A wrecked car seen from a hole in a damaged apartment building following a rocket attack on the city of Mariupol
A wrecked car seen from a hole in a damaged apartment building following a rocket attack on the city of Mariupol on February 25 © Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

The shelling of Mariupol was so intense, locals say, that the dead lay on the street where they fell: no one dared venture out to bury them.

For five days, the port city in south-eastern Ukraine has come under near-constant Russian artillery fire that has driven 400,000 people into freezing shelters and the cellars of their bombed-out homes.

“We are a city under siege,” Mariupol’s mayor Vadym Boichenko told the Financial Times. “They are trying to exterminate us.”

International aid groups say the city, once home to 465,000 people and now completely encircled by Russian troops, is facing a humanitarian catastrophe. Contacted by phone in Mariupol, Boichenko said it had been without heating, water and electricity for four days now, and food and medicines were running out.

Saturday morning brought a glimmer of respite for the city’s beleaguered population. Russia’s defence ministry said it had ordered a ceasefire in Mariupol and the nearby town of Volnovakha and was organising humanitarian corridors to let civilians leave.

But local officials said they had called off all evacuation attempts and told civilians to return to their air raid shelters after Russia resumed its shelling of the city and its environs. 

Mariupol is not the only urban centre that has been targeted in the invasion unleashed by Russian president Vladimir Putin last week. The capital Kyiv and Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv have also been hit by indiscriminate shelling that has left dozens dead and wounded.

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said on Friday that the organisation had received a “flood of calls from people desperate for safety”.

“Casualty figures keep rising while health facilities struggle to cope,” he said. “Civilians staying in underground shelters tell us that they fled shells falling directly overhead. They have no extra clothes, supplies or their needed medication. They need assistance now.”

But while Kyiv and other cities have suffered gravely, the fusillade unleashed on Mariupol has been almost unparalleled in its ferocity.

Some residents said they were convinced that the Russian invading forces were singling it out for destruction because of its status as a stronghold of the Kyiv government in a part of eastern Ukraine that has long been a hotbed of pro-Russia separatism. “It’s pure vengeance,” said Pyotr Andriushchenko, a local official.

Russia’s onslaught over the past five days has destroyed some of Mariupol’s most important buildings. Kommunalnik, a local utility that runs the city’s rubbish disposal services, took a direct hit, according to officials, as did a hostel built six years ago with EU funds to house people displaced by the conflict between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian government forces in the eastern border region of Donbas.

Meanwhile, continual rocket fire, much of it from Russia’s Grad truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers, has caused extensive damage to Levoberezhny rayon, a residential district that is home to about 170,000 people. Windows have been blown out throughout the area, piling on the misery for locals as temperatures hover around freezing.

Pictures of the city circulating on social media showed the scale of the devastation: high-rise towers blackened by fire, shopfronts reduced to a chaos of twisted metal and broken glass, burnt-out cars and gaping holes left by missiles in the facades of apartment blocks.

Paramedics move a man injured in the shelling of a residential area of Mariupol
Paramedics move a man injured in the shelling of a residential area of Mariupol on March 1 © Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

Boichenko said millions of dollars had been invested in Mariupol in recent years to beautify the city. New parks had been created, trolleybuses acquired and large swaths of the city’s communal infrastructure renewed. “Now it’s so badly damaged I doubt it can ever be rebuilt,” he said.

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

Mariupol is no stranger to war. The guns of the Russia-backed Donbas rebels have been pointed at the city ever since 2014, and heavy fighting broke out in the city in May that year when separatist forces who tried to capture Mariupol were driven out by Ukrainian government troops.

Then, in January 2015, the city was subjected to a brutal missile attack that killed at least 30 people. Ballistic evidence showed the rockets had been fired from nearby separatists’ positions.

By managing to stay under Kyiv’s control over the past eight years, Mariupol became a haven for pro-Ukraine people fleeing the Donbas conflict. “Because of [its] diversity, it is a place that is resistant to Russian propaganda,” said Kostyantyn Batozsky, a political analyst who lived in the city for two years.

Until the war, Boichenko said, Mariupol was the “beating heart of the Ukrainian economy”, producing 12.5mn tonnes of steel a year and contributing 5 to 10 per cent of Ukraine’s gross domestic product. Proceeds from the export of steel made up 25 per cent of Ukraine’s foreign exchange earnings. “Now all the steelworks are closed,” he said.

Boichenko said Mariupol’s port, once a key conduit for Ukraine’s seaborne exports, was effectively being blockaded by Russia, cutting off a key lifeline for the Ukrainian economy.

Diana Berg, a resident who fled from Mariupol on Thursday, described a city that had been under a “total blackout” since Tuesday after heavy Russian shelling hit a power plant.

“It’s very dangerous to go and look for your relatives, to ask if they are OK and alive,” she said. “It was just terrifying. It was a survival horror for me.”

Berg, who fled Donbas in 2014, escaped Mariupol with her husband. “It was a suicide mission,” she said. “We understood that anything could happen because roads in all three directions are very dangerous.”

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

Get alerts on War in Ukraine when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article