Ukrainians flee Mariupol as Russian forces push to take port city

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine – As the battle for Mariupol intensifies, civilians fleeing the conflict have told of the escalating violence as Russian and Ukrainian forces fought street by street in the historic port city’s downtown area and that Russian airstrikes, artillery and mortar shells ravaged entire neighborhoods.

Hundreds of people from Mariupol arrive here every day in a grim procession of cars, with shattered windshields and shrapnel scars testifying to the ordeal endured by their passengers. Stuck to the windows, homemade signs reading “children” in Russian, and strips of white fabric attached to door handles, little protection against the war raging in their city.

They park in the parking lot of a hardware store on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia – now a staging post for people fleeing the city on their way to safety further west or abroad – among more than 10 million people uprooted by the fighting. Almost a month after Russia invaded Ukraine, it is set to take Mariupol in what would be the first major city to fall under its control. But Mariupol is a broken price.

“I can’t even describe it,” said Andriy, 37, who declined to give his full name and took a chance during a rare lull in Monday’s shelling to flee Mariupol. Standing in the parking lot, he said his ears still had to adjust to the lack of constant bombardment in the city he left behind.

Burning of apartment buildings in Mariupol, Ukraine.


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Satellite Image 2022 Maxar Technologies

Pro-Russian troops on a road near the port city of Mariupol, Ukraine on Monday.


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ALEXANDRE YERMOCHENKO/REUTERS

Mariupol has been at the center of the Russian offensive as it is a strategically important city linking the Russian-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine to a swath of territory that Moscow captured in the south and creating an arc containing much of the country’s Russian-speaking population.

Fighting around Mariupol has been ongoing since the early days of the Russian assault which began on February 24. The town has seen an escalation of attacks over the past two weeks or so and as the battle nears the town.

Ukrainian military officials said on Tuesday that those defending the city managed to destroy a patrol boat operating near the city and a radio complex.

The wider battle lines across Ukraine have moved little in recent days as forces on both sides entrench themselves. Ukrainian forces said they were regaining ground in some areas. Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that its troops had made progress in the fight for towns along its attack lines.

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators have met several times, with little apparent progress. Russia’s demands include giving up the territory of kyiv. Ukraine has said Russian troops must leave its country for a peace deal to be reached.

Although Mariupol was always susceptible to Russian invasion, many locals stayed because they couldn’t believe the situation would get so bad. By the time they realized what was happening, it was too late.

Russian forces violently dispersed crowds protesting their occupation of Kherson; satellite images showed continued destruction across Ukraine; Biden has warned that Putin could use chemical weapons as the war continues. Photo: Reuters

The bombardment of the city of 350,000 to 400,000 inhabitants was becoming more intense and closer every day. Local officials say Russia rained 50 to 100 bombs a day on Mariupol, destroying between 80% and 90% of the city. Ukraine rejected a Russian ultimatum to surrender the city this week.

Russian attacks leveled a maternity hospital in the city earlier this month. The attacks on a theater and an arts school trapped hundreds of people sheltering there from the fighting, local officials said. The total number of deaths at the site remains uncertain.

More than a dozen residents who have fled since last week have described a desperate struggle to stay alive in a town where venturing outside meant exposing themselves to being shot, torn apart by artillery fire or wiped out in an airstrike. As the conflict escalated, residents weighed the risks of staying in the city against the danger of trying to flee under constant shelling and through Russian checkpoints on roads out of town.

A man clears the rubble of a damaged psychiatric hospital after it was hit in a military strike in Mykolaiv, Ukraine.


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NACHO DOCE/REUTERS

Ukrainians search for people under debris inside a shopping mall after it was attacked in Kyiv, Ukraine on Monday.


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Felipe Dana/Associated Press

When residents realized they were surrounded, panic set in. Store shelves emptied. Bread was scarce. Desperate locals burst into supermarkets for food and whatever they could take home. At first, security forces tried to arrest them, but soon gave up maintaining public order and even helped distribute food to looted shops.

Towards the end of February, the power went out. On March 2, the internet connection was cut, then the telephone network, then the cooking gas and running water.

From the window of their fifth-floor apartment, Edgar Gevargian and his wife could see jets streaking overhead and hear loud explosions. They decided to move to her parents’ house in another area of ​​Mariupol where the shelling was less intense.

A few days later, an explosive device landed a short distance from the house. A neighbor blew herself up while she was outside. Her husband recovered the body parts. Mr. Gevargian and his wife left a few days later, joining a humanitarian convoy when the opportunity arose.

Ukrainian authorities said on Tuesday they would continue to work on evacuating people from Mariupol and surrounding areas affected by advancing troops towards the town of Zaporizhzhia, further northwest. Pick-up points have been set up in Mariupol and other points along the Sea of ​​Azov, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

“We won’t leave anyone behind and we will continue to evacuate every day on the same schedule until we get everyone out,” she said.

She said 21 buses and trucks carrying humanitarian aid had left Zaporizhzhia for Mariupol and authorities were considering providing additional fuel to nearby Berdyansk to allow people to refuel cars to escape. .

A military checkpoint in kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday.


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fadel senna/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Mourners at the grave of a Ukrainian soldier in Lviv, western Ukraine, on Monday.


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wojtek jargilo / Shutterstock

For those caught in the city, the situation has sometimes been desperate. The women and children remained largely underground, while the men ventured out foraging for food, finding water, and looking for a phone signal to find out what was going on. They collected the snow from the roofs of the cars to melt it and make drinking water. They were cooking food over open fires in the yard, diving for cover at the whistle of incoming artillery.

Dmitro, 25, teamed up with neighbors he had never met before the war to find wood and keep a fire going from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. On March 9, he was brewing tea over the fire when an airstrike hit the nearby maternity hospital in what was one of the most publicized attacks on civilians in the fighting that lasted nearly a month. The shock wave lifted him off his feet. Since then, he said, the shelling has been incessant.

Ukrainian government rejects Russia’s deadline for laying down arms in Mariupol; a security camera filmed the attack on a shopping center in kyiv; the United Nations said the war has forced 10 million people from their homes. Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

As the shelling intensified, basements and bomb shelters filled up as people whose homes had been destroyed sought refuge in the shrinking area of ​​the city controlled by Ukrainian forces.

In the cold and dark basements beneath the city, with no connection to the outside world, the inhabitants waited for a breakthrough. They expected an official evacuation to be organised, but as the days passed, their hopes faded.

After Russian forces took over the main intensive care hospital, there was nowhere to treat the wounded, or any medicine, say people who fled the city. The director of the heart disease center told Mykola Trofymenko that he was forced to amputate a patient’s mutilated leg with a kitchen knife without anesthesia.

“The shelling, airstrikes and missile fire from graduates were constant,” said Mr. Trofymenko, director of Mariupol State University. “I have a doctorate in political science and I don’t understand how one country can do this to another.

The university has been destroyed and Mr. Trofymenko does not know if his professors and students are alive. Nor has he heard from his sister or his grandmother.

The city council dug ditches in the park so people could dispose of the dead, Mr Trofymenko said, but most people buried the bodies wherever they could, marking the graves with crosses made of sticks . They used shopping trolleys to move the corpses strewn on the streets, Dima Shvets said.

On a notice board at a circus in Zaporizhzhia, now a hub for displaced people from Mariupol and other towns in the region, there are dozens of notices asking for information about missing people in the town.

Write to Isabel Coles at isabel.coles@wsj.com

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