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‘They bury their neighbors wherever they can’ A Ukrainian journalist describes life under Russian siege in Mariupol.

Source: Meduza
Evgeniy Maloletka / AP / Scanpix / LETA

For over two weeks, Mariupol has been under siege: water, food, medicine, electricity, and means of communicating with the outside world are all scarce. Meanwhile, Russian bombs continue to fall. Ukrainian officials reported on Monday that over 2,500 people had died. Meduza spoke to Ukrainian journalist Artem Popov, who managed to escape from Mariupol last week, about life under siege.

Artem Popov

Journalist from the TV network Ukraina

I was last in the city on March 8. They’d already begun pounding the city with heavy artillery and Grads [Russian tanks]. It was a tough situation — they were shooting almost around the clock, and despite the fact that the shells weren’t reaching my location, the house was shaking. It was difficult, but not as difficult as it was for the rest of the city.

When I was there, it was still more or less possible to call someone, but the city was already surrounded and blockaded. I managed to escape through the area with the fewest [Russian-controlled] checkpoints. I’m still staying nearby. I don’t want to lose touch with the city.

Getting out was pretty hard. Some of my friends were able to escape towards Zaporozhye a few days before me. They were let through, but they told me that when they got to Rozovka [a locality on the border of Ukraine's Donetsk and Zaporozhye regions], they saw a lot of broken machinery and a bunch of dead soldiers — including Ukrainians.

It didn’t sound good. People who’d left said that near the entrance of Mariupol, where there was a Russian military checkpoint, there was a car that was still warm and had smoke coming out. Behind the wheel was a married couple who’d been shot. From what I understand, they’d been trying to get somebody out of the city.

I can’t say the bombing of Mariupol was complete chaos, but it’s true that hospitals, schools, and places of worship all came under fire. They’re shelling fire stations — presumably to make it impossible to put out fires. Recently, they’ve been carrying out airstrikes on bomb shelters containing 400-1,000 people each.

The casualty count is close to 1,700 — and that’s just counting civilians. But nobody has time to record exact data. They’re burying people in mass graves. People dig graves and bury their neighbors wherever they can. There are a lot of dead people in the streets.

The next phase will probably be the street combat phase, because they [Russian troops] are beginning to gain a foothold in the city’s western outskirts. The way things have been going, this is actually somewhat of a plus, if you can call it that, because they’ll stop carrying out air raids in these areas to keep from hitting Russian forces.

In humanitarian terms, the situation is a complete catastrophe. We saw the first victim [of the blockade, as opposed to gunfire] five days ago: a 6-year-old girl died of dehydration. The only thing that helps is when it snows: people start collecting it and boiling it however they can. There’s practically no gas, no water, no power, no communication.

People have been making fires and cooking over them — that’s the only time they leave their shelters. There are certain locations where they can collect water, but if you manage to make it there and back alive, you’re lucky.

Today [March 12] was the 12th day of the blockade, and they tried for the sixth time to organize a humanitarian corridor. But in the morning, when buses were supposed to arrive from Zaporozhye, they [Russian troops] started shelling the city like crazy. From what I understand, the Russian soldiers only want people to leave through the checkpoints under their control — so they can make it look like they’re the ones liberating civilians.

The Ukrainian side can’t guarantee our security, so they don’t recommend people go to them. And the Russians won’t let people out towards Zaporozhye, where Ukraine wants to send civilians. It’s essentially another level of Russia’s ultimatum.

The Russian side hasn’t provided any humanitarian assistance to Mariupol — they’ve only dropped bombs. Maybe they’ll do something in the occupied territories — for the publicity. They’re willing to destroy people just to have a 3-minute clip to show on RIA Novosti. Putin doesn’t spare his own people, let alone ours.

Evgeniy Maloletka / AP / Scanpix / LETA

I know a married couple with two kids, all of whom are in Russia now. They somehow got through the Russian corridor, but they had to go through sheer hell — they got caught in the crossfire and crawled through the mud. After that, they were found, taken, and given up to the Russian military. A man who was crawling with them got injured: a piece of shrapnel hit him in the eye, and I don’t know what happened to him after that. From what they told me, the shooting was coming from both sides. But their child is now afraid of cars — he's psychologically traumatized. 100% of the people currently located in Mariupol have that same trauma.

Even back in 2015, we’d had enough [in Mariupol]. I remember hiding in the bathroom when the windows were blown out. I can’t imagine how people have been coping with that for 12 days.

There are almost half a million people in the city. A lot of them came from [villages in] the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Which means they’re bombing the people they claim to be liberating. We’re also a multicultural city: there are a lot of Armenians, Greeks, Turks — all kinds of different nationalities. That means it’s not just Ukrainians who are suffering — it’s citizens of many different countries.

[In the last few days], they’ve been firing more at civilian infrastructure: high-rises, hospitals, apartment buildings. They bombed a hospital where women were in labor. 17 people were injured, including a young girl. It was a giant hospital in the middle of the city. Sure there were soldiers there — they’re in every district of the city right now. But there weren’t any bases, fortifications, or military outposts.

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People in the city are crushed. Nobody’s leaving the bomb shelters — everyone’s afraid and wants to get out. If they organized a large humanitarian corridor, I think 90% of the population would definitely leave. But bringing out that many people at once is unrealistic. There are people sitting in basements, weeping and saying they don’t want to go to Russia.

If they don’t get any support, Russian forces will take over the city — they’re not going to stop bringing in troops. The people who have left have said that there are more Russian tanks around the city than trees.

It’s not that [the Russian troops] are being tough on people — that's not their goal. Putin wants to look good to a certain portion of the population, so some civilians have been able to stop tanks and go on pro-Ukrainian marches. But I know soldiers have also been going into strangers’ homes and stores to rob them — if a civilian tries to stop them, I don’t know what will happen.

That fact that they’re destroying civilian infrastructure, homes where children and helpless people live — they might as well be carrying out mass executions. Soon, they’ll have nobody left to kill.

Translation by Sam Breazeale