While Mariupol’s defenders held out against Russia’s demand to surrender on Monday, the number of bodies in the rubble of the bombed and besieged Ukrainian city remained shrouded in uncertainty, the full extent of the horror not yet known.
With communications paralyzed, movement restricted and many residents in hiding, the fate of those who plunged into an art school on Sunday and a theater blown apart four days earlier was unclear.
It was believed that more than 1,300 people sheltered in the theater and an estimated 400 in the art school.
Mariupol, located on the Sea of Azov, has been a prime target relentlessly harassed for more than three weeks and has seen the worst of the war. The fall of the southern port city would help Russia build a land bridge to Crimea, which was taken from Ukraine in 2014.
But no clear picture emerged of how close the catch could be.
“No one can tell from the outside if it’s really about to be taken,” said Keir Giles, a Russia expert at the British think tank Chatham House.
‘Every house a target’
Over the weekend, Moscow had offered safe passage out of Mariupol — a corridor leading east to Russia, another west to other parts of Ukraine — in exchange for the city’s surrender before daybreak on Monday. Ukraine flatly declined the offer well before the deadline.
Mariupol officials said at least 2,300 people died in the siege, some of whom are buried in mass graves, but fears grew that the number could be much higher.
For those left behind, conditions have become brutal. The bombing cut off Mariupol’s electricity, water and food supplies and cut communications with the outside world, sending residents into a struggle for survival.
“What is happening in Mariupol is a huge war crime,” said Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief.
Mariupol had a pre-war population of about 430,000. About a quarter are said to have left in the early days of the war and tens of thousands have escaped through a humanitarian corridor in the past week. Other attempts have been thwarted by the fighting.
Those who came from Mariupol told of a destroyed city.
“There are no more buildings there,” said 77-year-old Maria Fiodorova, who crossed the border into Poland on Monday after five days of travel.
Olga Nikitina, who had fled Mariupol to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where she arrived on Sunday, said gunshots blew from her windows and her apartment was sinking below freezing.
“Fights took place on every street. Every house became a target,” she said.