As Mariupol is bombed and besieged, those trapped fight to survive

Mr Eduard Zarubin stands in front of the private clinic where he worked before Mariupol was besieged. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LVIV (NYTIMES) - Dr Eduard Zarubin, a doctor, has lost everything. But he does still have his life.

His street is destroyed, and his city, the southern port of Mariupol, is so far the greatest horror of Russia's scorched-earth war against Ukraine. Russian missiles decimated a theatre that sheltered more than 1,000 people. Another attack hit an art school where children were hiding in the basement.

Water is so scarce that people are melting snow. Heating, electricity and gas have disappeared. People are chopping trees for firewood to fuel outdoor cooking stoves shared by neighbours. To walk from one street to another often means passing corpses, or fresh graves dug in parks or grassy medians.

On Sunday (March 20), Russia gave an ultimatum that Ukrainian fighters in the city must give up or face annihilation. Ukrainian officials refused.

Evacuation buses, including some carrying children, were shelled Monday, according to Ukrainian officials. Thousands of people have escaped the city, including Dr Zarubin, but more than 300,000 others remain, even as fighting has moved onto the streets of some neighbourhoods.

"If the war ends, and we win and get rid of them, then I think that there will be excursions in Mariupol, just like there are to Chernobyl," he said of the abandoned site of a Soviet-era nuclear calamity. "So that people understand what kind of apocalyptic things can occur."

The destruction of Mariupol, one of Ukraine's largest cities, has been a siege and a relentless bombardment that for the last three weeks has left its population cut off from the outside world.

What news does arrive comes from grainy cellphone videos taken by people still inside the city, from bulletins from Ukrainian officials or from the accounts of people like Dr Zarubin, who have witnessed the destruction of everything they had.

Dr Zarubin, a urologist, lived in a beautiful house on the Left Bank, one of Mariupol's elite neighbourhoods. He had a comfortable life and the expectation that he had worked hard enough to have a secure future.

But after the shelling began, he had to walk nearly 8 miles (12.8km) a day with his son, Viktor, just to find water for their family. Later, as desperation set in, Dr Zarubin said that people began looting shops and walking away with appliances or drugs from pharmacies.

"Every day there was something new," Dr Zarubin said of the destruction. "The changes came so fast and were so dynamic, as if we were in a film. You go out, and you don't recognise the city. You go out again the next morning, and again you don't recognise it."

Even as much of Ukraine still has Internet access and cellphone service, Mariupol is without either.

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"You are sitting in an information vacuum," said Ms Irina Peredey, a 29-year-old municipal worker. "You don't understand what is happening or whether there is any help coming into the city or not," she said.

Moscow has refused to allow any humanitarian assistance to reach the city.

"I sometimes saw people carry water that was yellow and brown, but there were no options," Ms Peredey recalled.

She herself began collecting snow and rain water to cook. "It is really very difficult when you don't understand how long it will last or what will happen next, so you use every opportunity to somehow collect something."

The rules and institutions that had governed their community had broken down so fast. Police had stopped working, as had emergency services, even the ambulances, which had too much work and could not navigate the giant holes in the road created by missiles and bombs. A post office was repurposed as a morgue.

Mr Sergey Sinelnikov, a 58-year-old pharmaceutical entrepreneur, moved to the city centre after the shelling began, believing like many others that it would be spared intensive bombing. Instead, the district came under heavy attack, too.

He watched as a burning curtain fell from the top floor of a nine-storey building across the street, where his parents had once lived.

Firefighters arrived at the scene but did nothing. Mr Sinelnikov wondered if they were lacking water. The fire raged for three days, destroying all 144 apartments.

Mr Sinelnikov and Dr Zarubin both left March 16, the same day that Russian forces bombed the theatre, one of the city's biggest public shelters. The world "children" was written in large Cyrillic letters outside the site to make it visible for pilots flying over.

Even as residents have been desperate to escape to the west, Russian soldiers have taken "between 4,000 and 4,500 Mariupol residents forcibly across the border to Taganrog," a city in south-western Russia, according Mr Pyotr Andryuschenko, an assistant to Mariupol's mayor.

Other former Mariupol residents also told The New York Times similar stories of friends who had been taken into Russia.

Mr Sinelnikov, whose father was from Russia, said that when the war started his Russian relatives invited him to stay in Bryansk, about 250 miles south-west of Moscow. He refused.

"If I go to Russia, I will feel pain and humiliation," he said. He has fled instead to western Ukraine. "Here, there is only pain that will pass. There will be no humiliation."

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Ms Peredey, the municipal worker, said her escape took more than 11 hours as she passed through 15 Russian army checkpoints. For two or three days afterward, she did not want to eat, even though food had been rationed when she was in Mariupol. Then, she said, she began to feel hungry every hour.

Dr Zarubin, the doctor, said nothing would ever be the same. One day when he was still in Mariupol, he said he walked 20 miles to check on their house on the Left Bank. He passed corpses left on the side of the road. When he reached his house, it was one of the few buildings still standing. Everything else was rubble.

"I was born on this street," he said. "I knew all these neighbours when they were young, how they looked after their houses, how they pruned their trees.

"It was all destroyed in two weeks."

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