Mariupol residents describe how Russian forces deprived them of food and water

LVIV, Ukraine – After Russian forces surrounded the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, cutting off water and fuel and preventing aid convoys from entering, Yulia Beley took refuge in a neighbor’s basement with her three daughters. and struggled to survive.

Her husband was defending the city, so she ventured out as bombs rained to fetch water from a distant well and tried to comfort her children as shelling rattled the walls and ceiling. Over time, the family’s food dwindled and Ms. Beley, a baker, said she fed her hungry children a bowl of porridge a day to share with each other. Her 6-year-old daughter, Ivanka, dreamed of the poppy seed rolls that her mother had prepared before the war.

“It tears you apart,” said Ms. Beley, 33, still traumatized after her escape from the city a week ago. “I just sobbed, just cried, screaming into the pillow when no one could see.”

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, it laid siege to Mariupol, using the ancient tactic of warfare to try and surrender the once vibrant city of 430,000 people.

From the days armies encircled medieval castles in Europe to the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II and the squeeze on rebel communities in Syria during the 11-year civil war, armies have used sieges throughout history regardless of catastrophic effects. on civilians caught in the middle.

This month, Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken accused Russia of “starving” cities in Ukraine. He invoked the memory of the brother of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, Viktor, who died at an early age during the German siege of Leningrad during World War II.

“It’s shameful,” said Mr. Blinken. “The world is saying to Russia: ‘Stop these attacks now. Bring in food and medicine. Get people out safely and put an end to this war of choice against Ukraine ‘”.

Siege warfare scholars say the tactic serves different purposes: weaken enemies by avoiding clashes that can kill the besieging force’s own soldiers, or freeze active fronts as they attack the repositioning of forces. But the grueling nature of sieges – and the way they use hunger to turn people’s bodies against them – gives them a unique psychological power among warfare tactics, according to scholars and siege survivors.

Depriving a residential area of ​​food while the bombing serves not only to track down the fighters, he said, but to communicate to all those trapped inside: “You are not a human being like me. You don’t deserve to eat, drink, take medicine or even breathe! “

After surrounding Mariupol last month, Russian forces cut off the city from everything it needed to live, the mayor, Vadym Boychenko, told Ukrainian national television. They also destroyed the city’s power plants, cutting off residents’ electricity when temperatures froze, Boychenko said, and then water and gas, essential for cooking and heating.

Some civilians managed to escape, making harrowing journeys through destroyed roads and Russian checkpoints. But an estimated 160,000 people are still believed to be trapped inside the city, Boychenko said, and more than two dozen buses sent days ago to evacuate were unable to enter the city due to Russian bombing.

On Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it would halt relief operations in Mariupol because the warring parties could not guarantee the safety of aid workers.

Nearly 5,000 people, including around 210 children, were killed there, the mayor estimated, but the figures cannot be confirmed due to the difficulty of obtaining information.

Russian forces are in control of parts of Mariupol, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky told a group of independent Russian journalists on Sunday. But the city center continues to hold up, according to the Ukrainian and British military assessments.

An aide to the mayor, Pyotr Andryushenko, told the New York Times that about 3,000 Ukrainian fighters from the Azov battalion were defending the city against about 14,000 Moscow-backed soldiers.

When the siege began, a Mariupol resident, Kristina, said she, her husband and two children had camped at the entrance to their building, hoping it would provide better shelter and protection than their apartment.

Her husband, a business analyst, ventured in search of water and she cooked over an open fire. They also collected rainwater and snow, boiling the water to sterilize it.

She read fairy tales to try to distract the kids, but once they got hungry, “the fire was gone from their eyes,” said Kristina, who didn’t want to use her full name for fear of retaliation. “They had no interest in anything.”

“We ate once a day,” he said. “It was mainly in the morning or in the evening that the children were shouting, saying, ‘I want to eat’.”

His family eventually fled the city, but left his father and grandparents behind. She struggled to keep an eye on them as the city’s telephone networks are mostly down.

Last week, he said, they sent a message saying, “No roof, no food and no water.”

Doctors who study hunger and hunger describe a sad process of the body taking it out to stay alive. First, it burns the glucose stored in the liver, then the fat, then the muscles.

While dehydration can call death in less than a week, a well-fed adult can survive for more than 70 days on water alone. Children, the elderly and the sick succumb more quickly.

Other research has shown that hunger not only weakens the body, it disturbs the mind.

Nancy Zuker, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, said research conducted during World War II on 36 male conscientious objectors who followed a low-calorie diet modeled on that given to prisoners of war showed that they had suffered “consequences. significant psychological “.

He added: “They had hunger neurosis: increased anxiety, increased isolation, increased depression.”

This aggravates the damage in traumatic circumstances, such as wars.

“This is starvation during a catastrophe,” he said. “It is very difficult to separate the profound psychological consequences of being in a state of war from those of not having enough food.”

The memory of hunger haunted conscientious objectors in the studio long after they regained their strength.

“They had to be surrounded by food,” and some have been obsessed with it, he said. “Several have become bosses.”

Irina Peredey, a municipal worker in Mariupol, said that after escaping she was so upset that she could not eat for days.

After that, he began craving a full meal every hour.

“An hour goes by and you want to eat,” said Ms. Peredey, 29. “It seems psychological to me. You constantly start eating and want to eat as much as possible.

She was confused at first, she said.

“But now I see that apparently this is how my body is fighting.”

As Ms. Beley, the baker, struggled to survive in Mariupol’s basement, she said, bombs shook the building and grenades were so common that her 3-year-old daughter Aida learned to distinguish between incoming and outgoing fire. exit.

Soon the family ran out of food. Another woman gave her a jar of honey.

“This is how we survived,” he said. “We didn’t have food, but we can’t say we didn’t eat because a spoonful of honey once a day is already a kind of lunch.”

When her family finally managed to escape, she felt weak, as if her body was struggling to function. Russian soldiers offered her and her children candy and at first refused. Then she changed her mind.

“Give me candy, sugar,” he said. “I realized that I needed something to be able to support myself.”

Valerie Hopkins reported from Lviv, Ukraine, Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon, and Gina Kolata from Princeton, NJ Asmaa al-Omar and Hwaida Saad contributed reports from Beirut.