More than forty days of intense bombing and fierce fighting. The city of Mariupol, on the shore of the Azov Sea in south-eastern Ukraine, is a prime target for Russian and Separatist forces. Both a strategic port and a symbolic point in the war waged by Vladimir Putin, Mariupol resists at all costs, despite the bombing and the tragedies that have unfolded since the siege began. Franceinfo looks back on the great events that marked this martyred and almost completely destroyed city.
A seat set up quickly
Mariupol is a Russian-speaking city with a population of about 450,000. This strategic port is now forming “The last barrier that the Russians could break before the total occupation of southern and eastern Ukraine”, summarizes Carole Grimaud-Potter, Professor of Russian Geopolitics. Its capture would therefore allow the Russians to consolidate their territorial gains and connect Crimea, annexed in 2014, to the Donbass.
“Marioupol is also an important location for the Azov Battalion, this group labeled by Moscow as a neo-Nazi who are the enemy to be defeated.”adds journalist Luc Lacroix, correspondent for France 2 in Moscow and special envoy for Ukraine.
“The capture of Mariupol would be a double victory for Russia: that against the Azov Battalion and the capture of one of the largest cities in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.”Luc Lacroix, reporter
Very quickly, therefore, the Russian armed forces and the pro-Russian separatists concentrated their attacks on Mariupol. On the 1st of March “Half the town doeshas more electricity and communication will be bad”, a resident tells RFI. The situation worsens the next day “by the hour”, a resident told AFP. There is a shortage of water and food in the shops, public transport has stopped… On March 3, the city’s mayor, Vadym Boïtchenko, assures us that the Russians and the separatists “Bridges and trains destroyed to prevent us from bringing out our wives, children and old people. They prevent us from getting supplies. They are trying to impose a blockade.”.
Besieged, the civilians had little choice but to seek shelter, hoping that a lull would allow them to flee the fighting. Their situation fuels tensions during negotiations between the warring factions and countries like France and Turkey that want to mediate.
First, Moscow puts on the table the creation of humanitarian corridors for civilians… to Russia and Belarus. A well thought out suggestion “completely immoral” from Kyiv. Pro-Russian forces accuse Ukraine of holding back civilians “in the cities” and use it “directly and indirectly, also as a human shield, which of course is a war crime”reported Le figaro.
The first mass evacuations finally took place in early April. On board buses and private cars, more than 3,000 people managed to leave the city and reach Zaporijia, 230 km northwest, in unsecured convoys. France Télévisions reporter Maryse Burgot meets refugees traumatized by the violence they have experienced.
Among the civilians who managed to escape the hell of Mariupol are children who have been badly scarred by the war. “The children seem to have gotten used to the bombings and the monastic life”notes a pediatrician from Zaporizhia who was interviewed by The world : “The symptoms are mild – diarrhea, vomiting – but it’s the fear that’s most noticeable. They often refuse blood tests.”
A blow to a motherhood that outrages
March 9 put Mariupol on the map of Ukraine for the world public. In the early afternoon, a massive explosion devastated three buildings. The Ukrainian governor of the Donetsk region quickly announced that medical facilities in Mariupol were affected. From the videos published on social networks, the France Télévisions image verification unit identifies the site of the powerful detonation: the city’s municipal hospital No. 3, which houses a children’s hospital and a maternity hospital.
A children’s clinic #Mariupol took a lot of damage today.
Video filmed here: 47.09656912368629, 37.533339605420785 pic.twitter.com/upLFbWtYg4
– The FranceTV Revealers (@RevelateursFTV) March 9, 2022
Images of stunned victims, including pregnant women, go around the world. After an initial estimate of 17 injured, the municipality announces that three people died in the bombing, including a child.
The international reactions are unanimous. “This bombing of the Mariupol maternity hospital is inhumane, heinous, cruel and tragic”, explains Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, to franceinfo. For his part, Emmanuel Macron condemned “with the greatest firmness” a “unworthy act of war”while the UN reminds that health facilities in Ukraine should not do this “Never Be A Target”.
On the Moscow side, we wave the map of “fake news”. That’s what the Russian army claims “The alleged airstrike is a total stage set-up for the purpose of provocation to keep up the anti-Russian incitement of the western public”, and specifically argues that an influencer was paid to play the wrong victim. Which a careful observation of the scene allows to deny.
Luc Lacroix and his team were not in this maternity ward but in another one that still stands, where several babies have been born since the siege began. He has strong memories of that account and of meeting a woman who had just given birth: “She told us she feels guilty of having borne a war child.”
A theater housing civilians has been leveled
A week later, on March 16, the city’s playhouse was bombed. In the afternoon, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba published impressive photos before and after the explosion. We see thick white smoke billowing from the building that is not adjacent to any other, raising the question of the possibility of a miss-shooting.
Another terrible war crime in Mariupol. Massive Russian attack on the drama theater where hundreds of innocent civilians were hiding. The building is now completely ruined. The Russians had no way of knowing that this was a civilian safe house. Save Mariupol! Stop Russian War Criminals! pic.twitter.com/bIQLxe7mli
— Dmytro Kuleba (@DmytroKuleba) March 16, 2022
Local authorities fear the worst as the building serves as a sanctuary for more than one “a thousand people”, according to the town hall. A photo of the theater consulted and analyzed by AFP shows that the word “Children” was written on the sidewalk, in large white letters and in Russian, on the front and back of the building. A description corroborated by a satellite snapshot taken on March 14 and shared by the American space company Maxar Technologies.
In The world, a theater director, Liudmyla Kolossovytch, who was able to flee the city, tells the stories of her collaborators who remained there. “It was pretty well organized. About sixty theater employees had taken refuge there and were helping the volunteers. Stage costumes were distributed to those who felt cold. The sets and the backs of the spectators’ seats were burned to keep warm.” One of her former employees explained to her in detail how she escaped from the enclosure. “She said to me, ‘You can’t imagine, I had to step on dead bodies!'”
After the bombing, Joe Biden accuses Vladimir Putin of “War criminal”. As for the attack on the maternity ward, Russia denies being behind it, blaming the Azov battalion. According to the Mariupol authorities, three hundred people died under the rubble of the theater. Impossible to make an accurate assessment, assures Luc Lacroix, who was able to get inside because the Russian and separatist forces “have denied access to the basements within us say it’s for our safety”.
A final battle at the Azovstal factory
After forty days of siege, the city is devastated. The living conditions of the surviving residents, whose neighborhoods were taken over by Russian and pro-Russian forces, are improving a little. “You can leave your homeland”notes Luc Lacroix.
“The fighting is a little further away and while there is still no water, electricity or heating, food aid is arriving in boxes marked with the Z of the Russian offensive and being distributed.”Luc Lacroix, reporter
The port appears to have come under the control of pro-Russian separatists from Donetsk and more than a thousand “Ukrainian soldiers voluntarily laid down their arms and surrendered”, the Russian Defense Ministry announced on Wednesday. Qualified Information “Russian propaganda” by the city’s Deputy Mayor.
The last Ukrainian forces are holed up in the huge Azovstal factory, which is located by the sea and has several underground levels. “There would be between 2,000 and 3,000 resisting and circulating in this maze, but they are completely cut off from the rest of the Ukrainian forces.”, believes Luc Lacroix. Constructed of solid concrete in the Soviet era, these bombed buildings seem impossible to demolish.
“The Russian army and pro-Russian forces are therefore advancing building by building, there is a lot of street fighting with automatic weapon fire.”Luc Lacroix, reporter
After more than a month of heavy shelling and fighting, more than 20,000 people died during the offensive in Mariupol, according to regional authorities. “We completely ignore the results of this fight, no one can know.annoys Luc Lacroix. There were obviously dead people, but you have to be very modest with what you see and what you know. No one can see the situation globally.” One thing is certain, the France 2 journalist concludes, “the town is practically taken, his demise seems inevitable”.