‘Hell on Earth’: Survivors Recount Mariupol’s Destruction by Russian Bombs | free to read

In the besieged city of Mariupol, scene of the heaviest fighting in Russia’s three-week war with Ukraine, people are now so hungry they are killing stray dogs for food.

Dmytro, a businessman who left town on Tuesday, said friends told him they had resorted to the desperate measure in the past few days after their stocks ran out.

“You hear the words, but it’s impossible to really take them in, to believe it’s happening,” he said. “It’s hell on earth.”

Once one of Ukraine’s most important ports, today Mariupol is a mass grave, a city of ghosts. For more than two weeks, it has been subjected to a Russian bombardment of such intensity that it has transformed entire neighborhoods into heaps of smoking rubble.

After days of punitive air and artillery assaults that shattered Mariupol’s three lines of defensive fortifications, Russian troops have now entered the city center, with heavy fighting reported in some of its main shopping streets and near from Theater Square, a key landmark.

Russian forces already control Livoberezhnyi Raion, or Left Bank neighborhood, in the east of the city, as well as Mikroraiony 17-23, a string of residential neighborhoods in the northeast, said Anna Romanenko, a Ukrainian journalist who is in close contact with the Ukrainian forces there. “The front line runs through Mariupol now,” she said.

Dmytro, who declined to give his surname, was one of several Mariupol residents whom the Financial Times contacted by phone after they were evacuated last week to the Ukrainian-held town of Zaporizhzhia, some 230km away. the west. All described an assault so brutal that it destroyed the city, killed and maimed countless civilians and left deep scars on the survivors.

Mykola Osichenko, general manager of Mariupol TV, said his lasting memory of the past three weeks was the feeling of complete helplessness. “When the bombs were falling, I systematically covered my son with my body,” he said. “But I knew I couldn’t really protect him, it was an act of desperation.”

Strategically located on the Sea of ​​Azov, gateway to the Black Sea, Mariupol was in Russia’s crosshairs from the start of the war. Days later, his forces began firing missiles at the city in an assault that cut off its electricity, gas and water supplies and left its 400,000 residents cowering in freezing shelters, hugging each other. to warm up. Mariupol authorities said 2,400 residents of the city had been killed since Russia launched its invasion.

Survivors described desperate attempts to get supplies as bombs exploded around them. Dmytro said he visited the central market last Sunday after it was flattened by a Russian artillery attack.

“Everything was burning, there were dead bodies everywhere, and I was just walking through, picking up a cabbage here, a carrot there, knowing that meant my family would live another day or two,” he said. “You become completely desensitized.”

Witnesses described post-apocalyptic scenes of stray dogs eating the remains of bombing victims who lay unburied in the street. Civilian victims have been placed in mass graves or buried in the courtyards of houses: formal funerals are too dangerous.

The medieval-style Russian siege of Mariupol has also left its residents facing severe food and water shortages. Without gas, they cook over campfires made from broken furniture in the yards of their homes.

People fleeing Mariupol arrive in Lviv, western Ukraine, with passengers from Zaporizhzhia © Bernat Armangue/AP

Osichenko said people in his home, desperately thirsty, were draining water from radiators, collecting and melting snow, and also scouring local parks for freshwater streams. “But queues would form there and it was a perfect target for Russian missiles,” he said. The streams also fell out of favor as they quickly became contaminated with corpses.

Images posted on social media chronicled the extent of the devastation – huge apartment buildings turned into hells after suffering a direct hit, flames sending vast columns of black smoke into the sky, roads strewn with scorched carcasses of crumbling buses and cars reduced to piles of mangled metal, the 10m crater left by a bomb dropped on one of Mariupol’s children’s hospitals.

Authorities raised the alarm after Russian planes bombed the city’s main municipal theater last Wednesday, raising fears of hundreds of women and children who were using its basement as an air-raid shelter. It remains unclear how many people were killed or injured in the attack. Russia denies targeting civilians and has accused Ukrainian authorities of using them as human shields.

Today, the inhabitants face a new danger: evacuation to regions of Russia, where an uncertain fate awaits them. Potential evacuees are first interviewed by Russian officials, who “test them to see if they are trustworthy,” Romanenko said. “They check their social media feeds for anything anti-Russian.”

She said Russian forces sent a friend of hers from Livoberezhnyi district to Novoazovsk, a small town east of Mariupol controlled by pro-Russian separatists. “They interrogated him, took his Ukrainian passport and sent him to Rostov, across the Russian border,” she said. She hasn’t heard from him since.

Many other residents took advantage of the rare moments of calm between bombardment episodes to leave Mariupol for Ukrainian-held territory, forming long convoys of private cars that are forced through a gauntlet of dozens of Russian checkpoints.

Romanenko, who was born and raised in Mariupol and has lived there all her life, is now in Zaporizhzhia, a refugee. She said she was heartbroken by the fate of her town – but was determined to return, one day, “and do whatever I can to rebuild it”.

“I’ll be back once the Russians are gone,” she said. “This is where all my ancestors are buried. I can’t be happy anywhere else.

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