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Andrei Marusov, a 50-year-old resident of the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, has nearly been killed twice since Russia invaded Ukraine.
In the early hours of March 12, a missile from a Russian jet reduced the two upper stories of Marusov’s nine-floor residential building to rubble. “Ten meters lower, and I wouldn’t be speaking to you now,” he said by telephone from Kyiv.
The city with a pre-war population of more than 400,000 has been completely encircled by Russian troops since early March. By mid-March, Mariupol was without electricity, running water, heating and gas. Mobile networks were disrupted and battles raged in many neighborhoods.
“People, myself included, put buckets under gutters to collect rain water. When snow fell, people collected it and melted it in bonfires,” Marusov said.
When electricity was cut, nearly all shops closed. “After two or three days, the looting started. When people started to steal from pharmacies, it was a catastrophic blow. Around a third of the city’s population is pensioners, and access to medicines is a question of life or death for them.”
The situation in the city is becoming “more and more of a nightmare,” he said. “The Russians seem to have destroyed our feeble air defense system, and they’ve started shelling the whole city with impunity.”
“There are shelters, but you can die five times under bombs before you reach one,” said Marusov, former head of Ukrainian unit of global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.
Ukrainian authorities have not been able to get Russian troops to agree to humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians and trapped residents have been forced to flee in their vehicles or on foot, assisted by volunteers.
According to Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the Donetsk region, around 50,000 people have been rescued and transferred to the city of Zaporizhia, which is controlled by Ukrainian troops, thanks to such efforts.
When the gas was turned off, people started cooking on open fires in their courtyards. “To begin with, it was a sort of surrealistic scene, as if the whole city was out picnicking. After a day or two, it became a tragedy. People were cooking in stairwells and chopping down trees in public parks for firewood,” Marusov said.
The humanitarian situation was worsened by the unusually frigid weather, with temperatures dipping to as low as 15 degrees below zero.
The bloody toll of the theater bombing
On Friday, the Mariupol city council said that about 300 people were killed in the city’s drama theater, where hundreds of civilians were sheltering — the result of a Russian bomb attack on March 16.
“Until the last, it is hard to believe in this horror. Until the very last, we want to believe that everyone managed to escape,” the council said in a statement. “But the words of those who were inside the building at the time of this terrorist act say otherwise.”
According to Marusov, the building provided shelter to so many people because “everyone said that if there is an evacuation, it will be from the drama theater, because this is a key point in the city center. A lot of women and children walked across the city to get there. There was a large basement and a foyer, there was enough space to hide.”
The Russian defense ministry has denied that its forces struck the theater building, saying that Russian troops avoid targeting civilians.
Kyrylenko told POLITICO that the Russian forces were unable to seize Mariupol, and so they resorted to “the usual playbook — they’ve surrounded the city and are bombarding it with artillery and airstrikes.”
“These are by no means precision strikes. The Russians want the destruction of all infrastructure and mass panic among the local population, whom they are literally annihilating,” he said.
According to the latest statistics, which are from a week-and-a-half ago, more than 2,300 people have been killed in the city. But the real numbers are likely to be much worse.
“There are many more victims,” Kyrylenko said. “In order to know how many, we need a period of quiet. We need to give the funeral services space to work, so they can collect the bodies. Right now, it’s not even possible to clear the corpses from the streets and give them proper burials.
“The situation in the city is the darkest of hells,” the governor added.
Mariupol is an important strategic site for the Russians because it is a key city for the creation of a land-based corridor between Russian-occupied Crimea and the regions in the east of the country that are under the control of Russian-backed separatists. Russia briefly seized the city in 2014, before being pushed out.
A close brush with death
The second time Marusov was nearly killed came two days after the airstrike that hit his apartment building.
“The first two entrances to my building were on fire, for some reason. I went to see if the fire would spread to my entrance,” he said. “The Russian troops were already there. They detained me, searched me, found my smartphone with photos of the destruction in the city and a record of the entry of one of the first Russian columns into our district.”
After waiting for several hours with his hands tied, a soldier guarding Marusov asked the military police officer what to do with him. “The officer said: ‘Dispatch him.’ This meant I was going to be shot.”
“And the soldier took me away. I got a chill down my spine. After walking 100 meters or so, it dawned on me: ‘This is it, I’m being led away for execution.’”
“I thought about my son. The soldier was standing in front of me, his rifle pointing at my chest. I thought, ‘Good that he’s going to shoot me in the chest and not in the stomach — that would hurt,’” Marusov recalled.
However, the soldier didn’t carry out the order and instead took Marusov to the basement of a neighboring house, where there were already civilians sheltering from the bombs. “They were supposed to get picked up the next day, but no one did.”
“I left at 8 a.m. promptly. And I decided to leave Mariupol, otherwise I would be killed there,” he said.
The road to Zaporizhia, 230 kilometers from Mariupol, took Marusov three days of walking and hitchhiking. He was forced to stop at dozens of Russian check points, and he had to wait for curfews to end before he could travel.
On one evening, he stopped for the night on the roadside in sub-zero temperatures.
“I lit a fire in the tiny forest, I made myself a shelter from some branches, and melted snow for drinking. It was a terrible night. I nearly fell asleep several times. But I kept telling myself: ‘You survived airstrikes, you escaped being shot — so get up, go get some branches, and don’t fall asleep.’”
In the first town he came to outside the Russian encirclement of Mariupol, Nikolske, he saw buses waiting to evacuate people to the Russian cities of Rostov-on-Don and Taganrog. However, Marusov was determined to reach the territories under the control of the Ukrainian government.
On Thursday, the Ukrainian foreign ministry said that Mariupol residents who survived Russian bombing and artillery shelling are now being “forcibly deported” to Russia.
“According to the information available, the Russian army has forcibly deported about 6,000 Mariupol residents to Russian filtration camps in order to use them as hostages and put more political pressure on Ukraine,” the statement said.