Mariupol — in southeastern Ukraine, near the Russian border — has been under siege for more than two weeks. It is the city where Russia last week bombed a maternity hospital and yesterday attacked a theater that hundreds of civilians were using as a shelter. It was unclear how many of those sheltering survived, according to a Ukrainian official.
Since the war began, two of the few working journalists in Mariupol have been Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka of The Associated Press. My colleagues and I were deeply affected by their dispatch, and we’re turning over the lead section of today’s newsletter to an excerpt from it.
The bodies of the children all lie here, dumped into this narrow trench hastily dug into the frozen earth of Mariupol to the constant drumbeat of shelling.
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There’s 18-month-old Kirill, whose shrapnel wound to the head proved too much for his little toddler’s body. There’s 16-year-old Iliya, whose legs were blown up in an explosion during a soccer game at a school field. There’s the girl no older than 6 who wore the pajamas with cartoon unicorns and who was among the first of Mariupol’s children to die from a Russian shell.
They are stacked together with dozens of others in this mass grave on the outskirts of the city. A man covered in a bright blue tarp, weighed down by stones at the crumbling curb. A woman wrapped in a red and gold bedsheet, her legs neatly bound at the ankles with a scrap of white fabric. Workers toss the bodies in as fast as they can, because the less time they spend in the open, the better their own chances of survival.
“Damn them all, those people who started this!” raged Volodymyr Bykovskyi, a worker pulling crinkling black body bags from a truck.
More bodies will come, from streets where they are everywhere and from the hospital basement where the corpses of adults and children are laid out, awaiting someone to pick them up. The youngest still has an umbilical stump attached.
Each airstrike and shell that relentlessly pounds Mariupol — about one a minute at times — drives home the curse of a geography that has put the city squarely in the path of Russia’s domination of Ukraine. This southern seaport of 430,000 has become a symbol of the drive by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, to crush a democratic Ukraine — and also of a fierce resistance on the ground. The city is now encircled by Russian soldiers, who are slowly squeezing the life out of it, one blast at a time.
The surrounding roads are mined and the port blocked. Food is running out, and the Russians have stopped humanitarian attempts to bring it in. Electricity is mostly gone and water is sparse, with residents melting snow to drink. People burn scraps of furniture in makeshift grills to warm their hands in the freezing cold.
Some parents have even left their newborns at the hospital, perhaps hoping to give them a chance at life in the one place with decent electricity and water.
Death is everywhere. Local officials have tallied more than 2,500 deaths in the siege, but many bodies can’t be counted because of the endless shelling. They have told families to leave their dead outside in the streets because it’s too dangerous to hold funerals.
Just weeks ago, Mariupol’s future seemed much brighter. If geography drives a city’s destiny, Mariupol was on the path to success, with its thriving iron and steel plants, a deepwater port and high global demand for both.
By Feb. 27, that started to change, as an ambulance raced into a city hospital carrying a small motionless girl, not yet 6. Her brown hair was pulled back off her pale face with a rubber band, and her pajama pants were bloodied by Russian shelling.
Her wounded father came with her, his head bandaged. Her mother stood outside the ambulance, weeping.
As the doctors and nurses huddled around her, one gave her an injection. Another shocked her with a defibrillator. “Show this to Putin,” one doctor said, with expletive-laced fury. “The eyes of this child and crying doctors.”
They couldn’t save her. Doctors covered the tiny body with her pink striped jacket and gently closed her eyes. She now rests in the mass grave.
This agony fits in with Putin’s goals. The siege is a military tactic popularized in medieval times and designed to crush a population through starvation and violence, allowing an attacking force to spare its own soldiers the cost of entering a hostile city. Instead, civilians are the ones left to die. Serhiy Orlov, the deputy mayor of Mariupol, predicts worse is soon to come. Most of the city remains trapped. “People are dying without water and food, and I think in the next several days we will count hundreds and thousands of deaths.”
For more: See more photographs from Mariupol in The A.P.’s full story (which Lori Hinnant, based in Paris, helped write). And read a dispatch from Mykolaiv — another besieged city, on the Black Sea — by my colleague Michael Schwirtz, with photos by Tyler Hicks.
State of the War
With the war entering its fourth week, Russian forces are taking heavy losses on the battlefield and have increasingly aimed their attacks against towns and cities.
In the south, Russia’s warships on the Black Sea launched missiles at towns around Odessa, but its ground forces remained more than 80 miles away.
The Biden administration will give Ukraine more high-tech defensive weapons that require little training to use, part of an additional $800 million in military aid.
More than 7,000 Russian soldiers have died, according to U.S. estimates — greater than the number of American troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
Peace talks between Russia and Ukraine are continuing today.
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Ukraine in literature
Here’s a selection of literature and nonfiction that can help you better understand Ukraine, compiled by writers and editors on The Times’s Books desk.
“Your Ad Could Go Here,” by Oksana Zabuzhko. Short stories about Ukrainians facing personal and political inflection points, written by a famed public intellectual, “veer into the surreal and supernatural,” Alexandra Alter writes.
“Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine,” edited by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky. The anthology, which centers on fighting in Crimea and the Donbas region, includes work from several Ukrainian poets. “Some have fought on the front lines, while others helped family members evacuate,” Alexandra writes.
“Absolute Zero,” by Artem Chekh. A memoir from a Ukrainian novelist who fought in the Donbas starting in 2015, the book “incorporates perspectives of civilians and his fellow soldiers,” Joumana Khatib writes.
“The Gates of Europe,” by Serhii Plokhy. This comprehensive overview of Ukraine, written by the director of Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute, goes back centuries to explore the country’s history under different empires and its fight for independence.