War in Ukraine: “Mariupol is hell”: messages from a besieged, frozen and hungry city | International

“Mariupol is hell,” says Tatiana. She and her family have spent 15 days under Russian siege in Mariupol. No light, no water, no heating, no connection to the outside world. With no more news than the cold and the constant detonations of missiles and shots. Tatiana recounts that the Russians began to fire on the houses first from the tanks. They then went on to bombard the city from the air. On Wednesday they opened fire on the city from ships docked in the Sea of ​​Azov. Tatiana, who is 65 years old, was the person who several summers ago took me to the Mariupol Drama Theater to see Zoika’s flat, by Mikhail Bulgakov. The Dramatic Theater has been destroyed in a bombing this Wednesday despite the fact that its basement served as a refuge for hundreds of people. Tatiana is now a refugee whose voice trembles. Just a month ago, the theater was a huge white building with red velvet seats in front of the stage, and Tatiana was just my great-aunt.

Right now it is very difficult to contact someone who is inside the brutal siege that Mariupol has been experiencing for more than two weeks. The little information that makes its way from there, apart from that given by the mayor and a few international media, is from the stories of those who have fled or the one that, like brief flashes in the middle of the darkness, are posted on Telegram by the besieged inhabitants. Until a month ago, 430,000 people lived in the city. And where before there was life, beaches, huge avenues full of poplars that in summer released a white fluff that swirled on the sidewalks, now only rubble and burned trunks remain.

It was on March 2 that we stopped receiving news from Tatiana and her family. At first we thought it would be something temporary, a network outage like the one we experienced for four days in which we had no news from my grandparents because they had knocked down a communications tower. But the days passed and there was no sign of life. Not a wasap, not a call, not a text message. Between all of us, we began to look for information about them in the city’s Telegram groups, hoping, at the same time, that their photos, the photo of her house, were not among those that were published. At this time, the group Mariupol seichas (Mariupol now, in its translation) is one of the few cracks open to the world through which the horror that the city is experiencing sneaks in. The administrators collect messages that are managed to reach them by the inhabitants with some connection on the minute by minute of Mariupol.

Most of the files are videos and photos of flattened residential neighborhoods. “21st District,” someone posts along with photos of several nine-story buildings with all the windows shattered, the curtains floating in the air. “The center of the city, now,” writes another person and accompanies the text of a video in which jewelers, bookstores and stores with clothes hangers are seen that now spit black smoke through their windows. Other messages are desperate cries from those who haven’t found their loved ones for two weeks. Nikolay hangs one in which he writes: “I am looking for Pavel Batselev, 80 years old. He lived at 55 ″ Talalijina Street. The street he speaks of has been reduced to rubble. Igor writes in another message: “Does anyone know how the Left Bank district maternity shelter is doing? My daughter is there with my granddaughters.” Almost none receive a response.

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“There are neighborhoods in ruins. They have leveled the city with the ground. Mariupol no longer exists”, says Tatiana. The city that his eyes saw for the last time is a city of destroyed roads, blackened residential buildings, shops in which there is hardly any letter left on the facade that suggests that there was once a bakery or a hairdresser there. The deputy mayor of Mariupol, Sergey Orlov, has stated in an interview to Forbes that between 80% and 90% of the city has been bombed. “There is no intact building,” she has assured.

Satellite images of the damage caused by Russian bombing on March 8 over Mariupol in residential areas and shopping malls.

damaged mall / Maxar

Burned to the ground shopping center / Maxar

Residential area / Maxar

Bombed Residential District / Maxar

Satellite images of the damage caused by Russian bombing on March 8 over Mariupol in residential areas and shopping malls.

damaged mall / Maxar

Burned to the ground shopping center / Maxar

Residential area / Maxar

Bombed Residential District / Maxar

During the 15-day siege, Tatiana and her family cooked over a makeshift fire made from bricks and tree branches. They were also able to drink water from a small stream that runs near her house. When I ask her if they were hungry, she falls silent. There is no need to put it into words. Leaving the city in one of the last humanitarian corridors open, they decided to stop at a small kiosk that sold some food. While they were queuing, a shell landed near the car. In the blink of an eye, everyone who had stayed near the parked vehicles was lying on the ground. Barely an instant separates a living person from being counted as a corpse. The car was heavily damaged by shrapnel and flat tires. Luckily, they were able to contact an acquaintance who lived nearby and who towed them to the closest and quietest town where they are now taking refuge.

A woman in front of burning buildings in Mariupol, on March 13.
A woman in front of burning buildings in Mariupol, on March 13.Evgeny Maloletka (AP)

Thousands of people are now sheltering in the basements of Mariupol. Life has moved underground, where the city’s inhabitants try to survive with the last thing they have left. Those who had time took what food they could from their houses before they were destroyed. Others entered the houses that their neighbors had abandoned because of what they had left behind. There has been no water in the city for days now and humanitarian convoys have been trying to get in with supplies for almost two weeks but always end up turning back because of the gunfire. Residents have been melting snow for cooking and drinking and emptying heating pipes in an attempt to get at least a glass of water.

Underground there are also pregnant women who have given birth to premature children and died within minutes of birth. The expression “give birth” never made so little sense. Stuck in the retina is the image of the main maternity hospital in the city bombed a week ago. Of the two pregnant women who appeared in the media, one had a girl and is doing well. The other died after giving birth to a stillborn baby.

Aliona was buried with her children in one of the shelters, a simple basement below a nine-story concrete building built in the 1970s. With the help of men who were also sheltering there, they managed to get out of the rubble and escape from the city on foot until they reached the house of relatives on the outskirts of the city. During the days that she was there, she relates that they came to collect rainwater to be able to drink. “I have already learned that in war you will drink even the water from the puddles,” she says. In her voice there is no trace of metaphor. Now she Aliona lives with 17 other people in the same house. Because of the shock, is unable to tell anything else.

Anastasia Erashova cries with her son in her arms at a Mariupol hospital.  Her other two children had just died in a Russian bombing on March 11.
Anastasia Erashova cries with her son in her arms at a Mariupol hospital. Her other two children had just died in a Russian bombing on March 11.
Evgeny Maloletka (AP)

Like Aliona, Natalia also fled the city on foot on Tuesday night with her children. Afraid of being shot and desperate to stay in a place where there has been no food in stores for a long time, they walked down the road until a truck stopped to pick them up. They got into the open rear of the vehicle, from where they made it all the way. He hardly remembers anything. “I started to cry. Suddenly I started crying and couldn’t stop. I have arrived in Zaporizhia barefoot, with the clothes I was wearing, with nothing else to wear. Take good care of yourselves. This is very scary. I hug you all, ”she wrote in her work group, in which she previously shared recipes and photos of the flowers in her pots.

There are no reliable figures for the number of people who have died since the siege began. The latest data provided by the deputy mayor of the city indicates that there are already 2,358 deaths, but the images of the destruction of the city compare Mariupol to Aleppo or Grozny, cities already bombed by Vladimir Putin in the past, and make one suspect that, if one day we have an official count, the current figure will be anecdotal. Trenches are dug in the frozen ground to bury dozens of corpses in mass graves. Some bury their dead under the grass in city parks. Many bodies have been lying in the middle of the street for days: the constant gunfire makes it impossible to even think of a funeral.

Until this Thursday afternoon, 30,000 people have left Mariupol, according to data from the local Administration. Most have done so in cars headed for Zaporizhia with white ribbons tied to all the rear-view mirrors and huge inscriptions with the word “CHILDREN” on the windows in an attempt to prevent them from being shot at. Inside there are adults and two or three children per car sitting on their knees. As many as fit in the vehicle, this is not the time to respect traffic regulations. Some children arriving from Mariupol have lost their speech.

It is difficult to assimilate that a city with a similar number of inhabitants to that of Murcia, which had 64 schools and 86 nurseries, the three main steel factories in the east of the country, a large port, amusement parks, cinemas and large shopping centers, Right now it’s reduced to rubble. A city that used to produce 5.5% of Ukraine’s GDP, which is now under siege and over which a black cloud has hung for days due to the smoke from the bombings and the still smoking ruins.

After 15 days of horror, Tatiana says that her knees are still shaking, although she is now in a safe place. “I did nothing but pray, praying all day, over and over again,” she says. “We were each hiding in a corner of the house in case a bomb fell, hoping that at least the main beams would hold up,” she explains. She also assures that she will never return to the city even if her house is still standing. Her house will never be a home again, but the place where she took refuge from the bombs and the shots, where she suffered from hunger, cold and thirst and a terror that prevents her from sleeping for more than an hour at a time. The last message she sent me ends like this: “From now on, for me, all Russians are murderers of children and women. They have no forgiveness and they never will.”

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