“I am an occupier here, nobody has invited me.” Diary of a Russian engineer who spent a month in Mariupol
Оля Ромашова
“I am an occupier here, nobody has invited me.” Diary of a Russian engineer who spent a month in Mariupol
5 December 2022, 13:38

“Death and horror.” Courtesy photo / Mediazona

In Mariupol, the Russian military faced fierce resistance from the Ukrainian army, managing to capture the city only by the end of May. Most of the buildings were either completely destroyed or damaged, and many people lost their lives or became refugees. Russian authorities then took on the reconstruction of the city. Russian engineer Andrey Ivanov (not his real name) from one of the Russian regions, travelled to Mariupol for work and spent a month there, working on a building site. We publish his abridged diary. 

Day 1

Today we arrived in town, went through the checkpoint without much issue, but my mood was, naturally, not that good, I was shaking from fear. On the road approaching Mariupol were demolished houses, dead trees and burnt out cars in ditches. Some writing on a wall not far from the breakwaters, saying ‘NO WAR’, gave me some strength. When entering Mariupol, we were stopped by military men who checked our documents. They were ordinary guys who looked like they were 16 with automatic rifles bigger than themselves. It looked silly and scary—they are not just young, they are practically still kids. 

The town itself looks like it’s in ruins, almost all multi-storey buildings are damaged one way or another, fences are cut by shrapnel and houses are marked by the writing “People here” and “Children”. I can’t imagine what happened here a month ago, considering this infrastructure has been partially restored, the roads are repaired in some places and big piles of rubbish have been taken away. But, most probably, we were just taken on this road on purpose. 

When we arrived at our building site, we took a look around. I strolled out a bit and a woman of around 50 approached me and asked if the plan was to take this building block down, and I replied that I didn’t know and that nobody could tell you that. She started hysterically shouting, calling us occupiers and screaming: “Why are you here at all, how much grief have you brought upon this land!”, to which one of the builders replied: “Why the fuck are you so ungrateful? We are doing you good, rebuilding your town and you’re just ungrateful…”

Then we arrived at our living quarters. They are some sort of wagons, there is almost a whole mini town made out of these confined, uncomfortable trailers. The area of this small town is under the army’s protection and there is a market and several shops nearby. Despite everything, there is life in the town, there is light in some of the houses. I don’t know how many people are left, but I got the impression like it’s a parallel reality—here is a demolished house and army guys with shotguns, and over there are children on their bikes. With a burned down multi-storey building in the background, a Russian flag is flying.

Courtesy photo / Mediazona

From what the working men say, it’s a mostly negative attitude towards us here, and I understand it completely. I am scared of the thought that I might be potentially killed, and in fact they are perfectly within their right to do so. I am an occupier here, nobody has invited me, or maybe somebody has, but definitely not those 99% who voted ‘for’ [joining Russian territory].  The men say that, occasionally, some people come to the building site with grapes or some other treats, while from others you only catch scornful looks. A couple of days ago, a crane of our crane operator got mined with trip wires for two nights in a row. There is just one conclusion from this: we are not welcome here.

The safety regulations that were explained to us said that we can’t walk on uncut grass and footpaths, and overall it’s better to walk on tarmac without turning off. A couple of days ago a minesweeper blew up. Towards the end of my trip, I think I will get into the habit of looking down at my feet while walking, regardless of where I am, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to get rid of this.

Also, there is a curfew at 9 pm.

Day 2

I work at the construction site, the timetable is quite strict. From Friday to Saturday we work from 8 am to 7 pm, and on Sunday until 4 pm. So we work every day, without a day off. On Sundays, men here drive to the sea. I hope this Sunday the weather is good and we will go there as well.

Today I purchased a local SIM card. I spent only two hours queuing up. Seems like I was very lucky according to local standards. We started queuing up at around 7 am but already at that time I was 8th in line, even though the shop’s opening time was 8 am. By the way, you have to pay for your mobile phone using special cards, just like in the 2000s.

After that it’s work, work, work… until lunchtime, and you can have lunch in the canteen. One woman cooks for us. Probably she could be called a collaborator, but in my view she just earns money however she can.

After lunch I had to go to town to pick up some tools to some places I haven’t been to before, and I agreed… By the way, a minute of urbanism: I noticed that bikes are very popular here now, there are many people riding their bikes on the streets, it’s a shame there are no cycling paths for them.

After work we were smoking outside and I was listening to some stories of one worker who’s been here for around a month. He said that they are still shooting back from Azovstal sometimes, and that last Sunday one Ukrainian soldier was captured and they tortured him in a special torture chamber. I can’t say how accurate that is, I can’t verify it, but it sounds horrible. He also said that when he just arrived, one of the local soldiers was celebrating his birthday and they made fireworks from shooting rifles with tracer bullets. Many newcomers got scared from not being used to this.

Today I also caught my first explosion or, as they say in Russia now, khlopok. It was the sappers who were working. One of the explosions made my heart clench for a second, but then it passed. In general, I feel much better than yesterday. I see that somehow you can live here, a person quickly adapts to new conditions. The main thing is not to have thoughts that it is normal to live like this, because this is survival, not life.

Day 3

Today I woke up from a loud noise, which was my neighbour snoring on the bottom of our bunk bed. Now we share one wagon between four people.

There was no trace left of yesterday’s confidence in the surrounding normality. I was left alone with my thoughts for several hours, so I became anxious again, and there was a feeling of derealisation. I didn’t understand where I was at all and what was happening around me.

Locals speak about the war almost all the time, it is not cool but this is life here, where in fact nothing happens apart from explosions and minesweeping. There are not many job opportunities here, one of the locals said that he saw a job offer to take pictures of destroyed buildings so they can be evaluated on whether they can be restored or not. The salary was 10,000 roubles. Two local guys work at the construction site. One of them once told us that a projectile flew right through his house, leaving a hole in a wall, and something also exploded not far from there, and a manhole cover pierced the wall. They also said that Kadyrov’s men, who arrived there, cut apart tram lines and handed them over for scrap. I really am surprised they are working with us, they are good guys. Maybe they will be considered collaborators after the war, but I really hope not.

Courtesy photo / Mediazona

Today I heard another story from the guys. Recently they went to town to do something, and there was a truck on the road in front of them, and it stank awfully. Somebody suggested that rockets had hit a barn and they were transferring dead animals. Then I thought: “Yeah, of course, those weren’t dead people, yeah right, guys!”

On the sides of houses I often see the writing ‘People’ and ‘Children’. One graffiti stayed with me—it read ‘death and horror’. It fully describes the mood in the town.

Many workers do not have any compassion for locals. Somebody told a story about how one man came to ask him for some sand, and they joked that he should ask the army men if he can take one wheelbarrow for himself. The man told them that those army men killed his wife and he buried her in the yard of their house, so those people will kill him too. In the end, they took him for some crazy guy and promised to give him the sand he needed the next day, but he never came back. Another guy talking to us commented on that situation, saying that “He was probably drunk, and he just came to shout, to get things off his chest. So he finished his business and left back home more relaxed.”

While I was walking back to my trailer, I heard shooting and several explosions, but quite far away, so I was not that scared. The explosions themselves I did not hear, but felt. It’s like for a split second a pressure around you changes, and your body cannot really identify what this feeling is. For a moment you are lost in space, but then quickly recover.

In the next building, which has nine floors, there are no lights on today, and usually there are around 15 flats lit up. I only saw candles in one of them. Probably there are power outages, it happens here all the time. Constant disconnection from electricity and light has already got on my nerves.

Day 4

Again I woke from a loud noise—a neighbour’s snoring. I am looking forward to getting my earplugs delivered, local pharmacies do not sell them for some reason.

Today has been a normal working day, we worked from morning to night, I haven’t even taken any notes.

Received several text messages from the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations:

Persons aged 18 to 35 years old with a secondary general education and fit for military service are required for the vacant positions of sapper, sapper driver, sapper diver, and a cynologist instructor in the pyrotechnic work squad of the DPR Ministry of Emergency Situations. For drivers—categories B and C are required. Telephone number: ...

Vacancies in the subdivisions of the State Militarised Mine Rescue Service of the Ministry of Emergency Situations of the DPR, located in Donetsk, Makeevka, Torez, Gorlovka, medical workers (men) are required: doctor (higher education), paramedic (secondary special education). Call:...

Seems like there is a high staff turnover.

Day 5

I wake up as usual at 4 am and listen to music. At 6 am we hear a recording of some pioneer’s bugle, and then a melody like from an amusement park follows. I have to admit that the local ensemble does look like some kind of park, but the attractions here are built by a psychopath.

“Life is crossed out by the letter Z” © Noize MC

Day 6

Today we have a short day because it’s Sunday, and I am glad about it. Finally I have got some time for a walk around the town, so then I took a camera and walked to the sea. I was a bit scared. Towards the sea there was a residential house that was almost completely burnt down, and in one of the flats there was some light and music playing. It looked very strange. Along the whole way to the sea you can see the echo of war: the remains of rockets, tank tracks, cartridge cases and taped-off areas where it is better not to step if you want to live. And by the sea it is calm. The sea is huge and tranquil. The weather is grey and this is how I like the sea the most, because then it is not crowded by the sea, and so the atmosphere is calm. It’s not crowded here now, but it would be stupid to talk about tranquility. Somewhere far away there were two helicopters flying, somebody was fishing, and further still there were the ruins of Azovstal, fully black and burnt.

Courtesy photo / Mediazona

Day 7

Several hours ago there were missiles flying over the whole of Ukraine, it was scary as fuck. I am horrified by what I have already seen. Also, I am in occupied territory—so what prevents the Armed Forces of Ukraine from launching missiles at Mariupol? I guess, nothing does. OK, the air defence will work, they will shoot down half the missiles or more, but one may be enough for me. I love life a lot and I hate war. It feels like my life's countdown timer has just started. Outside I heard: “They should have been fucked over a long time ago…”

Several hours passed, life got back to normal, I dealt with my panic. It began to rain, the sky was covered with clouds all over, it got very dark. It is good there was no thunder—after the news about the attacks over the whole of Ukraine, loud noises scare me.

If I am lucky to leave from here one day, I really hope there will be no news about me on some sort of local internet group of my town saying: “Here is a hero, who worked on reconstructing the town, and then vile Nazis ate him with his bones and his skull is now a commander’s mug.” In the comments to this post there would be real havoc but in fact the real havoc is right here, there is a frontline just 100 kilometres away where people are being minced in a split second.

Day 8

Nothing special about today, only my thoughts make me feel weird. Here I am working with men, and they are good guys, jolly, kind, so why are they taking a war as something normal, how did this happen? Also today, it seems, the sappers had a productive day—there were explosions all day long.

Courtesy photo / Mediazona

Day 9

The morning is terribly cold. Because of constant problems with electricity, we can’t use the heaters properly, so we spent a whole night without heating and light. Here, cold weather is now starting already, especially when the wind comes from the sea. My phone is almost down.

Day 10

Today for the first time I managed to smuggle alcohol into our little town, it is strictly forbidden here. To do that, I had to carry out a special operation. In the morning, I bought vodka, at lunch I poured it into a thermos and went to our builders town. It is no joke here—a checkpoint, army men, pass checks, they can even check inside your things. Overall, I feel like a schoolboy in a summer camp, when I have to get this bottle past my teachers, but instead of teachers there are soldiers with loaded rifles.

P. S. I got away with everything.

In general, I really miss normal life, meeting friends, my apartment. I always appreciated life, and here I appreciate it even more.

Courtesy photo / Mediazona

Day 11

I woke up feeling ill, and you can’t really be ill here. You have to work anyway, and you will feel ill on top of that. Something happened to my appetite. I feel very hungry, but when I start eating, I feel immediately sick. I think it’s a nervous thing.

Today I witnessed air defence in action. I was working at a height and then I heard something, so I looked up. There was a trace from a missile and traces twisted in a spiral, from the fall of some object. I don’t know what it was. At that moment, I got horrified from the proximity of all of it happening. The feeling that this thing quite possibly was on the way to kill me stirred me, my hands were shaking for quite a while. I was surprised at how the workers perceived it, for them it was kind of a war game. Also, I heard someone saying: “There is a lot of money invested in here, they will do a good job to protect us.”

Day 12

Today there was a military shift change at our facility, and we got a rather talkative man assigned to us. He said that yesterday the air defence didn’t shoot down some kind of reconnaissance drone, as my colleagues assumed, but it was an OTR-21 Tochka.

Day 13

On Sundays our canteen is closed. We cook food ourselves, and—oh God—today, I felt so good eating mashed potatoes with canned stew meat, lard and tomatoes. It was clear that I was dopamine hungry, so my pleasure from food was really beyond anything. After lunch we went to the sea.

Courtesy photo / Mediazona

Day 14

Nothing interesting happened at the construction site, and finally it was time for lunch. The dining room is located in our little town, it’s fenced and guarded, there is all kinds of equipment for construction, and there is a place to see doctors. Right at the entrance to the town, on the pavement, I saw the body of an elderly woman, she was covered with a jacket and a blanket. Her heart gave out and she died while waiting to see a doctor. I had to pass right next to her, and to be honest, I didn’t even notice her right away. People walked nearby, and the woman's body lay there.

Day 15

There are a lot of homeless cats and dogs here, I make local friends. I ran out of all the cat food that I took from the mainland. They refuse to eat porridge, and they are reluctant to eat eggs. There is a pet store in the local shop, but it’s a little expensive, so I’m waiting for additional [food] to be brought to me. Even a hefty Alabai sometimes comes to us, the workers nicknamed her Lyuska. Good, kind and loyal, she chases my cats, and is also very thin. I feed her stew with bread, however it seems to me that there’s not much point to this. Most probably, she has been bitten by ticks, and she has Lyme disease, and most likely there is no one to treat her. I hope I’m wrong.

At the construction site itself, we constantly hang out with a hefty and graceful black cat Bagheera, who is clearly blue-blooded, and a nameless cross-eyed simpleton cat who meows amusingly.

By the way, I haven’t met angry dogs here. There is a whole flock of dogs near the market, but they are somehow miserable, asking to be fed. Probably some of them were once pets. I help animals as much as I can.

Day 17

Went by.

Courtesy photo / Mediazona

Day 18

I fucking had enough of porridge for lunch. There are no complaints about the soup, but enough porridge, I pray to all the gods that I know. I love cereals, but apparently only when I cook them. Oh, how I want pasta for dinner! Every day when I go to the canteen, I hope that there’ll be pasta, and every day I am disappointed to the core.

Day 19

On the way to work in the morning, I went to the market to buy pies and saw that one man was selling a film camera. I’ve wanted one for a long time, but for some reason I kept putting off buying it. I realised that this was fate, and so I became the happy owner of a Zenith camera.

A parcel came from the mainland, where there were 50 pouches of [wet] cat food, and one large pack of dry. This is a great joy for me and my furry friends. It would seem that everything is great, but this feeling lasted about ten minutes. Then I began to think that if everything is really good in the morning, then something bad will happen in the afternoon.

At about 9:40 I saw a contrail in the sky, like from an aeroplane, from the direction of Donetsk or Luhansk. I immediately thought that it was something big and bad flying somewhere far away. A couple of minutes later I saw the same object flying from the Crimea and the Black Sea. It became clear that they were missiles. I saw four in total.

At lunch, they finally gave us pasta. How long I had been waiting for it! My mood is good again.

Courtesy photo / Mediazona

Day 20

How tired I am, this eternal apathy, working three weeks at a construction site, seven days a week, a dull, ruined city, no food I’m used to, no personal space, life on the top bunk and weapons. The military, who guarded it and us, were also removed from the facility, and we have to be on duty there in pairs at night, which was not at all included in our plans. I want to get out of here as soon as possible. I can’t even say home. I don’t know where my home is now and where I even want to be. Just as far away from here as possible.

Day 25

For several days I was not in the mood to write anything, I was tired.

Soon home, time has begun to go by even more slowly. I don’t want some fatal accident to happen right before the departure.

A few days ago, at work in the office, a new batch was called up, and one employee managed to get here on a business trip, because they don’t touch us here. It turns out it’s a strange scheme—in order not to get to the war, people have to go almost to the war.

Day 30

I’m leaving for home tomorrow. Finally. Soon crossing the border again, being nervous. I hate “cleaning up” chats before going over the border, I find it humiliating, but I’d rather clean them up as much as I can so as not to risk it.

It was the most terrifying and traumatic experience of my life. I’ve been where the war is going on. What did I see here? Only people. There were no demons with horns, no mythical enemies, much less Nazis, just ordinary people. Ordinary people among the locals, ordinary people among the military. They invent enemies for us, convincing us that it is right to kill them in the name of some purpose. But who are they? Who are they? Are they different? No, people are the same everywhere.

Editor: Dmitry Treschchanin

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