Once the Children Got Hungry, ‘the Fire Was Gone From Their Eyes’

Over time, the family’s food became scarce, and Ms. Beley, a baker, said she fed her hungry children one bowl of porridge a day to share. Her 6-year-old daughter Ivanka dreamed about sweet poppy-seed buns her mother baked before the war.

“It’s tearing you apart,” said Ms. Beley, 33, still struggling after fleeing the city a week ago. “I just sobbed, just cried, screamed into my pillow when no one could see.”

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, it laid siege to Mariupol, using ancient warfare tactics to try to starve the once-bustling city of 430,000 into surrender.

From the days when armies surrounded medieval castles in Europe, to the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II and pressure on rebel communities in Syria during the 11-year civil war, the military has used sieges throughout history, regardless of the catastrophic consequences for trapped civilians. . in the middle.

This month, Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken accused Russia of “starving” Ukraine’s cities. He mentioned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brother Viktor, who died in infancy during the German siege of Leningrad during World War II.

“It’s a shame,” Mr. Blinken said. “The world says to Russia: Stop these attacks immediately. Let food and medicine in. Release the people safe and put an end to this war of choice against Ukraine.”

Siege warfare experts say the tactic serves a variety of purposes: to weaken enemies while avoiding encounters that could kill the besieging forces’ own soldiers or freeze active fronts while the attackers regroup. But according to scholars and survivors of the siege, the grueling nature of the siege – and how they use hunger to turn people’s bodies against them – endows them with a psychological power unique among war tactics.

According to her, the deprivation of food during the bombing of a residential area serves not only to lure out the combatants but also to inform everyone who is inside: “You are not my equal. You don’t deserve to eat, drink, take medicine, or even breathe!”

After they surrounded Mariupol last month, Russian troops have cut off the city from everything it needs to live, Mayor Vadym Boychenko said on Ukrainian national television. They also destroyed the city’s power stations, cutting off electricity to residents due to freezing temperatures, Mr. Boychenko said, and then cutting off water and gas needed for cooking and heating.

Some civilians managed to escape, making harrowing journeys through ruined streets and Russian roadblocks. But about 160,000 people are believed to still be trapped inside the city, Mr. Boychenko said, and more than two dozen buses sent a few days ago to evacuate them have been unable to enter the city due to Russian shelling.

On Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was halting relief operations in Mariupol because the warring parties could not guarantee the safety of aid workers.

The mayor estimated that almost 5,000 people were killed there, including about 210 children, but figures could not be confirmed due to the difficulty of obtaining information.

Russian forces control parts of Mariupol, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told a group of independent Russian journalists on Sunday. But the city center continues to hold, according to Ukrainian and British military ratings.

Mayoral aide Petro Andryushchenko told The New York Times that about 3,000 Ukrainian fighters from the Azov Battalion were defending the city from about 14,000 Moscow-backed soldiers.

When the siege began, Mariupol resident Kristina said that she, her husband, and two children set up camp at the entrance of their house, hoping that this would provide better shelter and protection than their apartment.

Her husband, a business analyst, ventured to find water, and she cooked over an open fire. They also collected rainwater and snow, and boiled water to sterilize it.

She read fairy tales to distract the children, but as soon as they got hungry, “the fire from their eyes was gone,” said Christina, who did not want to give her full name for fear of retribution. “They didn’t care about anything.”

“We ate once a day,” she said. “Mostly in the morning or in the evening, the children shouted: “I’m hungry.”

Eventually, her family fled the city but left behind her father and grandparents. She struggled to keep an eye on them because the city’s telephone networks are mostly down.

Last week, she said, they sent a message that read: “No roof, no food, no water.”

Doctors who study hunger and starvation describe the grim process in which the body works itself out to stay alive. First, it burns glucose stored in the liver, then fat, then muscle.

While dehydration can lead to death in less than a week, a well-nourished adult can survive more than 70 days on water alone. Children, the elderly, and the sick are dying faster.

Another study showed that fasting not only weakens the body but also disturbs the mind.

This was stated by Nancy Zucker, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. conducted research during World War II, 36 conscientious objector men who ate a low-calorie diet similar to that given to prisoners of war showed that they suffered “significant psychological consequences”.

She added: “They had hunger neuroses – increased anxiety, increased isolation, increased depression.”

This damage is exacerbated by traumatic circumstances such as wars.

“This is a famine during a disaster,” she said. “It is very difficult to separate the profound psychological consequences of a state of war from the consequences of a lack of food.”

The memory of the famine haunted the conscientious objectors in the study long after they had regained their strength.

“They needed to be surrounded by food,” and some remained obsessed with food, she said. “Some have become chefs.”

Irina Peredey, a municipal worker from Mariupol, said she was in such shock after her escape that she could not eat for several days.

After that, she began to want to eat a full meal about every hour.

“An hour goes by and you’re hungry,” says Ms. Peredey, 29. I think it’s psychological. You are constantly starting to eat – and you want to eat as much as possible.

She said she was confused at first.

“But now I see that this is apparently how my body resists.”

As Ms. Beley, a baker struggled to survive in a basement in Mariupol, she said bombs shook the building and shells were so common that her three-year-old daughter Aida learned to distinguish between incoming and outgoing fire.

Soon the family ran out of food. Another woman gave her a jar of honey.

“This is how we survived,” she said. “We didn’t have food, but we can’t say that we didn’t eat, because a spoonful of honey once a day is already some kind of lunch.”

When her family finally managed to escape, she felt weak, as if her body was struggling to function. Russian soldiers offered her and her children candy, but she initially refused. Then she changed her mind.

“Give me candy, honey,” she said. “I realized that I needed something so that I could support myself.”

Valerie Hopkins reported from Lviv, Ukraine, Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon, and Gina Kolata from Princeton, New Jersey Asmaa al-Omar and Hwaida Saad reported from Beirut.

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