His spouse and their two daughters had been inside.
A day earlier than the assault, the 56-year-old editor, who lives within the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, obtained a panicked name from his 30-year-old daughter.
He hadn’t heard from her since March 1, when Russian forces intensified their siege of Mariupol, the strategic port metropolis, launching a relentless barrage of rockets and bombs from land, sky and sea.
As electrical energy and web service went out, Mariupol was largely minimize off from the surface world. Serhii, who requested that solely his first identify be used for safety causes, waited desperately for any replace from his women.
In its absence, he had little selection however to depend on the grim image of life and demise being relayed by Mariupol officers: Residents had been residing in “medieval conditions,” pressured to soften snow for water and prepare dinner meals outdoors on open fires. Civilian targets, together with house buildings, a maternity hospital and the primary administrative constructing, had been lowered to rubble. Ceasefires had been ignored and evacuation corridors blocked.
It was a scenario that may have been unthinkable a couple of brief weeks in the past within the bustling industrial metropolis, as soon as recognized for its seaside resorts and a significant metal plant, and now the scene of fierce combating between Russian and Ukrainian forces.
Serhii fearful for his spouse, 56, and daughters — particularly the eldest, 36, who lives with a incapacity and wishes every day medicine. However his aid at lastly listening to from them was shortly changed by a gnawing concern.
In a harried dialog, his youngest advised him she had been capable of cost her telephone at a diesel generator, however that she solely had somewhat time to speak. She defined that their house had been destroyed within the shelling, and he or she wasn’t positive the place they’d be protected. He advised her to go to the Drama Theatre, within the metropolis heart, the place officers had been organizing buses to evacuate residents.
“When I advised them to move to the drama theatre as an evacuation site, and the next morning I learned that this place was bombed … I almost went crazy, insane,” Serhii advised CNN in a telephone name from Kyiv.
“Because I actually sent them under the bombs.”
The March 16 bombing of Mariupol’s theatre, the place Ukrainian officers say an estimated 1300 had sought refuge, was among the many most brazen of Russia’s assaults on civilians since its invasion started in late February.
Painted on the bottom outdoors the constructing — in large Cyrillic letters — was the phrase “CHILDREN.” The message — massive sufficient to be seen from the sky — was scrawled close to a public sq. that, earlier than the warfare, was busy in summer season with youngsters swinging on a jungle-gym and working by means of fountains. Russia has denied its forces hit the theatre, claiming as a substitute that the Azov battalion, the Ukrainian military’s fundamental presence in Mariupol, blew up the constructing.
After 24 hours of near-hysteria, questioning if his household was nonetheless alive, Serhii’s telephone rang. His daughter advised him she had left the theatre to verify on an aged relative shortly earlier than the bomb struck. She rushed again to seek out the constructing cleaved in half, with the central auditorium of 600 to 800 seats utterly flattened, and folks drenched in blood and white particles starting to emerge from the rubble.
Amongst them had been her sister, who had been hiding in a portion of the theater that didn’t collapse, and her mom, who was dug out of the bomb shelter together with different survivors.
The three girls, carrying nothing however a backpack with their important paperwork, managed to catch a experience with six others in a small automobile, paying the motive force all the cash they’d — 2000 hryvnia, the equal of about $92. She mentioned they received out at a checkpoint manned by Russian troopers, and walked some 19km additional on to Melekino, the place their neighbors have a dacha, or summer season home.
The small village on the Sea of Azov is overflowing with displaced individuals who have poured in from Mariupol, Serhii’s daughter advised him, including that there was no meals or gasoline left.
“In Melekino there is a real famine, a holodomor. People in the villages have no supplies, absolutely all shops are closed,” Serhii mentioned, referring to the man-made famine that gripped the Soviet republic of Ukraine within the early Nineteen Thirties, killing hundreds of thousands. The time period is derived from the Ukrainian phrases for starvation (holod) and extermination (mor).
Unable to journey himself, Serhii is now frantically trying to find a driver who will make the damaging journey to retrieve his spouse and daughters from the dacha the place they’re tenting out.
However he hasn’t had any luck but. It is a horrifying proposition: any volunteer would run the chance of being caught within the crossfire, or being captured by the Russians. Over the past week, Russian forces have been deporting 1000’s of Mariupol residents towards their will to far-flung cities in Russia, in response to metropolis officers and witnesses. And on Monday, Moscow known as on Mariupol to give up — a notion Ukraine swiftly shot down.
Serhii’s household’s harrowing escape from Mariupol is among the many first tales to floor from survivors of the theatre bombing.
For days, household and buddies of these inside have waited on tenterhooks for information of their destiny, posting in native Telegram channels and Fb teams asking if anybody has seen their family members.
Posts from a few of those that have managed to flee the town have not instilled a lot hope, describing basements became tombs, and streets suffering from useless our bodies.
Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, advised CNN on Sunday that the battle for the town has made it unattainable to retrieve and determine the useless, or deal with the wounded.
“We cannot carry out rescue operations in the current conditions: street fighting, shelling, bombing are going on,” he mentioned of the theatre assault, including that lots of the estimated 200 survivors at the moment are in different shelters, or within the strategy of being evacuated to Zaporizhzhia, a metropolis on the Dnieper River about 225km away.
On Sunday, one other strike hit an artwork college within the metropolis, the place Mr Andriushchenko mentioned 400 folks had been believed to be sheltering. However with fierce combating and communications down, it has been tough to get a transparent sense of the lack of life there.
In a video message posted to Fb within the early hours of Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky mentioned the siege of Mariupol would go down in historical past as a warfare crime. “To do this to a peaceful city … is a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come,” he added.
However like the opposite cities and cities dotted throughout Ukraine’s east and south which at the moment are being strangled by Russian troops, Mariupol has turn into a black field, with data solely starting to trickle out as residents escape.
‘I noticed that I may wait not’
After the maternity hospital close to Anna Kotelnikova’s residence was hit on March 9, sending pregnant moms scrambling by means of the ruins clutching their bellies, she determined to maneuver to her dad and mom’ house about 10km south, in a block overlooking the Drama Theatre.
Dr Kotelnikova, a 36-year-old anaesthesiologist, has volunteered as a medic for the Ukrainian military for the reason that spring of 2014, when Russia-backed separatists attacked Mariupol; separatist forces held the town for a month earlier than the Ukrainian authorities wrested again management.
Due to her involvement within the battle, Dr Kotelnikova was strongly suggested to depart Mariupol when Russia invaded Ukraine final month. She refused, unable to conceive of the carnage that was in retailer for her beloved hometown.
However because the bombing worsened, the barrage more and more unpredictable and indiscriminate, she started to alter her thoughts. On the night time of March 14, sheltering along with her sister, brother-in-law, nephew and her dad and mom — who’re of their 80s and lived by means of Mariupol’s occupation by Nazi Germany — she knew they needed to depart.
“Every day we heard explosions approaching, bombing. That night was just awful. From midnight until the morning … The bombing did not stop,” she advised CNN in a name.
“When it was possible to open the curtain … I saw that everything in the direction of my house was in black smoke.
“I noticed that I may wait not.”
Across the square from her parents’ apartment, locals and city officials were organizing evacuations at the Drama Theatre. Inside, the situation was dire, Kateryna Erskaya, a journalist who had been delivering aid to the site, told CNN.
More than a thousand people were camped out inside the unheated building, trying to keep warm in freezing conditions with cardboard boxes, blankets and near constant fires, she said. The blazes, fueled by bits of destroyed homes and tree branches, were used to cook any food people could find.
Most people’s phones were dead and mobile signals were rare — their only sense of the outside world coming from the roars of planes overhead and the noise of skirmishes nearby.
“This sound of fight was a relentless soundtrack,” said Erskaya. On March 16, just hours before the attack, she managed to flee the city.
Dr Kotelnikova did the same a day earlier, on March 15. She sprinted from her parent’s apartment to the theatre, confirmed that a convoy of more than 200 cars was leaving at 9am and snapped some photos of the “CHILDREN” sign scrawled on the ground, before running home to tell her family to pack. Within an hour, they were out the door.
Following advice from friends, she said she wiped her phone, scrubbing it of messages, applications and photos — anything that might give Russian soldiers cause to detain her at a checkpoint on the way out of the city, something that city officials and eyewitnesses say has been happening to activists and volunteers like her.
They made it through each stop, slowly navigating the road north to Dnipro, in central Ukraine. The drive, which normally takes nine hours, took two days. They stopped in fields when dusk fell, staying on the road to avoid mines and huddling to keep warm as temperatures dropped to -11C.
Dr Kotelnikova said that when the group got to Zaporizhia she was overwhelmed with relief. “I used to be prepared to only get on my knees and kiss the bottom.”
Others haven’t been as lucky.
Julia Paevska, also known as “Taira,” a storied Ukrainian military medic known for her bravery and compassion, was captured by Russian forces in Mariupol earlier this month, according to local officials.
Mr Andriushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, said Taira was among a number of activists, law enforcement officers, army veterans and volunteers who have been kidnapped by the Russians. US ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said on Sunday the reports were “disturbing” and “unconscionable” if true.
“They fall, as we are saying, ‘within the basement,'” Mr Andriushchenko said, referring to those who have been taken by the Russians.
“On the one hand, the Russians are merely making an attempt to discredit any sense of doable Ukrainian resistance. On the similar time, it’s an act of punishment for the warfare of 2014 to 2015.”
Taira, who was an Aikido marial arts instructor before she volunteered as a medic, was profiled in an award-winning book, by conflict reporter Yevgeniya Podobna, about 25 women who joined the armed forces in 2014. In a 2018 interview, she speculated about what might happen after the war: “We’ll see. Possibly I will be a coach. Possibly I will be rising roses in a backyard. Possibly I will discover one other warfare and go there to save lots of folks.”
In addition to those who have disappeared, like Taira, Mariupol officials say others have been forcibly deported to Russia. Officials are trying to track their whereabouts through eyewitness accounts, direct messages and some sympathetic Russians who oppose the war in Ukraine, Mr Andriushchenko said.
“Individuals who have already been deported are in contact with us. That is why we all know which cities persons are deported to and the way it occurs. Even when folks have their telephones and SIM playing cards taken away, they discover a possibility to get in contact with us,” said Mr Andriushchenko, whose days are now spent fielding a stream of calls and messages from Mariupol residents trying to track down their relatives. His main mission, he told CNN, is to get people out safely and reconnect them with their loved ones.
On Monday morning, Ukraine’s government rejected Russia’s calls for Ukrainian forces in Mariupol to lay down their weapons in exchange for “protected passage” out of the city.
It is an ultimatum that Russian President Vladimir Putin has used elsewhere — in Grozny, when the Russian republic of Chechnya rebelled in the 1990s, and in Aleppo, where Moscow helped quash a popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015.
At the blunt end of the ultimatum: civilians left inside the city, either trapped or too scared to flee, who face a “army tribunal” and Russia’s wrath.
For those still anxiously awaiting news of friends and family stuck in Mariupol, it is a terrifying new development.
Even though his girls have been able to leave the city, Serhii won’t be able to rest until they’re reunited. Still, he said, it was a miracle that they survived.
“The destruction now’s larger than the Nazis did throughout World Struggle II,” Serhii said.
“This can be a historic remake, that is one other warfare crime.”