Inside the Siege of Ukraine’s Cities
The victims of Russian war crimes tell of their ordeal.
“Siege mentality” is a concept usually applied to groups rather than individuals—but when I met Svetlana Orenchuk in the basement of her bomb-damaged home in the Kyiv suburb of Irpin, it was clear that she exhibited many of the symptoms. Constantly fretful, often on the verge of tears, the forty-seven year old dental nurse was unduly startled by the most humdrum noise.
Since the outbreak of war, I’d been traveling between three of Ukraine’s main population centers: from the western city of Lviv, which was a part of Poland until the Second World War, to the former Soviet capital Kharkiv in the east, via Kyiv and its suburbs on the Dnipro river, where life under siege began in the early hours of 24th February.
“A missile struck up the road,” Svetlana told me. “Not only did I hear the blast, but I could smell the fire. It’s terrifying when death is so close.” When I met her, she and her two cats had spent the past month without power, heating, water, a mobile signal or the internet. The only light in her makeshift underground shelter came from oil-soaked cotton wool burning in cups and a strip of LED lights powered by a car battery.
No more than 75 miles from the Belarus border, the Russian occupation had turned Svetlana into a prisoner in her own home. All she could see through her basement window were columns of smoke rising over the rooftops. “Shootings and bombings have became our new reality: trying to live in rubble, creeping over broken glass from doorway to doorway, with the enemy at the gate, literally.”
No doubt Putin expected a quick victory when he launched the invasion in February. But by mid-March, as the Russian ground advance stalled north-west of Kyiv, he fell back on a medieval strategy of encircling and destroying cities. The same cluster munitions, unguided “dumb” bombs and rocket salvos which his generals had used with predictably lethal results in Syria and Chechnya now fell all across Ukraine.
The mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, estimates that until the government recaptured Irpin, Bucha, and Hostomel at the end of March, about 100,000 people were trapped in what Russian politicians like to call “hard-to-reach” suburban areas. This is a euphemism used to avoid the s-word (“siege”), given its implications of war crimes. Yet those implications were impossible to ignore when I visited Bucha soon after its liberation. I saw dozens of bodies of young men, some with their hands tied behind their back, dumped in the middle of the road among the charred wrecks of Russian tanks and armored vehicles.
One of the soldiers in charge of recovering the bodies and gathering evidence of war crimes was a former American marine who had enlisted in the Ukrainian army. “I signed up because I’m a democrat,” he told me. “People are dying and children are suffering, not as a result of an accident of war, but as the consequence of a deliberate tactic.”
The “tactic” itself is nothing new. The heyday of siege warfare came and went during the Middle Ages. As late as the middle of the 20th century, a US post-war military commission acquitted German Field Marshal Wilhelm von Leeb for his role in the brutal siege of Leningrad between 1941 and 1944, which killed over 1 million civilians.
Today, international humanitarian law—the law of armed conflict—makes clear that the deliberate targeting of a besieged civilian population is a prosecutable war crime. Yet in Mariupol, a port city formerly with a population of 450,000, this didn’t prevent besieging Russian forces from cutting off water, heat, and electricity for weeks by means of a ferocious bombardment. According to the city’s mayor, around 10,000 people have died in the course of the siege, many of whom were children. Approximately 290,000 of the city’s residents have fled. Around 100,000 remain despite 90% of the apartment blocks having been flattened.
“Mariupol has become a ghost town,” Dmytro Pavlenko, a merchant seaman, told me. “It doesn’t exist anymore.” We were having breakfast in a refugee center in the eastern city of Dnipro, the day after the 40-year-old had escaped from the wreckage of his home, driving his wife and two daughters, mother-in-law, and a couple of aunts, to safety through a briefly opened evacuation corridor. Outside he showed me the king-size mattress tied to the roof of his Toyota. It was the only item of furniture he’d been able to salvage when the opportunity to flee suddenly presented itself.
It was a pathetic spectacle that prompted a wry smile. “We’re fatalists,” he said, “and whatever will be will be. But it’s a struggle to carry on when somebody comes along and trashes your whole life. Everything I’d spent decades building [was] destroyed in a couple of weeks.”
It had been a grim fortnight, even for a family of fatalists. “We spent two weeks, all of us, just lying on the floor. Couldn’t even open the front door because they were fighting in the street outside. It was very frightening because you’re totally cut off, even from your neighbors.
“After a while you start to go mad. You become a zombie. One morning the Ukrainian police knocked on the door and told us there would be a break in the shooting, but only for half an hour. So we grabbed what we could and jumped in the car. A whole lifetime in Mariupol and we left without saying goodbye.”
While traveling across war-torn Ukraine, I was reading Lord Byron’s account of the eighteenth-century Russian siege of Ismail, in neighboring Moldova. In his poem Don Juan, Byron describes “a town which did a famous siege endure,” parodying Homer’s account of the semi-mythical siege of Troy. “You will take Ismail at whatever cost,” Catherine the Great’s war minister Prince Potemkin had written to Russia’s top general, Alexander Suvorov—and the cost was high, as Byron noted in a stanza that could have been written in March 2022 as much as in November 1790:
The Russians, having built two batteries on
An Isle near Ismail, had two ends in view -
The first was to bombard it, and knock down
The public buildings – and the private too,
No matter what poor souls might be undone –
The City’s shape suggested this, ’tis true,
Formed like an Amphitheater; each dwelling
Presented a fine mark to throw a shell in.
Unfortunately, there is nothing semi-mythical about today’s siege of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. On 2nd March, shortly before I arrived there, a cruise missile destroyed the regional government’s headquarters and several other dramatic Constructivist buildings in the city’s Freedom Square. It was a stark reminder that Russia’s siege warfare in Ukraine is not only a humanitarian catastrophe and a war crime, but also a barbaric destruction of our collective heritage.
One of the poor souls I met in a Kharkiv basement was a man named Igor Belchansky, who celebrated his 91st birthday on 6th April. A week before, his apartment building had been struck by Smerch rockets, which smashed steam pipes, cut the heating, and flooded the lower floors. A native of the city, he has already survived one terrible siege, by the German army, whose indiscriminate bombing he lived through as a teenager.
Ukraine’s invasion has seemed to many like a sudden breach to the peaceful patterns of the West. Those with longer memories like Belchansky will not see a new page in history, however, but its repetition. Putin’s brutalities serve as a grim reminder against our complacency: this has long been a bloody continent. Yet even now, in his 10th decade, Belchansky refuses to evacuate. “I love life. I love books,” he says, as he re-reads Don Juan in an almost dark basement.
Hugh Barnes is a veteran war reporter, author of three books (Special Effects, Gannibal: the Moor of Petersburg and Understanding Iran) and editor of green-socialist.com.