The shelling of Mariupol is so intense, locals say, that the dead lie on the street where they fell: no one dares venture out to bury them.
For five days now, the port city in south-eastern Ukraine has come under near-constant Russian artillery fire that has driven 400,000 people into freezing shelters and the cellars of their bombed-out homes.
“We are a city under siege,” Mariupol’s mayor Vadym Boichenko told the Financial Times. “They are trying to exterminate us.”
International aid groups say the city, once home to 465,000 people, is facing a humanitarian catastrophe. Contacted by phone in Mariupol, Boichenko said it had been without heating, water and electricity for four days now, and food and medicines were running out. He said 300 people had been wounded in the barrage; there is so far no official tally of the number of dead. Russian troops are guarding most entrances and exits to the city, making it hard for civilians to flee.
Ukrainian officials are at present trying to negotiate with the Russians to form a humanitarian corridor out of the city.
Mariupol is not the only Ukrainian city that has been targeted in the invasion unleashed by Russian president Vladimir Putin last week. The capital Kyiv and Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv have also been hit by indiscriminate shelling that has left dozens dead and wounded.
Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said on Friday that the organisation had received a “flood of calls from people desperate for safety”.
“Casualty figures keep rising while health facilities struggle to cope,” he said. “Civilians staying in underground shelters tell us that they fled shells falling directly overhead. They have no extra clothes, supplies or their needed medication. They need assistance now.”
But while Kyiv, Kharkiv and other cities have suffered gravely, the fusillade unleashed on Mariupol has been almost unparalleled in its ferocity.
Some residents said they were convinced that the Russian invading forces were singling it out for destruction because of its status as a stronghold of the Kyiv government in a part of eastern Ukraine that has long been a hotbed of pro-Russian separatism. “It’s pure vengeance,” said Pyotr Andriushchenko, a local official.
Boichenko said millions of dollars had been invested in Mariupol in recent years to beautify the city. New parks had been created, new trolleybuses acquired and large swaths of the city’s communal infrastructure renewed. “Now it’s so badly damaged I doubt it can ever be rebuilt,” he said.
“Putin thinks he’s our liberator,” he said. “In fact, he’s just destroying us.”
Mariupol is no stranger to war. It lies on the fringes of the Donbas, the eastern border region seized in 2014 by Russian-backed rebels whose guns have been pointed at Mariupol ever since. Heavy fighting broke out there in May that year when Donbas separatist forces who tried to capture the city were driven out by Ukrainian government troops.
Then, in January 2015, the city was subjected to a brutal missile attack that killed at least 30 people. Ballistic evidence showed the rockets had been fired from nearby separatists’ positions.
By managing to stay under Ukrainian control over the past eight years, Mariupol became a haven for pro-Ukraine people fleeing the conflict in Donbas. “Because of [its] diversity, it is a place that is resistant to Russian propaganda,” said Kostyantyn Batozsky, a political analyst who lived in the city for two years.
Russia’s onslaught of the past five days has destroyed some of Mariupol’s most important buildings. Kommunalnik, a local utility that runs the city’s rubbish disposal services, took a direct hit, according to officials, as did a hostel built six years ago with EU funds to house people displaced by the Donbas conflict.
Meanwhile, continual rocket fire, much of it from Russia’s Grad truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers, has caused extensive damage to Levoberezhny rayon, a residential district that is home to about 170,000 people. Windows have been blown out throughout the area, piling on the misery for locals as temperatures hover around freezing.
Pictures of the city circulating on social media showed the scale of the devastation: high-rise towers blackened by fire, shopfronts reduced to a chaos of twisted metal and broken glass, burnt-out cars and gaping holes left by missiles in the facades of apartment blocks.
Until the war, said Boichenko, the mayor, Mariupol was the “beating heart of the Ukrainian economy”, producing 12.5mn tonnes of steel a year and contributing 5 to 10 per cent of Ukraine’s gross domestic product. Proceeds from the export of steel made up 25 per cent of Ukraine’s foreign exchange earnings, he said. “Now all the steelworks are closed.”
Diana Berg, a resident who fled from Mariupol this week, described a city that had been under a “total blackout” since Tuesday after heavy Russian shelling hit a power plant.
“It’s very dangerous to go and look for your relatives, to ask if they are OK and alive,” she said. “It was just terrifying. It was a survival horror for me.”
Berg, who fled Donbas in 2014, escaped Mariupol with her husband on Thursday. “It was a suicide mission,” she said. “We understood that anything could happen because roads in all three directions are very dangerous.”
But there was no alternative to trying to escape. “Mariupol is the most unsafe space now,” she said.