In the besieged city of Mariupol, the scene of the heaviest fighting in Russia’s three-week war against Ukraine, people are now so hungry that they are killing stray dogs for food.

Dmytro, a businessman who left the city on Tuesday, said friends told him they had resorted to this desperate measure in recent days after their supplies ran out.

“You hear the words, but it’s impossible to really take them in, to believe that this is happening,” he said. “It’s hell on earth.”

Once one of the main ports of Ukraine, Mariupol is now a charnel house, a city of ghosts. For more than two weeks, it has been subjected to Russian bombardment of such intensity that it has turned entire neighborhoods into smoldering rubble.

Everything was burning, there were corpses everywhere, and I just walked through, grabbed a cabbage here, a carrot there, knowing that meant my family would live another day or two

After days of punitive air and artillery strikes that breached Mariupol’s three defenses, Russian forces have now forced their way into the city center, with heavy fighting reported in some of the main shopping streets and near Theater Square, a key landmark.

Russian forces already control Livoberezhnyi Raion, or Left Bank District, in the east of the city, as well as Mikroraiony 17-23, a series of residential areas in the northeast, it said Anna Romanenko, a Ukrainian journalist who is in close contact with Ukrainian troops there. “The front line now cuts through Mariupol,” she said.

Dmytro, who declined to give his last name, was among a number of Mariupol residents contacted by the Financial Times after they were evacuated last week to the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhya, about 230 km to the west. They all described an attack so brutal that the city was destroyed, countless civilians were killed and maimed and left deep scars on the survivors.

Mykola Osichenko, chief executive of Mariupol TV, said his lasting memory of the past three weeks was the feeling of utter powerlessness. “When the bombs fell, I routinely covered my son with my body,” he said. “But I knew I couldn’t really protect him, that it was an act of desperation.”

Strategically located on the Sea of ​​Azov, the gateway to the Black Sea, Mariupol was in Russia’s crosshairs from the start of the war. Just days later, troops began launching missiles at the city in an attack that cut off electricity, gas and water supplies, leaving the 400,000 residents huddled in icy shelters, hugging for warmth. Mariupol authorities said 2,400 residents of the city have been killed since Russia launched its invasion.

Survivors described desperate attempts to stock up as bombs exploded around them. Dmytro said he visited the central market last Sunday after it was flattened by a Russian artillery attack.

“Everything was burning, there were corpses everywhere, and I just walked through it, picked up a cabbage here, a carrot there, knowing that meant my family would live another day or two,” he said. “You become completely desensitized.”

Witnesses depicted post-apocalyptic scenes of stray dogs eating the remains of bomb victims who lay unburied in the street. Civilian victims have been laid in mass graves or buried in the courtyards of houses: a proper burial is too dangerous.

The medieval-style Russian siege of Mariupol also left the inhabitants facing an acute shortage of both food and water. Without gas, they cook food on campfires made from broken furniture in the courtyards of their homes.

People escaping Mariupol arrive in Lviv, in western Ukraine, along with passengers from ZaporizhzhyaPeople escaping Mariupol arrive in Lviv, western Ukraine, along with passengers from Zaporizhzhya © Bernat Armangue/AP

Osichenko said people in his home, desperately thirsty, were running water from radiators, collecting and melting snow, and also scouring local parks for freshwater streams. “But queues would form there and that was a perfect target for Russian missiles,” he said. The streams also fell out of favor as they soon became infested with corpses.

Images on social media have portrayed the extent of the devastation: huge apartment buildings turned into infernos after a direct hit, flames sent huge columns of black smoke into the sky, roads littered with the burnt-out hulls of wrecked buses and cars reduced to mangled mounds of metal , the 10-meter-long crater left by a bomb that fell on one of Mariupol’s children’s hospitals.

Authorities raised the alarm after Russian planes bombed the city’s main municipal theater last Wednesday, raising fears for the hundreds of women and children who had used the basement as a bomb shelter. It is not yet clear how many people were killed or injured in the attack. Russia has denied targeting civilians and has accused Ukrainian authorities of using them as human shields.

Now the residents face a new danger: evacuation to parts of Russia, where an uncertain fate awaits them. Potential evacuees are first questioned by Russian officials, who “test them to see if they are reliable,” Romanenko said. “They check their social media feeds for anything anti-Russian.”

She said Russian troops sent a friend of hers from Livoberezhnyi district to Novoazovsk, a small town east of Mariupol controlled by pro-Russian separatists. “They interrogated him, took his Ukrainian passport and sent him to Rostov, across the border into Russia,” she said. She hasn’t heard from him since then.

Many other residents have taken advantage of the rare moments of calm between the shelling to leave Mariupol for Ukrainian-controlled territory, forming long convoys of private cars that were forced to pass a gauntlet of dozens of Russian checkpoints.

Born and raised in Mariupol and lived there all her life, Romanenko is now a refugee in Zaporizhzhya. She said she was heartbroken at the fate of her city, but is determined to return one day “and do everything she can to rebuild it”.

“I’ll go back when the Russians are gone,” she said. ‘All my ancestors are buried here. I can’t be happy anywhere else.”

This post ‘Hell on Earth’: Survivors Recount Mariupol’s Destruction Under Russian Bombs

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