Dispatch

‘The World Must Know What Happened to Us’

After weeks of siege by the Russians, some in Mariupol are finally escaping the bombs, the burning buildings, and the bodies.

Evacuees from Mariupol, Ukraine, at a shopping center on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia
Evacuees from Mariupol, Ukraine, at a shopping center on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia
Evacuees from Mariupol, Ukraine, at a shopping center on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia, which is now a registration center for displaced people March 16. Emre Caylak photos for Foreign Policy
By , a freelance journalist based in Istanbul covering Turkey, Syria, and the wider Middle East.

Putin’s War

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine—For 11 days, Halyna lived with the lifeless body of her 87-year-old mother, who passed away from natural causes. There are few people to collect corpses in Mariupol, Ukraine, as Russian bombs and rockets rain down from the sky. People say the dead are everywhere. 

“We closed the room where my mother died, and when we left Mariupol, I wrote down my address and gave the key to paramedics on the edge of the city,” Halyna said, her eyes red from crying. Her home city has been under attack practically since Russia invaded Ukraine three weeks ago. In Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine, Russian forces are conducting a siege that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky compared to that of Soviet Leningrad during World War II. 

The Russian siege has left people struggling for food and without electricity, water, heat, or communications. Shops have been looted and hospitals, churches, and residential areas bombarded relentlessly. Halyna said that for the last five days, they had to drink dirty water. “We were so happy when it snowed. We gathered the snow, cleaned the cigarette butts from it, and drank that,” she said.

Evacuees from Mariupol, Ukraine, at a shopping center on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia

Evacuees from Mariupol, Ukraine, arrive at a shopping center on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, which is now a registration center for displaced people, on March 16. Emre Caylak photos for Foreign Policy

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine—For 11 days, Halyna lived with the lifeless body of her 87-year-old mother, who passed away from natural causes. There are few people to collect corpses in Mariupol, Ukraine, as Russian bombs and rockets rain down from the sky. People say the dead are everywhere. 

“We closed the room where my mother died, and when we left Mariupol, I wrote down my address and gave the key to paramedics on the edge of the city,” Halyna said, her eyes red from crying. Her home city has been under attack practically since Russia invaded Ukraine three weeks ago. In Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine, Russian forces are conducting a siege that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky compared to that of Soviet Leningrad during World War II. 

The Russian siege has left people struggling for food and without electricity, water, heat, or communications. Shops have been looted and hospitals, churches, and residential areas bombarded relentlessly. Halyna said that for the last five days, they had to drink dirty water. “We were so happy when it snowed. We gathered the snow, cleaned the cigarette butts from it, and drank that,” she said.

Ukrainian refugee in Zaporizhzhia

Halyna speaks at the registration center in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on March 17.

Halyna (who did not want to give her full name, fearing for family who may still be in Mariupol) is among an estimated 30,000 people that managed to make it out of Mariupol in the last few days. Their escape came after more than a week of attempts to establish a humanitarian corridor that had previously failed when Russia did not observe agreed cease-fires. More than 200,000 people are believed to still be inside the besieged city.

The situation remains dire. More than 1,000 people who were sheltering under a municipal theater remain trapped after a large bomb hit it on Wednesday while images of pregnant women being helped from the ruins of a bombed maternity hospital cause global outrage. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, suggested it was a war crime. 

Those who manage to escape emerge from their hellscape in Zaporizhzhia, almost 150 miles to the west. There, they register for aid at a pair of registration centers, grateful just to be alive. With no phones working in Mariupol, they don’t know if friends and family can say the same. “We had zero information. We were in a vacuum like trapped mice,” Halyna said. 

Evacuees from Mariupol, Ukraine, in the line for coffee and snacks in a shopping center on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia on March 17.

Evacuees from Mariupol, Ukraine, stand in line for coffee and snacks in a shopping center on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on March 17.

Evacuees from Mariupol, Ukraine, on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia, fix their windows broken from Russian missiles on March 17.

Evacuees from Mariupol, Ukraine, fix their windows, which were broken from Russian missiles, on March 17.

Of the more than a dozen evacuees Foreign Policy spoke to, many said the bodies of those killed in Russian air and missile strikes are often left lying in the street. Local officials said at least 2,300 residents have died, with many more feared to be concealed under rubble. The bodies that are collected are dumped into mass graves as there are few resources to bury them properly. 

Halyna, whose daughter and granddaughter also got out, saw some of the worst of Mariupol’s suffering. When her building was shelled, she sought refuge in another part of the city where her daughter lives, only to find a similar picture there: shattered buildings and shattered lives.

“I saw a small boy in the street. His mother took him to the side of the road to pee. A mine exploded, and he lost his private parts,” she said, adding that she heard the International Committee of the Red Cross later operated on him. She did not know if the boy survived. 

Vidal Rzayev, a doctor at a Zaporizhzhia hospital who helps examine the displaced when they arrive, said he has seen many with shrapnel wounds and high blood pressure from stress. He has also seen a number of children with injuries and one woman in her sixties who had lost a leg in an airstrike. Although the woman underwent surgery in Mariupol, the wound had received little subsequent care. 

“For three weeks, people had no light, no water. They’re sleeping in basements under the house. They’re in shock,” he said. “One family with three children said their house was fired on by a tank.”

Natalya Terekhova, an English tutor, said her building was attacked three times and then caught fire. Two days before she arrived in Zaporizhzhia, a nearby building burned for three or four days straight, destroying every apartment. “I saw people get killed. A big piece of my building even fell off,” she said. “It was terrible to see my native town in such a condition.”

For those who remain in the city, they teeter on the edge of a humanitarian crisis. Mariupol mayor Vadym Boychenko warned in recent days that food stocks had run out while Red Cross staff in the city were quoted on social media as saying people did not have access to medicine for chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer. Halyna’s son-in-law is among those who stayed behind: With a herniated disk, he can’t move easily, so her daughter injected him with painkillers and was forced to leave him.

“Do you see my lips?” Halyna said, pointing at the swollen bumps and grazes there. “Every day, they were cut because I fell to the floor so many times because of explosions. All of Mariupol is broken, and the world must know what happened to us.”

Liz Cookman is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul covering Turkey, Syria, and the wider Middle East.

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