‘They are trying to exterminate us’: Mariupol is under Russian onslaught

‘They are trying to exterminate us’: Mariupol is under Russian onslaught

The shelling of Mariupol is so intense, locals say, that the dead lie on the street where they fell: no one dares to bury them.

For five days now, a port city in southeastern Ukraine has been under near constant Russian artillery fire that has driven 400,000 people into icy shelters and basements of their bombed-out homes.

“We are a city under siege,” Mariupol Mayor Vadim Boychenko told the Financial Times. “They’re trying to exterminate us.”

International humanitarian groups say the city, once home to 465,000 people, is facing a humanitarian catastrophe. Contacting by phone in Mariupol, Boichenko said he had been without heating, water and electricity for four days, and food and medicine were running out. He said 300 people were wounded in the barrage; there are no official deaths yet. Russian troops guard most of the entrances and exits to the city, making it difficult for civilians to escape.

Ukrainian officials are currently trying to negotiate with the Russians on the formation of a humanitarian corridor from the city.

Mariupol is not the only Ukrainian city that was the target of an invasion launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin last week. The capital, Kiev, and another Ukrainian city, Kharkov, were also hit by indiscriminate shelling that left dozens dead and wounded.

Peter Maurer, chairman of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said on Friday that the organization had received a “flood of calls from people who desperately want security”.

“The number of victims is growing, while health institutions are struggling to cope with it,” he said. “Civilians staying in underground shelters tell us that they were fleeing from grenades that fell directly above them. They have no surplus clothing, supplies or necessary medicines. Now they need help. ”

But while Kiev, Kharkiv and other cities were badly damaged, the shooting launched at Mariupol is almost unmatched in its intensity.

Some residents said they were convinced that Russian invading forces were setting it up for destruction because of its status as a stronghold of the Kiev government in part of eastern Ukraine, which has long been a hotbed of pro-Russian separatism. “It is pure revenge,” said Pyotr Andriushchenko, a local official.

Boichenko said millions of dollars have been invested in Mariupol in recent years to beautify the city. New parks were created, new trolleybuses were procured and large parts of the city’s communal infrastructure were renovated. “It is now so damaged that I doubt it can ever be rebuilt,” he said.

“Putin thinks he is our liberator,” he said. “In fact, he’s just destroying us.”

Ambulance relocates man injured in shelling of Mariupol residential area © Evgeniy Maloletka / AP

The war is not unknown to Mariupol. It lies on the edge of Donbass, the eastern border region occupied by Russian-backed rebels in 2014, whose weapons have since been aimed at Mariupol. Heavy fighting broke out there in May of that year when separatist Donbass forces trying to take over the city drove out Ukrainian government troops.

Then, in January 2015, the city was subjected to a brutal rocket attack in which at least 30 people were killed. Ballistic evidence showed that the rockets were fired from nearby separatist positions.

Having managed to remain under Ukrainian control for the past eight years, Mariupol has become a haven for pro-Ukrainian people fleeing the Donbas conflict. “Because [its] diversity, it is a place that is resistant to Russian propaganda, ”said Kostyantyn Batozsky, a political analyst who has lived in the city for two years.

Russia’s attack in the past five days has destroyed some of the most important buildings in Mariupol. Komunalnik, a local utility company that manages the city’s garbage disposal services, was directly affected, according to officials, as was a hostel built six years ago with EU funds to house people displaced by the Donbas conflict.

Meanwhile, incessant rocket fire, mostly from Russian multi-barrel rocket launchers Grad, caused great damage in the Left Bank district, a residential area where about 170,000 people live. Windows were blown up all over the area, accumulating misery for the local population as temperatures hovered around zero.

Pictures of the city circulating on social media showed the scale of the devastation: tall towers blackened by fire, shop windows reduced to chaos of distorted metal and broken glass, burned cars and gaping holes left by block missiles on apartment facades.

Until the war, said Boichenko, the mayor, Mariupol was “the beating heart of the Ukrainian economy”, producing 12.5 million tons of steel a year and contributing 5 to 10 percent of Ukraine’s gross domestic product. Revenues from steel exports accounted for 25 percent of Ukraine’s foreign exchange earnings, he said. “Now all the steelworks are closed.”

Diana Berg, a resident who fled Mariupol this week, described a city that has been under “complete blackout” since Tuesday after heavy Russian shelling hit a power plant.

“It is very dangerous to go looking for your relatives, to ask if they are well and alive,” she said. “It simply came to our notice then. It was a survival horror for me. ”

Berg, who fled Donbass in 2014, fled Mariupol with her husband on Thursday. “It was a suicide mission,” she said. “We realized that anything can happen because roads in all three directions are very dangerous.”

But there was no alternative to trying to escape. “Mariupol is now the most unsafe area,” she said.

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