Under Siege in Mariupol

A family describes the “hell” of days under Russian bombardment without water, fuel or contact with the outside world.

Under Siege in Mariupol

A family describes the “hell” of days under Russian bombardment without water, fuel or contact with the outside world.

A charred car hit by several rockets in Mariupol.
A charred car hit by several rockets in Mariupol. © Darvik Photography
Thursday, 24 March, 2022

When a Russian missile smashed into the community pool centre only a few hundred metres away from their apartment in Mariupol, Anna and her family knew it was time to go.

“The sound was really loud. I don’t have words to describe our feelings,” Anna, 17, said. “It was a panic, and even people who didn’t want to started to leave. From that moment, we understood it was possible the bombs could destroy our home.”

Anna and her parents, Sergei and Natalia, had endured life under siege in in their home for two weeks.

“It was terrible, it was hell,” Anna said.

There was no water, electricity, heating or mobile connection. No petrol. The shops were closed and food supplies were decreasing, but no one had much appetite.

Cooking was done on a makeshift grill in the courtyard in front of the apartment – soup, potatoes, canned food and lots of porridge, eaten, shared and traded with neighbours for other goods.

Cigarettes, when they could be found – at almost seven times the normal price – were also shared, one smoke among four people.

Most time was spent in the cold and the dark on mattresses in their hallway. Other doors in the apartment were kept closed and sandbagged with sofa cushions in the vain hope that they would act as a buffer in a potential explosion.

 “No one could imagine such a barbaric bombing of our city.”

Hours were spent every day walking outside in danger with bottles to collect water, for drinking, for cooking, for the toilet, or foraging for firewood.

With company on such trips, there was confidence. But when the planes came to bomb the centre of the city, there was fear. 

Every day, the air strikes increased and edged closer.

Sergei, 48, is a professor at the local university. His wife, Natalia, is a school teacher. He knows their experience in their working-class neighbourhood was better than some.

“We were the local intellectuals,” said Sergei with a self-deprecating smile. Mariupol is a port city and also a factory town, hosting a major Metinvest steelworks, owned by Ukraine’s richest man. There is a plant facility a short drive away in their district north of the town centre, mostly populated by factory staff.  

Unlike many others, Sergei’s family had a radio with batteries. There was no local news or information, but they could access national broadcasts, and this made Sergei popular, sharing updates with neighbours when they met outside.

Anna, worried about her state examinations, made her father teach her history while they lay in the corridors; of all things, tales of the old lands of Kievan Rus, the medieval federation that encompassed part of modern-day Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. But it was not a time for reading, and many books from the professor’s shelves were sacrificed for the fire.

It was much colder, if marginally safer, inside the building than out.

“We felt like Squid Game – who will survive,” says Sergei, referring to the Korean Netflix terror series about contestants trapped in a deadly competition.

Their district did not bear the brunt of the destruction as elsewhere in the city. Some neighbouring apartment blocks suffered damage, but their modest building – five stories with five apartments per floor – was not hit, and they never saw anyone killed in bombings.

They knew about the strike on the town’s famous theatre from the radio, but that was five kilometres away. They had no information about their relatives and friends, only people in the immediate vicinity.

Anna’s parents let her meet a few friends just in the next-door buildings, which helped share news and pass the time. 

The strong neighbourhood community also helped. Mariupol steelworkers had previously withstood Russia; in the 2014 conflict, with Russian-backed separatists seizing government buildings, Ukrainian forces withdrew. The plant and workers organised into local patrols, removing roadblocks in the city, and ultimately cooperating with government forces to restore order.

Now, as the Russian attacks on Mariupol increased, the local authority presence disappeared.

“Most of the people thought it would be like 2014, and that’s why people stayed,” said Sergei. “Some provocations, some shelling in some districts. The mayor and others told us to stay calm, that Mariupol was protected and everything would be calm." 

Yet by early March, there was a vacuum of any control, with no police or military to be seen.

“People were looting the shops and taking anything they wanted, because they understood there was no authority, no one to protect us,” he said. “We saw one woman taking five coats. She wasn’t that cold. They took things because they could. It could happen in any city.”

Some days later, police appeared, broke open food shops that had been shuttered and told people to take what they needed.

Once the police came to their neighbourhood to hand out food. A queue of 400 people formed, but all they had was cookies.

Otherwise, Sergei says there was no information, support or other assistance from the authorities.

 The neighbourhood held together, though.

 At one point, a man showed up in the yard with a working generator, and let everyone come to charge their phones, which they could at least use as flashlights.

“People who hadn’t been friendly before were helping each other out,” says Sergei. Natalia and others visited the elderly, to bring them food and water and see if they were managing.

Sergei’s aunt had died recently, before the war, and he had access to her nearby apartment, which had a lot of canned goods and other items.

Nonetheless, war claimed its victims. A friend’s mother, 65, died because she was diabetic and could not obtain insulin. They buried her immediately in the yard, without ceremony.

The biggest task of the day was water. Sergei walked 20 minutes to a spring, but the line of people meant the wait could be more than two hours – a long time to be exposed outdoors.

“It made us very nervous,” Natalia said. Sometimes they just melted snow.

 Later, Sergei and a friend found another water source, 20 minutes in another direction.

“It was by the cemetery, and people thought it might not be safe to drink. But there was no wait, so we took our water from there,” Sergei said.

The most important solidarity came in the panicked moments when they had to leave. All at once, everyone wanted to go, but few had petrol in their vehicles.

Amazingly, a neighbour they did not know had a large car with fuel, with space for three, and happy to include the family cat, Nora. They bundled some items together and quickly headed off.   

Even after their experience, seeing the moonscape their town had become was a shock as they drove through the centre for the first time. 

Buildings and housing blocks were utterly destroyed, bomb fragments and other ordinance. Graves with wooden markers dotted in yards. Here and there, a body laid out on the street.

When they saw the beloved theatre completely destroyed, Natalia finally broke into tears. 

“No one could imagine such a barbaric bombing of our city,” Sergei said. 

There was only one road out, to the Russian-controlled village of Manhush, normally a 20-minute drive. Traffic was enormous, and it took more than seven hours.

A local family put them up for the night. The next day they embarked on the 1,200 kilometre journey westward, to the relative safety of Lviv.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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