on the road to Mariupol, the inhabitants who choose to return to hell

ReportageEvery day, dozens of Mariupolans choose to return to their city devastated by Russian bombing. To extract relatives who have remained stranded or for lack of resources to continue living in exile.

It is the only and last open door between free Ukraine and the zone occupied by the Russian army. A parking lot located 30 km from the front, overgrown with weeds, bordered on one side by poplars, on the other by the road from Zaporizhia to Mariupol. Hundreds of vehicles pile up there in the morning to form separate convoys to the main localities in the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson. Under the growing influx of Ukrainians who wish to return to their homes, an informal bus station has thus appeared.

Near Zaporizhia, Ukraine, a man looks on June 16, 2022, at the list showing the 172 cars that were to be able to leave in a convoy that day, to areas occupied by the Russians.

“Their motivations are diverse”explains Vladlen Pikuz, an employee of the Mariupol town hall in exile, responsible for registering his departing citizens in a register. “Some go back and forth to pick up property or relatives; others return home because they have no more money; others go further: in Russia, in Europe, in Turkey. They are men who can be mobilized and thus circumvent the ban on leaving the country”continues the municipal employee.

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Plainclothes police and intelligence agents more or less discreetly monitor the flow of candidates for return. The number of vehicles is limited in each convoy. Dozens of families have been camping for several days under a blazing sun, waiting for an authorization. Especially people impoverished to the point of opting to return to a completely devastated city.

Olga registers displaced persons wishing to return to the occupied territories to register in a file, in a parking lot where Ukrainians will wait for their departure to the occupied areas, near Zaporizhia, Ukraine, on June 15, 2022.

According to the municipality in exile, at least 20,000 Mariupolitains died under the bombardments of the Russian artillery and air force between February 24 and the surrender of the last Ukrainian resistance fighters in mid-May. The exact balance will be very difficult to establish, between the bodies piled up in the mass graves and those remained under the rubble, cleared with a bulldozer by the occupation authorities.

“The leap into the unknown”

“Yes, I’m scared”admits Sergei, a 52-year-old stocky bald man, coming out of his “pitiorka” (Lada n° 5) to smoke a cigarette under the trees. In the car, in the passenger seat, his blonde wife with eyes veiled by weariness talks about everything and nothing with a stranger. In the backseat, a stubborn-looking teenager would like to talk football, while his half-sister looks around the parking lot for a distraction.

“I’m going to look for my old father”, Sergei explains in his thick, chain-smoking voice. This truck driver is preparing to spend a second night in a tent while waiting to leave. “My mother died just before the siege, I had time to bury her. She made me swear to take good care of my father. But I had to flee on March 16 to save the children, while leaving my father behind. He absolutely refused to leave. Since then, my conscience has tortured me. I lost sleep. The promise made to my mother resonates constantly in my head. I have to take my father to a safe place. But how to get out? I don’t know, it’s a leap into the unknown. »

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