The world’s latest wartime monument to human cruelty: Mariupol

March 24, 2022 10:23 am

The Russian bombing of Mariupol, Urkaine, in March 2022. Photo by МВС України | Wikimedia Commons

Don’t look away.

I know it’s hard to watch reports of the genocide unfolding in Ukraine.

But the only thing worse would be to shrug and look away, to treat it all as just another tragic story about a distant and abstract horror that has little if anything to do with our everyday lives.

Nothing could be further from the truth. This war is our war, a fight to hold the frontline of democracy. A fight that’s being fought around the world, even here in the U.S., where some believed the fight had been settled 246 years ago. 

Don’t look away.

As I write these words, as many as 100,000 men, women and children in Ukraine’s port city of Mariupol are desperately struggling to survive round-the-clock rocket and artillery attacks by Russian troops, in the winter cold without heat, water, medicines, electricity or food supplies. 

Encircled by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s powerful war machine, starvation has become part of the city’s daily fears.

Don’t look away.

Find Mariupol on the internet and you’ll see how the city looked before the start of Russia’s unprovoked invasion on Feb. 24: idyllic, peaceful, picturesque. 

Scan a sampling of news websites today and you’ll see what Putin’s month-long wave of war crimes has wrought: burned out buildings, dismembered bodies, half-dug graves in makeshift cemeteries, corpses left unrecovered because it’s too dangerous to bury them, untold thousands left homeless, once-thriving residential neighborhoods, not all that different from yours or mine, a picture-postcard city reduced to rubble and ash.

Don’t look away.

While most of Mariupol’s peacetime population of 400,000 has fled the unrelenting military attack and more than 80% percent of the city’s homes and buildings have been damaged or destroyed, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said this week that as many as 100,000 civilians remain trapped in the city.

Some estimates put the death toll in Mariupol since the war began at about 3,000. Others say the number of dead could reach as high as 20,000 victims once rescue workers are able to sift through the ruins.

Don’t look away.

Zelensky said of Mariupol in a video address to his nation on Saturday, “To do this to a peaceful city … is a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come.”

Indeed. The siege of Mariupol has catapulted the once “peaceful city” into the grisly ranks of wartime tombs to human cruelty.

  • The nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 that left 100,000 to 200,000 people dead instantly, though tens of thousands more would later die of injuries or radiation exposure.
  • The aerial bombing of Dresden in Germany by U.S. and British warplanes that transformed the city’s once grandiose cityscape into a smoldering heap and killed 22,000 to 25,000.
  • The aerial blitz of London by Hitler’s Luftwaffe in 1940 and 1941 that left 43,000 British civilians dead and 1 million homes and flats destroyed.
  • The nearly 52,000 people killed in the rebel-held city of Aleppo at the peak of the war in Syria. 

Mariupol is Ukraine’s Aleppo.

In Aleppo, Putin, who’s directing the destruction of Mariupol and other areas of Ukraine, helped Syrian President Bashar Assad “gain the upper hand with a ruthless strategy,” writes the Associated Press. In city after city, “One by one, they locked sieges around opposition-held areas, bombarding and starving them until the population’s ability to hold out collapsed.”

If that all sounds familiar, it’s because the mass murder of unarmed civilians is how tyrants wage war.

Putin doesn’t care who or how many people die beneath his bombs, as long as he wins. His army has destroyed hospitals, schools, apartment buildings, a theater used as a bomb shelter, and basically any place where the people of Mariupol have tried to cower.

Putin is demanding Mariupol’s surrender, but its proud people, even in the face of almost certain annihilation, refuse.

Earlier this week, Mariupol’s Deputy Mayor Sergei Orlov told a French TV anchor, “Russia doesn’t want to let Ukrainian citizens evacuate to the Ukrainian side. They do all their best to evacuate them to Russia, to push them, to shell their houses … It’s criminal… It’s war crimes.”

In a separate interview with the same news outlet, Viktoria and Oleksii Kazantsev recalled their narrow escape from the city.

‘Worse than a horror film,” said Viktoria.

“We tried to understand why our (apartment) building was such a target,” Oleksii said. “Then with time when it became possible to go out, we realized the whole city was the same. They were shooting indiscriminately.”

“We were lucky,” said Viktoria. “At least in our yard there were no corpses.”

Don’t look away.

We all need to bear witness to the unconscionable destruction of Mariupol.

We all need to do what we can to bring this war to an end or at least help those who survive.

Most of all, we need to not look away — even if we know that someday it could all happen again.

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James E. Garcia
James E. Garcia

James E. Garcia is a Phoenix-based journalist, playwright and communications consultant. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of a major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James has taught creative and non-fiction writing, ethnic studies, theater, literature and Latino politics at ASU. The founder and producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co., James is the author of more than 30 plays, including the upcoming “The Two Souls of Cesar Chavez.”