Hope dwindles in Ukrainian city of Mariupol: 'Everyone is constantly waiting for death'

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Exactly one month after Russia invaded Ukraine, on Feb. 24, an estimated 100,000 Ukrainians remain trapped inside the port city of Mariupol in “inhumane conditions,” according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. There is no more food, no drinking water and no electricity as the constant drum of Russian shelling — upwards of 50 to 100 airstrikes per day by land, air and sea — has reduced much of the city to rubble.

“There is nothing left there,” Zelensky said of Mariupol on Tuesday, while addressing the Italian Parliament by video. “Only ruins.”

If captured, Mariupol, which was home to more than 430,000 people prewar, would give Russia strategic control of Ukraine’s southern coast.

Destroyed buildings and a military vehicle.
Destroyed buildings and a military vehicle in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on Monday. (Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Inside the city, located on the coast of the Sea of Azov, Ukrainians’ optimism continues to dwindle.

“In this city, everyone is constantly waiting for death,” Nadezhda Sukhorukova, a lifelong Mariupol resident, wrote on Facebook, where she chronicled her firsthand account of civilian life during wartime in the city in a series of posts. Last Saturday she was able to escape what she described as “hell.”

“I am alive and now I will live long,” she wrote in another post. “[But] my city is dying a painful death. Twenty days I was dying with him. I have been through hell.”

Inhabitants who are left are mostly confined to bomb shelters and the basements of buildings throughout the city, clinging to the hope that they will eventually be evacuated. Zelensky said Tuesday that 7,000 people had been evacuated during the previous 24 hours, but efforts to free more were thwarted by Russian troops.

Refugees in heavy coat and hats congregate near a steel tea or hot water urn.
Refugees fleeing Mariupol arrive at a hub in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on Tuesday to be registered. (Andrea Carrubba/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Depleting resources have led some Ukrainians to attempt to flee the city independently on foot, a risky journey of 6 to 12 miles to relative safety that could end in death without a ceasefire, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Ukrainian television.

More than 3,000 people have been killed in Mariupol since the war began, according to Ukrainian officials. Corpses of unburied Ukrainians line the city’s streets, and with each passing day an even more dire humanitarian disaster unfolds. Without safe corridors to get aid into the city, there have reportedly been no medication or hygiene products available there for more than two weeks.

“We are working to mobilize supplies and are already providing aid to internally displaced persons across the country, but we need agreement between the parties before we can get aid in and people out,” Arran Skinner, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told Yahoo News.

Protester holds a placard reading: Mariupol is on fire.
A protester at a rally in support of Mariupol, calling on NATO to close the skies over Ukraine. (Mykola Tys/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Russia blames Ukraine for the failure to establish a safe corridor, or passageway, out of Mariupol, while Ukrainian officials accuse Russian troops of compromising aid missions near the city by blocking humanitarian convoys, often by using deadly force. Vereshchuk said that Russians recently captured 11 bus drivers and four aid workers, holding them hostage along with their vehicles.

As more humanitarian workers find themselves in grim circumstances because of the conflict, administering aid to those in need has become a traumatizing feat in itself, as they realize their own lives are in peril.

“In a dramatically changed landscape, the work I was doing with [Doctors Without Borders] earlier is no longer possible,” Aleksandr Burmin, a staff member of the organization in Ukraine, wrote in a post last week. “Many of my colleagues find themselves in the same situation.”

Another aid worker described the tense situation in the city as “increasingly desperate.”

A serviceman in fatigues and carrying weaponry on their back walks along a path in a barren field toward buildings in the far distance.
A Ukrainian serviceman walks toward the front line in the city of Irpin on March 12. (Aris Messinis/AFP)

Despite the despair, Ukrainian forces continue to mount a valiant defense against Russian forces looking to advance upon Mariupol, leading to some fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin may escalate the war using chemical or biological weapons.

“Putin’s back is against the wall,” President Biden said Tuesday, ahead of a four-day trip to Europe for an emergency NATO meeting on Thursday. “And the more his back is against the wall, the greater the severity of the tactics he may employ.”

Already, the Russian shelling has decimated most of Mariupol, leaving 80% to 90% of the city destroyed, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The bombing in Mariupol has gotten so bad that the president of Poland has compared it to Nazi war crimes.

“My countrymen, Poles, are looking today at Mariupol and are saying, ‘God’ — they say it with tears in their eyes — ‘Mariupol looks like Warsaw did in 1944 when Nazis, Hitler’s Germans, were brutally bombing houses, killing people, killing civilians with no mercy at all,’” Andrzej Duda said Tuesday while on a visit to Bulgaria.

A woman walks past a heavily damaged building with a large sign that reads Pharmacy in Ukrainian.
A woman walks past a damaged building in Mariupol on Monday. (Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“Today the Russian army is behaving in exactly the same way. Russian leaders are behaving in exactly the same way, like Hitler, like the German SS, like the German pilots of the fascist army during World War II.”

The last remaining journalists, who were once stationed in Mariupol to capture the grief, have also since left for fear of their lives.

“The officer, who had once begged us to show the world his dying city, now pleaded with us to go,” Mstyslav Chernov, a video journalist for the Associated Press, recalled on Tuesday in an emotional dispatch from outside the city. “We were the last journalists in Mariupol. Now there are none.”

Two people wearing coats and hats and carrying handbags walk hand-in-hand along a roadway lined with splintered trees and fallen branches.
Civilians are evacuated along humanitarian corridors from Mariupol on Monday. (Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Without journalists, power or internet connectivity, Ukrainians left in Mariupol have limited knowledge of the outside world or, except in rare instances, access to a radio. People have lost full communication with family and loved ones.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and its European allies continue to offer Ukraine support through billions in military aid and numerous Russian sanctions, stopping short of engaging in direct conflict.

As of Wednesday, more than 3.6 million Ukrainians had fled the country, with the majority — upwards of 2.1 million — finding refuge in Poland, according to the U.N. refugee agency.


Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images, Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images (2)