In Mariupol, Russia’s Barbarity Is Laid Bare

Some civilians have escaped. Thousands have died. This is Putin’s war—and their story.

By , a journalist, photographer, and filmmaker whose focus spans conflict, conservation, humanitarian issues, and traditional cultures.
Evacuees from Mariupol, Ukraine
Evacuees from Mariupol, Ukraine
Evacuees from Mariupol are seen at a shopping center on the outskirts of the city of Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on March 16. EMRE CAYLAK/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

As shells pounded the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on Tuesday and the blasts came closer, Konstantin faced an impossible choice. Thousands of people had begun their evacuation from the besieged port city, and Konstantin’s car was packed with relatives, ready to depart under artillery fire. Yet his wife, Alyona, was adamant—she wouldn’t abandon her friend.

“There wasn’t enough space in the car for everyone,” said Irina, the couple’s 27-year-old daughter, who asked to withhold her surname and requested aliases for her parents due to security concerns. “The explosions were very close. Dad was commanding everyone to get on the ground. He was angry that mom wouldn’t get in the car, but she couldn’t leave them.”

So the family agreed that Alyona, her friend, and her friend’s daughter would shelter there while Konstantin got the first group out, before attempting to drive back into the besieged city to save them—a courageous, improbable plan beset with immense danger.

As shells pounded the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on Tuesday and the blasts came closer, Konstantin faced an impossible choice. Thousands of people had begun their evacuation from the besieged port city, and Konstantin’s car was packed with relatives, ready to depart under artillery fire. Yet his wife, Alyona, was adamant—she wouldn’t abandon her friend.

“There wasn’t enough space in the car for everyone,” said Irina, the couple’s 27-year-old daughter, who asked to withhold her surname and requested aliases for her parents due to security concerns. “The explosions were very close. Dad was commanding everyone to get on the ground. He was angry that mom wouldn’t get in the car, but she couldn’t leave them.”

So the family agreed that Alyona, her friend, and her friend’s daughter would shelter there while Konstantin got the first group out, before attempting to drive back into the besieged city to save them—a courageous, improbable plan beset with immense danger.

As they waited in the shelter, hours passed, and bombs continued to fall. Alyona’s friend was well aware of the damage these indiscriminate weapons could inflict, having been injured by shrapnel a few days earlier. Eventually, Konstantin reappeared, bundled the family into the small Nissan, and got them out, everyone reuniting a few hours later in a small town away from Mariupol. 

But there is still a long road to safety. Fuel is scarce; many gas stations are closed, and one person they found was selling gas for the equivalent of about $32 a gallon. Alyona and Konstantin’s astonishing courage came as around 20,000 people fled Mariupol on Tuesday in what is believed to have been the biggest evacuation yet. Ukrainian officials said 570 of the 4,000 vehicles that left Mariupol had reached the city of Zaporizhzhia by the end of the day, while others were spending the night in various towns along the way.

The frantic exodus came after weeks of relentless shelling on residential areas that caused “apocalyptic” scenes, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Bodies of children, killed in Russian bombardments, have piled up in mass graves. Airstrikes and artillery shells have destroyed homes and the maternity hospital. Food, water, and medicine are running out as Russian forces stop humanitarian attempts to bring more aid in. Trapped residents are melting snow to drink and burning furniture for warmth in the freezing cold.

On Wednesday, Russian forces bombed a theater where hundreds of civilians were reportedly sheltering. Satellite imagery showed that the word “children” was written in Russian on the ground outside the building in an attempt to dissuade Russian warplanes from targeting it. The number of casualties is not known.

There had already been multiple failed attempts to create humanitarian corridors through the Russian siege and surrounding roads, mined and littered with unexploded ordnance. So far, local officials have put the death toll at more than 2,500 people, but the exact number is not known as constant shelling makes counting bodies a lottery. Even funerals are out of the question.

Doctors say they are treating 10 civilians for every injured Ukrainian soldier, according to a devastating report by Associated Press journalists, ​​the only international media now present in Mariupol.

“Workers toss the bodies in as fast as they can, because the less time they spend in the open, the better their own chances of survival,” the AP journalists wrote, reporting by a narrow trench dug into Mariupol’s frozen earth. “More bodies will come, from streets where they are everywhere and from the hospital basement where adults and children are laid out awaiting someone to pick them up. The youngest still has an umbilical stump attached.”

While Irina’s family takes relief in the escape, there is great anxiety about the road ahead, not to mention the profound post-traumatic stress of having survived such a horrendous ordeal. Yet for every person who has escaped, there are many more—likely hundreds of thousands more—who remain trapped with nowhere to go, all while their loved ones elsewhere look on, powerless to stop Russian forces from tightening the noose on their city.

Last week, as Russian bombs rained down on Mariupol’s maternity hospital, Viktoria Popova, an artist who now lives in Germany, wasn’t just sickened by the scene of senseless devastation. She was scared for the safety of her parents, unable to contact them during Russia’s siege.

“That hospital is right next to my parent’s house,” said Popova, 27. “It is just across the street. When I saw the pictures, I couldn’t believe it. Once the shock went, the tears came.”

Popova managed to reach her mother by phone the day before during a fleeting call that lasted a little over two minutes before cutting out. In the aftermath of the hospital bombing on March 9, she was unable to get through, left in a limbo of desperate hope and excruciating anguish.

“To hear the voice of your parents and know they’re alive … until you have lived through this, you just don’t appreciate it,” she said.

As Russian forces have encircled this strategic southeastern coastal city, subjecting the civilian population to a humanitarian disaster, Popova is among the many Ukrainians originally from Mariupol who are now enduring a prolonged and agonizing wait to hear if their loved ones within the besieged city are still alive or have escaped in the latest evacuation. Russian strikes have taken out phone towers and damaged the city’s electrical grid, making all but the most sporadic communication impossible. Relatives of those stuck inside the city describe how initial doubts last month about the severity of the impending war have given way to utter horror at the barbarity of the Russian onslaught.

There are other emotions, too: frustration with friends and family for refusing to leave, guilt over being safe, fleeting relief during rushed and crackly phone calls, anxiety amid frantic online searches for fragments of information. Sleepless nights follow numb days amid unexpected eruptions of raw emotion as footage of death, destruction, and despair emerge from this devastated southern front.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, Popova called her parents and begged them to leave. “They said I didn’t have to worry and they weren’t going anywhere—‘Nothing is going to happen, and even if it does, we want to stay here,’” she recalled. “My parents said they had everything they needed and the shops were well stocked.”

But within a week, the brutality of the mounting assault on Mariupol was clear.

“Everything blurred into each other—I didn’t know if it was morning or evening or night,” Popova said. “It just felt like one long day. I couldn’t call my parents, so all I was doing was trying to figure out how they were.”

Finally, six days after Russia bombed the maternity hospital near her family’s home, Popova heard from her mother. Her parents had not been able to leave Mariupol during the evacuation, but at least they were alive.

“They have moved to another place as there is a lot of fighting near them,” Popova said, adding with some hope: “We’re hearing that people who already left are planning to form a convoy of cars and drive back into Mariupol to pick up families.”

TV news, online reports, Facebook posts, Telegram channels, WhatsApp messages from friends of friends—no source is off the table in the hunt for a scrap of reassurance.

Irina, whose parents escaped Tuesday and who works as a financial analyst in another Eastern European country, experienced similar anguish as her parents, grandparents, and other relatives became trapped inside Mariupol. With phone towers down, her messages couldn’t get through. Instead, she had to wait for her parents’ sporadic calls as she trawled social media and internet sites for hours for snippets of information.

Each rare time they managed to connect, solace was soon overcome by sadness and worry.

“I would ask if everyone is alive, if they have enough food and water, if the house was damaged,” she said. “In one call, I started to cry, and mom told me to be strong and philosophical. She is a very strong woman and a role model for me, but she started to cry, too, and said, ‘Please tell everyone what is happening here because it is unbearable.’”

Her family is now out, but others are not so lucky. Dzmitry Halko, a 42-year-old in Kyiv, is waiting to hear if his former partner and their 6-year-old son are alive. “The fragmentary news from there is terrifying,” he said. “It’s been 14 days now that I haven’t heard from them.”

He vents grief, rage, and contempt toward the invading Russians as he desperately looks for information online and contacts their friends and relatives. “I hope they’re still alive,” Halko said. “If they aren’t, it will break me. But it won’t only break me. It may become a turning point, when I will have to consider joining the resistance. I won’t be able to forgive.”

For now, as people’s homes are razed to the ground and the cold earth fills up with bodies, those who know and love Mariupol best are watching the nightmare unfold, sustained by a distant hope that, perhaps one day, they will rebuild their brutalized city.

“My happiest memories were in Mariupol,” Popova said. “Now seeing it being completely broken down … it’s a nightmare. Our hearts want to be there, but we have to stop ourselves because we understand that one day somebody has to build it up again. And I think we are the people who can do this.”

Jack Losh is a journalist, photographer, and filmmaker whose focus spans conflict, conservation, humanitarian issues, and traditional cultures. Twitter: @jacklosh

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