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

LVIV, Ukraine – After Russian Forces surrounded the city of Mariupol in southern Ukraine, cutting off water and fuel and preventing aid...


LVIV, Ukraine – After Russian Forces surrounded the city of Mariupol in southern Ukraine, 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 had gone to defend the town, so she ventured out as the bombs rained down to fetch water from a remote well and tried to comfort her children as the shelling shook the walls and ceiling. Over time, the family’s food dwindled and Mrs Beley, a baker, said she gave her hungry children a bowl of porridge a day to share among themselves. Her 6-year-old daughter, Ivanka, dreamed of the poppyseed buns her mother had made before the war.

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

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, she laid siege to Mariupol, using the old tactic of warfare to try to starve the once bustling city of 430,000 into surrender.

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

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

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

Siege warfare specialists say the tactic serves different purposes: weakening enemies while avoiding clashes that can kill the besieging force’s own soldiers, or freezing active fronts while attacking forces reposition themselves. But the grueling nature of sieges — and the way they use starvation to turn people’s bodies against them — gives them a psychological power unique among tactics of warfare, according to scholars and siege survivors.

Starving a residential area of ​​food while shelling it serves not only to flush out fighters, she said, but to communicate to all those trapped inside: “You are not a human equal to me . You don’t deserve to eat, drink, take medicine or even breathe!

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

Some civilians managed to flee, making arduous journeys through destroyed streets and Russian checkpoints. But around 160,000 people were still believed to be stuck inside the city, Boichenko said, and more than two dozen buses sent days ago to evacuate them had been unable to enter the city because of the Russian bombings.

On Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced it was halting relief operations in Mariupol because 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 could not be confirmed due to the difficulty of obtaining information.

Russian forces control parts of Mariupol, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told a group of independent Russian journalists on Sunday. But the center of the city continues to hold, according to the Ukrainians and British military ratings.

An aide to the mayor, Pyotr Andryuschenko, told The New York Times that about 3,000 Ukrainian fighters from the Azov Battalion defended the city against about 14,000 soldiers supported by Moscow.

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

Her husband, a business analyst, ventured out 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 and distract the children, but once they got hungry, ‘the fire went out of their eyes’, said Kristina, who didn’t want to use her full name out of fear of retaliation. “They had no interest in anything.”

“We ate once a day,” she says. “It was mostly in the morning or in the evening that the children were shouting and saying, ‘I want to eat’.”

His family eventually fled the city, but left behind his father and grandparents. She struggles to keep tabs on them as the city’s phone networks are mostly down.

Last week, she said, they sent a text message that said, “No roof, no food and no water.”

Doctors who study hunger and starvation describe a grim process of extracting the body to stay alive. First, it burns glucose stored in the liver, then fat, then muscle.

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

Other research has shown that starvation not only weakens the body but disturbs the mind.

Nancy Zucker, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, said search done during the Second World War on 36 male conscientious objectors who followed a hypocaloric diet modeled on that of prisoners of war showed that they had suffered “significant psychological consequences”.

She added: “They had starvation neuroses – increased anxiety, increased isolation, increased depression.”

This damage is aggravated in traumatic circumstances, such as wars.

“It’s starvation during a disaster,” she said. “It is very difficult to separate the profound psychological consequences of a state of war from those of a lack of food.”

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

“They needed to be surrounded by food,” and some obsessed over it, she said. “Several have become chiefs.”

Irina Peredey, a municipal worker from Mariupol, said after escaping she was so shocked that she couldn’t eat for days.

After that, she started craving a full meal about every hour.

“An hour passes and you want to eat,” says Ms Peredey, 29. “It seems psychological to me. You constantly start eating – and you want to eat as much as you can.

At first she was confused, she said.

“But now I see that apparently that’s how my body defends itself.”

As Mrs. Beley, the baker, struggled to survive in Mariupol’s basement, she said bombs rocked the building and shells were so frequent that even her daughter Aida, 3, learned distinguish between incoming and outgoing shots.

The family quickly ran out of food. Another woman gave him a jar of honey.

“That’s how we survived,” she says. “We didn’t have any 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. The Russian soldiers offered her and her children sweets and at first she refused. Then she changed her mind.

“Give me sweets, sugar,” she said. “I realized that I needed something to be able to sustain 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 reporting from Beirut.



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Newsrust - US Top News: Mariupol residents describe how Russian forces deprived them of food and water
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