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War in Ukraine: A call from under-siege Mariupol

08 Mar 22 | 11 Mar 22

War in Ukraine: A call from under-siege Mariupol

Damaged buildings along a street in Mariupol, Ukraine Caption
Damaged buildings along a street in Mariupol, Ukraine

The city of Mariupol on Ukraine’s southeast coast has been under heavy shelling for days, with several failed attempts to evacuate civilians to safety along humanitarian corridors.

Inside the under-siege city, staff from Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) are now reporting a dire situation for the people trapped here. Many have no electricity, heating or even water for basic needs. Food and medical supplies are also limited.

Below, is an excerpt from a phone call with MSF staff member Olexander (also known as Sasha), who is still inside Mariupol, and MSF emergency coordinator Alex Wade in Lviv, western Ukraine. A third MSF staff member cannot be identified for security reasons.

This phone call took place on Saturday 5 March 2022.

Olexander: You understand?

Alex: Go ahead, Sasha.

Olexander: OK, so in Mariupol, the situation today is a bit more quiet than yesterday, because yesterday it was really bad with loud explosions all over the city.

We visited several of our friends today in Mariupol, and relatives, and we saw in different parts of the city the places where explosions happened. And it was even near residential blocks of flats and the roads. So we saw many buildings where the glass was broken in the windows because of close shelling and explosions [not audible].

There was a problem, a big problem with drinking water. There’s nowhere to find it [not audible].

Alex: Sorry, Sasha, that broke up. That broke up. You're breaking up a bit. I heard “Drinking water is very hard to find” and then it cut. Can you start over from drinking water?

Olexander: I don't understand.

At MSF's out-patient department in Batil refugee camp Gandhi Pant, a nurse, escorts a patient with a possible appendicitis to a waiting ambulance. 

Batil is one of three camps in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State sheltering at least 113,000 refugees who have crossed the border from Blue Nile state to escape fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the SPLM-North armed group. Refugees arrive at the camp with harrowing stories of being bombed out of their homes, or having their villages burned. The camps into which they have poured are on a vast floodplain, leaving many tents flooded and refugees vulnerable to disease. Mortality rates in Batil camp are at emergency levels, malnutrition rates are more than five times above emergency thresholds, and diarrhea and malarial cases are rising.

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MSF staff: Can you just repeat again what you said about? We just heard up to the bit about heavy shelling everywhere and residential things being hit. And then you were talking about drinking water.

Olexander: Okay. So yeah, we saw a lot of explosions all over the city in different districts of Mariupol. Of course, there are some districts that are more heavily shelled and ruined. But even in the centre, there are like places where explosions happened.

There are no places where water can be found. People are looking for different options. For example, we saw in the one block of flats: People were taking water from a heating system. It's not working and they’re taking water from the heating system just to wash their hands or just for some very, very basic needs.

Also, we saw people go to springs, like ground springs, to take some water. And we saw also, in one place, a truck with water from UNICEF. But it was only in one place and had a huge, huge queue of people trying to get this water.

There is nowhere to find bread and in all shops – the majority of shops and supermarkets – the products were taken out by people who could not find food.

So, somebody broke the windows or doors to the shops, and the people who were near, they just went and took at least some food because no shops are working. There is nowhere to buy food.

Oh, what else?

And today there was information that an evacuation route would be organised. And we saw a huge number of cars in different areas of Mariupol with stickers saying “children” and a white ribbon. But later, there was information that it was cancelled due to continuous shelling on the roads from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia [a city to the northeast].

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Alex: Sasha, do you have any water? Or do you know if our staff have any access to water?

Olexander: Me, personally, I have. I also visited, today, the guest house with our staff. They went to a market and they found a place where they bought potatoes and they were looking also for places where they can take some water… but I don't know if they managed to find it or not.

Later, we know that they tried to organise an evacuation, but then it was cancelled as well.

MSF staff: The pharmacies? I heard the pharmacies are empty as well.

Olexander: Yes, pharmacies are also with broken doors and people took pills because nothing is working. No shops, no pharmacies that are selling medicines. So, that's why people have to just go inside the broken doors and take what they need or what is left there.

But this situation started already, two or three days ago. So today, almost all of these shops and pharmacies… they are empty already.

MSF staff: Yeah, it sounds quite desperate. So, do you know the condition of the hospitals?

Before, you ascending the statistics from the mayor he was sending? But I think, since the end of the communication, it was impossible to have any communication. Before they were saying there's like 127 casualties – 50 and this hospital, 20 in this hospital etc.

Did you hear any updates on the situation with their patients?

Olexander: No, I don't know anything about the state of the hospitals. I just know that the oblast level [regional] hospital for intensive care, they're located close to the western part of Mariupol, where the battle comes closer and closer.

We live here with a neighbour who used to work in the hospital and she said that yesterday or the day before, there were incidents where projectiles landed on a private house close to this hospital – intensive care, oblast level. So, it's very close to that area where the shelling happens.

So, at least two days ago, it was not damaged because we spoke with an employee yesterday.

What is happening now? we don't know because we have a total cut of any information. We can just receive text messages through on the phone. No other information was available for us. And it’s everywhere in Mariupol [not audible] does not work anywhere and the phone is working in a very few places of Mariupol.

Alex: OK. Is there anywhere to have electricity, for example, to charge this phone you're using now? Or once the battery runs out there's no way to charge it?

Olexander: So now, we're using some electricity that’s left in a power bank. It did maybe one recharge. And also, we managed to recharge a bit when we are driving along the city – we charged from the car a bit. But, of course, apart from this, there is no other chance to recharge because there is no fuel, totally. Totally no fuel available in the city. Nowhere.

MSF staff: Thanks, Sasha. So, there's no electricity, no heating, no water.

Olexander: Just gas. In our flat, we have just gas. But in some parts of the city, I mean, in the centre of the city, they have also had the gas cut, already. But on the left bank [of Mariupol], which is severely impacted, there is no gas as well

MSF staff: OK, thanks, guys. I’m worried that the connection might go again. So I just want to talk about operations now, if that’s OK?

Ukraine war and refugee crisis

Fighting in Ukraine has killed or injured thousands of people, while more than one million refugees have fled to neighbouring countries.

Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) teams are working to deliver emergency medical aid to people still in Ukraine, as well as those now seeking safety in neighbouring countries.