”I was wrong.” Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko tells why he thought there would be no war, about the situation in the city, occupiersʼ actions, filtration camps and mass burials — a long interview

Oksana Kovalenko
Yevhen Spirin
”I was wrong.” Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko tells why he thought there would be no war, about the situation in the city, occupiersʼ actions, filtration camps and mass burials — a long interview

Getty Images / «Babel'»

On February 23, 2022, Babelʼs correspondent spoke with Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko. It was an interview about how the city is preparing for a possible full-scale Russian aggression. The mayor assured that there will be no war, and the city is ready for any circumstances. Fifteen hours after the conversation, Russia attacked Ukraine, and within a few hours the shelling of Mariupol began. The city was quickly surrounded, although the Russians fatally wiped out Volnovakha to do this. Heavy fighting continued for every kilometer of Mariupol. Terrible photos of houses completely destroyed by aviation began to appear. The Russians dropped bombs on a maternity hospital and then on the Drama Theater, where people had been hiding since the large-scale war started. The exact number of people killed there is still unknown. The defense lasted three months. On Friday, May 20, the last defenders of Mariupol left Azovstal, including the commanders of the Marines, Azov Regiment, police and others. The Russians fired at everything from Grad MLRS to air bombs of 500 kg weight, they used phosphorous munitions prohibited by international law, as well as gas. Almost 20,000 Mariupol residents died. In addition, in May, Maxar satellite images revealed four mass graves near Mariupol, and on May 16, the Mariupol City Council announced that more than 10,000 Mariupol residents could die from disease, water, food and medicine shortages. About 100,000 were able to evacuate. After the Azovstal defenders left the plant, Oksana Kovalenko, a Babel correspondent, spoke with Vadym Boychenko about whether the city was really ready for war, why there was a lack of bomb shelters, food and water, and what the Russians were doing in occupied Mariupol.

Do you know the details of the agreements and the conditions for the exit of Azovstal defenders?

The President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky is directly involved in this mission. The negotiating team worked for a long time to make it happen. It was almost impossible. The most important thing is that the guys are alive today and will live. Unfortunately, we canʼt comment further. When the guys will get to the controlled part of our country, we will comment on how it was.

Do you have information about any security guarantees for them from Russia?

I believe that the President has heard and seen all the risks that may arise when making decisions. And so, Iʼm sure, it was a well-considered decision.

Then letʼs remember our previous interview with you, which took place less than a day before the full-scale invasion. Then you assured that there would be no war.

I had no other information. That was my feeling. Well, you see how it turned out? I was wrong.

That is, it turns out that you didnʼt expect a full-scale war?


Were you preparing for it? Because then, on February 23, I asked you about the preparation.

If you have already lived 3 months of this war, you already have a different attitude to this issue. And if we hear the question: "Were the city preparing for war?", then, of course, there is the following question: "But which city has prepared for the war?" Irpin, Bucha, Sumy, Kharkiv, Kyiv? Who was preparing?

Mariupol was still at the forefront. Of all the major cities, Mariupol has been the closest to the frontline since 2014. And since then it has been on the territory of the Anti-Terrorist Operation first, then the OOS, that is, in a different position than Bucha, Kharkiv, or Sumy.

Yes, thatʼs for sure. And the second question that arises: what is it like to prepare the city for war? Who should prepare it? Are there appropriate instructions how it should be?

When we win, it will be appropriate to ask this question. There are many questions as to why this happened and what could have been done to prevent it from happening.

Did you have communication with Kyiv before the war, with the presidentʼs office, and what messages did you receive from there?

I used only official information. You can watch my statement on February 23. When some deputies stood up and said that they had seen Putinʼs interview, and I said that I was looking exclusively at official information and relying on the statements and confidence of Volodymyr Zelensky.

That is, you did not communicate directly with the presidentʼs office before the war? Maybe with the deputy head of the office or someone else?

I will move on to the next day, February 24, when the war began. Then I woke up at home — my house and my apartment are located on the left bank [of the river Kalmius, which divides the city], even closer to the line of contact than the City Council building. At 5:07 am the head of the military administration [the head of the Donetsk Oblast State Administration Pavlo Kyrylenko] called me. My first question was, "What do we have to do?" He says, "Weʼre working." On the same day, the president imposed martial law — this is very important, because according to this law the city administration had already taken part in defense of Mariupol.

Regarding "Weʼre working": have you already developed a plan, how exactly do you cooperate?

Since the first day [of the full-scale invasio], we moved from our usual work to the team of the head of the military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, and carried out all the orders we received directly from him. There were no paper instructions, like in the movies, when you need to open an envelope with instructions at a certain moment.

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I want to go back a little bit. Did you communicate with Azov Regiment before the war? I read an interview with their instructor, Georgy Kuparashvili, who said that the unit had been preparing for war for a long time, and on February 24 they began evacuating their families from Mariupol.

No, there was definitely no such communication. On the morning of February 24, we met in my office with my team, and I asked the manager who is directly responsible for liaising with our law enforcement entities, "Whatʼs next?" He said that martial law had been imposed, the head of the defense of Mariupol was appointed — it was the leader of 3057th Army Unit. We went there, the meeting was attended by the heads of all units subordinated to this unit. We discussed our work and have been helping to defend the city ever since. We received tasks from them: to bring concrete blocks somewhere, to weld anti-tank barriers, to provide food and fuel. This was a very simple but very important job for us.

So you first met them on Febriary 24th?

No, I have been working with them since 2014. But why would I meet the Azov Regiment in ordinary, non-military times?

Well, how non-military? Starting from 2014 anti-terrorist operation proceeded in Donetsk in the Luhansk Oblasts. A special period lasted until the full-scale invasion. Mariupol is located almost on the frontline, settlements near Mariupol were constantly shelled.

I will correct you a little, 2014-2015 it was just like that. But starting from 2015 it was more or less quiet in the direction of Mariupol. Because there was the Normandy format, which pushed the line of contact — before the Normandy talks it passed almost on the outskirts of our city, but then was pushed to the east, and our Armed Forces stood there. You have to understand, I am not a military administration, I am the mayor of Mariupol, a civilian. I have no additional responsibilities to directly lead the Armed Forces.

Iʼm not talking about leadership. I ask if you talked to them on the eve of the war, which you did not expect, but they were preparing and taking their families out.

This is the first time Iʼve heard it from you. We spoke with you on February 23, if I had known that, I would have treated the situation differently. Every year we directed funds to support our defenders and law enforcement officers. We helped them to build the barracks, a canteen, and so on.

And who made the decision to evacuate Mariupol residents? And why talks about it started only on March 5?

The decision on the beginning or end of the evacuation is made by the head of the military administration. From the first day of the war, I am directly at the disposal of its head, Pavlo Kyrylenko. He gave me orders when to start the evacuation.

When exactly there was a realization that Mariupol is surrounded?

On March 1, Mariupol was already encircled.

And only the 5th the talks about the evacuation started?

In order to talk about the evacuation, it is necessary to prepare it so that the encirclement was opened. The negotiating team started working, negotiations to open the evacuation corridors lasted 4 days. The sides agreed on March 5, but the evacuation did not take place then, because they [the Russians] didnʼt have such a goal. Thatʼs not why they took the city in a circle. But this is what we understand now, and then we believed that we could agree [and evacuate people]. We determined the locations, prepared the buses, said how many people there would be. They [the Russians] fired on our buses. When the Armed Forces opened Mariupol for evacuation, Russian tanks stormed the city — it was so mean. When Mariupol residents tried to leave on their own, they turned them back, opened fire on cars — not to eliminate them, but to make them turn back. We made announcements while the cellular connection was working, then it became difficult to inform, then the Russians turned on their propaganda, and then Russian aircraft, heavy artillery and warships started firing on the city. Then thousands of civilians died. It was agreed that they would release Mariupol residents on their own vehicles without a ceasefire. March 13 was the first evacuation and Mariupol residents left the city without filtering, without lists [of who is allowed to go], without all these humiliations. And almost 100,000 Mariupol residents left for the controlled territories of Ukraine.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

I will return to this. In other interviews, you said that the representatives of the [pro-Rusian party] OPZZh helped to adjust the fire [for Russians] and, in particular, with their help the Russians hit the warehouse with food…

Yes, and killed two people who guarded this food.

And you said that even before the war, letters were sent to the Security Service of Ukraine about these representatives of the OPZZh. What was the reaction of the Service then? Why werenʼt these deputies detained?

At the end of 2021, I wrote to the SSU, the prosecutorʼs office, and the police. There are criminal proceedings against [Kostyantyn] Ivashchenko. Unfortunately, he turned Azovmash plant into scrap metal — by 2012 they had done everything to stop the company. Almost 40 thousand people worked there. This is a huge machine-building enterprise, the largest enterprise that built train cars and oil tanks for the whole post-Soviet part of the world. Part of the company worked for defense — there produced armor for tanks and tank towers. The engineers who worked there had access to classified information. And before the war in 2014, they left with this documentation to Russia. And somewhere near St. Petersburg, a new enterprise was built for them.

In 2021, they [Ivashchenko and his people] began to cut our plant for scrap metal and export it in parts and earn money from it. They were stopped several times, Ivashchenko complained that it was the mayorʼs will, that it was illegal.

During this time, did the Russians try to attack you? Did the Russians or their puppets offer you something?

No. But I received one message from the secret services that the Russians had come [to work] on me personally — there were about 40 saboteurs with heavy weapons. When I received this information, I consulted with the head of the Oblast State Administration and with people from the secret services. They said that I had to leave Mariupol for one night so that I would not be captured. It was February 27. I left, and the next day I couldnʼt enter the city, because right in front of us, 100 meters away, the Ukrainian military detained the saboteur group, which, I think, opened fire directly on us, if it had not been detained. And a little further there was a tank battle. There is a protocol, there is my report that I could not drive to Mariupol, everything is recorded. I reported this to the head of the administration and it was decided that we continue to work remotely.

Surprisingly, you left Mariupol at night — the most dangerous time, given that there were battles around. I have been volunteering since 2014, and the military has always insisted that we get out of the danger zone before dark. Because it is not clear which car is driving, so the chances that the car will be fired at increase many times. Plus, itʼs difficult to see the road, and you can come across land mines.

We left at night, because the threat was in the city.

There is another aspect. I was ordered to leave. How could I not do it? By the way, one of my managers stayed in the city for a long time, he obeyed all my orders, and then left. And now, what do you think is happening to this him? He needs to pass a polygraph, go through all the interrogations so that we can be sure, and our government and our special forces can understand that everything is fine, that he was not recruited [by Russians].

On the eve of the war, we talked about bomb shelters. Then you said they were ready. After the war started, I talked to the people of Mariupol, they said that the situation with the bomb shelters was terrible — there were not enough of them. The communal workers didnʼt prepare them and the shelters were opened during the day of February 24, not at night, when it all started…

Ms. Oksana, we need to understand that there are two terms: one is a bomb shelter, and the other is…

A regular shelter.

These are different things. And you have now mixed them. A regular shelter is a building and a basement under this building. There are not many bomb shelters, and they have existed since Soviet times. The warehouse with provisions that the Russians smashed was planned to serve the bomb shelters with food, water, generators, and fuel. We have prepared all this. And there is a deputy who was responsible for it, he conducted the audit.

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Regarding regular shelters. This is a common responsibility of those who manage the houses, and our as a city management — to help people understand where the shelters are and how to get there. The main issue is not about shelter. The main question is why there was no air defense system around Mariupol. If it worked the way it does around other cities, we wouldnʼt be discussing shelters or bomb shelters today…

Bomb shelters cannot accommodate the entire population of Mariupol. This is a temporary shelter while the air defense is working. When these Grads are littered everywhere, when the cruiser, the artillery, the surface ships and the planes are shooting, itʼs impossible to hide everyone. What kind of shelter, or what kind of bomb shelter can you hide in when a FAB-500 bomb is dropped on you?

And when did the first planes appear over Mariupol?

On March 9, a plane destroyed a maternity hospital in Mariupol.

And why there were no new bomb shelters built since 2014?

Once again, we need to understand who should make the decision.

Look. The Civil Protection Code, Article 32, states that during a special period the number of protective structures is increased and local authorities are responsible for that. We have had a special period since 2014, and the local authorities is you as well.

I repeat this again. Whatʼs written in the article you cited is to prepare the shelters. We have prepared, but to build and prepare are different things.

Increasing the number of protective structures.

Yes, we have opened {regular} shelters. Each of our buildings has become a shelter. And within the limits of this law each building of our Mariupol became a shelter. So we grew in numbers. Building is another thing. We need a plan to build these bomb shelters. These are different approaches.

If I have already mentioned the Civil Protection Code. It states that local authorities should organize and carry out the evacuation of material and cultural property to a safe area when there is a threat. Was it possible to do this with other museums because the [the artist Arkhyp] Kuinjiʼs Museum was looted?

The line of contact [with Russians and Russia-backed separatists] was 20 km from the city. We did not hear or feel this war, and we built Mariupol like a regular city. The request from our local community was only for the construction of roads, the development of public transport, and so on.

As for the museum collections. We also gave a certificate that if something happens in the state, the Ministry of Culture must issue an appropriate order, and we had to work on this order. But we did not receive this order. That is, there are still many questions, Ms. Oksana, but I say this: when there is a victory, then we will understand. Someone will get medals, and someone awards.

You recently said that Russians are forcing locals to do certain things for food, such as burying the bodies of Mariupolians killed by Russians in mass graves. What do you know about the number of these burials?

The number of burials is increasing. And new locations are added. The statistics are very sad. During the two years of occupation from 1941 to 1943, Nazi troops killed 10,000 people in Mariupol, and during the two months of occupation in 2022, the ruscists killed more than 20,000 Mariupol residents. And these are very cautious figures, because we believe that this figure is higher. At first, the ruscists did involve the remaining residents of Mariupol in dismantling the debris. And when the Russians saw the death toll, they removed the local population, and now the so-called "Ministry of Emergencies of the DPR" is working there.

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So there were no witnesses?

Yes. But I thank our people from Mariupol, they give us very important evidence, they tell us exactly where these locations are, where the mass burial places are. We know exactly about four such places. Now we are working on the information about two more.

Can you name these two?

Not yet. We donʼt spread fakes. As soon as Maxar [satellite imagery company] captures this for us, we will be sure to let you know.

Letʼs talk about filtration camps. There are cases when the Russians donʼt let the residents of Mariupol through and detain them. There is a well-known story about four-year-old Alice and her mother, a military medic: the mother was detained and the girl sent to free territory. Is it possible to look for people the Russians keep?

Unfortunately, this is very confidential information. We understand, but we give it carefully. I can only say that these are thousands of Mariupol residents who were detained by either the Russian FSB or the so-called MGB DPR, and they are behind bars in prison, either in Olenivka or in Dokuchayevsk. They keep our civil servants, municipal workers, military. This is how the Russians form an exchange fund. Some of the people they held for a while — for a week or a month — and then released. It is not clear what determines how long they are kept. I saw people who passed this camp, these are destroyed people.

There was a case when people got into this prison. They were kept there there for a very short time. When asked, "What was there and how was it going?", they didnʼt admit they were being tortured. But when they were put on the polygraph, they began to tell in a slightly different way what had happened and what was happening.

So it turned out that there was torture and pressure?

Yes, and they were recruited to work for the so-called "D/LPR". Therefore, they must now be checked for what they were released for. Unfortunately, itʼs like that.

In one of the interviews you said that your mother left Mariupol on March 15. What did she tell you?

She was in the Drama Theater. We lost contact with people there on March 3. My mother, like me, lived on the left bank of our city. We are in different places, but on one bank. When the war broke out, she and my father moved to my grandmotherʼs place in the 17th district [in the central part of the city on the right bank], where my brother and his wife and young son also came. When we started this evacuation, they went from the grandmotherʼs place to the drama theater, but were not evacuated. And they could not return because the battle had begun. The front was moving rapidly from east to downtown, so grandma stayed on the other [Russia-occupied] side, and they were in the drama theater. They left on March 15 — the day before the Russians dropped a bomb on the theater. On March 15, I arrived in occupied Berdyansk to meet a column of evacuees. And my colleague there told me that he had met my mother. We met her in the third school. We cried a little and then parted. Mom came out of this hell with a torn stomach. Here she was treated in the hospital.

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Did she talk about her departure and how it happened?

Not immediately, for about a week she did not speak at all. Because those who went through this hell, which is called Mariupol…

Now she talks about three things. Hereʼs the first one: earlier, she believed that the most terrible weapon was the Grad. But when Russia began dropping air bombs, she realized that the most terrible weapons are planes — they destroy everything and itʼs impossible to hide from them. The second thing she remembered was that the war has a taste. "Which one?", I asked. She replied: "Taste of boiled water". Because in the Drama Theater in the morning and in the evening everyone received a glass of boiling water and two cookies. And a glass of soup for lunch. And my mother said that it was very important to have her own glass for boiling water and that soup. The third is the rules. Drunks were not allowed in the drama theater. And my father helped to collect firewood, carried water and therefore they had certain privileges — they received soup without standing in a queue.

Did your grandmother stay there?

My grandmother goes to church. When my mother did not return to her, she went to the temple somewhere in the village and stayed there. The parishioners sheltered her, she is hiding there now — I will not say where exactly, because she is still there. There [in the temporarily occupied territories] two of my grandmothers stayed. The second grandmother is already under the control of the “Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Donetsk Peopleʼs Republic”, because they have already understood who she is. Unfortunately. Therefore, answering the question, did the mayor know [about the planned invasion] or not…

Well, I understood already that you did not know. Is there any information about violence in filtration camps? Beatings, torture, rape?

There is a lot of such information. There are witnesses who give information about how they were abused. How they shot the boys in the knees and tried to get some information from them — and they donʼt know anything, because they are ordinary guys. Someone was forced to wipe tattoos on their bodies with pumice stones.

There are other terrible examples. An employee of one of the enterprises located in Mariupol went out with his wife. They are a middle-aged couple, in their arms they had a daughter a little over 2 years old. And these filtration troops found out on some of their filtration lists that this couple has another daughter who works in the law enforcement system. So they told them: "You raised a Nazi. Then we take this baby away from you so that you donʼt raise another Nazi." The father rushed to fight this scum, and they beat him very hard. But they left the daughter with them.

One of my subordinates sat on a chair for 32 hours and was interrogated for 32 hours, continuously. No toilet, no food, no water. This is how they pressured him to say something. Personally, I have no confirmed cases of rape, but I have heard many of these stories, and I believe that rape happens there. You can expect very terrible things from these people who have nothing human in them.

Are there Russians or pro-Russian militants working on this filtering?

Thereʼs everything.

During our last conversation, you said that your son is serving in the army for the third year.


And was he in Mariupol or in other units?

He serves where there is an order to serve today. He served in the 503rd Marine Battalion. And now he serves in the ranks of the Armed Forces in various cities.

Now you are temporarily the mayor without the city, and the city council also without the city. What is your job now? And where are you?

I am the mayor with the city: I was, is and will remain with Mariupol. And the main thing we have left is Mariupolians. And I want them to feel our support. As well as those who could not leave Mariupol because they donʼt have such an opportunity, and the Russian occupation forces donʼt give them such an opportunity. And those who left, they also expect support from us. We must work to preserve the city budget so that it works, including in support of our armed forces of Ukraine. We have the 56th Mariupol Mechanized Brigade and the 503rd Mariupol Marine Battalion. They work, they pay taxes and form the budget of our Mariupol. And we still have utilities, there are teachers, there are doctors, and they are also waiting for us to resume the work of our municipal government to get money. We paid them their salary. And restored the contact and communication center so that they could call and ask questions.

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In addition, we are now creating support centers for Mariupol residents "I am Mariupol". We have already opened such centers in Zaporizhizha and Dnipro. Mariupol residents can receive social protection there, as well as financial assistance, medical assistance, psychological support for a child or family, and humanitarian aid — such as food and hygiene items. We also help them to find a job, provide legal support, for example when restoring documents, etc. We plan to open such centers this week in Vinnytsia and Kyiv. Then there are plans to open them in Lviv and Odesa, Kropyvnytskyi and Ivano-Frankivsk. We use the data of cellular carriers to see where our Mariupol residents are today, and the national social protection service also informs us. We also planned to open a health center for Mariupol children at the base in Vinnytsia. It will start working on June 12, and our children will be able to rehabilitate in this camp.

We are also working with our partners, USAIDʼs international financial institutions, on the damage caused today by the Russian occupation forces, and Putin himself, the main war criminal, in the city of Mariupol. We record these losses, form a catalog of destruction and with experts develop a catalog of the revival of Mariupol. New general and architectural plans of the city will be formed. And there is already a preliminary estimate of how much money will be needed on the first phase of the restoration — itʼs about $12 billion.

Together with law enforcement officers, we record war crimes committed by the Russian Federation in the city of Mariupol. More than 1,200 such cases have already been filed. Recorded and confirmed, with witnesses and so on.

Does the master plan include the restoration of Ilyich and Azovstal steel mills?

Letʼs work it out, and then weʼll talk. Now we still have to win. And then we will announce what will be in the city and what will be built. We are now working on the economic component of what the economy will consist of, what the city will look like and what we will build this economy on. This is also very important.

The last question. If you could go back in time and know that tomorrow, or in a week, the war will start — what would you do differently?

What would I do differently? If I said I would kill Putin. If I had a weapon, I would kill him… And what will you do in a week? To answer this question honestly, there is little that can be done in a week that has had to be done since the beginning of our independence. It was necessary to build a modern air defense system. We needed to have cool aircraft that could deter the enemy. And then everything would be different, I think. We had to work on this for all 30 years of independence.

And we must say who is the greatest evil, who is the enemy, who destroyed the city, who killed 20 thousand people. We must understand that the main evil and the main culprit is Putin. He declared war on our state, and he is guilty of what happened in Mariupol, Irpin, Bucha, Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Kyiv, and other cities. This information must be spread today, it must be emphasized.

Do you think that anyone else who lives in Ukraine doubts this?

Unfortunately, there are people who still doubt.

That is, it is for the people of Mariupol to say that this is Putin?

Yes, and the Russian occupation forces. They killed, they destroyed. And today, unfortunately, they are holding the people of Mariupol captive as a terrorist organization. They donʼt allow them to leave for the controlled part of our state.

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Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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