Mariupol’s True Horror is Yet to Emerge

“To understand what's happening, you have to multiply Bucha and Irpin and Borodyanka a hundred times.”

Mariupol’s True Horror is Yet to Emerge

“To understand what's happening, you have to multiply Bucha and Irpin and Borodyanka a hundred times.”

Diana Berg in Lviv train station holding her Donetsk and Mariupol house keys.
Diana Berg in Lviv train station holding her Donetsk and Mariupol house keys. © Cheppel Volodymyr
Monday, 25 April, 2022

Diana Berg is a Ukrainian artist and rights activist. Originally from Donetsk, she moved to Mariupol in 2014 and has been a leading civic voice for the city since the February 24 Russian invasion. Now in Lviv, she told IWPR executive director Anthony Borden that the near-total block on information from Mariupol had hidden the full scale of atrocities in the city, with those who had managed to flee still too scared to speak out.

IWPR: It is very difficult to get reliable information from Mariupol. What is your latest understanding of the situation?

Berg: I just returned from a week in Zaporizhzhia, which is the closest point of Ukrainian controlled territory, to see with my own eyes what is happening there in the occupied areas. I spent a lot of time at the humanitarian aid site, which is a big parking [lot].

My husband is involved in a grassroots evacuation initiative, but for the last week they were not able to send any cars. Mariupol is closed, shut down. And because of the fighting, Zaparizhzhia won’t let anyone out. So I only saw a couple of people who were able to get through.

Even at the beginning of April, it was possible to drive in and at least bring someone out. Now it gets more and more difficult, more and more roadblocks. So the only survivors to come out were not directly from Mariupol, they were hiding in Berdyansk or Manhush or they were already out of the city. Only yesterday a bus came, but only with 70 people in this convoy, It was supposed to be many more people, but the Russian side didn’t keep their promises, as usual.

There are several initiatives to evacuate people. One gathers cars and drivers who are ready to go there, instruct them, and they just go. The one my husband works on gathers cars and drivers from different areas, drivers who are crazy enough to drive there.

Do they have protective jackets?

No, no, no. Nothing can hint that you are kind of military. They don't believe that I’m just a volunteer, that I just want to help people for free. You have to say, I’m just going to save my mum. So yes, it’s much more difficult now.

How do you get any information from Mariupol?

There is a Telegram channel, the biggest one is Mariupol Now, gathering information from those who get out, or those who are able to upload photos or from those who, like a miracle, receive some kind of message, like once in a week from a relative, and then they post it.

They gather bits of information, from official channels, from [the brigade] Azov, from the military, from boys and just regular grassroots people. They say we cannot verify it. But someone says that this [location] is smashed, and this house is burned, and they post all of this. Sometimes they post videos or photos, mostly from people who just got out and are able to upload…You cannot just directly message or call someone because the phone is always dead. Only when they are able, sometimes they can turn it on and just quickly call.

How many people do you think are there, civilian and military?

We don’t know the whole picture about the military, or how many are dead or taken hostage. This is not openly disclosed. I think that last week, there were 3,000… there are [also] people surviving in the ruins. I believe it is up to 100,000. And again, we don’t know about those deported to Russia. So it’s just approximate numbers. It could be 50,000.

So not all the civilians are in the Azovstal plant?

There are many, hundreds, thousands of people just living in the ruins and in the leftovers of their houses. They are not now attacking the city as much as before; they are attacking the plant. They're attacking the spot where the military are, with civilians as well. They used to [attack] all the city. Now it’s a little bit less brutal all over the city, and people there manage to survive some somehow.

What confirmation do we have about bodies that were there or maybe cleared through cremation or mass burial?

The Mariupol city council and the mayor’s office somehow found out about this mass grave in Manhush that was dug by the Russians in order to clear all the bodies. They also told us last week about mobile crematoriums. So they have satellite pictures and some sources of information. The Russians don't want to repeat the experience of Bucha so that everyone sees how many people died.

The Russians said they would pull back and besiege the plant, but you said there is still shelling.

Yes, that’s what we hear, what Azov is saying, what the military are saying, that they are still bombing us. Also that the civilians are running out of water. But on the other hand they don't want to leave, because some of them may be families of the military or some just feel better with the Ukrainian military. But the plant is not all the city, it’s just a very small percentage of the whole population that is left.

Are you reconciled to the fact that Mariupol will fall?

If someone becomes brave enough to sell us heavy arms, then the Ukrainian army will be able to deblock it. They are ready to do it. They want to go and save the city. But we don't have the arms. We just don't have the arms. We have only Stingers and it's nothing. Don’t give us, just sell us the heavy armoury.

How do we come to terms with what has happened in Mariupol?

To understand what's happening in Mariupol, you have to multiply Bucha and Irpin and Borodyanka, I don't know, ten or a hundred [times]. The only thing is that it's not visible now. Everything that's happening in Mariupol is not visible because of the total blockage of information. A total blackout.

Unfortunately the only international journalists working there had to flee just before the drama theatre was bombed. They had to flee because they were hunted [down]. For the first three weeks of the invasion, they were providing us with some photos, like from the maternity ward, and it was very important to see.

We have to drag these people out of this trap and then they will talk. But again, many of them are already deported to Russia and it would be dangerous to talk now. It's crazy how you have to hide yourself, to hide what you are doing, because it will be dangerous for someone who is left in [occupied territory]. Not everyone can talk about out what they've survived, they start closing their social media just because they know that their family is still there and that anything can be dangerous for them.

In Mariupol… even those who get out cannot talk. So all the atrocities are still hidden, and I don't know how to show them. It's only when we de-occupy all the territories, then we will witness even more atrocities.

After the reorientation of the Russia campaign, it seems in some ways that the entire war comes down to Mariupol. It’s important for the strategic land bridge to Crimea, the coast and the waterways, but it’s more than that.

Exactly. It's also revenge. Mariupol was a symbol of resistance for eight years. It was Mariupol that didn't let Russia [advance] further and was successfully holding Russia back. So they really want to demolish and just exterminate the city that was the symbol of Ukrainian resistance. They don't want to occupy it or take it or something. They just want the revenge of exterminating their enemy.

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