There are fears that the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, which has been holding out against Russian forces since the early days of the invasion, could become the next Mariupol.
The city located not far from the border with Belarus on the road to Ukraine’s capital Kyiv is surrounded, and residents who have been unable to flee have had to contend with a lack of power and drinking water as well as more immediate danger from Russian bombardment.
Linguistics scholar Ihar Kazmerchak, a 38-year-old resident, says that the main fear mong people spending their nights underground is Chernihiv suffering the same fate as the besieged southern port city of Mariupol.
He said: “Ravaged houses, fires, corpses in the street, huge aircraft bombs that didn’t explode in courtyards, are not surprising anyone any more.”
Mr Kazmerchak told the Associated Press that the city is without power, running water and heating. At pharmacies, the lists of medicines no longer available grow longer by the day.
He said he starts his day in long queues for drinking water, rationed to 10 litres per person. People come out with empty bottles and buckets for filling when water-delivery trucks make their rounds.
“Food is running out, and shelling and bombing doesn’t stop,” he said.
On Wednesday, Russian bombs destroyed Chernihiv’s main bridge over the Desna River on the road leading to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. 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 centre and strikes also hitting a stadium, museums, kindergartens 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, Mr Kazmerchak said.
“People are simply tired of being scared and don’t even always go down to the basements,” he said.
Just over a month into the invasion, Russia’s attack has slowed into a grinding war of attrition as its military tries to pound cities like Chernihiv into submission.
Bombings of hospitals and other non-military sites, such as the Mariupol theatre where Ukrainian officials said a Russian air strike is believed to have killed some 300 people last week, have given rise to war crime allegations.
Questions about the future direction of Russia’s offensive surfaced on Friday when a high-ranking military official said the main objective of the first stage of the operation – reducing Ukraine’s fighting capacity – had “generally been accomplished”.
Col-Gen Sergei Rudskoi, deputy chief of the Russian general staff, said Russian forces could now focus on “the main goal, the liberation of Donbas”.
Donbas is the largely Russian-speaking eastern region where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014 and where many residents desire close ties to Moscow.
Mariupol is located there, although outside of the two territories controlled by the separatists.
US officials said Russian troops appeared to have halted for now their ground offensive aimed at capturing the capital, Kyiv, and are concentrating more on gaining control of the Donbas region in the country’s south-east.
However, UK defence officials said the Russian military continues to besiege a number of other major Ukrainian cities, including Chernihiv, which is located 91 miles from Kyiv.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, appearing by video-link at Qatar’s Doha Forum, compared the destruction of Mariupol to the Syrian and Russian destruction wrought on the city of Aleppo.
“They are destroying our ports,” Mr Zelensky said. “The absence of exports from Ukraine will deal a blow to countries worldwide.”
He called on countries to increase their exports of energy to give European nations an alternative to Russian oil and gas.
“The future of Europe rests with your efforts,” he said.