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Ukrainians Flee Mariupol as Russian Forces Push to Take Port City – The Wall Street Journal

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine—As the battle for Mariupol intensifies, civilians fleeing the conflict told of escalating violence as Russian and Ukrainian forces fought street by street through the downtown of the historic port city and Russian airstrikes, artillery and mortar rounds have gutted entire neighborhoods.

Hundreds of people from Mariupol arrive in Zaporizhzhia daily in a grim procession of cars, with shattered windscreens and shrapnel scars speaking to the ordeal endured by their passengers. Taped to the windows are homemade signs reading “children” in Russian, and strips of white material tied to the door handles, scant protection from the war raging over their city.

They pull into the parking lot of a hardware store on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia—now a way station for people fleeing the city on their way to safety further west, or abroad—part of the more than 10 million people uprooted by the fighting.

Nearly a month since Russia invaded Ukraine, it is on the verge of taking Mariupol in what would be the first major city to fall under its control. But Mariupol is a shattered prize.

“Everything fell apart,” Natalia Poluiko said on Tuesday, hours after arriving in Zaporizhzhia with her 8-year-old daughter and five other relatives. “We had a choice to wait there until a bomb fell on our building, or risk trying to get out.”

Burning apartment buildings in Mariupol, Ukraine, a focus of the Russian offensive.

Photo: Maxar Technologies

Pro-Russian troops on a road near Mariupol, Ukraine, on Monday.

Photo: ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/REUTERS

The family fled Mariupol in two vehicles with their belongings strapped to the roof and a religious icon on the dashboard, praying for safe passage on the approach to each Russian checkpoint.

Mariupol has been a focus of the Russian offensive because it is a strategically important city linking Russian-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine with a swath of territory Moscow has captured in the south, and creating an arc containing much of the country’s Russian-speaking population.

The fighting around Mariupol has been under way since the opening days of Russia’s assault that began Feb. 24. The city has seen stepped-up levels of attack for about the past two weeks and as the battle moved closer to the city.

“They are basically wiping the city from the face of the earth,” said Andriy, 37, who took his chances during a lull in the bombardment on Monday and fled Mariupol with his wife and two children. Andriy, who declined to give his full name, said his ears had yet to adjust to the absence of constant shelling in the city he left behind. “It’s as though I’ve come back to life.”

Ukrainian military officials said Tuesday that those defending the town were able to destroy a patrol boat operating close to the city and a radio complex.

The wider battle lines across Ukraine have shifted little in recent days, with forces on both sides digging in. Ukrainian forces said they were regaining ground in some areas. Russia’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday its troops had made progress battling for towns along its lines of attack.

Russian forces violently dispersed crowds that were protesting their occupation of Kherson; satellite images showed continued destruction across Ukraine; Biden warned that Putin may use chemical weapons as the war continues. Photo: Reuters

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators have met repeatedly, with little apparent progress. Russia’s demands have included Kyiv relinquishing territory. Ukraine has said Russian troops needed to leave its country for any peace agreement to be reached.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, maintained his busy schedule of trying to rally international support for Ukraine. On Tuesday, he spoke with the pope and, separately, the Italian parliament.

Although Mariupol was always likely to be a target of Russia’s invasion, many residents stayed because they couldn’t believe the situation would get so bad. By the time they realized what was unfolding, it was too late.

The bombardment of the city of between 350,000 to 400,000 residents was growing heavier and closer by the day. Local officials say Russia has rained 50 to 100 bombs a day on Mariupol, destroying between 80% and 90% of the city. Ukraine rejected a Russian ultimatum to surrender the city this week.

Russian attacks flattened a maternity hospital in the city earlier this month. Attacks on a theater and an art school trapped hundreds of people sheltering from the fighting, local officials have said. The total number of fatalities at the sites remains uncertain.

More than a dozen residents who fled since last week described a desperate struggle to stay alive in a city where venturing outside meant exposure to being shot, shredded by artillery fire or obliterated in an airstrike.

A man cleared rubble Tuesday at a psychiatric hospital that was struck in Mykolaiv, Ukraine.

Photo: NACHO DOCE/REUTERS

Rescuers searched for survivors Monday in the debris of a Kyiv shopping center that was attacked.

Photo: Felipe Dana/Associated Press

As residents realized they were being encircled, panic set in. Store shelves emptied. Bread grew scarce. Desperate residents broke into supermarkets to get food and take anything else they could carry home. At first, security forces tried to stop them, but soon gave up trying to maintain law and order, and even helped distribute food from looted shops.

Toward the end of February, the power was cut. On March 2, internet connection was lost, then the phone network, then cooking gas and running water.

From the window of their fifth-floor apartment, Edgar Gevargian and his wife could see jets tearing through the sky overhead, and hear loud explosions. They decided to move to his parents’ house in another district of Mariupol where the shelling was less intense.

Days later, an explosive device landed a short distance from the house. A neighbor was blown apart when she was outside. Her husband collected the body parts. Mr. Gevargian and his wife left days later, joining a convoy of vehicles when the opportunity arose.

Ukrainian authorities said Tuesday they would continue working on evacuating people from Mariupol and surrounding areas hit by the advancing troops to the city of Zaporizhzhia, further northwest. Pickup points had been arranged in Mariupol and other points along the Sea of Azov, said Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk.

“We will definitely not leave anyone behind and we will continue to evacuate every day on the same schedule until we take everyone out,” she said.

Ukrainian servicemen at a funeral in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, on Tuesday.

Photo: Serhii Hudak/REUTERS

A member of pro-Russian forces in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Tuesday.

Photo: ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/REUTERS

She said 21 buses and trucks with humanitarian aid had left Zaporizhzhia for Mariupol and that authorities were considering delivering additional fuel supplies to the nearby city of Berdyansk to allow people to refuel cars to escape.

Some humanitarian corridors haven’t lasted amid the fighting, leaving people trapped and starved for food. “The reality is that right now the humanitarian system is entirely broken down,” said Steve Gordon, response adviser for the global humanitarian aid group Mercy Corps. “We are not seeing a high-functioning, coordinated international aid effort covering the whole of Ukraine like we often see in other conflict zones.”

Although the United Nations is getting aid through to some areas, he said many Ukrainians are only surviving through the support of small Ukrainian civil society organizations like church groups.

The Ukrainian government rejected Russia’s deadline to lay down weapons in Mariupol; a security camera captured the attack on a shopping center in Kyiv; the United Nations said the war has forced 10 million people to abandon homes. Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

For those caught in Mariupol, the situation has been desperate. Women and children largely stayed underground, while men ventured out to scavenge for food, find water and search for a phone signal to find out what was going on. They collected snow off the roofs of cars to melt for drinking water and cooked food on open fires in the yard, diving for cover at the whistle of incoming artillery.

Dmitro, 25, joined efforts with neighbors he had never met before the war to find wood and keep a fire burning from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. On March 9, he was making tea on the fire when an airstrike hit the nearby maternity hospital in what was one of the highest-profile attacks on civilians during the almost monthlong fighting. The shock wave lifted him off his feet. Since then, he said, the bombardment has been relentless.

As the bombing intensified, basements and bomb shelters filled up as people whose homes had been destroyed sought shelter in the shrinking area of the city controlled by Ukrainian forces.

In the cold and dark of basements under the city, with no connection to the outside world, residents waited for a breakthrough. They had expected a formal evacuation to be organized, but as the days went by their hopes dimmed.

Russian invasion

Areas no longer controlled by Ukraine as of Friday

Direction of invasion forces

Controlled by or allied to Russia

Primary refugee crossing locations

Chernobyl

Not in operation

Ukraine territory, recognized by Putin as independent

Nuclear facilities

Khmelnitsky

Controlled by

separatists

Zaporizhzhia

South

Ukraine

Transnistria

Sea of Azov

Sevastopol

Russian invasion

Areas no longer controlled by Ukraine as of Friday

Direction of invasion forces

Controlled by or allied to Russia

Ukraine territory, recognized by Putin as independent

Primary refugee crossing locations

Chernobyl

Not in operation

Nuclear facilities

Khmelnitsky

Controlled by

separatists

Zaporizhzhia

South

Ukraine

Transnistria

Sea of Azov

Sevastopol

Russian invasion

Areas no longer controlled by Ukraine as of Friday

Direction of invasion forces

Controlled by or allied to Russia

Primary refugee crossing locations

Ukraine territory, recognized by Putin as independent

Nuclear facilities

Chernobyl

Not in operation

Khmelnitsky

Controlled by

separatists

Zaporizhzhia

South

Ukraine

Transnistria

Sea of Azov

Sevastopol

Russian invasion

Areas no longer controlled by Ukraine as of Friday

Direction of invasion forces

Controlled by or allied to Russia

Primary refugee crossing locations

Nuclear facilities

Ukraine territory, recognized by Putin as independent

Transnistria

Sevastopol

Russian invasion

Areas no longer controlled by Ukraine as of Friday

Direction of invasion forces

Controlled by or allied to Russia

Primary refugee crossing locations

Nuclear facilities

Ukraine territory, recognized by Putin as independent

Transnistria

Sevastopol

After Russian forces took control of the main intensive-care hospital, there was nowhere to treat the wounded, nor any medicine, people who fled the city say. The director of the heart disease center told Mykola Trofymenko he had been forced to amputate the mangled leg of a patient using a kitchen knife without anesthetic.

“The bombings and airstrikes and grad missile strikes were constant,” said Mr. Trofymenko, the head of Mariupol State University. “I have a Ph.D. in political science and I can’t understand how one country can do this to another.”

The university has been destroyed and Mr. Trofymenko doesn’t know whether his professors and students are alive. He has no word of his sister or grandmother either.

The city council dug ditches in the park for people to dispose of the dead, Mr. Trofymenko said, but most people buried bodies wherever they could, marking the graves with crosses made out of sticks.

Supermarket trolleys were used to cart bodies strewn in the streets, said Dima Shvets, 28, a customs worker who fled the city several days ago. His parents stayed in Mariupol and managed to contact him on Tuesday, saying Ukrainian forces had been pushed into the last district of the city and fighting was raging around them.


Russian Strikes Take a Toll on Ukraine’s Cities

Residential neighborhoods face heavy shelling as casualties mount in the conflict’s fourth week

Rescuers searched for survivors Monday in the debris of a Kyiv shopping center that was hit by a Russian strike.

Felipe Dana/Associated Press

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There were so many dead in Ms. Poluiko’s district that people no longer bothered to bury them, she said. “It’s hard to even imagine how many people died.”

Nikolay Osychenko, head of the local Mariupol television station, said the fight for the city would likely last for months longer now that it has reached the streets. Ukrainian fighters, he said, will be difficult to dislodge after digging in around the nearby Azovstal metal plant, which has already been struck by Russia.

“The people defending Mariupol know every last street and building of that city, and it will fight to the last,” he said. “Unfortunately, many, many civilians will die while this fighting happens.”

Mr. Osychenko said as many as 250,000 civilians remain trapped in Mariupol. The city’s population had swelled in the past few years as Ukrainians fled fighting in other parts of the country where Russia took territory.

Mr. Osychenko said he left the city two days after a bomb destroyed the offices of the television station, escaping in a humanitarian corridor a week ago to Zaporizhzhia.

Ms. Poluiko and her family emerged from Mariupol to find friends and relatives who were searching for them, or had given them up for dead. Now that they have internet access, they have been going through their contacts from the city to see whether they were recently online, for clues about their fate.

The family said they didn’t know where they would go next, but didn’t want to move too far away from their hometown. “We will never return there if Russia takes it, but we are prepared to live in the ruins if it remains Ukrainian,” said Ms. Poluiko. “My soul stayed in Mariupol.”

Write to Isabel Coles at isabel.coles@wsj.com

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