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Six years after rockets fell on Mariupol, scars still remain

This article includes links to videos collated by Bellingcat which document an attack involving Russian-made BM-21 ‘Grad’ multiple rocket launchers on Mariupol in January 2015. Some videos contain graphic and disturbing content. Viewer discretion is advised. 

Sipping coffee and enjoying a plate of nalysnyky in a quiet, family-run cafe in the centre of Mariupol, it’s easy to forget Ukrainian soldiers remain locked in conflict with Russian-backed separatists less than thirty miles away. A group of babushkas huddle around the next table. They gossip merrily, noisily stirring sugar into their tea.

Stepping out into the morning, patches of compacted snow still lining the streets, signs of the devastating toll the seven-year war in Donbass has had on the city are still there, pockmarks on the faces of the post-Soviet housing that skirt the city, but otherwise all seems calm. Perhaps it is naive to assume anything, though.

After all, Mariupol has played a leading role in the conflict that has ebbed and flowed over the last seven years in this part of Ukraine. Situated on the Azov Sea in the South-East, this large industrial port lies between the areas of Ukraine occupied by separatists – Donbas and Luhansk – and the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russian troops in 2014. The city – home to around 400,000 mostly Russian-speaking Ukrainians – has always been a potentially invaluable link in Russia’s chain of influence in the region. And such value has translated into violence witnessed.

Apartment blocks in Mariupol’s Vostochny district.

Since hostilities began in 2014, the city has been a bastion of Ukrainian control in the Donetsk region, whilst remaining a key target for separatist forces. In the first year of fighting, several clashes took place within the city as opposing forces vied for control of key government buildings. Fires destroyed the police headquarters and badly damaged the City Hall.

In May 2014, Ukrainian forces briefly withdrew from the city, allowing pro-Russian protesters to set up polling stations for the Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DPR) referendum on self-rule. However, on June 13th 2014, Ukrainian forces recaptured the city following heavy fighting. The Ukrainian flag was hoisted above the City Council building, shepherding in a period of relative calm.  But not for long. 

Although separatist forces were pushed back to a contact line east of Mariupol, they remained close to the city and, on 24th January 2015, separatists – instructed by Russian officers – fired a barrage of rockets into Vostochny, a small district at Mariupol’s easterly limit. That morning, shortly after 9:15am, at least 154 rockets, fired from Russian-made BM-21 Grad multiple launch rocket systems, fell on the district in the space of 30 seconds.

Thirty-one people were killed – two of them children – and more than 100 were injured. Homes, schools and businesses were damaged and destroyed. Not a single rocket hit the Ukrainian checkpoint located on the main road to the north-east of the district, which was the only legitimate military target for miles. 

Despite the horror of that day – one of Ukraine’s worst incidents of explosive violence in living memory – few allow the city today to be defined by such disaster. In central Mariupol, only the mural of Milana Aburashytova clutching her teddy bear, painted on a fifteen-storey apartment block, provides a knowing reminder of the events of that day. Milana’s mother was killed shielding her daughter from the rockets that fell. Milana, aged only three at the time, lost her leg in the blast.

The mural, however, is not a lamentation. Milana doesn’t cry or show pain. Instead – I’m told – her quiet resolve is reflective of the ongoing resilience of the city’s inhabitants in the face of outside aggression.

The mural of Milana Aburashytova in the centre of Mariupol.

Travelling east across the city towards the Vostochny district, the sense that you are moving closer to the front lines is noticeable, yet almost surreal. Arriving in the centre of the district, groups of Ukrainian soldiers are amongst the shoppers pouring in and out of the local supermarket. Some stand next to the corner kiosk, warming their hands on a coffee and watching as others cram boxes of Coca-Cola into Humvees overloaded with groceries. Despite their uniforms and fierce buzzcuts, no one takes notice. Two privates walk past laughing, pushing a supermarket trolley full of snacks, their presence almost benign amongst the district’s inhabitants.

In the distance a soft rumbling can be heard. Had Pavel, AOAV’s Ukrainian fixer, not pointed it out, it could have been mistaken for traffic. It’s shelling he says. Like the soldiers, the distant sound is ignored by the shoppers who, wrapped in coats, bustling around on their daily business.

Crossing the road, you enter the Kievsky Market. It’s a maze of stalls, repurposed shipping containers and shops where traders sell everything from batteries to fresh fish. The market was badly hit by the Grad attack of January 2015. The small, enclosed space meant the blast from falling rockets could be easily reflected and amplified, whilst the thin, corrugated sheet metal of roofs and containers provided little protection from the 3,920 pre-made fragments contained within each rocket.

Many of the 31 victims killed in the attack were found in or around the market; many were grandmothers looking to beat the Saturday crowds.

Kievsky Market after a busy Friday’s trading.

As men, women and children brush past one another through cramped alleys, it’s not hard to imagine the chaos that falling rockets could cause. We stop and ask two women selling fruit by the entrance of the market if they were working the day of the attack. Their collars pulled up to cheeks now reddened by the cold, they answer that they were. One begins to explain what she remembered in a quiet, matter-of-fact way, pointing to the deep-blue shipping container behind them, still riddled with shrapnel holes. As she continues, explaining the aftermath of the attack, her manner quickly changes. Describing the dead bodies strewn around the marketplace, her eyes start to fill with tears. Her voice becomes higher and starts to break.

“It’s still very stressful, to hold on to this stuff,” her colleague interjects, hinting it is time for us to move on.

We pass another woman, smoking outside a shop selling cleaning supplies. Asking if she too had worked on that day, she replied politely that she had, but didn’t want to talk about it. She quickly turned away, stubbing out a half-finished cigarette before briskly going back inside.

Today new shops line Kievska Street. During the Grad attack, it was a site of horrific destruction. Dashcam footage from 24th January 2015 shows rockets striking these apartment blocks .

Besides the market, running through the centre of the district, is Kievska Street. Shops with brightly-coloured signs sell shoes and clothes. A large electrical appliance store has just opened. The sleek, black facade seems particularly futuristic set against the backdrop of communist-era tower blocks. It’s built on the site of a toyshop that burnt to the ground after being hit by rockets. Videos taken on the day show particularly shocking scenes on this street – men and women lying dead on the pavement as flames and black smoke filled the air. Today, the trauma and chaos seem worlds away. Only buildings, still pock-marked from shrapnel, show the scars of violence. 

The door to an apartment complex, still damaged by the thousands of small fragments which are released when a Grad rocket explodes.

Further along Kievska Street, less than a hundred metres from the market, is School No. 5. At the entrance stands the school’s director, Svetlana Oleksandrivna Kalsina. The archetypal headmistress – smartly dressed, wearing strict, thin glasses – she nods warmly, before quickly turning to lead us down the airy corridors. She shows a range of ornate, metre-high flowers made from multi-coloured tissue paper. They were made by her students to celebrate International Women’s Day, she says. Her expression hardens as she points out a rectangle of tarmac in the school’s central courtyard. It marks the point where a rocket landed in 2015.  

The inner courtyard of School No. 5. The tarmac covers the site where a rocket landed. 

“All the windows were destroyed, and all the doors were turned out from the force of the blow,” Sventlana Oleksandrivna explains. Rockets also hit the school’s football pitch and a point in front of the main building.

As the attack took place on a Saturday, the classrooms surrounding the courtyard weren’t full of children. However, that morning an induction event for first-year students and their parents was set to take place at 10am.

“If the Grad came ten minutes later, we would have had almost 300 future kids and parents here,” she says with a look, “so we were lucky if we can say that.”

Any sense of luck is quickly muted as Svetlana Oleksandrivna hands over a long list of students whose apartments were hit by rockets. Many of her pupils suffered injuries from shrapnel or from being thrown by the force of blasts. One girl – aged nine at the time – lost her father when a rocket exploded inside their apartment.

School No. 5 remained closed for a month after the attack as repairs took place. When it reopened, only 450 of the 1,100 pupils that had started the school year returned. The Grad attack had caused a mass exodus from the Vostochny district. For many families, especially those with young children, the devastation of the 24th January was the catalyst for leaving an area so close to conflict. Many moved to other parts of Mariupol, away from the front lines; others went further afield – to cities elsewhere in Ukraine or, in some cases, to Russia.

For the students who remained the psychological toll was immense. Although psychologists worked with all the school’s students and teachers, Svetlana Oleksandrivna tells us how children used to shake when they heard the sound of faint explosions. She recalls the time when a teacher, writing at the whiteboard, turned to find all her pupils hiding under their desks after hearing shelling in the distance. Many children fell behind. Stress, coupled with disruptions to schooling and parents who were scared to let them return to a normal routine meant students couldn’t re-integrate easily. Exam results suffered as a result.

The director leads us outside to show how things have changed in recent years. She points out a group of men laying AstroTurf on the school’s new sports’ pitch and says that things are always improving. In the past three years, people have started returning to the district. Ukrainian forces pushed separatists further to the east, making Vostochny safer – at least from the threat of Grad fire. The number of students is rising again; so too are exam scores.

The sounds of explosions continue, but they aren’t so close, and most students ignore the noises nowadays. New shops are opening all the time, and people are much calmer. Certainly, the brand-new basketball hoops and football goals are testament to a district coming back to life.

This being said, many children, especially those who lost loved ones, still see psychologists. Anxieties remain; all the schools in the district have their basements fully stocked with chairs, water, lights and first aid kits. While students have recaptured some sense of normality, they’re always aware of the potential dangers. Svetlana Oleksandrivna raises her eyebrows acceptingly, “now everyone knows where the safest place is – in the apartment, corridor, school”. It is a sad reality, but one that has to be acknowledged.

Several houses – badly damaged or destroyed by rockets – remain deserted today.

Although inhabitants continue to return to Vostochny, schools fill up and new shops open, the district’s history can’t be ignored. The reminders of the devastating attack of the 24th January 2015 are always just below the surface. They are, however, most potent not in destroyed homes or damaged concrete, but in the people for whom the memories of that day will never fade.

A barrage of rockets, fired without consideration, lasting only 30 seconds, irreparably changed the lives of the thousands of people living in this quiet area. It came to create a horrific landmark, dividing life – as Mariupol’s Deputy Mayor, Arkadiy Vladimorovych Meshkov, described – into before and after the attack.

The seeming normality of life six years later can be credited to the organisation and support provided by the local government, as well as to the resilience of this district and its inhabitants. Nevertheless, true normality has not returned. As is always the case with explosive violence, its effects can never be fully exorcised. Homes and apartments are rebuilt, holes are filled in, but residents will never forget.

Haphazardly-filled shrapnel holes on the wall of an apartment building in the Vostochny district.