“We are seeing a devastating humanitarian crisis unfold in Ukraine,” laments Peter Maurer, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross. “Casualty figures keep rising while health facilities struggle to cope. Civilians staying in underground shelters tell us that they fled shells falling directly overhead.” His wording is vague because no one, the ICRC included, knows exactly how many Ukrainians are in this situation. Before the Russian invasion roughly 260,000 people lived in the city of Sumy; 280,000 in Chernihiv; 430,000 in Mariupol; 475,000 in Mykolaiv and 1.4m in Kharkiv. All are now besieged by Russian forces. The invaders have nearly surrounded the capital, Kyiv, once home to some 4m people. Even assuming that much of the population of these cities has already fled, the number of Ukrainian civilians caught in the crossfire, with no safe way to escape, is in the millions.
The city enduring the most brutal siege is Mariupol, a port on the south coast in Donetsk province. It has been on the front line since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists seized chunks of the province. Mariupol remained under the control of the government, which worked hard not just to fix the damage of war but also to spruce up the city to make obvious the benefits of remaining a part of Ukraine. Some 100,000 refugees from decaying and gang-run separatist cities to the east flocked to Mariupol for a new life.
That makes it all the more chilling that Mariupol has suffered more than anywhere from Russia’s nihilist brand of warfare. Before-and-after satellite photos show a city unrecognisable since troops encircled it on March 2nd, unleashing a combination of shelling and siege tactics. Bombardment quickly knocked out local infrastructure. For a week the city’s residents were trapped without water, food, electricity, heating or outside communication. The fear is that Mariupol might again become a model, as Russia finds new ways to terrorise Ukraine.
The city’s mayor, Vadym Boychenko, says that at least 2,187 civilians have died, but that many areas of the city are too dangerous to enter to provide a proper tally. Others have suggested that the toll could already be above 10,000. Among the victims was a dehydrated six-year-old girl. Pregnant women fled clutching their bellies during the bombing of a children’s hospital on March 9th, which killed three and wounded 17. As morgues overflowed, videos emerged of residents throwing body bags into freshly dug mass graves. Russia continues to shell the city, says Mr Boychenko, even as it promises new ceasefires daily.
Tales from the ground evoke past European agonies. Residents must retrieve water by melting snow or scooping it up from puddles. Many make bonfires outside to cook and keep warm. One resident claims that a starving neighbour threatened to steal and cook her dog if the siege continued. Shops were looted in the early days, and in any case venturing out for food under constant shelling is perilous. Those with battery-powered radios have found local stations jammed, with only the separatists’ ones accessible. News dried up further when people’s electronic devices went flat and could not be recharged.
The war’s first prolonged spell without communications for any Ukrainian city meant a new torment for those on the outside: ignorance. Olga, a Ukrainian marketing manager whose parents are trapped in the city, read news of a shelled playground near her home but knew nothing of her family’s fate. She soon stopped looking. “I scrolled all day at first,“ she says, “but then I realised it was destroying me.” Olga describes how news moves from the Mariupol apartment building where her parents live: one brave tenant went door to door collecting phone numbers of neighbours’ relatives. He would then roam in search of reception and call each number on the list to share long-awaited news that loved ones are alive.
When will this end? A convoy of buses bringing food is supposedly nearing the city, but has been frequently stopped and delayed at Russian checkpoints. Getting people out is proving even harder. For eight consecutive days Russia agreed to a ceasefire to allow evacuations, only to break it. Russia’s chief diplomat to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, alleged that a plan for “humanitarian corridors”, heading north-west from Mariupol to Zaporizha, had to be cancelled because Ukrainian “radicals” had violated the terms. He claimed that Ukrainians had been heard plotting to “shoot at the legs” of refugees on an intercepted radio transmission. In fact, it is Russian troops who shoot when refugees try to leave, says Mr Boychenko. Witnesses who fled the city report that they were fired on by Russian troops. Russia proposed an alternative “corridor” leading east into Russia, ignoring the fact that few of Mariupol’s residents are likely to want to seek refuge with their tormentors.
Russia has a history of treating ceasefires as military tools rather than chances to reduce suffering. The “humanitarian pauses” offered in Syria by Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, would often be cut short when shelling interrupted them. Some evacuation corridors have functioned, after much toing and froing: around 13,000 people were able to leave a dozen different hotspots on March 12th, said Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. From March 11th Russia has demanded an advance list of evacuation buses and personnel before any evacuation, not an easy thing to put together under bombardment. In fact, the only smooth evacuation of civilians was Russia’s theatrical removal of residents from separatist-controlled lands into Russia, as the Kremlin predicted a genocidal massacre which never came. The seemingly arbitrary variation in the extent of Russia’s co-operation seems to be partly an effort to sap Ukrainians’ morale, partly an effort to provide anti-Ukrainian propaganda and partly a reflection of the different calculations of different field commanders.
Mariupol is an economically important port in a strategic location, between mainland Russia and Crimea, a peninsula Russia annexed in 2014. Many have speculated that Mr Putin is trying to build a “land bridge” between the two. But if that is so, it is hard to see how wrecking Mariupol and giving its residents fresh cause to hate Russia is either necessary or helpful. The city lies in territory claimed by the Donetsk “People’s Republic”, an enclave whose territorial claims Mr Putin endorsed just before the war. “These scum have found no other way to break us,” said Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor of the part of Donetsk region that remains in Ukrainian hands, including Mariupol.
Some analysts express hope that Russia and Ukraine may agree to a total truce in the coming days. But even if they do, few would expect Russia to respect it, leaving troops on Ukrainian soil instead and firing rockets when it feels like it. If the insincere talk of ceasefires and humanitarian corridors on display in Mariupol is an omen, the city’s suffering could be as well. ■
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