and Ivan found that the muffling of sound dulled his sense of mounting anxiety.
Daily life was being stripped down to bare essentials.
“We lived like primitive people,” he told the BBC from Lviv, where he has now fled. “We broke trees, made fires, cooked food on fires. I even heard of people eating pigeons.”
He watched as order gradually broke down all around him. He kept a vivid diary, later published online.
“The Stone Age has arrived,” he says in his 6 March entry.
He writes of watching his fellow Ukrainian citizens raiding abandoned shops, making off with everything from computers and freezers to swimsuits and underwear.
One evening a drunk woman interrupts a session of evening gossip in the basement. “Treat yourself,” she says, as a flashlight revealed a bottle of Californian Merlot, taken from Wines of the World on nearby Italiiska Street.
But aware that even medical supplies and cash tills were being taken, Ivan says he felt disgust.
“We are our own worst enemies,” he writes.
But is this, he wonders, how the fittest survive? After a while, each day became a “combat mission”.
Over a few short weeks, Mariupol fell apart. The Russian military laid siege to the city, attacking power and water supplies. A Russian airstrike hit the maternity hospital on 9 March, and a plane bombed its theatre – clearly marked as a civilian shelter – a week later.
Ivan was stunned at how quickly it all happened.
“The whole city, all its infrastructure, supply system, logistics, energy supply were destroyed in a matter of days,” he says.
Sitting underground at night, he sensed people becoming passive.
“You can only wait in the shelter,” he writes in his diary. “Some are waiting for spring, some – for the morning to come, some – for the end of the war. And someone is waiting for the bomb to come and kill everyone.”
And all this just as Mariupol had seemed destined to turn a corner. Money began to pour in, adding lustre to a city previously associated mainly with heavy industry – and war.
“It was a city aspiring to something,” Ivan says. It hadn’t always been this way.
Long before this year’s invasion, Mariupol had a ringside seat to Ukraine’s simmering conflict with Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, the two regions that make up the neighbouring area known as Donbas.
When fighting first broke out there in 2014, the government briefly lost control of Mariupol after clashes with pro-Russian protesters. In January 2015, a devastating rocket attack by the rebels on the eastern edge of the city killed almost 30 civilians.
Even though the war gradually receded, the sound of artillery booming in the distance was part of Mariupol’s daily soundscape.
But the city moved on. The Ukrainian government made it the administrative capital of the Donetsk Oblast region, replacing the rebel-held city of Donetsk.
“It started receiving all of the resources and all of the attention,” Ivan says.
Public buildings were renovated, cafés opened, and new parks created. In a podcast last October, the city’s mayor Vadym Boychenko boasted of creating the best municipal services in the country, opening an IT school, and promoting contemporary art and sports.
Plans were afoot, he said, for the largest water park in Ukraine and a version of Disneyland “which will probably be called Mariland”. In fact, Mariupol was declared Ukraine’s “Big Capital of Culture” in 2021.
But while Mariupol flourished, rebel-held Donetsk mouldered. When the rebels returned to Mariupol, Volodymyr, the paramedic, believed they were driven by revenge to destroy the city.
“‘If we live in shit, then you will live in shit as well,'” Volodymyr says they told him at a checkpoint as he finally escaped the city. “They just looked at us and envied how we lived.”