Fears grow for Mariupol

The U.S. and its allies are bracing themselves over the fate of Mariupol, the southern city at the center of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal assault on Ukraine’s east — and a place described by observers from the United Nations as the center of hell given its bombardment.

Conquering the city is viewed as Putin’s primary objective, as complete Russian control would establish a key lifeline to resupply troops seeking to take over Ukraine’s eastern territory. 

Besieged Ukrainian forces holding out in a steel plant represent the last stand of soldiers defending the city.

They have pleaded with the U.S. and other powers for help, but the Biden administration and its allies have refused to engage U.S. and NATO forces directly in Ukraine to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia.

As a result, while the United States has increased the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine, it has generally only been able to observe the horrors of Mariupol from afar.

“We are watching what’s happening in Mariupol from the Balkans, it is absolutely heartbreaking to see what is happening,” Sen. Chis Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters during a call from Pristina, Kosovo.

“It is also exhilarating to watch the Ukrainians mount what is a heroic defense and I think we’re glad to see a new round of assistance announced at a critical – both logistical and moral – moment in this fight,” he added.

The near-complete destruction of the city, under a two-month Russian assault, is described as representing the most extreme case of war crimes allegedly committed by Russian forces. 

“We’ve seen the horrifying images and heard the credible reports of atrocities from a growing number of cities across Ukraine – including Mariupol,” a State Department spokesperson said. 

“These images and reports suggest these atrocities are not the act of rogue units; rather, they are part of a deeply disturbing pattern of reports of abuse across all areas where Russia’s forces are engaged.”  

Only a few thousand civilians are believed to have evacuated over the weeks long-assault among a population estimated to be between 150,000 and 300,000, with humanitarian access and communication in and out of the city nearly impossible.

“Many civilians, among them women, children and older persons, reportedly still remain trapped in areas of Mariupol besieged by the Russian forces,” Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement on Wednesday.

“For many weeks, they have been surviving under dire conditions and with scant supplies. They should immediately be provided with humanitarian corridors to enable them to evacuate to safety.”

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, described international humanitarian law being “tossed aside” amid Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

She added that while the U.N. has documented more than 5,000 civilian casualties across Ukraine, “we know the actual numbers are going to be much higher as the horrors inflicted in areas of intense fighting, such as Mariupol, come to light.” 

Mariupol’s Mayor Vadym Boychenko said an estimated 22,000 civilians have been killed in Mariupol, in a statement published by the city council on its Telegram channel. 

Boychenko also accused the Russians of putting between 3,000 and 9,000 bodies in a mass grave outside the city and published satellite images from the Maxar technology company purporting to show the trenches. 

“The biggest war crime of the 21st century was committed in Mariupol,” Boychenko said in a statement translated from Ukrainian, condemning it as genocide. “This is the new Babyn Yar,” he said, referring to a memorial site outside Kyiv that was the location of a Nazi massacre against more than 30,000 Ukrainian Jews.

Ukrainian city officials have also accused Russia of bringing in mobile crematoriums to incinerate the dead, reflecting the scale of death in the city and accusations that Russian forces are burning bodies to cover up alleged war crimes.  

Humanitarian agencies have been blocked from the city and, their convoys reportedly ransacked by Russian forces. 

Ukrainians who have managed to escape Mariupol have said that Russian forces blocking aid and information is part of the psychological assault on civilians.

“I knew why it was being done: To leave us completely helpless and hopeless, demoralized, and cut off from the outside world,” Alina Beskrovna, a Mariupol resident, wrote in a first-person account for the United Nations.

It took nearly a month for word to reach the Caritas humanitarian organization that two of their staff members and five family members had died in an attack near their offices. In a statement issued April 12, the Caritas Ukraine team said the staff members and their family came under tank fire while sheltering in the organization’s center.  

Hospitals, apartment buildings and shelters where civilians sought refuge marked the earliest documented casualties in Mariupol. This includes the alleged Russian bombing of a maternity hospital on April 9 that killed three people and injured 17.

The attack on the maternity hospital, and another attack on a Mariupol theater sheltering some 1,300 people were documented in an investigation of alleged Russian war crimes by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The OSCE said at least 150 civilians were killed in the theater bombing, and that the mission was unable to get information about the fate of the remaining people “because of the ongoing siege on Mariupol and the traumatization of the survivors, which made it impossible to interview many of them.”

The OSCE investigation delivered its report on April 5, days after some of the most shocking atrocities against civilians emerged following the retreat of Russian forces from the suburbs outside of Kyiv, in particular the village of Bucha. 

Martin Griffiths, the top United Nations official for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, sounded the alarm on Mariupol on April 5 during a meeting of the security council where members sat in shock over the atrocities committed in Bucha.

“For more than five weeks, the people of Mariupol have been caught up in the fighting. It is well documented that Mariupol is a center of hell,” he said.

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