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Ganna Kotelnikova, an anesthesiologist, and her family try to get a signal over medium wave radio to get information about the situation inside the city on March 7, 2022  © Ganna Kotelnikova

Thirty-two civilians who managed to escape southeastern Ukraine’s besieged city of Mariupol last week told Human Rights Watch how they struggled to survive in below-freezing temperatures as Russian forces relentlessly attacked the city. They described men, women, and children sheltering in basements with little to no access to running water, power, heating, medical care, or mobile phone service since the siege began on March 2, 2022.

Russian forces laying siege to Mariupol should immediately ensure that civilians in Mariupol are not being denied access to items essential for their survival such as water, food, and medicine, and should facilitate safe passage to areas under control of Ukrainian forces for civilians who choose to leave the city.

“Mariupol residents have described a freezing hellscape riddled with dead bodies and destroyed buildings,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “And these are the lucky ones who were able to escape, leaving behind thousands who are cut off from the world in the besieged city.”

The current death toll in Mariupol remains unknown. An assistant to the city’s mayor, Petro Andryushchenko, told Human Rights Watch on March 20 that more than 3,000 civilians may have died since the fighting began, but he said the exact number was unclear. Local authorities have reported that at least 80 percent of the city’s residential buildings had been damaged or destroyed. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify these figures, or to assess how many of those killed were civilians.

On March 16 and 17, Human Rights Watch interviewed 30 Mariupol residents in person at a makeshift registration center in Zaporizhzhia, a city about 220 kilometers northwest of Mariupol. They were among several thousand Mariupol residents who fled the city on March 15 and 16 in personally arranged convoys with private cars, on journeys that took between 24 and 72 hours. Human Rights Watch also interviewed a couple in Zaporizhzhia who were waiting for their two children to arrive from Mariupol. On March 16 alone, at least 3,200 people from Mariupol made it to Zaporizhzhia, according to two local officials working at the registration center. Human Rights Watch spoke by phone with two other Mariupol residents who had managed to escape the city.                                                                                              

“The last two weeks were pure horror,” a school principal from Mariupol told Human Rights Watch. “We left because our city is no more.” A 32-year-old woman who fled to Zaporizhzhia with her three children said that, by the time they left, their house in Mariupol was so damaged that it looked like a strainer, covered with holes caused by the persistent attacks. A 64-year-old woman said: “I think those who are left will get killed or starve to death. We have nowhere to come back to.”

Mariupol is a coastal city between two regions currently under the effective control of Russian forces. Since around March 2, Russian forces have completely surrounded the city and blocked the port. Reports of fighting within the city center have emerged in recent days, and many of the residents who fled said they saw Russian and Ukrainian soldiers and military equipment in their neighborhoods. Andryushchenko told Human Rights Watch that, as of March 20, at least 200,000 of the city’s pre-war population of over 400,000 remain in the city.

Mira Avenue in Mariupol on March 6, 2022  © Ganna Kotelnikova

Residents who escaped said that hospitals, schools, shops, and countless homes had been damaged or destroyed by shelling. Many said that their family members or neighbors had suffered serious and, in some cases, fatal injuries from metal fragments of explosives and that they saw dead bodies strewn on the roads when they ventured out to look for food or water or to find a signal for their mobile phones.

The inability to communicate with relatives, friends, and the outside world was a particular challenge for people in Mariupol. Almost all cell phone towers had stopped delivering a signal by March 2, with only faint signals in specific locations after that. A graphic designer said that every day she would walk two and a half kilometers each way to a Kyivstar cellphone tower to try to get reception, ducking down to the ground every time a plane flew overhead.

Everyone interviewed noted that the lack of information caused by ruptures in telecommunication and electricity made it very difficult to figure out how to evacuate the city safely.

Those interviewed described staying in basements for days in crowded and unsanitary conditions, unable to shower and with little to eat or drink. One woman said she stayed for two weeks in a basement with at least 80 people that was about 300 square meters; a man stayed with 50 people in a basement that was 50 square meters; and another man said he stayed with 18 people in a basement that was 10 square meters.

Older people and people with disabilities described the additional challenges they faced: unable to move to their basements for shelter, they sat in their apartments with blown out windows, the walls vibrating with each attack. An 82-year-old man who stayed in his sixth-floor apartment since the attacks began, said he distracted himself by cleaning up the glass shards that littered the floors: “I was shaking as the bombs were dropping. The walls were shaking, and I was afraid the building would collapse. But I spent my days trying to clean the glass shards. I was just cleaning, I had to somehow occupy myself. It was pointless, but it was all I could do to keep busy.”

On March 9, Russian forces attacked a hospital complex in Mariupol, reportedly wounding at least 17 civilians, including medical staff and pregnant women. One pregnant woman reportedly died from her injuries after being transferred to another hospital following the attack. Human Rights Watch verified and analyzed 7 videos and 10 photographs showing the aftermath of the attack, including the destruction of the entire front wall of the children’s hospital, apparent fragmentation marks on the façade of the neighboring maternity ward, and a large impact crater from the detonation of an air-dropped munition on the southern part of the courtyard. Russia later confirmed that it had targeted the hospital, alleging that Ukrainian forces had been occupying it and that they had warned civilians inside to leave. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify these claims.

On March 16, a drama theater in Mariupol that had been sheltering at least 500 people came under attack. In satellite imagery of the theater from March 14, the Russian word for “children” is clearly visible in large Cyrillic script on the ground in front of and behind the theater. A mother and son who sheltered in the theater for two weeks said that hundreds of people were still in the theater when they left at 9 a.m. on March 16, just hours before the attack. It appears that most people sheltering in the theater managed to survive while hiding in the basement, according to local authorities. The Russian Defense Ministry denied carrying out the attack and blamed Ukrainian government-backed forces.

Russian and Ukrainian forces reportedly agreed to the terms of a temporary ceasefire and creation of a humanitarian corridor on March 4 to allow civilians to evacuate from Mariupol safely. At least seven initial efforts to carry out the agreement and facilitate evacuations failed as ceasefires were broken.

According to Kirill Timoshenko, deputy head of the office of the president of Ukraine, at least 9,000 Mariupol residents had been able to flee to Zaporizhzhia using an agreed-upon humanitarian corridor over the previous few days. However, the mayor’s assistant, Andryushchenko, said that agreement only covered a corridor between the Russian-controlled city of Berdyansk, 65 kilometers southwest of Mariupol, and Zaporizhzhia. He said that the route traveling out of Mariupol to Berdyansk is still subject to ongoing heavy fighting, and that civilians have not been offered any specific guarantees with respect to a humanitarian corridor or safe passage for this stretch. 

Local authorities in Mariupol also reported on March 19 that Russian forces had taken “between 4,000 and 4,500 Mariupol residents forcibly across the border” into southwestern Russia. The Russian ministry of defense announced on March 20 that nearly 60,000 Mariupol residents were “evacuated to Russia” over the past three days, and that Mariupol residents have a “voluntary choice” regarding which corridor to take or whether to stay in the city. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify these accounts. If Mariupol residents have been forcibly transferred to Russia, that could constitute a war crime. Under international humanitarian law, the transfer of a civilian, individually or en masse, is not voluntary, and is therefore prohibited, simply because the civilian agrees to it. A transfer can be forcible when a person volunteers because they fear consequences such as violence, duress, or detention if they remain, and the occupying power is taking advantage of a coercive environment to conduct the transfer.

Both Russia and Ukraine have obligations to ensure access for humanitarian assistance to civilians and to take all feasible steps to allow the civilian population to evacuate safely, if they choose, whether or not an agreement to establish humanitarian corridors is put into effect. Russia is prohibited from forcibly requiring civilians, individually or en masse, to evacuate to places in Russia or other countries such as Belarus. 

The use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas heightens concerns of unlawful, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks. These weapons have a large destructive radius, are inherently inaccurate, or deliver multiple munitions at the same time. This includes the use of unguided and unobserved large-caliber projectiles and aviation bombs. The use of these weapons should be avoided in populated areas.

The International Criminal Court, the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry, and other relevant jurisdictions should investigate potential war crimes in Mariupol, with a view to prosecuting those most responsible, Human Rights Watch said.

“For those who were able to escape Mariupol, leaving friends and families behind, the news of recent evacuations has given them a bit of hope that those they love may make it out of the city alive,” Wille said. “Russian and Ukrainian forces should urgently do what it takes to protect civilians remaining in Mariupol, and to allow those who want to leave the besieged city to do so in safety.”

Accounts from Mariupol Residents

Those interviewed are either not identified by name or identified by their first names only for their protection.

Explosive Weapons with Wide-Area Effects

All 32 Mariupol residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch described periods of sustained and often intensifying attacks with explosive weapons, from the beginning of fighting on February 24 to the moment they fled the city. Witnesses described attacks that killed and injured their neighbors as they took shelter in their homes, prepared food, and fetched water, throwing them from buildings and piercing them with fragments. The attacks also destroyed and damaged homes, businesses, and critical civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals and schools, collapsing and burning buildings in numerous parts of the city. The descriptions of the attacks and their effects are consistent with the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects.

Serhii, a shipping inspector, said he was on the balcony of his father’s apartment, when a detonation occurred, catapulting a man out of the window of the building next door and to the ground outside, killing him. The same attack started a fire in one of the stairwells of his father’s building. “We don’t know if there were casualties because that part of the building collapsed, and no one could search for people in the rubble because of the constant shelling,” he said. Several days after that incident, he said: “I was just coming out of the building carrying some water, and I saw [a neighbor’s] body … His dead body was just lying there, with his intestines hanging out.”

Several residents described attacks that killed or injured people as they were on their way to get what little food was available, or to collect water from nearby rivers or springs.

One man said that three women were on their way to buy bread when an attack took place, killing one of the women, tearing off her hands, and seriously injuring the two others. He said he started to take one woman who had a serious stomach wound to the hospital until he came across Ukrainian soldiers who said they would take her to get treatment.

A 37-year-old man described how his neighbor was killed. “On March 8, an attack hit while a young man from our building was outside trying to start a fire to cook,” he explained. “He was pierced by pieces of metal, including to his heart, and he died. Because of the continued attacks, his family has not been able to bury him yet, so his body is still in a van outside.”

A doctor from Mariupol said that the hospital where she worked was damaged in an attack on March 10. The hospital had been closed since February 24. A school principal said that two munitions exploded in the yard of his school on March 15. “A lot of windows were broken,” he said, adding that dozens of other schools in the city were also damaged.

Access to Water and Sanitation

Everyone interviewed said that running water had stopped in the city on or around March 2, and that they had not been able to shower since. To try to get potable and non-potable water, they waited in line for up to six hours at fresh springs and at water trucks in the city, melted snow, collected buckets of rainwater, or flushed out their buildings’ heating systems.

One man, Valery, said that on March 8, International Women’s Day, the men sheltering in his basement collected as much snow as possible to melt and boil over a fire, so that the women and children could wash themselves.

Some people said they had to defecate in buckets. One woman said the 30 people sheltering in her basement had only one bucket.

Access to Food

Those interviewed said they survived on food that they had at home before the fighting started and shared their dwindling stocks with those sheltering with them. Once looters had broken into shops, some said, they also went in and stole food. However, many of those interviewed owned personal vehicles and had considerable stockpiles of foodstuffs, so their experience was not necessarily representative of the experience of other civilians remaining in the city.

Viktoria, a graphic designer, said that her family and her neighbor’s family eventually only had expired cans of paté left to eat, with the adults eating only one meal a day. Several families said they ran out of baby formula early on. Everyone said they cooked their food on open fires in the yards outside their buildings, or in kitchens that were near their basements.

Several people interviewed who had been sheltering in larger basements with more people said that volunteers, the military, and the police sometimes came to their basements to deliver some food, water, and medicine.

None of those interviewed said they saw Russian forces distributing aid at any point. According to Ukrainian authorities, a convoy of humanitarian vehicles trying to bring aid into Mariupol was stuck in the Russian-controlled city of Berdyansk, 65 kilometers southwest of Mariupol, as of March 15. The convoy had reportedly turned back by March 20 without reaching Mariupol or delivering the aid.

Access to Electricity

Everyone interviewed said they lost electricity on around March 2. Valery said his basement had a generator, but it was destroyed in an attack on March 10. One woman noted that, even in those buildings with generators, families eventually ran out of fuel for them to run.

Human Rights Watch recognizes that the internationally protected right to an adequate standard of living includes everyone’s right, without discrimination, to sufficient, reliable, safe, clean, accessible, and affordable electricity. Access to electricity is critical to ensuring other basic rights, including but not limited to the rights to health, housing, and water. Steps should be taken to restore reliable electricity access for civilians to safeguard their other basic rights.

Access to Information

Once Mariupol was besieged, people in the city lost access to phone lines, television, and most local radio stations (with the exception of some medium wave stations that were faint). They had no ability to access information about what was happening inside or outside the city. Everyone interviewed said that this lack of information was one of the things that made it the most difficult for them to figure out how to leave the city safely.

Valery said he lived in a building next to a mobile phone tower, which initially gave him a weak signal. But after several attacks next to the tower, including the one that destroyed his building’s generator, the tower itself was hit on March 10, and the signal was completely gone.

In an example of how residents struggled to reach their loved ones, Ganna, an anesthesiologist, showed researchers a picture she had taken of a piece of paper that a mother had stuck to a water cistern in the city, where many people were going to fetch water, hoping her daughters might see it. “We made it out of the left [bank], now in Kirovskii [neighborhood] at Natasha's,” the note said.

Serhii, a factory foreman, and his wife were waiting at the reception center in Zaporizhzhia for their daughter, son, and grandson. They said they had not heard from them for eight days, and only found out they were alive the night before, when their children called them from a city between Mariupol and Zaporizhzhia. “You see how grey my hair is?” Serhii said. “It turned grey in these 8 days.”

Russian forces took over local radio broadcasts just after they encircled the city, and they sent text messages to those inside the city, which came through when residents happened to pick up a signal. One man said that he heard Russian forces announcing on the radio: “Give up soldiers. Come out with a white flag on your gun, leaning it onto your left shoulder and approach us and we guarantee food, clothes, and will let you join your family after the fighting stops.”

Two people said that at one point when their phones were on, they received text messages that they assumed had been sent by the Russian forces. Ina, the graphic designer, said she received a message from the number 777 that read: “Ukrainian army surrender.”

Those interviewed said they did not receive any messages directed at civilians warning them to take precautions prior to attacks or about access to humanitarian assistance or routes for safe passage.

Access to Health Care

Some people interviewed said they did not know whether any hospitals in the city were functioning, while others said that they had heard of one or two civilian and military hospitals that were still open, but with wait times spanning days. Human Rights Watch spoke to the daughter of a man who lost his eye after an explosion on March 6, which also damaged their home. When they rushed him to the hospital, she said there was no running water and limited electricity from their generators that they were using only to perform life-saving operations.

Andri, an engineer, said his home was about 200 meters from the main hospital in Mariupol that was treating Covid-19 patients. He said that on March 12, staff at the hospital told him that they had run out of oxygen days earlier and as a result people with serious respiratory symptoms were dying.

One man working as a volunteer delivering aid to shelters said that several people had come into the basement where he was sheltering with wounds from metal fragments caused by explosions. They were unable to make it to a hospital. “Sometimes the ambulance started driving toward us, but then had to turn back because of the shelling and come back later,” he said.

Oksana, a wheelchair user who cannot walk since an accident 17 years ago, has been on daily medication to treat thyroid cancer for the past six years. She said she ran out of her medicine soon after the fighting started, when the pharmacies had already been looted and emptied out. She went to the hospital near her home that was open, but doctors there said they had run out of the medication she was on and gave her a substitute. She has no idea what the impact of being off her required medication for so long will mean for her future.

Mykola, the principal, said that even though his school had sheltered up to 200 people, they only had basic medicine there and the teachers, all trained in first aid, had to start acting as medics. “We gave medical assistance as we could with the means that we had,” he said.

A medic working at the reception center in Zaporizhzhia said that 55 people had been treated at their makeshift clinic, and that one woman who arrived on March 15 with a serious wound caused on March 8 by a metal fragment, had to be rushed straight to the hospital. On March 17, the World Health Organization expressed concern that there is “the potential for multidrug-resistant infections” in the case of such injuries “given the previous high rates of over-the-counter antimicrobials, and limited access to treatments.”

The Route Out

Following what residents described as days of especially heavy shelling on March 13 and 14, some of them with access to private cars decided to try to leave the city on their own, despite the ongoing shelling and needing to pass through Russian checkpoints. A convoy of about 160 cars left Mariupol on March 14, and hundreds more left on March 15. Serhii, the shipping inspector, told Human Rights Watch he estimated that, for each car in Mariupol that still functioned, he had seen at least 50 other cars destroyed during the bombardment, seriously limiting the ability of many Mariupol residents to escape.

Residents described passing through between 15 and 20 Russian military checkpoints between Mariupol and Zaporizhzhia. They all said that Russian soldiers either asked for the documents of the driver or for everyone’s documents. Serhii said the soldiers were paying particular attention to the registered address that is written in Ukrainian passports to see if people were from Mariupol or elsewhere. “I suspect they did this because, if they came across a man not from Mariupol, they would assume he was a soldier,” he said. The Russian forces also made Serhii expose his shoulders, apparently to look for signs of bruising which might indicate that a person had used a firearm. Another resident said that they inspected the hands of the adult men for signs that they had been fighting or using a weapon.

Four people interviewed said that soldiers inspected their phones at the checkpoints, something that they had heard might happen, so they had deleted any photos of the damage from Russian forces’ bombardment in Mariupol before leaving the city. At one checkpoint, a Russian soldier asked Olexsandr if he had any “forbidden” photos on his phone. “I asked him what was considered forbidden, and the soldier told me any photos of any Russian military vehicles,” Olexsandr said. He had wiped his phone before passing through the checkpoints.

None of the Mariupol residents described serious mistreatment by soldiers at the checkpoints. One of them said that the Russian soldiers treated everyone in his car correctly, but several people were detained from the vehicle that was two cars ahead of them at the checkpoint. When that car made it to the checkpoint, he said, the soldiers fired their weapons in the air after what seemed to be a verbal altercation. One soldier then dragged a man out of the car, bent him over a barricade, and fired a weapon over his head. After that, everyone in the car was detained. The witness did not know what had led to the detentions or what happened to those who were detained.

Another person said his car was fired upon, he presumed by Russian forces because he was driving through an area fully under Russian control, but it was too dark to see. Later he examined the car and said the side had been pierced by a metal fragment. Mykola, the principal, said that between Mariupol and exiting the area under Russian control, he saw at least 10 burned cars on the sides of the road or in fields, and in one case, he saw a dead body lying next to a burned-out car.

Those Left Behind

As of March 17, several thousand residents – a small fraction of the residents still trapped in Mariupol by the intense fighting – were able to flee. Everyone interviewed said that they had only been able to leave because they had their own car or were able to find a ride with someone who did, and that many people with whom they had sheltered in basements and those with limited mobility had stayed behind.

Because electricity and telecommunications are not functioning, those who were able to leave had no information about those who are still in the city. One woman who was able to find a ride said she was forced to leave her mother who could not make it down the stairs to the shelter in her wheelchair.

Ina said that she left with about 16 other people, and about 65 others remained in the basement where they were sheltering. “As we were leaving, we noticed there was only about two-days’ worth of food stocks left for everyone, so I don’t know what will happen to them,” she said.

Mykola said at one point his school, where he was sheltering, had housed 200 people. When he left, he said at least 50 people remained in the school with no means of transport out.

Several residents cited locations housing hundreds of people at the time they left the city, and they were worried that these areas might come under attack.

Legal Obligations and Relevant International Humanitarian Law

Sieges directed at military targets, which includes enemy forces, and for the purpose of capturing an enemy-controlled area, are permitted under the laws of war, as a legitimate military objective. Siege tactics cannot include starving a civilian population or attacking, destroying, removing, or rendering useless objects indispensable to the civilian population’s survival. Deliberate employment of such tactics is a war crime. Tactics that arbitrarily deny civilians access to items essential for their well-being such as water, food, and medicine are also prohibited, and all parties should protect objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, including those necessary for water distribution and sanitation.

The laws of war prohibit deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects and attacks that cause anticipated harm to civilians disproportionate to the expected military benefit. Unlawful and wanton excessive destruction of property, not militarily justified, is a war crime. Both parties are required, as far as feasible, to take necessary precautions to protect the civilian population, individual civilians, and civilian objects under their control against the dangers resulting from military operations.

Evacuations of civilians in and around Mariupol who want to leave, should be facilitated. When an agreement to establish humanitarian corridors is put into effect, parties should not breach that agreement in any way that places civilians at risk. All parties must abide by their obligations not to carry out attacks that would target or cause harm to civilians who are on the move, including along railway and road routes being used to leave. Parties should allow access for neutral and independent humanitarian actors to support civilians at particular risk who may need assistance to leave, including people with disabilities, older people, pregnant people, children, and people with chronic or severe medical conditions.

Parties to the conflict are prohibited from deporting or forcibly transferring the civilian population of an occupied territory, in whole or in part, unless it is demanded by civilian security or imperative military reasons. The fourth Geneva Convention prohibits individual or mass forcible transfers of civilians from occupied territory to the territory of the occupying power or any other country, occupied or not, regardless of their motive. If for material reasons it is impossible to avoid such displacement, provisional, temporary evacuations may occur, but those evacuated must be transferred back to their homes as soon as the specific hostilities in the area in question have ceased. Violation of this prohibition is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and prosecutable as a war crime. The International Criminal Court, which has opened an investigation into potential war crimes in Ukraine, can prosecute the war crime of “the deportation or transfer [by the Occupying Power] of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory.”

Ukraine, and Russia in the areas that it currently controls access to or occupies, should ensure that there is adequate supply of food, water, and medicine, and that services vital for the civilian population continue.

Both parties should abide by obligations to allow and facilitate the rapid passage of humanitarian aid for all civilians in need and not deny access or arbitrarily interfere with distribution. Starving civilians as a method of warfare is a war crime.

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