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Besieged Mariupol Teeters On The Brink

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By Oleksandr Yankovskiy*

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(RFE/RL) — “The city is smashed to pieces,” said Mariupol journalist Yulia Harkusha, a contributor to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service who just completed the hazardous journey from the besieged Azov Sea port city to territory held by the Ukrainian military.

“There is nothing left [for the Russians] to control. I have only seen sights like this in photographs from World War II, when Dresden was bombed,” she said.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Mariupol was the 10th-largest city in the country, with a prewar population of about 430,000 people. It was also the second-largest city in the Donetsk region, which — like the neighboring Luhansk region — has been recognized as independent by Moscow and is partially controlled by Russian forces and Kremlin-backed separatist formations.

Capturing the strategic port has been an important goal for Russia, as the Kremlin apparently seeks to establish a land connection between the occupied parts of eastern Ukraine and Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014. The separatists failed to take Mariupol in 2014; it has been targeted since the start of the new invasion and has been completely cut-off from Kyiv-controlled Ukraine since March 1.

In recent days, analysts believe, Moscow has stepped up its bid to control the port in order to use it as a supply hub for Russia’s newly focused effort to control the two separatist-claimed regions, which are collectively known as the Donbas.

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The Russian military said on April 13 that more than 1,000 Ukrainian marines in the city had surrendered. The unconfirmed report came the day after the Ukrainian 36th Marine Brigade posted on Facebook that it had no ammunition and was resorting to hand-to-hand combat.

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko told AP on April 13 that at least 10,000 civilians — and perhaps as many as 20,000– had been killed in the weeks since the war began. Boychenko alleged that Russian forces had been using “mobile crematoriums” to destroy evidence of civilian deaths.

Russia has denied targeting civilians despite the fact that a drama theater in the city that was being used by hundreds of residents as a shelter was bombed on March 16, a week after the Russian Air Force bombed a maternity hospital there. A large number of apartment buildings have also been damaged or destroyed by Russian fire.

The Red Cross has been organizing bus evacuations through Russian-controlled territory, but they have often been cancelled because of the fighting. Some civilians, like Harkusha, choose to walk along the Azov Sea coast through Russian-controlled territory to the west. From the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, it is possible to cross into Ukrainian-held territory.

Others, Harkusha says, make their way to Russian-occupied Crimea. “I can understand,” she said, “that if you have to choose between living under occupation and dying, of course, you will choose living under occupation.”

It is unknown how many civilians remain in Mariupol. But Harkusha believes there are “a lot.”

“Getting out on foot now is very dangerous and difficult,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of civilians there. It is a shame that the authorities did not encourage evacuation in advance. It was known that the city would be besieged and attacked. But the city authorities did not do it because they were afraid of panic.”

Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser the Mariupol mayor, disputes such contentions. “If the Russians had given us the opportunity to evacuate everyone…we would have organized it very quickly,” he told RFE/RL. “The issue is not with us, not with the Ukrainian side. It is very difficult to comment on what is in the minds of our occupiers.”

Andryushchenko also repeated Kyiv’s assertions that residents of Mariupol and the surrounding area were being “forcibly deported” to Russia, including to Siberia.

“People are registered as ‘refugees’ and deported to economically depressed areas of Russia,” Andryushchenko said. “We now know about Tomsk, Vladimir, and Yaroslavl. We have information about a planned deportation to the Samara region. It reminds me of the situation during World War II, when ‘guest workers’ were deported by the Germans.”

Denys Minin is a native of Mariupol who has been helping evacuate civilians. Asked how many people have managed to get out, he shrugged. “When we save everyone that we can, then we will sit down and count them,” he said. “For me, each person is already a lot.”

Minin has been organizing civilian drivers, many of them seeking to bring relatives out of Mariupol, to make the perilous journey from Zaporizhzhya by private car.

“Two of my drivers are now in captivity,” he told RFE/RL on April 10. “There were taken to the territory of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, along with their vehicles,” he said, referring to the part of the region held by Russia and the separatists it backs. “They have been there for two weeks. The story of every one of our drivers could be a movie script or a series on Netflix.”

Once the volunteers make it to Mariupol, they must find people to evacuate in a city that is largely without electricity, phone service, and Internet access.

“We have our own map of major bomb shelters where we know that 50 to 200 people are likely hiding,” Minin said. “Thousands of people are waiting to be rescued there, so when a driver arrives in Mariupol, he does not go to a particular address or look for a particular individual. Everyone there is one of our people. They need to be rescued and returned to [safety] as soon as possible.”

Some people, however, are afraid to leave, Minin adds. “Imagine yourself in Mariupol. An unknown person in an unknown vehicle says they will take you to Ukraine for free,” he said, meaning Ukrainian-controlled territory. “Would you agree right away?”

Harkusha says it is virtually impossible now to leave the city by car because the roads are clogged with debris, shrapnel, and unexploded ordnance. “You can only get there by tank,” she said.

Serhiy Malyshev works for the Zaporizhzhya Volunteers Association trying to organize humanitarian aid for Mariupol and the occupied areas of the south. He says the Russian military and the separatist militias often seize their cargo.

“Over the last three weeks, we have had problems delivering goods,” Malyshev said. “Before, volunteers…were let through. But recently…there have often been situations when people were deprived of their cargo and their telephones…. Several times there have been situations where cars came under fire.”

Now, Malyshev says, his group is only working to help displaced people who have already escaped the combat areas.

Since she left Mariupol, journalist Harkusha has also devoted most of her time to helping displaced people from her city.

“After all,” she said, “all we have left is to help each other.”

Robert Coalson contributed to this report

  • Oleksandr Yankovskiy is a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. Originally from Crimea, Yankovskiy has worked as the editor in chief and presenter of the Crimea.Realities TV and radio projects. Since 2021, he has been a presenter for The News of Azov Region project.

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RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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