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Andrei Marusov, a 50-year-old resident of the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, has been nearly killed twice since Russia invaded Ukraine.
In the early morning hours of March 12, a missile from a Russian jet reduced the top two floors of Marusov’s nine-story apartment building to rubble. “Ten meters below and I wouldn’t speak to you now,” he said by phone from Kyiv.
The city, with a pre-war population of more than 400,000, has been completely surrounded by Russian troops since early March. In mid-March, Mariupol was without electricity, running water, heating and gas. Cell phone networks were disrupted and fighting raged in many parts of the city.
“People, myself included, put buckets under gutters to collect rainwater. When snow fell, people collected it and melted it in bonfires,” Marusov said.
When the power went out, almost all shops closed. “After two or three days the looting started. When people started stealing pharmacies, it was a catastrophic hit. Around a third of the city’s population are retirees, for whom access to medicine is a matter of life and death.”
The situation in the city is becoming “more and more of a nightmare,” he said. “The Russians seem to have destroyed our weak air defense system and they have started shelling the whole city with impunity.”
“There are shelters, but you can die under bombs five times before you reach one,” said Marusov, former head of the Ukraine unit of global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.
Ukrainian authorities could not persuade Russian troops to agree to humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians, and trapped residents had to flee in their vehicles or on foot with the help of volunteers.
According to Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of Donetsk region, around 50,000 people were rescued thanks to these efforts and transferred to the city of Zaporizhia, which is controlled by Ukrainian troops.
When the gas was shut off, people started cooking on open fires in their yards. “In the beginning it was kind of a surrealistic scenery, like the whole town was having a picnic. After a day or two it turned into a tragedy. People cooked in stairwells and felled trees in public parks for firewood,” Marusov said.
The humanitarian situation was worsened by the unusually cold weather, with temperatures as low as 15 degrees below zero.
The bloody tribute of the theater bombing
On Friday, Mariupol City Council said about 300 people were killed at the city’s drama theater where hundreds of civilians were taking shelter – the result of a March 16 Russian bombing raid.
“It’s hard to believe in this horror until the end. To the last, we want to believe that everyone managed to escape,” said the Council a statement. “But the words of those who were in the building at the time of this terrorist attack say otherwise.”
According to Marusov, the building offered shelter to so many people because “everyone said that in case of evacuation, the playhouse will take place, since this is a key point in the city center. Many women and children walked through the city to get there. There was a big basement and a foyer, there was enough space to hide.”
The Russian Defense Ministry has denied that its forces attacked the theater building, saying Russian troops avoid targeting civilians.
Kyrylenko told POLITICO that Russian forces were unable to take Mariupol and so they resorted to “the usual playbook – they have surrounded the city and are bombarding it with artillery and airstrikes.”
“These are by no means precision shots. The Russians want the destruction of all infrastructure and mass panic among the local population, which they will literally annihilate,” he said.
According to the latest statistics, available a week and a half ago, more than 2,300 people were killed in the city. But the real numbers are likely to be far worse.
“There are many more victims,” said Kyrylenko. “To know how many, we need a period of calm. We need to give the funeral services room to work so they can collect the bodies. At the moment it is not even possible to remove the bodies from the streets and give them a proper burial.
“The situation in the city is the darkest of hells,” the governor added.
Mariupol is an important strategic location for the Russians because it is a key city for creating a land-based corridor between Russian-held Crimea and regions in the east of the country controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Russia briefly seized the city in 2014 before being expelled.
A close touch with death
The second time Marusov was almost killed happened two days after the airstrike that hit his apartment building.
“For some reason the first two entrances to my building were on fire. I went to see if the fire would spread to my entrance,” he said. “The Russian troops were already there. They arrested me, searched me, found my smartphone with photos of the destruction in the city and a recording of one of the first Russian columns entering our district.”
After waiting several hours with his hands tied, a soldier guarding Marusov asked the MP what to do with him. “The officer said, ‘Send him away.’ That meant I would be shot.”
“And the soldier took me with him. A shiver ran down my spine. After walking about 100 meters it dawned on me, ‘This is it, I’m being taken away to be executed.’”
“I was thinking about my son. The soldier stood in front of me, his rifle aimed at my chest. I thought, ‘It’s a good thing he’s shooting me in the chest and not in the stomach – that would hurt,'” Marusov recalled.
However, the soldier did not carry out the order and instead took Marusov to the basement of a neighboring house, where civilians were already taking shelter from the bombs. “They were supposed to be picked up the next day, but nobody did.”
“I left at 8 o’clock sharp. 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 checkpoints and had to wait for the curfew to end before he could travel.
One evening he slept on the side of the road when it was below zero.
“I lit a fire in the tiny forest, made a shelter out of some branches and melted snow to drink. It was a horrible night. I almost fell asleep several times. But I kept saying to myself, ‘You survived air raids, you escaped a gunshot — so get up, get some branches and don’t fall asleep.’”
In the first town he reached 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 areas under the control of the Ukrainian government.
On Thursday, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry called that the residents of Mariupol who survived Russian bombing and artillery shelling are now being “forcibly deported” to Russia.
“According to the available information, the Russian army forcibly deported about 6,000 residents of Mariupol to Russian filter camps to use them as hostages and to exert more political pressure on Ukraine,” the statement said.
https://www.politico.eu/article/survivor-story-darkest-hell-ukraine-mariupol/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication The Story of a Mariupol Survivor from the "Darkest of Hells" - POLITICO