Russian forces dragged the bodies of those killed in the Mariupol theatre attack “to the garbage”, deputy mayor Sergeii Orlov said as he reflected on life in the occupied Ukrainian city a year since it was first attacked.

About 600 people are thought to have been killed when the Russians attacked the 60-year-old stone theatre on 16 March while it was sheltering some 1,200 civilians.

Speaking of how Russians started the demolition of the theatre in December, Mr Orlov accused Moscow of employing rescue services directly from Russia so they could cover up alleged war crimes.

“They did their cruel and dirty task and returned to Russia,” Mr Orlov told i, adding residents had not been informed beforehand.

He said they used heavy machines and excavators and, “with all the garbage, the bodies were transferred to the garbage dump.”

FILE - Internally displaced people from Mariupol and nearby towns arrive at a refugee center fleeing from the Russian attacks, in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, Thursday, April 21, Quantifying the toll of Russia???s war in Ukraine remains an elusive goal a year into the conflict. Estimates of the casualties, refugees and economic fallout from the war produce an complete picture of the deaths and suffering. Precise figures may never emerge for some of the categories international organizations are attempting to track. (AP Photo/Leo Correa, File)
Internally displaced people from Mariupol and nearby towns arrive at a refugee centre in Zaporizhzhia after fleeing Russian attacks last year (Photo: Leo Correa/AP)

Russia took control of Mariupol, a strategic Black Sea port city, in May last year, when the Azovstal steelworks’ fighters were forced to surrender after enduring three months of one of the most brutal sieges since the Second World War.

The deputy mayor said that the number of people killed during the siege of Mariupol is between 22,000 and 70,000.

The battle for Mariupol, which began on 24 February last year as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine, damaged nearly every area of city, where the population has plunged from about half a million before the war to an estimated 150,000.

Up to 90 per cent of its infrastructure was damaged during the three-month siege, including 24,926 private houses and 1,207 apartment buildings, with the city’s losses believed to be in the region of £12bn.

Russians “continue to demolish and the idea is they are hiding crimes and all cruelties”, Mr Orlov said. “It’s impossible to find killed people under these damaged and destroyed houses.”

‘Digging cemeteries’

Since Mariupol’s surrender, efforts to “Russify” it have been under way, ranging from “Zombie cars” being sent around to peddle Kremlin propaganda, to schools teaching the Russian curriculum and Mariupol now being in the Moscow time zone, AP reported.

Mr Orlov said those who left the city have described a “lack of everything, lack of economic activity, lack of life and home to live”.

Some reported how “the only opportunity to earn some money was by digging cemeteries… because for a lot of stuff they need a Russian passport”.

FILE PHOTO: Workers lower coffins into a common grave during a burial at a cemetery in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in the settlement of Staryi Krym outside Mariupol, Russian-controlled Ukraine, February 4, 2023. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko/File Photo
Workers lower coffins into a common grave at a cemetery in the settlement of Staryi Krym near Mariupol on 4 February (Photo: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Russian documents are needed for higher-skilled jobs such as management or education, and to access services like pensions and medical care, according to the deputy mayor.

While there are some grocery stores in Mariupol, they are small and the prices are 50 to 70 per cent higher than the rest of Ukraine.

“When you see pictures from Mariupol there are huge queues for prepared food on the streets,” said Mr Orlov. “It’s awful for people because they don’t want to be in these queues … but they need to, as for a lot of them, it’s the only opportunity to receive some warm food.”

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Mr Orlov said Russian forces used to provide some food and hygiene kits, but that has almost entirely stopped.

While some water pipes work, they don’t reach every flat. On top of that, the sewage system still isn’t working, Mr Orlov said.

Heating is “very bad”, with only 30 to 50 per cent of houses having central heating in Ukraine’s freezing winter temperatures. Everyone else lives in “frozen” flats or huddles with family in properties with heating. Some go to private houses where they can use coal, wood or pellets.

‘Only choice is Russia’

Leaving Mariupol for other Ukrainian-held territories is “absolutely forbidden”, Mr Orlov said, meaning residents who want to leave must go through Russia and then pass through another country such as Estonia or Lithuania if they want to get back to Ukraine or head for the EU.

“Russia does not see Ukraine as a country … everything they do is genocide.”

Mr Orlov said Russians are pushing for residents to get Russian citizenship so they can then say “look, there are no Ukrainian people, you see, it’s Russian people here.

“Their aim is to demolish Ukraine as a country and as a nation.”

Mr Orlov is nonetheless confident the occupation won’t last forever.

“We are personally absolutely sure that Mariupol will be liberated and my personal opinion and understanding is that it will be done after the end of this year.”

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