The 'devastating truth' about what happened in Mariupol, Ukraine, from those who lived through the destruction
First-hand video footage from survivors shows the horror in Mariupol as Russia attacked
Mariupol, Ukraine, was a modern, thriving European city, home to about 430,000 people, before it was attacked by Russia in early 2022.
Headlines around the world brought attention to the destruction of the city over the course of almost 12 weeks. Bombs severely damaged or demolished thousands of buildings. Ukrainian officials estimate that at least 25,000 people were killed.
Now, in the documentary Mariupol: The People's Story, residents describe what it was like to live through it.
'People were scared of both leaving and staying. It was the choice between the two ways of being killed'
Alevtina was the host of the daily television show Morning in Mariupol before Russia attacked. Born and raised in Mariupol, she said the city was never just a place to live: "It was the meaning of life."
"We were sure that Mariupol would withstand anything because it's a Ukrainian fortress," she said in the documentary.
But as the days went on, it was clear that wasn't the case. Heavy shelling blew out the windows of her home. In early March, Russian strikes cut off power, gas and running water. A bomb landed just outside Alevtina's home, leaving behind a huge crater where her family cooked their meals.
"We realized we had to leave and get somewhere on foot or we'd be killed," she said. "The next bomb flying over Mariupol may hit us."
Alevtina escaped Mariupol with her son and husband, only to return to the besieged city to rescue her parents and brother.
"People were scared of both leaving and staying," an artist named Diana said in the film. "It was the choice between the two ways of being killed. Either the quick one or the very tiring and [slow] one if you stay in the city."
She moved into the hospital so she could keep working
"The city was in chaos — chaos," said Oksana, an anesthetist at Mariupol Regional Intensive Care Hospital.
"We'd already accepted we wouldn't survive. I wrote down my mum's number and put it in [my son] Nikita's pocket in case we got separated. So if someone found him, they could contact his relatives."
When it became too dangerous to travel through the city, Oksana moved into the hospital so she could keep working. "The situation in the hospital was critical," she said. "The entire floor was covered in blood — injuries, wounds, trauma. A lot of children were among them."
The Russian military eventually showed up at the hospital, shooting at nearby buildings from their armoured vehicles. They weren't planning on letting the doctors out, so Oksana and her colleagues changed out of their work clothes and snuck out two at a time.
"It was very scary," she said in the film. "At one point, I felt we'd never make it."
They wrote 'children' in huge letters outside a theatre full of families seeking shelter. It was bombed anyway
By mid-March, hundreds of people were taking shelter at The Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre. Many had nowhere else to go after their homes had been bombed.
Sergey, an actor, helped coordinate food and accommodations at the theatre.
"Someone suggested writing 'children' in large letters [outside the theatre] so that it could be seen from a plane," he said.
"People kept asking me, 'Sergey, what do we do now?' I said, 'Calm down. Everything will be fine. We have the inscription 'children.' No one will shell or bomb a building with children and women.' I was sure of that."
He was wrong. On March 16, the Russian forces bombed the theatre.
"The fire station had been bombed the day before, so there was no help," said Sergey.
According to an Associated Press investigation, close to 600 people were killed by the airstrike on the theatre.
Surviving in an underground bunker
Hanna spent more than two months in a bunker at Azovstal Iron & Steel Works with her infant son and about 1,000 other civilians.
"When you're down there, time disappears. You can't tell day from night," she said in Mariupol: The People's Story.
At one point, a bomb dropped on the bunker. Hanna was trapped underground until Ukrainian soldiers stationed there were able to dig her out. "There were many dead and wounded," she said.
As the days passed, food became scarce. "Our breakfast was a spoonful of pasta, water and salt," Hanna said. "The children were very hungry. They drew pictures of food."
When an evacuation of civilians from the bunker was arranged, Hanna and her son were finally able to leave.
In a Ukrainian TV interview filmed just after she left the bunker, she said, "To be honest, we had already lost hope. We thought everyone had forgotten us, that we'd never get out of there."
'We got out of hell'
Alevtina, Diana, Oksana, Sergey and Hanna all survived the siege of Mariupol. "We got out of hell," said Oksana. "I think only people from Mariupol can understand this hell."
'Harrowing but essential viewing'
"Filmed by residents, this documentary charts [Mariupol's] swift and tragic destruction since the Russian invasion," wrote Sammy Gecsoyler in the Guardian when the film first aired in the U.K. on BBC One. "Their efforts to survive or escape make for harrowing but essential viewing."
In a five-star review in the Financial Times, Dan Einav said the film makes for "overwhelming" and "upsetting" — but necessary — viewing.
"[Mariupol: The People's Story] combines first-hand footage of corpse-filled streets, missile-lit skies and dark, dank shelters with the personal recollections of those who were there and survived," he wrote.
"Between them, they ensure that the devastating truth of what happened in Mariupol is excavated from the rubble and the scarcely digestible statistics."
Mariupol: The People's Story is a documentary about loss, suffering and apparent war crimes, but also bravery, determination and incredible resilience. Watch it now on CBC Gem.