More than 1,500 people have been reported dead by municipal authorities in Mariupol, the Sea of Azov city that Russian forces have held under siege for nearly two weeks – but an adviser to the city’s mayor says the real number is likely far greater.
“We now estimate that number of people killed has reached 10,000. And if the Russians keep shelling, we may see more than 20,000 people killed because of the Russian attacks,” Petr Andryushchenko said in an interview.
Cut off from water and electricity, desperation has grown so acute, he said, that some have taken to drinking water from heating radiators.
Mr. Andryushchenko spoke to The Globe and Mail after he was able to leave Mariupol on Wednesday. The estimate of 10,000 dead, he said, is based on the severity of damage to residential neighbourhoods.
Russian forces have maintained what he called a “carousel” of attacks on the city, with intense artillery fire – dozens of shells an hour – followed by the appearance of Russian jets that drop heavy explosives, followed by more rounds of artillery. This week, military experts said they have found evidence that a one-tonne bomb had been dropped on the city.
Roughly 350,000 people have been locked in Mariupol since the end of February, Mr. Andryushchenko said. Attempts to establish safe evacuation corridors have repeatedly failed after shelling resumed during times agreed for the cessation of hostilities.
Those who remain “are hostages of Russian troops,” he said.
The attacks have been so unceasing that it has been impossible to precisely calculate casualties or assess damages. “If someone goes out on the street, he is risking his life,” Mr. Andryushchenko said.
And yet, the necessities of life have forced people to emerge from shelters. They have scavenged for any available scrap of wood to light fires to cook and provide heat. Temperatures in the past week fell to -9 degrees. “They will burn anything they can,” Mr. Andryushchenko said. “Anything for a small bit of heat.”
Water has perhaps been the most acute need. With municipal systems damaged, the city has attempted to deliver water in barrels, but it has been far from enough. When they could, people gathered snow to melt for drinking water. They have also gathered at old hand-operated water pumps, even though the water they supply is not potable.
And, during breaks in the shelling, they have dismantled hot-water heating systems in search of something to drink, Mr. Andryushchenko said.
“They are using water from the radiators,” he said.
Earlier this week, a six-year-old girl died from dehydration in Mariupol. She was found next to her mother, who was killed by a Russian shell, local authorities said. Russian forces are “torturing” the city, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday.
“It’s very hard to describe with words how people are just keeping on and staying alive,” Mr. Andryushchenko said. “They are without hope. And the psychological stresses are huge.”
Even burying the dead has become difficult. Russian forces occupy the city’s main cemetery, forcing workers to dig a large trench in a historic cemetery as a mass grave for dozens of unidentified bodies, some buried in carpets or bags.
“Some dead people do not have documents. Sometimes there are only body parts, so the person cannot be identified,” Mr. Andryushchenko said.
Still, “people are helping each other. They are not totally desperate,” he said. “But they are on the edge of total desperation. And I cannot say what will happen in the future.”
Mariupol leaders have likened what is happening to their city to modern campaigns of destruction against the Chechen and Syrian cities of Grozny and Aleppo. But they have also drawn parallels with the siege of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, by Nazi forces during the Second World War.
It is an event with particular historical meaning for Russian President Vladimir Putin. His own brother died in that siege, which lasted nearly 900 days and killed hundreds of thousands.
Today, however, Mr. Putin appears to be motivated by a thirst for reprisal, Mr. Andryushchenko said.
In 2014, Russian-backed separatists seized control of Mariupol along with other parts of the largely Russian-speaking Donbas region, some of which became breakaway republics.
But Ukrainian forces seized back control of Mariupol in June, 2014, and in the eight years since, the city has been rebuilt into a thriving “symbol of Ukrainian Donbas,” Mr. Andryushchenko said. “We invested a lot in Mariupol to make it the most beautiful city.”
Russia’s leadership, however, hasn’t forgotten the loss of the city in 2014.
What is happening to Mariupol today, Mr. Andryushchenko said, is “revenge.”
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