By Alessandra Prentice
(Reuters) – A few weeks ago, the mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boichenko, was working on a plan to revitalise the Ukrainian port city, appearing at public meetings in shirt and tie to talk about new investment in tech, medicine and education.
On Saturday, he was speaking from a basement on a patchy phone line to anyone who would listen about Russia’s siege of the city, a Ukrainian flag tacked to the wall behind him.
He wore a T-shirt and had dark circles under his eyes. Much of the city lay in ruins, he said.
“They’re destroying us,” he told Reuters in a video call during which he could hear the sound of explosions from outside. He said his main priority now is to help many of the 400,000 people stuck in the southeastern city to escape.
Most are sleeping in bomb shelters to escape over six days of near-constant bombardment by encircling Russian forces that has cut off food, water, power and heating supplies, according to the Ukrainian authorities.
“They’ve been working methodically to make sure the city is blockaded,” 44-year-old Boichenko told Reuters in a video call from the basement room where his team is temporarily headquartered, lit dimly by a back-up generator.
“They will not even give us an opportunity to count the wounded and the killed because the shelling does not stop.”
Russia has denied since it began the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 that it has targeted civilians.
Like many residents, Boichenko has had no contact with loved ones in the city in recent days as most people can’t charge their cellphones amid the blackout.
Boichenko’s son is serving elsewhere on the front line, but his mother, two grandmothers, and his brother’s young family are in basement shelters in Mariupol. “I can’t even go there to see if they’re alive because the shelling won’t stop,” he said.
Many civilian residents are desperate to leave, but a planned evacuation had to be postponed on Saturday after a temporary ceasefire agreed by Moscow and Kyiv was not observed, with both sides trading blame.
GLIMMER OF HOPE DASHED
Boichenko said Thursday’s deal to establish an evacuation corridor for Mariupol had been the first time he felt any hope since Russia invaded.
Shelling from the Russian side destroyed half of a convoy of buses Boichenko’s team had readied for the evacuation, he said.
“They lied to us, what’s more, the moment when people were trying to get out to go to these corridors, the shelling started again,” he said, describing residents’ fear and anger at having to flee back to the shelters on Saturday.
The city council called off a second evacuation attempt on Sunday, saying Russian forces had again broken an agreement to suspend hostilities until the evening.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the evacuations had failed partly because the two sides had not agreed a clear plan.
Both Boichenko and Ukrainian forces defending Mariupol have also called for military reinforcement, saying Russia will not back down from attempting to seize the city.
For Russia, capture of Mariupol would be a prize – a strategic link between the Russia-backed separatist territories to the north and the land route to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation” that it says is not designed to occupy territory but to destroy its southern neighbour’s military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists.
Evidence of the Russian onslaught pockmark Mariupol. Rocket and artillery fire has blown out windows in residential blocks, blasted holes in buildings and torn up roads, according to photos shared widely online, some of which Reuters has verified.
The destruction has dashed Boichenko’s plan to revitalise the industrial town’s economy and attract foreign investment.
After working his way up from locomotive engineer at the local steelworks to senior management, he became mayor in 2015, hoping to help modernise the city even as Ukraine’s conflict with Russia-backed separatists simmered on its doorstep.
“We were creating the conditions for people to have a comfortable life and dream for the future. And now they’re taking this future from us,” he said, as the video connection cut in and out.
“Right now I feel like they’re tearing away my heart and soul.”
(Editing by Frances Kerry, William Maclean)