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 Mariupol 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 do not even know about. This is not 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 could not 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 armored 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-ton 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.
Zelenskiy renewed his call – so far denied by NATO – for an immediate no-fly zone over Ukraine’s skies. The world was “losing its humanity”, he wrote.
Other photos taken from inside Mariupol over the past two days confirm a humanitarian disaster is taking place, with the EU, the US and the UK seemingly able to do nothing.
They show blackened and destroyed apartment buildings, several still smouldering; burnt-out cars; and streets filled with debris. Bodies lay on pavements covered by rugs or sheets.
Local authorities still control the city center. The worst shelling has taken place in western districts closest to Russian troops including Primorskiy and the port area, once home to Ukraine’s small Sea of Azov naval fleet. With little food left, desperate civilians have started looting shops, smashing glass and clambering through windows.
The city has distributed bottled water to women and children. Orlov said supplies of formula milk had run out, with about 3,000 babies unfed. Families are sleeping in freezing cellars. A few residents are able to charge mobile phones on city council generators. But for most, contact with the outside world has stopped.
Writing on Facebook, Mariupol resident Angela Timchenko said there was “no electricity, no communication, no gas, no medical care and no food. Looting is on the rise. There are crazy mums looking for food and nappies. Let’s help each other whenever possible. ”
She added: “Yesterday I was in the city. There were bonfires burning near all the houses and food was being prepared… to all who left our children to die, burn in hell. I heard a little boy ask his mum: ‘Will the rockets spark today?’ ”
Timchenko said she had lost 3.5kg and was running back and forth from her apartment on the eighth floor of a Mariupol block, where she lived with her family. “The baby understands if you raise your voice a little we need to run for cover,” she wrote poignantly.
A few days ago, an activist Anatoliy Lozar had described conditions in Mariupol as “hell”. The city had become a new Stalingrad, he said. On Wednesday, calls to his two phones failed to connect. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said Mariupol was “besieged by Russian invaders” and in dire need of help.
“Mariupol is on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe. No humanitarian convoy can get to the city left without water, heating & electricity, ”he tweeted.
The humanitarian corridor did function in the north-eastern city of Sumy, where civilians were able to leave for a second day in a row. They were able to exit in private cars. Several hundred international students trapped by the fighting left on Tuesday in buses for Poltava, west of Kharkiv.
For those who remained in Sumy conditions were grim. Its mayor Oleksandr Lysenko said since Monday Russia had carried out four indiscriminate bombing raids, which killed civilians and children.
The latest attack in the darkness of Wednesday morning targeted a downtown residential area. “We managed to dig six people out, still alive, and a dog,” Lysenko said.
Two convoys had managed to leave on Tuesday and were allowed to go through an enemy cordon. But the Russians used the second convoy as a human shield in order to advance their tanks, he said.
“They shoot at civilian cars. Some cars get through, others do not, ”he said. “It’s a matter of luck.”
He added: “They shoot at civilians trying to flee. The Russians have no humanity. ”