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The last stand of Mariupol, offset by a relentless attack by Russia

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One proud June morning in 2014, Ukrainian forces renewed their flag over Mariupol City Hall under the roaring choirs of the national anthem. For weeks, they engaged pro-Russian separatists in a struggle for control of the port city of immense strategic importance. The loss of Mariupol, an industrial center in the Sea of ​​Azov, would risk losing control of parts of eastern and southern Ukraine – a price that Russian President Vladimir Putin desperately wanted.

Now, after almost a decade in the front line of the low-level war, the de facto fall of Mariupol is in the hands of Russian forces as a milestone in a large-scale Moscow invasion. In a war marked by Russia’s poor performance, its inability to conquer Kyiv, and its failed attempt to decapitate the Ukrainian leadership, control of the devastated metropolis amounts to a significant and frightening victory for the Kremlin.

The fight is not over. Civilians and Ukrainian fighters – including fighters from the Azov Regiment, the same nationalist unit that helped conquer the city in 2014 – remain hidden in the dramatic final stand at the large Azovstal ironworks.

Outside the labyrinth halls and underground tunnels and chambers of the Soviet-era factory, there is little left to defend.

The Battle of Mariupol was an anachronistic siege – a guerrilla image of fireballs from Russian missiles in the night sky, apartment buildings reduced to smoldering shells, the destruction of museums and hospitals. Civilians died simply because of the accident where they lived, including those hiding in a bombed-out theater with the words “children” painted in the front courtyard in an unsuccessful attempt to warn Russian fighters.

The siege of Syrian Aleppo in 2010 and Chechen Grozny in the 1990s caused almost complete settlement of the city – but also the destruction of European cities from what was thought to have been buried in the ashes of World War II and beyond, plundered by the Golden Horde in the 13th century. century, which flooded the area where modern Mariupol now lies in ruins.

The occupation of Mariupol brings Moscow a big step closer to achieving the goal: the establishment of a land bridge from the Crimean peninsula – annexed by Moscow eight years ago – to the Ukrainian breakaway republics in the east, which are effectively controlled by the Kremlin. The result could redraw the map of Europe and expand Russia’s borders by hundreds of square miles.

To win this award, the Russians are accused of war crimes, starvation of the population, indiscriminate bombing and killing of civilians. More than 100,000 civilians remained imprisoned as Moscow opposed the establishment of humanitarian escape corridors. Other residents were forcibly relocated to Russia, some to cities thousands of miles to the east. It is estimated that 20,000 people lost their lives in Mariupol, and satellite images released last week showed mass graves 12 miles west of Mariupol. Mayor Vadym Boychenko called it the “new Babyn Yar” – a reference to mass graves near Kiev, where the Nazis massacred at least 33,000 Jews.

“The biggest war crime of the 21st century was committed in Mariupol,” Boychenko said on Friday.

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It may be difficult for Putin’s forces to fully pacify Mariupol; observers predict continued acts of sabotage from defiant civilian resistance. But for Ukraine, the country that detained the Russians against the odds, the loss of the city is the biggest obstacle to a punishing war.

Mariupol was scarred by the battle long before the Russian invasion on February 24.

After an uprising in Kiev overthrew a Russian-friendly Ukrainian president in 2014 and Putin’s troops invaded Crimea, the city came under direct attack by Kremlin-backed separatists. His town hall was burned and destroyed. A few months after the successful expulsion of the Kremlin’s allies, the commander of what was then called the Azov Battalion – a right-wing Ukrainian unit known in the past for attracting extremists – told The Washington Post: “This peace will not last. Putin thinks he’s a monarch, we all have to kneel before him. “

The Grad rocket salvo hit the eastern Mariupol market in 2015, killing 31 people. The city’s airport was closed for years due to its proximity to the conflict in the east. Residents packed emergency bags in case the city was disrupted again.

At the same time, however, renewed investment from Kiev has given the city new energy. The streets have been repaired. Stylish bars and cozy restaurants have sprung up in the quaint areas lined with Soviet-style apartment buildings. City life flourished again. The wrestlers once again competed for the sheep prize at the annual “Big Day”, a celebration of Mariupol in the heart of Ukrainian Greek Orthodox life. The Club 8-Bit Museum on Nielsen Street hid a wonderfully silly gallery of vintage electronics.

Until Russian grenades got stuck last month – they destroyed the gallery and the home of its owner Dmitry “Brain” Cherepanov.

“Russia should receive the strictest possible punishment for what it has done,” Cherepanov, 45, told Telegram from western Ukraine, where he fled with his family, on Friday. “Their soldiers came to rob us and kill us.”

Serhiy Taruta, a Ukrainian lawmaker and Mariupol business leader, said in an interview with Kiev on Skype on Friday: “There was no way to break it. [Mariupol’s] resistance, to break his spirit. “That meant the Russians had to physically destroy the city,” he added.

“Our heroes could only be destroyed by destroying the city, and they have succeeded since day one,” he said.

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On February 23, Boychenko had his last day as mayor in peacetime and held a ceremony for smiling children’s figure skaters. The city council wrote in its Telegram account that “the situation in Mariupol is calm. The city is under reliable protection. “

The next morning, Mariupol – and Ukraine – were under attack.

Apartment buildings were shelled. People went to the cellars. Electricity went out in parts of the city, followed by water. The city announced a curfew that evening. “We don’t panic,” Boychenko said.

In the early days, Mariupol still felt like a relatively safe haven. The people of Sartana, a village in the northeast, packed their belongings in white plastic bags and boarded buses toward the city center. The other refugees were encouraged to hide in a magnificent drama theater, a city landmark that opened its gates in 1960, but thanks to four dominant Greek columns, it looked older.

Any sense of security quickly faded.

The Russians “are creating a blockade for us, as in Leningrad,” the Mariupol council wrote after a week of war, referring to the siege of the imperial Russian city of World War II by Nazi Germany. “Putin’s horde of soldiers is constantly shelling the city.”

In the early hours of March 2, Artem Kischik was awakened by a rocket strike on his apartment building on Morskyi Boulevard in eastern Mariupol, an area dominated by a large, long road down to the sea.

“I opened my eyes and saw my brother and mother standing and shouting at me to run down the hall,” the 19-year-old wrote on the account, which he later posted on Instagram. “We realized we had to leave, but it was too late.”

Instead, he was shaking with his family in their unheated apartment. “We started living without light from dawn to dusk – we went to bed at about 6 pm and got up at 4 am to 5 am,” he wrote. “But more often than not, we woke up earlier because of the explosions.”

Eventually, the fighting came so close that Kischik’s family moved into the cellar with the other residents of the apartment complex. Winter has added to hunger. The old inhabitants began to die, which led to a terrifying ritual.

“Cooling prevented their body from decaying, so we took them to their apartments, where he wrote.” His family ate occasional bowls of oatmeal, honey, and some canned food. His brother died in one shelling.

After the Russians bombed the city’s waterworks, Nick Osychenko, the executive director of TV Mariupol, said his family had resorted to ripping home radiators to drain water impregnated with drinking chemicals. He remembered the relief of the winter storm, which sent residents to the streets to fill the buckets with snow to melt the water.

Like many parts of Ukraine, especially in the south and east, Mariupol is a predominantly Russian-speaking city with deep traditional and cultural ties to Russia and complicated, overlapping loyalty to Moscow and Kiev. But the sheer brutality of the attack definitely turned the city against the Kremlin.

“I don’t think anyone other than Putin could make Mariupol love Ukraine so much,” Osychenko said.

On March 9, the Russians bombed maternity hospital number 3, where generations of Mariupol children were born. Pregnant women wrapped in blankets fled through the smoke and broken glass. Three people were dead that day.

“Kill me now!” an injured pregnant woman was screaming the day after the attack when she realized she was losing her baby, paramedics told the AP. Mother and child died.

A week later, a raid struck the Mariupol Drama Theater – a shelter that looked like a refuge in the early days of the war. About 1,300 civilians hid there before the strike, authorities said; it is estimated that about 300 people died.

As the fighting continued, even the dark cellars were no longer safe. When the inhabitants sought escape, there was confusion and chaos.

Cherepanov’s Mariupol Life website is now one of several digital bulletin boards where desperate family members search for the missing. Tatiana Lomakivska’s child wrote on the website: “A mother is looking for – born in 1939 in Mariupol – very thin, tall