(Kyiv) – Russian forces now occupying most of Ukraine’s southeastern port city of Mariupol should ensure that civilians remaining in the city can leave in safety to Ukraine-controlled territory if they choose, Human Rights Watch said today. Older people, people with disabilities, and those who are sick or injured require special attention.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, visiting Moscow and Kyiv this week, should prioritize the plight of civilians in Mariupol, and stress that senior Russian officials can be held accountable for unlawful civilian deaths and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. Russian forces need to respect the fundamental obligation under international humanitarian law to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians.
“After surviving two months of terror, hiding in basements as their city was turned to char and rubble, civilians still in Mariupol urgently need assistance and safe evacuation routes,” said Ida Sawyer, crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “Secretary-General Guterres and other international leaders should press top Russian officials to ensure safe passage to Ukraine-controlled territory.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 56 people who escaped Mariupol between mid-March and mid-April. They described dire conditions in the city, with those who left more recently forced to go to Russia or Russia-controlled territory unless they had the financial means and were able to organize private transportation through dangerous escape routes.
The number of civilians still in Mariupol remains unclear. Ukrainian officials say that 120,000 remain but that cannot be verified.
Following a siege that began around March 2, 2022, Russian forces now occupy nearly all of Mariupol except for the Ukrainian forces’ final holdout at the Azovstal steel plant, where, according to Ukrainian authorities, a few thousand Ukrainian soldiers, about 500 of them wounded, and 1,000 civilians reportedly remain. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s televised order on April 21 to blockade the plant instead of trying to seize it, the Russian bombardment continued at least through April 24.
The total number of civilians killed in Mariupol also remains unknown. Ukrainian authorities estimate that 20,000 people may have been killed there since the war began.
Ukrainian officials have reported that Russian forces buried many of them in two mass grave sites, one in Manhush, 20 kilometers west of Mariupol, and the other in Vynohradne, 14 kilometers east. Satellite imagery that Human Rights Watch analyzed indicates that both sites are next to village cemeteries. In Manhush, signs of this mass grave site are first visible on satellite imagery between March 23 and 26, and in Vynohradne, between March 26 and 29. Both expanded dramatically in recent weeks. In Manhush, as of April 24, the site had tripled longitudinally in size. In Vynohradne, as of April 20, the site occupied about 1,125 square meters.
A 57-year-old English teacher who sheltered for over three weeks at Mariupol’s Regional Intensive Care Hospital said that Russian soldiers told her in early April that they were taking bodies to Manhush to bury them. The bodies had been piling up at the hospital, she said, including of injured people who died of their wounds, and bodies picked up from the streets. “The Russians told us they were taking the bodies to Manhush,” she said. “They used this van to take the bodies. I saw them loading the van with bodies when I went out to get water – twice, and then they told us not to use that entrance anymore.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 43 people who left Mariupol in mid-March and made it to Zaporizhzhia in Ukrainian-controlled territory, after hearing about possible escape routes through word of mouth. As Human Rights Watch previously documented, they traveled in private vehicles through multiple checkpoints along the 80-kilometer route of Russian-controlled territory to Berdyansk. Some then boarded buses while others continued in private vehicles to Zaporizhzhia, where volunteers and aid groups have been providing assistance.
Many other civilians were unable or unwilling to risk the dangerous route out of Mariupol. With mobile phone and internet connections down since early March, civilians had no way of obtaining information about possible evacuation routes and many decided they were safest remaining in their shelters, despite deteriorating conditions and lack of food, water, and medicine. Others had no means of transport out of the city, including because shelling had destroyed their cars or it was too dangerous to reach them.
By around March 21, it had become even more difficult for civilians to escape the city for Ukraine-controlled territory. Human Rights Watch interviewed 13 civilians who left Mariupol between March 21 and April 11, when Russian forces had already occupied much of the city. All said that Russian forces provided no opportunities or support for them to reach Ukraine-controlled territory, where they all wanted to go. Many provided personal accounts and information they had about family and friends, about Russian forces transporting civilians to Russian-controlled territories and Russia.
One woman who tried to flee the fighting with her neighbors on April 8 said that Russian forces made them board a Russian armored vehicle, which took them to Vynohradne village, where their documents and bags were checked, names registered, and they were put on a bus to Bezimenne in the Russian-backed territory of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR), which is not controlled by the Ukrainian government.
After three nights at a community center, they were taken by bus to Starobesheve, also in DNR, for what the soldiers referred to as a “filtration process.” She said Russian personnel took their fingerprints and personal details, photographed them, and made them fill out a questionnaire, including about their connections to the Ukrainian military and their political views.
The next day another bus took them to the Russian border, where they were questioned again, then to Tagonrog, where they said a large sports facility held hundreds of Mariupol residents. The woman said that, fearing they would be sent to a faraway Russian town, she and six others managed to pool their resources to hire a private car that took them to Tbilisi, Georgia.
When leaving Mariupol, “We would have used the opportunity to go to Ukraine if we could have, for sure,” she said. “But we had no choice. There was no possibility to go there.”
A 24-year-old woman from a village 13 kilometers from Mariupol, where Russian forces had reportedly taken control on about March 13, said that she went on a similar journey to Bezimenne and then on to Tagonrog on around March 15. She was ultimately able to find her own transportation to St. Petersburg and then on to a European Union country, but she said her aunt and two cousins, who were also transported from Ukraine, have not been able to leave Russia.
Two women who left Mariupol on March 21 and another woman who left on April 11 said that they were told that they would be able to get buses to Zaporizhzhia if they went to Nikolske (Volodarsk), about 20 kilometers from Mariupol in Russia-controlled territory. Once in Nikolske, a woman who left on March 21 said, “We started asking if we could get a bus to Zaporizhzhia. But we were told that there were no more buses to Zaporizhzhia... The only options were Russian territories: DNR, Rostov on Don [in Russia], any Russian area, but we could forget about Ukraine.” But the women said they had enough cash to hire private vehicles that took them to Berdyansk, and eventually to Zaporizhzhia.
Many other Mariupol residents have apparently ended up in Russia against their will, unable to leave, but the exact numbers remain unclear. A woman from Mariupol who made it to Zaporizhzhia said that her sister got on a bus on March 26 that she was told would go to Zaporizhzhia, but ended up in Rostov, Russia, and is now in Russia’s Pskov region. “We’re in touch … but she’s scared to talk, even to me,” the woman said.
Ukrainian authorities reported on April 18 that Russian forces have taken about 40,000 Mariupol residents “forcibly” across the border to Russia, while Russian authorities reported on April 22 that 143,631 Mariupol residents have evacuated to Russia. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify these figures.
Both Russia and Ukraine have obligations to ensure access for humanitarian assistance to all civilians and to take all feasible steps to allow civilians to evacuate safely, if they choose. Russia is prohibited from forcing civilians, individually or en masse, to evacuate to Russia. A transfer can be forcible, and may constitute a war crime, 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 transfer them.
“The city of Mariupol and its residents have already suffered unspeakable horrors,” Sawyer said. “To protect the lives and dignity of the tens of thousands of civilians reportedly still in the city, Secretary-General Guterres should mobilize the global community to stand with Mariupol and press Russian forces to immediately facilitate the delivery of aid and voluntary safe passage.”