Before Vladimir Putin’s troops encircled and besieged the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, the website 0629.com.ua used to cover mundane things: its mostly female staff posted stories on the new fishing season, teenagers learning the ropes of 3D modelling, and a video poll of residents asking where they had their first dates.
This week the site, founded in 2006 and named after Mariupol’s dialling code, carried news from the frontline of Europe’s worst war in decades, and a deadly urban siege that has left people hungry, thirsty and stuck in freezing basements to avoid indiscriminate Russian shelling.
On Tuesday the site reported the story of Tatyana, a six-year-old girl whose body was found in the rubble of a collapsed building eight days after the start of the blockade. The site reported that she had been left alone after her mother’s death and had actually perished from dehydration.
As of Friday, Mariupol, which had a population of more than 400,000 people before the war, was in its 11th day without heat, gas, electric power or internet service. Intense Russian shelling knocked these out on March 1, then water the following day.
“The last few days have been the very worst,” Anna Romanenko, the site’s editor, told the FT by phone from a rented flat in Zaporizhzhia, about 220km north of the besieged city, where she fled with her cancer-sufferer mother. “On top of the heavy artillery bombardment, over the last four days they have also been dropping bombs from the air. There are huge craters in the middle of town 15 metres wide.”
Earlier this week, 0629’s homepage carried a photo of corpses of people killed by Russian attacks on civilian buildings, or by critical health conditions worsened by the siege, being tipped into a mass grave.
Mariupol’s mayor Vadym Boichenko on Friday said that Russian forces were bombing from the air “every 30 minutes”, adding to the howitzers and Grad land-based rockets with which they had been pounding the town. These attacks created “hell” for the people who lived there, he said.
Ukraine’s government said Russian forces bombed the maternity unit of a children’s hospital on Wednesday, killing at least three including a child. The bombing brought worldwide condemnation of Putin’s government, which has alleged the place had been used as a base for “Nazi” fighters.
With Russian forces encircling the city, food is running low, according to reports from residents. “People are melting snow for water, preparing food on open fires, and cutting down trees for firewood next to modernist Soviet blocks,” said Dmytro Gurin, a Ukrainian MP with President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party whose parents are in Mariupol. “They are under siege, and it’s medieval.”
Three attempts to evacuate residents via a “humanitarian corridor”, brokered with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, collapsed over the past week after what Ukrainian officials said were attacks on evacuation columns by Russian forces. The ICRC blamed a lack of “trust” between the warring countries.
One of the challenges for journalists covering the siege — including Romanenko — has been finding facts in a city where the telephone service has been nearly wiped out. A channel on the social media site Telegram called “Mariupol Now” has been publishing images of the siege sent from residents with depleted phone batteries in the few places where they can still find service.
“In Mariupol, there are some points where you can catch a signal, and people know where they are and go there to make short phone conversations,” said Romanenko, who writes under her maiden name. “But there is nowhere to charge in town because there is no electricity, so you can’t call them yourself.”
Romanenko’s site this week shared some images that did make it through: bodies lying on city streets because residents were afraid to go out and pick them up; the ruins of the children’s hospital struck by Putin’s forces; and testimony from an employee of another hospital who said she was looking after dozens of patients including infants, children, pregnant women and people fleeing bombed buildings, and said that baby food and medicines were running out.
Romanenko is mostly posting herself, as her prewar staff of five others dispersed when the war started: two joined Ukraine’s territorial defence forces and another two fled west to escape the war. She does not know where the fifth is.
This week, the ICRC, which normally posts dry communiqués to project impartiality, took the unusual step of publishing a recording of a desperate call made by satellite phone from one of its employees working in Mariupol.
Sasha Volkov told the Swiss-based NGO that all the town’s shops and pharmacies had been looted four to five days ago, and that many people reported “having no food for children” and needed medicines too, especially for diabetes and cancer.
“People start to attack each other for food,” said Volkov, a deputy head of sub-delegation for the global humanitarian group. “People started to ruin someone’s car to take the gasoline out. People are getting sick already from the cold.”
Volkov said he was boiling water from a stream for drinking, and had located a black market for vegetables, but meat was unavailable.
Alongside journalists, human rights fact-finders, including from the UN, are struggling to piece together a full picture of the toll of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, because many of the conflict zones are either impossible to visit or too dangerous.
City officials in Mariupol this week said they had confirmed the deaths of 1,300 people.
“These are the ones they could count,” Romanenko said. “A lot of people are buried under destroyed buildings, and they can’t count them. There are still bodies lying around everywhere.”
Gurin, the MP, told the FT that Russia had decided to resort to “mass murder” because it had thus far been unable to win the war. He said the world outside Ukraine should now change its response accordingly, including by bolstering Ukraine’s missile and air defences.
“You reacted to a war and we appreciate and thank you for that,” Gurin said “Now all the world has to react to a mass murder: that’s what’s going on now. It’s hunger in the middle of Europe.”
Satellite images: Maxar Technologies
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