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300,000 people trapped in besieged Mariupol face living hell

by Asami Terajima March 16, 2022 10:49 AM 7 min read
A man warms his hands near a stove in Mariupol, a southeastern city in Ukraine besieged by relentless Russian attacks. Hiding under heavy Russian bombardment, Mariupol residents have been sheltering in freezing basements mostly cut off from electricity and access to clean water. (Evgeniy Maloletka)
This audio is created with AI assistance

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When Mariupol journalist Artem Popov speaks about his hometown, it sounds like he has a lump in his throat.

The southeastern city of Mariupol has turned into a front line of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine. It’s dangerous to move around the city because Russian warplanes are flying over Mariupol every day, constantly shelling residential areas where civilians live, Popov says.

“Tears do not stop in Mariupol,” he told the Kyiv Independent. “Tears of fear and pain are what every resident of our city goes through (every day).”

The 30-year-old lived his whole life in the southeastern city of Mariupol before fleeing on March 8. Once a bustling port city offering many tourist attractions from a famous mosque to beaches, today it resembles a place from an apocalyptic movie, Popov says, because “almost all the neighborhoods of the city have been destroyed.”

Watching it has been a horror.

“My neighbors, my friends, my relatives, my acquaintances, and places where I’ve made the best memories of my life are being shelled,” he said.

The besieged Mariupol has endured some of Ukraine’s worst misery since Russia unleashed its full-scale invasion of its neighbor on Feb. 24. The city has been subject to heavy Russian bombardment since Moscow's troops effectively encircled it on March 2.

The pre-war population of Mariupol was over 400,000 people. About 300,000 civilians were still left in the besieged city as of March 14, according to Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk.

This includes around 3,000 newborn babies, lacking medicine and food, according to Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

An improvement came on March 14-15, when over 20,000 people were able to evacuate Mariupol, according to Vereshchuk.

Others remain stuck in the city, cut off from electricity, water and gas. The city’s internet and mobile networks have shut down since the siege began over two weeks ago. News from the city comes from sporadic contacts and a few international photographers who remain in Mariupol.

The siege has left people hungry, dehydrated and stuck in freezing basements to avoid indiscriminate Russian shelling.

Russia has continuously broken agreed-upon ceasefires to evacuate civilians out of Mariupol and bring in relief goods into the city. Critical supplies are becoming dangerously scarce. As of one week ago, grocery stores and pharmacies either ran out of stock or were looted.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that Mariupol residents will face a “worst-case scenario” if their immediate safety and access to humanitarian aid isn't are ensured.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said on March 16 that the peace talks with the Kremlin were beginning to sound "more realistic" but more time was needed to make sure that the outcome of the negotiations was in Kyiv's interests. Zelensky's advisor Mykhailo Podolyak described that the talks were very difficult but there was "certainly room for compromise," adding that the ceasefire negotiations with Russia would continue today.

Previous ceasefire negotiations with Russia have not yielded the results Kyiv hoped for. Moscow has proposed civilian evacuation routes to Russia or its ally Belarus, which Zelensky disregarded as “completely immoral.”

More than 2,500 people, including children, have been killed in Mariupol since the beginning of Russia’s all-out war, according to Ukrainian presidential office advisor Oleksiy Arestovych. The real number may be higher since the true count is impossible to measure under constant Russian bombardment.

“The Russians are wiping out the city,” Arestovych said on March 14.

Living hell

Motionless bodies are left on the streets of Mariupol. With the heavy bombardment, it’s difficult for the emergency services to collect the bodies of those killed. Those collected are hastily and unceremoniously buried in mass graves.

Running dangerously short of food and water, Mariupol residents have been chopping wood to cook and keep warm in sub-zero temperatures, local authorities reported. Those living in the worst-hit parts of the city have been reduced to tapping the now-defunct radiators in their homes, or melting snow.

Some walk and search through the debris of destroyed homes to find something edible.

Mariupol resident Maksym Svetlov, who left the city shortly before Russia’s all-out war started but still has relatives in the city, said “the situation is getting worse with every hour of shelling.”

Russian forces are continuously shelling various parts of the city, including the central walkway in the heart of Mariupol, he said. Shelling happens almost every 30 minutes, making it dangerous for civilians to leave shelters.

“People can’t even go out somewhere to get water, they can’t even go because they are afraid that they won’t come back,” Svetlov told the Kyiv Independent.

Many families are running out of basic supplies and small children are particularly vulnerable to deteriorating health conditions, according to Doctors Without Borders, an international organization monitoring Mariupol closely.

Children’s bodies cannot withstand wide fluctuations in food and water intake unlike adults, leaving them at high risk of dehydration. Zelensky said that a six-year-old girl died of dehydration in Mariupol on March 8. She took her last breath alone because her mother was killed by shelling earlier, according to Donetsk Oblast Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko.

Doctors Without Borders said Mariupol residents are also dying from a lack of medication. Dispatches from the city say that there are no more medications in Mariupol, especially for diabetes and cancer patients.

City workers bury dead bodies in a mass grave on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine on March 9, 2022 as people cannot bury their bodies due to continued heavy shelling by Russian forces. (Evgeniy Maloletka)

Why Mariupol?

Mariupol is strategically important for Russia as it lies along the Azov Sea coast between the annexed Crimean Peninsula and the Russian-occupied parts of eastern Ukraine.

If Russia seizes Mariupol and connects the two territories, it will cut Ukraine off from the Azov Sea.

On March 14, Russian state media claimed that a land corridor was established between Donbas and Crimea, citing pro-Kremlin leadership in the annexed peninsula. This has not yet been confirmed.

The situation in Mariupol is typical of Russian siege warfare tactics, which will likely spread as the war moves into a new phase, according to Rita Konaev, the associate director of analysis at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

The Kremlin forces have begun imposing brutal siege tactics as they launch attacks on Ukraine’s major cities, using cluster munitions and the bombing of civilian infrastructure. The tactics resemble Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s ruthless military campaigns in Syria and Chechnya, where his army reduced cities to rubble.

Volnovakha, a city of 21,000 people in Donetsk Oblast located just 60 kilometers north of Mariupol, has suffered days of bombardment and is largely destroyed. Russian forces captured Volnovakha on March 12, a strategic point on their advance towards Mariupol.

Donetsk Oblast governor Kyrylenko said on March 15 that Russian troops entered a hospital on the outskirts of Mariupol and took patients and medical staff hostage.

“Russians drove 400 people from neighboring houses to the hospital and they can’t leave,” he described.

The grim strategy from Putin’s playbook is to break morale by severely damaging cities’ infrastructure and causing high levels of displacement from the cities, Konaev told Vox earlier this month.

Survivor’s guilt

Mariupol resident Diana Berg feels guilt for leaving her home in Mariupol.

“It’s the guilt of a survivor,” the 41-year-old told the Kyiv Independent.

Though originally from Donetsk, occupied by Russia since 2014, Berg felt at home in Mariupol, and that’s why they had stayed there until March 3, she said.

But as days of “hell” continued in encircled Mariupol, the activist who’s been helping locals started to look for an escape route with her husband so that they can bring their relatives and friends to safety. She said many people would have left the city if they knew what was going to happen, but the situation worsened unexpectedly.

Because of shelling, that plan never pulled through, and the couple was forced to leave on their own. They left everything behind to escape, crossing Russian military columns and Moscow-controlled checkpoints.

Many of her loved ones, including her older relatives and close friends, are still trapped in Mariupol. She said the last time she heard from them was almost a week ago and she has no idea how they are doing. Like many others in the city, Berg’s family was only able to say a few words to her at the time because they were trying to save their phone battery.

Berg said she is “very desperate” to hear back from her family.

Ukrainian emergency workers carry an injured pregnant woman from a maternity hospital that was damaged by Russian shelling in Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast on March 9, 2022. The mother and her unborn baby died on March 13, 2022. (Evgeniy Maloletka)

Search for relatives

Every day is also a pain for those whose relatives or friends are still stuck in Mariupol.

“Mariupol! Please let me know anything about my relatives,” a woman writes in a Facebook group dedicated to locating missing relatives in Mariupol.

“My son Yan Ivanovich Leliv, grandson Nazar Pozhidaev (10-year-old) and his mother Ksenia Pozhidaeva,” she wrote, describing the attached photo.

Online groups created for family members or friends looking for information about their loved ones trapped in affected areas are receiving hundreds of requests a day. A Facebook group called “Group of Mariupol City” is one of the many that helps people look for any pieces of information about their loved ones.

Though it’s unlikely that they will find out how their relatives are doing through this group, some may be comforted by comments saying that the locations of their loved ones haven’t been attacked. Those who manage to connect with their relatives thanks to sporadically appearing mobile connection post updates.

Some comments read “my relative told me that they are cooking food outside,” while others inform that “the street that you asked about doesn’t exist anymore, sorry.”

Poltava resident Natasha Yaremenko is one of those looking for relatives in Mariupol. The last time she heard from her sister was almost two weeks ago. She was told then that “there was no light, water, or heat” and her sister has not responded since then.

“I just want to hear something – that she’s alive and well,” Yaremenko told the Kyiv Independent.

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