Russia has turned the city of Mariupol into a Nazi-style death camp, burning bodies and blocking humanitarian convoys to hide evidence of mass killings and other atrocities there, Ukrainian officials said Wednesday.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko said more than 5,000 civilians — including at least 210 children — had been killed during weeks of Russian bombardment and street fighting in the southern Ukrainian city, which has been held under a devastating siege. He said Russian forces bombed hospitals, including one where 50 people burned to death.
Mariupol city officials said in a message posted to Telegram that mobile crematoria were being operated by Russian officials to burn the bodies of those that had been slaughtered, imagery that raised the specter of the 20th century’s greatest crime.
“The world has not seen the scale of the tragedy in Mariupol since the Nazi concentration camps,” Boichenko said in the statement. “The [Russians] have turned our whole city into a death camp.”
“This is no longer Chechnya or Aleppo. This is the new Auschwitz or Majdanek,” he said, imploring the international community to act.
Ukrainian human rights official Lyudmila Denisova also cited witness testimony that Russian forces had brought mobile crematoria and other heavy equipment to clear debris in the city.
A city official said people trying to flee the city had been sent to a “filtration camp,” CNN reported.
Boichenko said more than 90% of the city’s infrastructure has been destroyed. The attacks on the strategic southern city on the Sea of Azov have cut off food, water, fuel and medicine and pulverized homes and businesses.
An estimated 120,000 people are still in Mariupol, down from a pre-war population of over 400,000.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia was blocking humanitarian access to the besieged port city because it wants to hide evidence of “thousands” of people killed there.
“The reason why we cannot get into Mariupol with the humanitarian cargo is precisely because they are afraid… that the world will see what is going on there,” Zelensky told Turkey’s Haberturk TV.
“I think it’s a tragedy there, it’s hell, I know that it’s not tens, but thousands of people, different people, who have been killed there and thousands wounded,” Zelensky said.
However, he expressed confidence that Russia would not succeed in concealing all the evidence.
“They will not be able to hide all of this and bury all of these Ukrainians who died and who are injured. It’s just such a number, it’s thousands of people, it’s impossible to hide.”
Zelensky said that Russia had already attempted to conceal evidence of crimes in the town of Bucha outside of Kyiv and several nearby communities, where Ukrainian officials have accused Moscow of carrying out widespread killings of civilians.
“They burned families. Families. Yesterday we found again a new family: father, mother, two children. Little, little children, two. One was a little hand, you know,” Zelensky said. “That’s why I said ‘they are Nazis’.”
As he spoke, a Red Cross convoy of seven buses and at least 40 private cars arrived in the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia carrying hundreds of evacuees from Mariupol and other areas under Russian occupation, in what was the first successful international evacuation six weeks into the war.
The Red Cross has repeatedly failed to reach Mariupol, but had rescued evacuees from the nearby Russian-held city of Berdiansk, where many from Mariupol have fled, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.
“These people have really gone through the worst,” ICRC spokesperson Lucile Marbeau told AFP. “We’ve been hearing people saying how they had to walk out of Mariupol. There in Mariupol there is still no food, no water, no electricity.”
Marbeau explained that there was “barely any connection” for residents to be able to call their families or try and find a way out.
The ICRC said in a social media post that more than 500 evacuees in total were brought to Zaporizhzhia.
Passengers said it took around 26 hours to travel to Zaporizhzhia through multiple checkpoints. They said men were taken from the buses and in many cases stripped of their clothes as Russian troops inspected them for military tattoos or skin marks that suggested they had been carrying a gun.
On arrival, stressed and also relieved, one man collapsed with an alcohol-induced fit, while a woman from Mariupol hugged ICRC representatives and thanked them for bringing her and her family to safety.
“There is a huge intensity of feeling when people are able to leave a dire situation, but also when you know they have had to leave people behind,” said Marbeau. “We met a 14-year-old girl who travelled out alone while her parents stayed.”
“There was very serious shelling. That’s why we were delayed,” said one of the evacuees, Iryna Nikolaienko, explaining that she had been able to make her way out during a pause in the fighting.
“The Mariupol that I knew and loved, it does not exist anymore,” she said.
“I understood that I was leaving forever, that I would never come back to my city and I would never see it again.”
On Monday, the Red Cross said that the team it had dispatched several days earlier to help evacuate civilians from Mariupol was being held by police in Russian-controlled territory.
The organization said on Twitter Wednesday that it had attempted for five days to reach the city, which has been under sustained Russian bombardment since Moscow invaded in late February.
“But security conditions made it impossible,” it said.
“Thousands are still trapped in the city. They urgently need a safe passage out, and aid to come in,” it added.
Russian forces late last month struck a Red Cross facility in the city, home to half a million people before the war, where officials have warned of a humanitarian disaster.
Repeated attempts to evacuate Mariupol residents have collapsed, though some have made the dangerous dash to freedom from the city alone.
Asked about continuing peace talks with Russia, Zelensky said “they will have to take place anyway.”
“I think it is difficult to stop this war without it,” Zelensky said.
But he added that he had a tough time bringing himself to continue talks with Moscow “because we understand who we are dealing with.”