In the south of Ukraine, on the shores of the Azov Sea, is Mariupol. It’s never been a perfect place. Fifteen years ago, it was known as the most environmentally-damaged city in Ukraine, with old Soviet-era steel factories and chemical plants pumping out high levels of pollution. But over the next decade, Mariupol worked to cut those levels in half while keeping the levels of manufacturing in the area high. It may be the only city in the world that has an official “Metallurgist Day” holiday as well as an “Engineer Day.”
It also became a city known for it’s art, for music, and for supporting a growing Ukrainian film industry. That merger seemed to define the city — the hard bones and damage left behind by the decades of Soviet control, softened by an appreciation that things could be better, could be brighter, could be more than a utilitarian gray. It was a city known for it’s public sculptures, it’s large-scale murals, for growing a point of light and color between the smokestacks and the piers.
In 2018, Mariupol hosted “Gogol Fest, which has nothing to do with any sort of search engine or a very large number or something you wear underwater. It’s named for Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol, and it’s a celebration of music, art, theater, literature, and cinema. Tens of thousands came to the city (population 430,000) to attend concerts and plays, or catch the premiere of new Ukrainian films.
Mariupol was far from any kind of paradise. After Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine, it was pinned between Russian occupied Crimea and the areas of Donbas where Russia was supplying a separatist movement. The kids enjoying tea and pastry might be happy in this photograph, but they had just come in out of a cold and rainy day, where they had joined in helping territorial defense forces with what seemed to be an unending task over the last decade — digging trenches and building defenses around the city to guard against the day when Russia came again.
Now that day has passed. Some of those same kids are probably trapped inside the city at this moment. Cold. Starving. Battered every day by Russian bombs. Some of them may have been at the Mariupol Theater, where over 1,000 people had gathered to shelter near the center of the city after Russian artillery had shattered their homes and apartment buildings in the outer rings of the city.
Unlike other cities in Ukraine, Mariupol’s position near Crimea and Donbas allowed it to be quickly encircled by Russian forces. There have been multiple attempts to evacuate the populace, all of which have ended when Russia begin shelling or firing into the walking civilians. There have been multiple attempts to bring food into the city which has been without supplies for over ten days. Russia has blocked all those attempts. There was a negotiated “green corridor” though when Russia agreed to allow people to leave, but when Ukrainian troops removed the barricades from that corridor, Russian forces tried to use that opening to charge into the city. In Mariupol, children are being buried in trenches. Bodies have been left on the streets, because whenever someone tries to retrieve them, Russian troops fire at them.
Mariupol isn’t supposed to be this way. No city is. But humanitarian convoys must be allowed into the city to break this worse than medieval siege, bring in food, and bring out children and the injured. That’s something that’s worth risking an expansion of this war.
As always, take with several grains of salt until confirmed.