Maryna Holovnova used to spend beautiful summers in Mariupol, but that was before the conflict with Russia turned the city into ruins.
As a tour guide, 28-year-old Maryna Holovnova usually starts her day by jogging and swimming in the Sea of Azov at dawn. She then took a bus into town, sipping her morning coffee on her favorite bench in a chestnut-lined alley in the center of the southeastern city of Mariupol. Ukraine.
On weekends, she bikes on newly built roads, goes camping in remote fishing villages, and passes expanses of sunflowers.
In recent years, the city of Marina has become a paradise for many tourists. Mariupol is an industrial center with huge steel mills and a large seaport, as well as beautiful beaches. An eye-catching bar and ice cream parlour on the new marina, which shines brightly on summer evenings.
Mariupol is a city of opposites. In winter, Mariupol becomes desolate, mingled with mist and smog from the steel mills. The resort also has no guests.
“One of my favorite places in the city is that I can see the entire Azovstal mill,” Marina said.
The Azovstal and Illich metallurgical plants are the basis of the city’s economy and employ around 40,000 people. Marina said she often passes by the factory on her way to work every day and has never ceased to be amazed by its size.
Marina had a happy childhood in Mariupol. In 2010, she moved to Kyiv to study and develop her career, when Mariupol’s job opportunities were very limited.
When she returns in 2020, Mariupol has transformed from a supposedly polluted industrial city to a more developed and modern place. After a series of reforms and investments, Marianne said it was a “completely different world”.
Mariupol now has new cycling paths, sports clubs, theatres and an annual cultural festival. “You don’t have time to be bored here,” she said.
Mariupol has seen a significant increase in domestic and international tourism in recent years, with the city council estimating that by 2026 it will receive around 600,000 visitors a year.
Mariupol When conflict broke out in the east in 2014, it was once controlled by pro-Russian separatists. Over the course of eight years of fighting the separatists, the city built strong fortifications, making it one of the best-defended locations in Ukraine.
Valeriy Averyanov, a 44-year-old local businessman and operator of a civil society that supports territorial defense forces, is also optimistic about Mariupol’s ability to defend itself. He predicted in January that tensions with Russia would increase in the coming months, but was relieved that the city had added new artillery brigades, naval divisions, missile batteries and troops.
Avyanov went so far as to declare that Mariupol had become “an impregnable fortress” when reports surfaced that Britain had transferred many anti-tank weapons to Ukraine.
In early February, despite fears of a massive Russian military campaign, Marina was confident her city would survive. On February 23, she returned to Kyiv from a trip abroad and took a night train to the city of Mariupol. It became the last train to Mariupol before Russia began military operations at dawn on February 24.
Marina remembers when she woke up, the train stopped 100 kilometers from the city and saw a convoy of tanks rumble past. After a 5-hour pause, the train continues to Mariupol.
At the time, Mariupol was considered the safest city and best prepared for war. “We were all sure we were in a safe place now, but we were wrong,” recalls Marina as the train passed through the Azovstal factory and into Central Station.
Returning to her parents’ apartment where she has lived since she was 2 years old, Marina realizes that her city has become a battlefield overnight.She heard more and more explosions as strength Russia Close to the city. A day later, Russian planes bombed her alma mater, about 300 meters from her home.
“After three or four days, the whole city was besieged,” she said. Continued airstrikes and shelling of the city’s infrastructure cut off electricity, water and gas.
Marina remembers how the cold quickly spread to homes without gas or electricity. A wood stove burns in the middle of the yard for cooking food and hot water. “It’s always -10 degrees outside,” she said.
The Russian attack also destroyed mobile signal stations, leaving Mariupol residents completely unaware of what was going on outside the city. “We are out of touch with the rest of the country,” she said.
Air raid sirens have become familiar to people across Ukraine. However, due to the power outage, the sirens in the city of Mariupol were all but disabled. “We only knew there was a bomber when we heard the roar of the bomber,” Marina said.
Although described as a solid fortress, Mariupol didn’t have enough bomb shelters for people to use. Despite the intense fire, Marina and her parents initially decided to stay in their second-floor apartment. She said there were 60 bombings by Russian troops on some days.
“We just hope the bomb doesn’t hit our building,” she said.
A few days later, the bombardment around Marina’s apartment increased, so they decided to move into a colleague’s vacant fourth-floor apartment. During the day, they often move to a nearby theater, which has become a refuge and information center for residents. She said police and soldiers on the front lines would visit the theatre and inform them of what was happening across the country.
For three weeks, those who remained in the city faced an increasingly tight siege and relentless assault. They have to figure out how to survive, find drinking water, and gather information to get to the safe corridor.
March 16 was a turning point for the Marianne family. Like many other days, they went to the theater to see friends. Thirty minutes after they left, the bomb fell on the theater. “We were just a few hundred meters away,” she said.
The actual number of casualties from the bombing in the war zone was not provided, but the Ukrainian government initially estimated 300 people were killed.connect Associated Press That number was later reported to 600 people.
Early in the war, Marina and her parents met a businessman from Kyiv whose rented apartment was hit by a missile. He proposed letting them in as soon as the humanitarian corridor opened. Maryna’s family invited him to live with him in their apartment, and he stayed for 3 weeks while he waited.
Finally, on the day the theater was hit, a humanitarian corridor was opened between Mariupol and the Ukrainian army-held southeastern city of Zaporozhye. The four of them left Mariupol and later met two other mothers and children on the way.
“The situation is very dangerous and many evacuees died on the way to Zaporozhye,” she said, but all were determined to escape what they saw as “hell on earth”.
Marina said it took them 27 hours to complete the 250-kilometer journey. They passed 15 Russian checkpoints, checking cellphones, photos and passports.
Before the evacuation, Marina tried to be optimistic for her family, but after witnessing the horror, she became sensitive. “That day was the first time I cried since the war began. I saw clearly that my city was dying and felt useless. I felt like I was leaving Mariupol for good,” she shared.
The United Nations says 90 percent of Mariupol’s buildings have been destroyed since late February.
Since leaving her hometown, Marina has been following pictures and information about her hometown on social networks. Her family’s apartment was destroyed following the 26 March shelling. Mariupol’s house, city and fond memories are now in ashes.
Marina doesn’t want her city to be remembered for its ruins. “The whole world is talking about Mariupol right now, but few remember the warm beaches, festivals, delicious food and the talented people who were born there,” she said.
Only a few tens of thousands of Mariupol’s 430,000 inhabitants remain. Russian troops have taken full control of Mariupol after more than 80 days of besieging the Azovstal steel plant. Mariupol’s attempt to resist ended at the end of May, when the soldiers of the underground factory surrendered.
Although life in Edmonton, Canada is fairly comfortable now, Marina still feels pressure to stay in someone else’s home. She has found a new job and plans to move into her own place soon. Her father, under 60, could not leave Ukraine under the government’s wartime laws, so he and her mother moved to the west of the country.
“I believe we will win and Mariupol will be rebuilt,” Marina said, adding that she still has the keys to her hometown apartment. “I use it as a symbol of hope that one day I will return to Mariupol.”
Cheongdam (follow Al Jazeera)