I still don’t know if Alina has made it out of Mariupol, or whether she is alive.
When Russian bombs pummeled the Ukrainian city three weeks ago, I lost contact with my smart, resourceful, young translator. After the bombs fell, the city lost electricity and was cut off from water, gas and food. Since then, I have been messaging Alina daily on WhatsApp, hoping she has escaped to somewhere safer, but no replies arrived. (I am not using the last names of Mariupol residents for their safety, as Russian soldiers are kidnapping thousands of them and sending them forcibly to Russian cities.)
It seems impossible to believe that just six weeks ago, Alina and I drove all over Mariupol as if the world were normal. We traveled from the industrial half of the town with its huge steelworks to the beaches lined with modest hotels to the town center with its many restaurants, modern shops and central town square. In the square, the elegant Mariupol Drama Theater was the cultural symbol of the city for 62 years.
Locals were nervous. They remembered the failed Russian effort to take Mariupol in 2014. But no one expected the hell that would befall Mariupol in a couple of weeks’ time — the premeditated Russian destruction of almost every building and residence in the city. The drama theater is now a tomb for unknown numbers of women and children who were hiding in its basement when a Russian plane deliberately bombed it. An art school sheltering 400 women and children was also bombed.
“What I saw, I hope no one will ever see,” a Greek diplomat who escaped from the city last week told journalists. “Mariupol will become part of a list of cities that were completely destroyed by war; I don’t need to name them — they are Guernica, Coventry, Aleppo, Grozny, Leningrad.”
Yes, Mariupol is the Guernica of our times, reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s famous bombing of a Spanish village into rubble in 1937. Guernica was a testing ground for a key Nazi military tactic — carpet-bombing civilians to demoralize the enemy (in this case, the Basque resistance to Spanish fascists). The world hardly noticed as Hitler practiced for World War II.
The fate of Mariupol represents something equally evil: Vladimir Putin’s willingness to deliberately wipe out a city in order to terrorize Ukrainians. Putin practiced similar terror on Grozny and much of Aleppo. As President Joe Biden and NATO leaders meet this week in Brussels, the murder of Mariupol should impel them to transfer better air defenses into Ukraine — now.
Before Alina went silent, she had moved to the basement of family friends. She wrote to me: “Air raids everywhere. We heard two large explosions a couple of hours ago. One more now, they are bombing us. Will keep in touch as long as I have internet.”
Alina thought of trying to get to Poland with her mother but didn’t have her own car. A well-educated IT specialist, with an MBA from Lehigh University, she had considered emigrating to the United States, if possible, or maybe to Canada. Did she try to escape and not make it? There’s no way for me to find out.
Meantime, Alex, her courageous host, who is her best friend’s retired father and had driven us on back roads near the front lines, was ferrying would-be escapees out of Mariupol to the next big city. But he was determined to stay in his hometown and not let the Russians drive him out.
You can get a sense of the horrors in Mariupol from the reports of two Associated Press journalists, Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka, who were probably the last international press in the besieged city until they left earlier this week. Chernov and Maloletka photographed wounded pregnant women after Russians bombed a maternity hospital and confirmed that one of the women and her newborn had died.
On Feb. 27, Chernov wrote: “we watched as a doctor tried to save a little girl hit by shrapnel. She died. A second child died, then a third. Ambulances stopped picking up the wounded because people couldn’t call them without a signal, and they couldn’t navigate the bombed-out streets. The doctors pleaded with us to film families bringing in their own dead and wounded, and let us use their dwindling generator power for our cameras. No one knows what’s going on in our city, they said.”
Chernov continued: “By this time, I had witnessed deaths at the hospital, corpses in the streets, dozens of bodies shoved into a mass grave. I had seen so much death that I was filming almost without taking it in.”
There are still hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians trapped in the rubble and unable to leave the city because the Russians target humanitarian convoys.
If the United Nations, the West and the world stand by while the residents of Mariupol die under the rubble, then Putin has a green light for more war crimes. If Putin is permitted to turn Kyiv — along with other Ukrainian cities — into another Guernica or Mariupol and get away with it, what will he do next?