Trying to Survive in a Besieged Ukrainian City

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Civilians flee the city of Sumy, Ukraine after a temporary ceasefire was announced on March 8, 2022. 
© 2022 Ukrainian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

On February 25, Russian military forces reached the outskirts of Sumy, a city in northeastern Ukraine about 30 kilometers from the Russian border. By that evening, they had encircled the city, isolating it from the rest of the country.

Two Sumy residents, Svitlana and Olexandr – pseudonyms for a woman and man – told Human Rights Watch on March 7 about the difficulties they face. Electricity, water, and heating services have been cut off in some areas, reportedly due to Russian bombing and shelling of the city’s infrastructure. Some residents have had to melt snow for drinking water, while others moved in with friends in other neighborhoods.

Food stocks have dwindled as Russian forces have severed supply routes from Kyiv and Kharkiv. Svitlana and Olexandr said that shops near them are out of most goods and there was no meat, dairy, grains, or fresh produce, and heard the same from friends and family in other parts of the city. “There are only chocolates and juices and some very expensive products we can’t afford,” Svitlana said. They said they were unaware of any humanitarian relief getting into the city.

Like many Sumy residents, Svitlana and Olexandr had no time to flee before the city was encircled. “I’ve heard of a few groups of people who tried to leave, but they came under fire and had to turn around,” Svitlana said. Both said they were affected by videos of Sumy residents being shot at while trying to flee in cars.

On March 8, thousands of Sumy residents and foreign students were able to evacuate under the first organized ceasefire and evacuation in Ukraine since the war began. But many civilians remain in Sumy, including Svitlana, who did not want to leave her older parents behind, and Olexandr, who was worried his wife and children might come under fire during the evacuation.

As Russian forces encircle more cities and towns across Ukraine, horrific reports of civilians lacking necessities are mounting. A 6-year-old girl reportedly died of dehydration in the southern coastal city of Mariupol this week. All warring parties must abide by their international legal obligations to facilitate civilians’ access to water, food, electricity, and medical care, and their ability to leave for safer places.

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