After months of tension, and despite many believing it just couldn’t happen, Russian troops invaded Ukraine 100 days ago.
The ensuing battles have caused the largest displacement of people in Europe since World War II; more than 14 million people have been displaced and 6.9 million Ukrainians have crossed borders and are living as refugees abroad.
In early January, few expected a full-scale war — from Territorial Defense volunteers in Kiev to soldiers on the front lines in Donbas and members of Mariupol’s Azov battalion. Yet almost every conversation contained the same caveat: “With Russia, you can expect anything.”
Just 32 hours before the invasion was launched on Feb. 24, hundreds of people gathered at the now infamous Mariupol Theater to protest against Moscow’s recognition of the breakaway Donbas territories of Donetsk and Luhansk.
“Mariupol is, and always has been, a city that doesn’t give up,” one protester told Al Jazeera — a sentiment that now seems eerily prescient.
It didn’t give up. The city’s defenders held out under unimaginable pressure as months of gruesome siege destroyed much of the city — including the drama theater — killing tens of thousands, according to the Ukrainian government, before Russia finally took full control of the city on May 21. .
It is impossible to overestimate how much the lives of the people Al Jazeera encountered have changed. Some are in Russian captivity – such as British soldiers Aiden Aslin and Sean Pinner and Azov commander Denys Prokopenko – while others have fled and are scattered around the world, or unfortunately never survived.
People fleeing Mariupol and other Russian-occupied areas for the relative safety of Dnipro and Zaporizhzhya have told horrific stories of survival. At a local children’s hospital, 13-year-old Milena was shot in the neck by Russian troops as she and her family tried to flee the city. Her tiny body trembled with pain as medical staff tried to comfort her — one of many lives changed forever before they barely even started.
According to UNICEF, nearly two in three Ukrainian children have been displaced by fighting, while more than 260 have been killed and 400 more injured.
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin expected his “special military operation” to be over in just a few days, attempts to quickly and forcefully take major cities like Kiev failed. Russian troops withdrew from northern Ukraine in early April and from parts of Kharkov in May.
In Mala Rohan, on the outskirts of Kharkov just after it had been liberated by Ukrainian troops, lay on the ground strewn with corpses of destroyed Russian tanks and bloodied Russian uniforms. When the people returned, they found little left of what their homes had been. People told heartbreaking stories of death, destruction and rape.
Despite strong Ukrainian resistance, the war is now said to have entered a new and deadly phase in the east of the country. In frontline cities, people have spent months without electricity, water, gas and little food. They are trapped in appalling conditions in cellars and under endless shelling as Russia pushes to make a profit.
Many of those left behind are elderly or infirm, people who do not have the resources or mobility to leave. Yet they are often overlooked by the humanitarian response, the charity HelpAge International warned today.
As experts warn that the battle for Donbas can be long and arduous, marked by fierce ground and artillery attacks, it is often the most vulnerable who pay the price.