Ukraine without Ukrainians

Luke Harding

Speaking via a blurry video connection, the deputy mayor of Mariupol painted a grim picture of life and death on Wednesday inside his besieged city.

Russian forces surrounded Mariu-pol a week ago. They have been shelling it “continuously” ever since, Sergiy Orlov said, in a call with the Guardian and other foreign media.

“They have used aviation, artillery, multiple rocket launchers, grads and other types of weapons we don’t even know about. This isn’t simply treacherous. It’s a war crime and pure genocide,” he said.

He added: “Vladimir Putin means to capture Mariupol whatever the human cost.”

By way of evidence, Orlov reeled off a list of civilian targets he said had so far been “annihilated”. They included numerous residential houses, Mariupol’s 600-bed maternity hospital No 9, the main administration service building, and the city’s giant Avostal metallurgical factory—once the workplace for 11,000 people.

He said 1,170 people had been killed. On Wednesday, municipal workers buried 47 victims in a mass grave.

“We couldn’t identify all of them,” Orlov said. The message from Moscow was chillingly clear, he suggested: “Putin intends to destroy Ukraine so he can have Ukraine without Ukrainians.”

Putin’s goals, he said, were proceeding at a terrifying pace. The city has spent the last eight days without heat, power, gas, or electricity. Russians parked up in tanks and armoured vehicles on Mariupol’s coastal outskirts had bombed all 15 power lines, Orlov said. On Monday, they blew up the gas connection.

“We sent a team of workers to repair the line. The Russians immediately shelled them. They had to leave,” he said.

Consequently, the city’s 400,000 residents were living in freezing “medieval conditions”, unthinkable in what was until two weeks ago a modern and “flourishing” city, with busy cafes and restaurants.

“The only way civilians can cook now is on open fires. People are fighting over firewood. They are happy that it’s cold and snowing. Snow means they have something to drink.”

“A six-year-old girl died of dehydration,” Orlov continued bitterly. “This is Europe, in 2022. How can that happen?” He added: “A lot of districts are devastated. They are dropping half-tonne bombs from the sky.”

Mariupol is one of several Ukrainian cities where Russia has promised to open so-called humanitarian corridors. The reality was the reverse, Orlov said. For the past five days Russia had shelled the agreed route and had even mined the road. It had set up a new checkpoint, he claimed, making evacuation to Zaporizhzhia—a city to the west under Ukrainian control—impossible.

The deputy mayor estimated about 200,000 people wanted to get out of Mariupol. The authorities were only able to take out about 2,000 to 3,000 residents a day, he said, on a battered fleet of 21 municipal buses. The Russians had flattened the others. They targeted the assembly evacuation points, with citizens understandably reluctant to leave their shelters.

Putin’s apparent dream of a “Russian world” minus Ukrainians was the product of a “sick imagination”, he said.

He pointed out that Mariupol had always been a diverse multicultural city, home to Ukrainian and Russian speakers as well as ethnic Greeks and Armenians. All were Ukrainian citizens, he said, adding that nobody cared what language you spoke.

“Half of those killed by Russian bombing are Russian-origin Ukrainians. This is Putin’s ‘peace’,” he said sardonically. The Ukrainian army would defend Mariupol until the last man, he said. If it did ultimately fall it would become a “ghost place”, he predicted, adding: “There is no Russian Mariupol. It’s going to be a desert.”

From Kyiv, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, tweeted photos of the airstrike on Wednesday at Mariupol’s maternity hospital and said people and children lay buried under the wreckage. The Guardian was unable to verify the allegation, but video published by the Associated Press showed several injured people at the site of the hospital attack.

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Vol 54, No. 39, March 27 - April 2, 2022