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Shelled city of Chernihiv in north Ukraine fears becoming ‘next Mariupol’

The city, without power, running water and heating, has been blockaded and pounded from afar by Russian troops for weeks

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of burning oil storage tanks and an industrial area in Chernihiv, Ukraine during the Russian invasion, on Monday, March 21, 2022 (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP, File)
This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of burning oil storage tanks and an industrial area in Chernihiv, Ukraine during the Russian invasion, on Monday, March 21, 2022 (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP, File)

LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Nights are spent huddling underground from Russian strikes pounding their encircled city into rubble. Daylight hours are devoted to hunting down drinkable water and braving the risk of standing in line for the little food available as shells and bombs rain down.

In the second month of Russia’s invasion, this is what now passes for life in Chernihiv, a besieged city in northern Ukraine where death is everywhere.

Russia continues to pound cities throughout Ukraine — three powerful explosions Saturday shook the western city of Lviv, which is near the Polish border and has been a refuge for thousands of displaced people.

Chernihiv has been blockaded and pounded from afar by Russian troops for weeks. And while it has not experienced the intensity of attacks that have inflicted atrocious human suffering on the pulverized southern city of Mariupol, its remaining residents are terrified that each blast, bomb, and body that lies uncollected on the streets ensnares them in the same macabre trap of unescapable killings and destruction.

“In basements at night, everyone is talking about one thing: Chernihiv becoming [the] next Mariupol,” said 38-year-old resident Ihar Kazmerchak, a linguistics scholar.

He spoke to The Associated Press by cellphone, amid incessant beeps signaling that his battery was dying. The city is without power, running water, and heating. At pharmacies, the lists of medicines no longer available grow longer by the day.

Kazmerchak starts his day in long lines for drinking water, rationed to 10 liters (2.5 gallons) per person. People come with empty bottles and buckets for filling when water-delivery trucks make their rounds.

Nastya Kuzyk, 20, is comforted by her mother Svitlana, 50, while recovering in a hospital from the injuries caused after a Russian attack in her city Chernihiv, downtown in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Friday, March 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

“Food is running out, and shelling and bombing doesn’t stop,” he said.

Nestled between the Desna and Dnieper rivers, Chernihiv straddles one of the main roads that Russian troops invading from Belarus used on February 24 for what the Kremlin hoped would be a lightning strike onward to the capital, Kyiv, which is just 147 kilometers (91 miles) away.

The city’s peace shattered, more than half of the 280,000 inhabitants fled, according to the mayor, unable to be sure when they’d next see its magnificent gold-domed cathedral and other cultural treasures, or even if they still would be standing whenever they return. The mayor, Vladyslav Atroshenko, estimates Chernihiv’s death toll from the war to be in the hundreds.

Russian forces have bombed residential areas from low altitude in “absolutely clear weather” and “are deliberately destroying civilian infrastructure: schools, kindergartens, churches, residential buildings, and even the local football stadium,” Atroshenko told Ukrainian television.

People try to extinguish a fire in a market after a Russian attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Friday, March 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

On Wednesday, Russian bombs destroyed Chernihiv’s main bridge over the Desna River on the road leading to Kyiv; on Friday, artillery shells rendered the remaining pedestrian bridge impassable, cutting off the last possible route for people to get out or for food and medical supplies to get in.

Refugees from Chernihiv who fled the encirclement and reached Poland this week spoke of broad and terrible destruction, with bombs flattening at least two schools in the city center and strikes also hitting the stadium, museums, and many homes.

They said that with utilities knocked out, people are taking water from the Desna to drink and that strikes are killing people while they wait in line for food. Volodymyr Fedorovych, 77, said he narrowly escaped a bomb that fell on a bread line he had been standing in just moments earlier. He said the blast killed 16 people and injured dozens, blowing off arms and legs.

So intense is the siege that some of those trapped cannot even muster the strength to be afraid anymore, Kazmerchak said.

“Ravaged houses, fires, corpses in the street, huge aircraft bombs that didn’t explode in courtyards are not surprising anyone anymore,” he said. “People are simply tired of being scared and don’t even always go down to the basements.”

In Chernihiv, hospitals are no longer operating, and residents cook over open fires in the street because the power is out. The utility workers who stayed behind aren’t enough to repair the broken powerlines and restore other essential services, and time has become a blur, the mayor said.

A man walks in front of a residential building damaged in yesterday’s shelling in the city of Chernihiv, on March 4, 2022. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP)

“We live without dates and days of the week,” Atroshenko told Ukrainian television.

Located only about 70 kilometers (45 miles) from Ukraine’s border with Belarus, Chernihiv was attacked in the early days of the war and encircled by Russian troops, but its defenders prevented a takeover.

“Chernihiv has become a symbol of the Russian army’s failed blitzkrieg, in which the plan was to take the city over in one day and advance toward Kyiv,” said Mykola Sunhurovskyi, a military analyst at the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center think tank.

Ever since a Russian blast hit a Stalin-era movie theater next to his 12-story residential building, Kazmerchak has been spending his nights in a bomb shelter. A Russian missile also destroyed the hotel not far from his house.

“The walls were shaking so much,” he said. “I thought my house would collapse any minute and I would be left under the rubble.”

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