March 31, 2022

Annihilating Mariupol: When is it a War Crime?

Annihilating Mariupol: When is it a War Crime?
Alla, 87, a survivor of Russia's devastation of Mariupol | Photograph by Haley Bader

Mariupol is reaching its limit.

Daily shelling. An attack on a maternity and children’s hospital, then claims from the Russian government that it was a military base. Dead children, a bombed art school. Bodies buried in parks, city squares, on street sides, in mass graves. A decimated theater that was sheltering over a thousand, and a hunt for the city’s last international journalists.

Russian radio is broadcasting lies that Ukrainian soldiers were the ones holding Mariupol hostage.

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The left shore of Mariupol | Mariupol Now on Telegram

Mariupol is now a virtual information desert. Basic amenities such as electricity and water were cut before the Russian military destroyed the cell phone, radio, and television towers. A lack of communication is causing panic inside the city and killing morale outside; without any connection, it is far easier for misinformation to thrive.

Alla, an 87-year-old survivor of the Mariupol siege who escaped to Congaz, Moldova, insisted again, and then again, that she was telling the “pure truth,” like her mother taught her.

Living underground for nearly three weeks due to ceaseless shelling, Alla wanted to sit in direct sunlight rather than retreat to the shade of the pavilion of the Moldovan hotel where her family found refuge.

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The hotel Gagauzi Sofrasi in Congaz, Moldova, where Alla and her family sheltered after escaping Mariupol | Photograph by Haley Bader

There were 25 people in the small basement room where they hid, and because they could not go outside, they used plastic bags as a toilet. Alla can barely walk, and when it came her turn to relieve herself, two young men would lift her above a bucket. “In front of everyone,” she said.

Crying, Alla explained how they had no light or water – they gathered it from the heating system. “It was brown, this water. They filled up [anything they had], let it settle.” She slept on a wooden board covered in knots, her spine rubbing against them. “There must be a wound, how it hurts…”

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The supermarket Shchyryy Kum in Mariupol | Mariupol Now on Telegram

Mariupol, located on the Azov Sea, is a strategic port city. Occupying the city would give Russia control of a land bridge between the separatist region of Donbass and the annexed territory of Crimea, and thus power over 80 percent of the Black Sea coast. Moreover, Russian control of the territory would eliminate Ukraine’s use of this port, which is a hub for steel, corn, and coal exports.

Losing the city may also hobble the morale of Ukraine’s fighting forces.

Denis Hulai, 24, and his family also managed to flee the city on March 20. While before the war, Mariupol was “one of the most beautiful and modern cities,” Denis said, it is now “just terrible.” Corpses have been lying in front of his house since March 8.

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The Ilyicha Steel Plant in Mariupol | Wikimedia Commons

The atrocities committed in Mariupol may be heinous enough to be judged as war crimes. Such offenses include intentional attacks on civilians, destruction of infrastructure civilians depend on to survive, and neglecting to care for the sick or injured. Specific examples of abuses in Mariupol are the bombing of a theater with the word “children” marked on its grounds and possibly the use of cluster bombs within the city’s limits.

“Marauders stole the food [in the city], and the shops that remained intact were somehow still selling [goods] using reserves [of stock] that could not be replenished due to the enemy ring around the city,” Denis said. “The Russians did not let humanitarian aid in.” Many who remain in Mariupol are now sick from lack of food, water, and medicine.

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A residency a little past Grushevskaya Street in Mariupol | Mariupol Now on Telegram

When you leave the city, Denis said, “[you need to] be sure to hang white ribbons on the car and write that civilians [are inside].”

“I drove almost all over the city except for the left-bank district… absolutely everything was destroyed. There were bursts of machine guns on Kirova Street, the city center was shelled,” Denis explained.

“We drove in a column and a shell fell literally 100 to 150 meters from our car. [There are] people walking with bags to the checkpoint, a lot of homeless people, various marginalized individuals, a huge amount of burnt military equipment, a crazy number of cars smashed.”

It is unsure how much longer Mariupol will stand, as its mayor has called for a full evacuation.


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