“Hell on Earth”: Survivors tell of the destruction of Mariupol by Russian bombs

In the besieged city of Mariupol, scene of the heaviest fighting in Russia’s three-week war against Ukraine, people are now so hungry they are killing stray dogs to eat them.

Dmytro, a businessman who left the city on Tuesday, said friends told him they had resorted to this desperate measure in recent days after their supplies ran out.

“You hear the words, but it’s impossible to really take it in, to believe that’s happening,” he said. “It’s hell on earth.”

Once one of Ukraine’s most important ports, Mariupol is now an ossuary, a city of ghosts. For more than two weeks it has been a Russian bombardment of such intensity that it has reduced whole neighborhoods to smoldering heaps of rubble.

After days of devastating air and artillery strikes that breached Mariupol’s three defense lines, Russian forces have now entered the city center, with heavy fighting reported on some of the main shopping streets and near Theater Square, a major landmark.

Russian forces already have control of the Livoberezhnyi Raion, or Left Bank District, to the east of the city and Mikroraiony 17-23, a series of residential neighborhoods to the northeast, he said Anna Romanenko, a Ukrainian journalist who is in close contact with the Ukrainian armed forces there. “The front line now runs right through Mariupol,” she said.

Dmytro, who declined to give his last name, was one of several Mariupol residents the Financial Times contacted by phone after they were evacuated to the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhia, some 140 miles west, last week. All described an attack so brutal that it destroyed the city, killing and maiming countless civilians and leaving deep scars on the survivors.

Mykola Osichenko, managing director of Mariupol TV, said his lasting memory of the past three weeks is feeling completely powerless. “When the bombs fell, I routinely covered my son with my body,” he said. “But I knew I couldn’t really protect him, that it was an act of desperation.”

Strategically located on the Azov Sea, the gateway to the Black Sea, Mariupol was in Russian crosshairs from the start of the war. Within days, their forces began firing rockets at the city, cutting off its electricity, gas and water supplies and leaving its 400,000 residents huddled in freezing cold shelters and hugging for warmth.

Survivors described desperate attempts to stock up on supplies while bombs exploded all around them. Dmytro said he visited the central market last Sunday after it was razed by a Russian artillery attack.

“Everything was on fire, there were bodies everywhere, and I just walked through, picking up a cabbage here, a carrot there, because I knew my family would live like that for a day or two,” he said. “You become completely desensitized.”

Witnesses showed post-apocalyptic scenes of stray dogs eating the remains of bomb victims lying unburied on the street. Civilian victims were buried in mass graves or buried in the courtyards of houses: proper burials are too dangerous.

Russia’s medieval-style siege of Mariupol also left its residents facing acute shortages of food and water. Without gas, they cook food on campfires made from broken furniture in the courtyards of their homes.

People fleeing Mariupol arrive in Lviv in western Ukraine along with passengers from Zaporizhia
People fleeing Mariupol arrive in Lviv in western Ukraine along with passengers from Zaporizhia © Bernat Armangue/AP

Osichenko said people at his home were desperately thirsty, draining water from radiators, collecting and melting snow, and also scouring local parks for freshwater streams. “But lines would form there, and that was a perfect target for Russian missiles,” he said. The creeks also fell out of favor because they were quickly infested with corpses.

Images posted to social media have documented the extent of the devastation – huge apartment blocks turned into infernos after taking a direct hit, the flames sending huge columns of black smoke into the sky, streets littered with burned-out wrecks of destroyed ones Buses and Cars The 10 meter crater left by a bomb has been reduced to shredded heaps of metal Mariupol Children’s Hospitals.

Authorities sounded the alarm after Russian planes bombed the city’s main municipal theater last Wednesday, stoking fears for the hundreds of women and children who had been using the basement as an air raid shelter. It is not yet clear how many people were killed or injured in the attack. Russia denies attacking civilians and has accused Ukrainian authorities of using them as human shields.

Now residents face a new threat: evacuation to parts of Russia, where an uncertain fate awaits them. Potential evacuees are first questioned by Russian officials, who “test them for their trustworthiness,” Romanenko said. “They check their social media feeds for anti-Russian elements.”

She said Russian forces sent a friend of hers from Livoberezhnyi district to Novoazovsk, a small town east of Mariupol controlled by pro-Russian separatists. “They interrogated him, took away his Ukrainian passport and sent him to Rostov, across the border in Russia,” she said. Since then she has not heard from him.

Many other residents have used the rare moments of calm between bombing raids to leave Mariupol for Ukrainian-controlled territory, forming long convoys of private cars forced to run through a gauntlet of dozens of Russian checkpoints.

Romanenko, who was born and raised in Mariupol and has lived there all her life, is now a refugee in Zaporizhia. She said she was heartbroken by the fate of her city – but determined to return one day “and do whatever it takes to rebuild it”.

“I’ll go back as soon as the Russians leave,” she said. “All my ancestors are buried here. I can’t be happy anywhere else.” “Hell on Earth”: Survivors tell of the destruction of Mariupol by Russian bombs

Adam Bradshaw

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