Mariupol residents fight for survival in bombed and besieged city
LVIV, Ukraine – Eduard Zarubin, a doctor, has lost everything. But he still has a life of his own.
His road is destroyed, and his city, the southern port of Mariupol, is the biggest terror of Russia’s scorched-earth war against Ukraine to date. Russian missiles destroyed a theater that had sheltered more than 1,000 people. Another attack took place on an art school where children were hiding in the basement.
The water is so low that people are melting snow. Heating, electricity and gas have disappeared. People are cutting trees for firewood to light the cooking stoves outside the house shared by neighbors. Walking from street to street often meant passing corpses, or freshly dug graves in parks or meadows.
On Sunday, Russia delivered an ultimatum that Ukrainian fighters in the city must give up, or face destruction. Ukrainian officials refused. According to Ukrainian officials, evacuation buses, including those carrying some children, were shelled on Monday. Thousands have fled the city, including Dr. Zarubin, but more than 300,000 remain, even as fighting continues in the streets of some neighborhoods.
“If the war ends and we win, and get rid of them, I think there will be a tour in Mariupol like Chernobyl,” he said of the abandoned site of the Soviet-era nuclear disaster. “So that people understand what kind of apocalyptic things can happen.”
The destruction of Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s largest cities, followed a siege and a relentless bombing that has cut off its population from the outside world for the past three weeks. The news that comes is from grainy cellphone videos taken by people still inside the city, from bulletins from Ukrainian authorities, or from accounts of people like Dr. Zarubin, who have seen everything they have destroyed.
Dr. Zarubin, a urologist, lived in a beautiful house on the Left Bank, one of Mariupol’s elite neighbourhoods. He had a comfortable life and hoped that he had worked hard for a secure future. But after the shelling began, he had to walk about eight miles a day with his son Victor to find water for his family. Later, as a form of desperation, Dr. Zarubin said that people started robbing stores and carrying equipment, or drugs, from pharmacies.
“Every day was something new,” said Mr. Zarubin of the destruction. “The changes came so fast, and were so dynamic, as if we were in a movie. You go out, and you don’t recognize the city. You go out again the next morning and then you don’t recognize it.”
Albertus Tamashauskas, 29, worked in Mariupol’s city planning office. On 23 February, the day before the Russian invasion, they had a final planning meeting about setting up bike lanes across the city. But when the siege began, time began to fade and he did not know what day or week it was. Instead, they spent their days gathering and chopping wood for finding water or cooking.
“There was a park across the street,” said Mr Tamshauskas, 29. “We cut down trees and cut firewood. And in the evening, we had to take it to the cellar, because, of course, there was a lot of looting. People took fuel from cars. ,
“Of course,” he said, “war is scary. But the worst part is that you don’t realize what’s to come. That is, you go to bed, and you don’t know what will happen next.”
He and his pregnant wife finally packed a bag each and headed west out of town. They are now protected in the territory of Zaporizhzhya, northwest of Mariupol.
Even much of Ukraine still has Internet access, and is without cellphone service, Mariupol, either.
“You are sitting in an information vacuum,” said 29-year-old municipal worker Irina Perede. “You don’t understand what’s going on, or whether there’s any help coming to town,” she said. Moscow has refused to allow any humanitarian aid to the city.
“I sometimes saw people carrying yellow and brown water, but there was no choice,” Ms Peredi recalled. She herself started collecting snow and rain water for cooking. “It’s really very difficult when you don’t understand how long it will last or what will happen next, so you use every opportunity to collect something in some way or the other.”
The rules and institutions that governed their community were broken so rapidly. Police stopped working, as did emergency services, even ambulances, which had too much work to do and could not navigate the huge holes in the road created by missiles and bombs. A post office was renovated as a morgue.
Drug entrepreneur Sergei Sinelnikov, 58, moved into the city center after the shelling began, believing like many others that it would survive intense bombing. Instead, the district also came under heavy attack. He saw the burning curtain fall from the top floor of the nine-story building across the street where his parents once lived.
Fire tenders reached the spot but did nothing. Mr. Sinelnikov wondered whether he was short of water. The fire lasted three days, destroying all 144 apartments.
A routine will begin, said Mr. Sinelnikov. From their window, they watched as people cook over improvised brick stoves in the courtyards of their apartment blocks—and then, in an instant, they would disperse to seek refuge after hearing the roar of Russian jets.
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“Then the plane took off, dropped its rockets and bombs, and then the people went back to their stoves, which they were cooking,” he said. “It seemed like some kind of child’s play.”
Both Mr. Sinelnikov and Mr. Zarubin left on March 16, the same day that Russian forces bombed the theatre, one of the city’s largest public shelters. The world “kids” was written on the outside of the site in large Cyrillic letters to make it visible to the pilots who were flying.
Even as residents are desperate to flee to the west, Russian troops “forcibly took between 4,000 and 4,500 Mariupol residents across the border to Taganrog,” according to Pyotr Andryshenko, assistant to the mayor of Mariupol, south- In a city in western Russia.
Other former Mariupol residents told The New York Times similar stories of friends taken to Russia. Mr Sinelnikov, whose father was from Russia, said that when the war broke out his Russian relatives invited him to live in Bryansk, about 250 miles southwest of Moscow. he refused.
“If I go to Russia, I will feel pain and humiliation,” he said. He has instead fled to western Ukraine. “Here, there is only pain that will pass. There will be no humiliation.”
Ms Peredi, a municipal worker, said it took her more than 11 hours to escape when she passed 15 Russian army checkpoints. After two or three days, she did not want to eat, even though she was given rations when she was in Mariupol. Then, she said, she started feeling hungry every hour.
Dr. Mr. Zarubin said that nothing will be the same as before. One day when he was in Mariupol, he said that he had walked 20 miles to check on their house on the Left Bank. He crossed the dead bodies left on the side of the road. When he reached his home, it was one of the few buildings still standing. Everything else was debris.
“I was born on this road,” he said. “I knew all these neighbors when they were little, how they looked after their homes, how they cut down their trees.
“It was all destroyed in two weeks.”
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