Valeriya Chigrina walks towards the cluster of warehouses on the eastern edge of Mariupol. They once stored vegetables but they are now full of bodies.
She is looking for help. Her 32-year-old husband was killed by a rocket in front of their daughter in mid-March.
The makeshift morgue swarms with black flies hovering over several dozen corpses, some half-covered by plastic bags and blankets, as they rot. The putrid smell catches the back of Valeriya’s throat.
“I’ve been everywhere. I’m now here to try to convince the undertakers to move my husband,” she says on her return to her home after fleeing into Russia at the start of the conflict.
Mariupol was once a thriving port of 400,000 people lying on Ukraine’s southern coast, along the Sea of Azov. It was a predominantly working-class city, with Europe’s biggest steelworks at the centre of its relatively prosperous economy.
Now, instead, it is a place of death. You can see the miles of mass graves dug for thousands of civilians, smell the rotting bodies of those left unburied and hear the silence of the empty apartment blocks and bombed out family homes.
But Russian forces, carrying out Vladimir Putin’s orders to “purge Ukraine of Nazis” are determined to restore some form of normality to Mariupol.
Facing strong Ukrainian resistance, intense shelling turned the city into rubble, killing thousands of people and forcing most residents to flee.
So far Russia’s reconstruction efforts have included repainting an oversized sign welcoming people to Mariupol in the colours of the Russian flag and giving some prominent buildings a lick of paint and reopening the port.
Russia claims Mariupol is part of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and wants to make the city a model of what they call the “liberation” of Donbas. A town-twinning agreement was signed with the former imperial capital of Russia, St Petersburg.
Only a few shops have reopened and there are shortages of running water, electricity and gas. There are also few residents living in Mariupol. Those that remain are mainly the elderly. Most families left, although for those children who did stay or recently returned a new Russian syllabus has been introduced at the few schools that have reopened.
In school number 53, decorated with a Russian flag, some pupils say they walked up to eight miles to get there each day and that school served as a respite from the horrors of the war.
“Coming here really helps us to take our mind off things,” said one of them, Irina Utkalova. “Now we are able to think about our future and develop ourselves.”
In central Mariupol, outside the theatre which became a worldwide symbol of the destruction of the city, people queue to receive help from Russia and Moscow-backed separatists.
Russia widely showcases the humanitarian aid they deliver to inhabitants generally in boxes labelled with the emblem of the Russian offensive, the letter Z.
A van brings freshly-baked bread, a generator allows people to charge their mobile phones and a giant mobile screen broadcasts Russian state TV.
Mostly, though, people sit around in the sun, talking, still in shock at how their lives have been destroyed.
Checkpoints made from damaged vehicles blocked roads around the centre of Mariupol.
Russian and self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic flags have been hoisted everywhere. The rows of hollowed-out and partly-destroyed concrete buildings seem endless.
Some shops have been replaced with makeshift open-air markets where people drive from miles inside separatist held Donbas to sell everything from vegetables to electronics.
For Valeriya peace and relative stability is vital. She doesn’t want Ukraine to bring war back to Mariupol by trying to recapture it.
The task of rebuilding her life is for another day. Now, she just wants to retrieve her husband’s body and bury him with dignity.
By a church on the edge of the city two trenches have been dug and filled with the bodies of civilians.
Each trench is about 50 yards long. Valeriya’s husband was buried at the far end of the second trench.
“People were only thrown in there. No service, nothing,” she sobbed. “They can’t be left here.”
When her husband was killed, Valeriya fled with her daughter.
Her father and some neighbours carried her husband’s body on a wheelbarrow to one of the mass graves.
Under constant bombardment, they buried him hastily and left. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)
Telegraph Media Group Limited