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In Ukraine's Mariupol, Doubts Grow Over Russia's Rush To Rebuild A Demolished City

Newly reconstructed apartment blocks in Mariupol
-- Residents, and even some workers, say the quality of the effort is questionable.
Newly reconstructed apartment blocks in Mariupol -- Residents, and even some workers, say the quality of the effort is questionable.

In June 2022, barely a month after Ukraine ended its haggard defense of Mariupol, a bustling port city that was obliterated in Russia's monthslong siege, Russia's push to rebuild began.

Russian officials hoped to bring the occupied city, which had a prewar population of nearly 426,000, back to life, and entice some of the hundreds of thousands who fled to return, particularly those who had fled the city for Russia.

Nearly a year later, with the war continuing unabated and Ukraine widely expected to open a new offensive any day now, the effort to erect a new Mariupol continues to lurch forward. Hundreds of newly built apartment units are completed, or nearing completion, according to Russian-appointed administrators.

But interviews by RFE/RL's North.Realities with former residents who have returned, either to work or to take up the new housing, or to deliver humanitarian aid, paint a picture of hurried construction, dubious building quality, and great uncertainty about the city's future.

"They're building quickly. But in terms of quality, I can't really say anything," said a 40-year-old former electrician named Roman, who was evacuated along with his family from Mariupol and lived for months in St. Petersburg, Russia.

He's been rotated into Mariupol twice, as part of the construction effort, with wages substantially more than what he was making as a temporary worker in St. Petersburg. Like others interviewed for this story by RFE/RL's North.Realities, he asked to be identified by a pseudonym.

Still, he says there is a slipshod quality to much of the construction, with temporary workers being brought in from Central Asia and elsewhere to work quickly, he said, without proper quality control.

"Windows, for example, sometimes have to be installed three or four times," he said. "They are installed very poorly."

"Even if Mariupol is restored, I don't know how it will be," he said. "It used to be an industrial city of a half-million [people] and now they want to turn it into a resort, but the resort lives seasonally."

His once-negative feelings toward Ukraine's leadership have changed, Roman said.

"It turns out everything wasn't so bad," he said. "We all looked at our neighbor [Russia]. 'Maybe the neighbor's apples are tastier.' And maybe at first they were tastier. Only later did they turn out to be rotten."

'It Feels Like A Ghost Town'

It's unclear how many of Mariupol's residents fled to Russia and Russian-controlled territories, as opposed to going west, to Ukraine proper, or leaving for Western countries.

Ukrainian officials estimate at least 25,000 people were killed in the Russian siege, which ended when hundreds of Ukrainian marines and members of the Azov Battalion who had been holed up in the Azovstal Steel Works plant surrendered on May 16, 2022.

The United Nations estimates that up to 90 percent of Mariupol's multistory residential buildings have been destroyed or damaged, along with about 60 percent of private, standalone houses. The city's Russian-appointed administration estimates that around 32,500 private residences have been completely or partially destroyed.

An unknown number of people have returned to the city after being housed in temporary accommodations in Russia, according to news reports. Many are believed to be elderly retirees.

"It feels like a ghost town," said a woman named Svitlana, who traveled back and forth to Mariupol to look into elderly relatives who had returned to the city. "It's just all ruins, the atmosphere itself sucks all the strength out of you. People live among all this for a year."

"It's physically difficult to live there," she said. "Elevators don't work. Tap water isn't drinkable. That is, you need to buy water, put it on a cart, but you can't leave the cart below, because it will be stolen, so all this must be dragged to your floor."

Those who have returned struggle to find food or needed medications. Another woman, who asked to be called Olha, says that there are endless lines to withdraw money -- Russian rubles -- from the few automatic bank tellers that are working, or to apply for Russian passports.

Olha says that when they got to Mariupol, they met the elderly mother of one of their acquaintances. The elderly woman showed her a package of food aid that the city administration had given out: a package of dried macaroni pasta and some canned meat.

"Try some Mariupol cuisine," Olha said the woman quipped to her.

Mariupol, March 2023
Mariupol, March 2023

"The stores are full of everything, but this is available only for the military and builders who receive normal money. It's too expensive for the locals," she said.

A Longing To Return

The Russian effort to rebuild Mariupol includes demolition of the tens of thousands of standalone houses and apartment blocks that were destroyed in the fighting.

One of the sites for new high-rise apartment blocks is located in a southwestern district of the city; an organization called the Pobeda Foundation, whose funding sources are opaque, was tasked with running the project. In another location, a series of five-story apartment blocks has popped up at a furious pace. The general contractor for that particular development, which reportedly went up in just 80 days, is a Russian Defense Ministry-owned company.

"The quality is bad, that's for sure," said Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol, now living elsewhere in Ukraine.

"At best, it's like the Soviet concrete high-rise buildings, more or less," he told the News of Azov, a regional project of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. "And what they're building now has no relation whatsoever with what they have dismantled and demolished."

Hanna Romanenko, the editor in chief of 0629, a Mariupol news website, agrees, alleging that the high-rise foundations being poured by construction workers are substandard. "They're using ordinary concrete for the foundations, which, without shrinkage, will just crumble after two or three years," she said.

Larisa says she and her husband fled Mariupol for Russia in the spring of 2022, but then returned to take care of their aging parents. She says that by her count new building projects numbered only around seven.

She says the process of former residents applying to get new apartment was convoluted, but that retirees were being given priority.

"Not many people are getting new housing: either they don't have enough of the right documents, or they don't like the new place" or the new units are too small, she said.

Tamara and her family returned not long ago from Russia's St. Petersburg region, where they were temporarily housed. Their current housing in Mariupol still has damage from shelling, and temporary workers are rebuilding the structure while some of the units are still occupied.

She says she was glad to be back; the air quality is better since all of the city's heavy industry has been destroyed. "The climate has gotten better because the factories are no longer working," she said.

But, she added, "My husband was just barely able to get a job, and now he's afraid that they might cheat him out of his salary."

Sewage pumping is still a major problem that the Russian administration hasn't repaired, Andryushchenko says.

"The sewage system doesn't work and everything just goes into the sea, further clogging the sewage system. What can be built if you add new houses to the nonworking sewer system without rebuilding the sewer system?" he said.

One St. Petersburg woman who recently returned from delivering medication and other humanitarian aid to Mariupol says she saw lots of construction workers.

"I had the feeling there are more builders than locals," the woman, Svitlana, said. "It seemed to me that they were more actively restoring dilapidated housing, rather than building new ones."

But the city, she adds, is still a largely demolished wasteland. Some residents told her that buildings were being torn down even though human corpses remained inside.

"Windows are being installed in the burnt-out eye sockets of the apartment buildings, even before plumbing and electricity is being restored and the charred walls are cleaned off," she said. "There's a burnt smell everywhere."

'You'd Better Just Take What You Can Get'

After leaving Mariupol early last year, Olha, a retired bookkeeper, and her daughter Natalya, who worked at one of the city's metallurgical plants, were sent to the Leningrad region, near St. Petersburg. They struggled to get by, Olha says: their monthly rent sucked up nearly all of their wages from cleaning houses.

In January 2023, they returned to Mariupol. Their apartment was more or less intact, though she said it had been pillaged and everything stolen.

The two set out to repair the apartment, hiring workers; but the quality of the workmanship was shoddy; the windows had to be replaced from scratch.

Natalya gets by selling cigarettes on the black market, Olha says. Olha is hoping to get a monthly pension from the administration of the Donetsk's People Republic -- the Russian puppet government that controls much of the region where Mariupol is located.

She said city authorities were scrambling to assign new housing to people looking to return. Some of her friends have received housing assignments but the units are located in inconvenient places.

Officials then told them: "You'd better jump at this [opportunity]. A lot of people return to the city, refuse [housing assignments], and then get nothing at all'," Olha said her friends were told.

"You'd better just take what you can get," Olha said. "And what difference does it make where you live? The main thing is it's in your hometown."

For their part, Ukrainian authorities express confidence that Mariupol will return to Ukrainian control one day.

Andryushchenko said the Ukrainian administration is drafting its own reconstruction plan, with funding they hope will come from the World Bank and large corporations.

With reporting by News Of Azov, a project of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

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