Shelled city in north Ukraine fears becoming ‘next Mariupol’

Nights are spent huddling underground from Russian strikes pounding their encircled city into rubble. Daylight hours are devoted to hunting down drinkable water and braving the risk of standing in line for the little food available as shells and bombs rain down.

In the second month of Russia’s invasion, this is what now passes for life in Chernihiv, a besieged city in northern Ukraine where death is everywhere.

It isn’t — yet — quite as synonymous with atrocious human suffering as the pulverized southern city of Mariupol. But similarly blockaded and pounded from afar by Russian troops, Chernihiv’s remaining residents are terrified that each blast, bomb and body that lies uncollected on the streets ensnares them in the same macabre trap of unescapable killings and destruction.

“In basements at night, everyone is talking about one thing: Chernihiv becoming (the) next Mariupol,” said 38-year-old resident Ihar Kazmerchak, a linguistics scholar.

He spoke to The Associated Press by cellphone, amid incessant beeps signaling that his battery was dying. The city is without power, running water and heating. At pharmacies, the lists of medicines no longer available grow longer by the day.

Kazmerchak starts his day in long lines for drinking water, rationed to 10 liters (2 1/2 gallons) per person. People come with empty bottles and buckets for filling when water-delivery trucks make their rounds.

“Food is running out, and shelling and bombing doesn’t stop,” he said.

Nestled between the Desna and Dnieper rivers, Chernihiv straddles one of the main roads that Russian troops invading from Belarus used Feb. 24 for what the Kremlin hoped would be a lightning strike onward to the capital, Kyiv, which is just 147 kilometers (91 miles) away.

The city’s peace shattered, more than half of the 280,000 inhabitants fled, according to the mayor, unable to be sure when they’d next see its magnificent gold-domed cathedral and other cultural treasures, or even if they still would be standing whenever they return. The mayor, Vladyslav Atroshenko, estimates Chernihiv’s death toll from the war to be in the hundreds.

Russian forces have bombed residential areas from low altitude in “absolutely clear weather” and “are deliberately destroying civilian infrastructure – schools, kindergartens, churches, residential buildings and even the local football stadium,” Atroshenko told Ukrainian television.

On Wednesday, Russian bombs destroyed Chernihiv’s main bridge over the Desna River on the road leading to Kyiv; on Friday, artillery shells rendered the remaining pedestrian bridge impassable, cutting off the last possible route for people to get out or for food and medical supplies to get in.

Refugees from Chernihiv who fled the encirclement and reached Poland this week spoke of broad and terrible destruction, with bombs flattening at least two schools in the city center and strikes also hitting the stadium, museums, kindergartens and many homes.

They said that with utilities knocked out, people are taking water from the Desna to drink and that strikes are killing people while they wait in line for food. Volodymyr Fedorovych, 77, said he narrowly escaped a bomb that fell on a bread line he had been standing in just moments earlier. He said the blast killed 16 people and injured dozens, blowing off arms and legs.

So intense is the siege that some of those trapped cannot even muster the strength to be afraid anymore, Kazmerchak said.

“Ravaged houses, fires, corpses in the street, huge aircraft bombs that didn’t explode in courtyards are not surprising anyone anymore,” he said. “People are simply tired of being scared and don’t even always go down to the basements.”

With the invasion now in its second month, Russian forces have seemingly stalled on many fronts and are even losing previously taken ground to Ukrainian counter-attacks, including around Kyiv. The Russians have bombed the capital from the air but not taken or surrounded the city. U.S. and French defense officials say Russian troops appear to have adopted defensive positions outside Kyiv.

But with Russia continuing to strike and encircle urban populations, from Chernihiv and Kharkiv in the north to Mariupol in the south, Ukrainian authorities said Saturday that they cannot trust statements from the Russian military Friday suggesting that the Kremlin planned to concentrate its remaining strength on wresting the entirety of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region from Ukrainian control. The region has been partially controlled by Russia-backed separatists since 2014.

“We cannot believe the statements from Moscow because there’s still a lot of untruth and lies from that side,” Markian Lubkivskyi, an adviser to the Ukrainian defense minister, told the BBC. “That’s why we understand the goal of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin still is the whole of Ukraine.

Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Marcin Przydacz, expressed hope that Putin may be casting around for some “kind of a face-saving exit strategy.”

“Definitely, Russia has not achieved its goals. It has not seized Kyiv, it has not changed the government of Ukraine,” Przydacz told the BBC. “And that is only because of the fact that the Ukrainian army is doing so well.”

Britain’s defense ministry said Saturday that it does not expect a reprieve for citizens of Ukraine’s bombarded cities any time soon.

“Russia will continue to use its heavy firepower on urban areas as it looks to limit its own already considerable losses, at the cost of further civilian casualties.” the U.K. ministry said.

Previous bombings of hospitals and other non-military sites, including a theater in Mariupol where Ukrainian authorities said a Russian airstrike is believed to have killed some 300 people last week, already have given rise to war crime allegations.

Mariupol resident Maria Radionova, 27, said she was standing at the entrance of the Mariupol Drama Theater, when it was hit. From the city of Zaporizhzhia, to where some residents were evacuated, she described a scene of confusion, anguish and grief.

“The man standing behind me grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and made me bend down and then pushed me against the wall and covered me with his body. And debris was falling on us, bricks and pieces of the wall,” Radionova said from the city of . “I saw from the stairs a man was blown away probably from the blast, and he fell facedown on the (shattered) glass. Nearby, there was an injured woman in a puddle of blood, and this woman was trying to wake him up.”

When the dust settled, the two dogs who she thought of as her only family were dead, she said.

“I walked around the whole theater. I tried to enter to find out what, how? What? I cried there for an hour or two,” Radionova said. “I just stood near the theatre. People were leaving, and soon after the shelling started again, and people simply dispersed and I didn’t go anywhere because I didn’t know where to go.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, appearing by video-link at Qatar’s Doha Forum, on Saturday compared the destruction of Mariupol to the Syrian and Russian destruction wrought on the city of Aleppo. And he warned that people beyond Ukraine may find themselves short of food if the invasion isn’t stopped.

“Russian troops mine fields in Ukraine, blow up agricultural machinery, destroy fuel reserves needed for sowing. They blocked our seaports. Why are they doing this?” Zelenskyy asked. “Our state will have enough food. But the lack of exports from Ukraine will hit many nations in the Islamic world, Latin America and other parts of the world.”

The invasion has driven more than 10 million people from their homes, almost a quarter of Ukraine’s population. Of those, more than 3.7 million have fled the country entirely, according to the United Nations. Thousands of civilians are believed to have died.

In Chernihiv, hospitals are no longer operating, and residents cook over open fires in the street because the power is out. The utility workers who stayed behind aren’t enough to repair the broken powerlines and restore other essential services, and time has become a blur, the mayor said.

“We live without dates and days of the week,” Atroshenko told Ukrainian television.

Located only about 70 kilometers (45 miles) from Ukraine’s border with Belarus, Chernihiv was attacked in the early days of the war and encircled by Russian troops, but its defenders prevented a takeover.

“Chernihiv has become a symbol of the Russian army’s failed blitzkrieg, in which the plan was to take the city over in one day and advance towards Kyiv,” Mykola Sunhurovskyi, a military analyst at the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center think tank, said.

Ever since a Russian blast hit a Stalin-era movie theater next to his 12-story residential building, Kazmerchak has been spending his nights in a bomb shelter. A Russian missile also destroyed the hotel not far from his house.

“The walls were shaking so much,” he said. “I thought my house would collapse any minute and I would be left under the rubble.”

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Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Nebi Qena in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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