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Russia-Ukraine war: Hundreds of Turks desperately await evacuation from Mariupol

As casualty numbers grow, families tell MEE they haven't heard from loved ones trapped in the city under siege for weeks
Four-year-old Zulkarneyn Danyal and two-year-old Eva Umay Sahin are among hundreds of Turkish citizens trapped in Mariupol (Provided)
By Yusuf Selman Inanc in Istanbul, Turkey

Hayat Cetinkaya and her family didn’t hear from her brother’s wife and daughter for more than a week after their apartment in Ukraine’s southeastern city of Mariupol was bombed.

Her brother, back in Turkey, had a stroke as days went by with no news.

“Praise to be Allah that finally one of their neighbours informed us that my niece and her mother were alive,” said Cetinkaya to Middle East Eye over the phone.

On Wednesday, Cetinkaya tweeted that her niece and sister-in-law had managed to flee the coastal city, which Russian forces have shelled from both land and sea for nearly 20 days.

“They managed to leave the city in a private car," Cetinkaya told MEE.

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But their story is one of the rare happy endings.

At least 300 Turks, and hundreds more of their non-Turkish family members, are trapped in Mariupol, a strategically important city between Russian-annexed Crimea and the separatist Donbass region.

According to Ukrainian officials more than 2,400 civilians who have been killed in Mariupol have been identified, but the real number of deaths is likely far higher.

Bodies have reportedly been left in the streets as Russia continues to bomb the city and citizens attempt to escape in cars amid the shelling.

map black sea ukraine

At least 150 people are staying in the city’s Sultan Suleiman Mosque, which was built by a Turkish businessman in 2005 and is run by Turkey’s Religious Directorate.

A report last week claimed that Russia had targeted the building after the city’s mayor shared a post on Facebook. But Ismail Hacioglu, the head of Sultan Suleiman Mosque Foundation in Mariupol, has denied the claims, saying that the mosque had not been hit and that people were safe.

In an appearance on TV, now a rarity due to technical failures, Hacioglu said the city had no electricity, water, or gas, while shelling had shattered most apartment windows.

Desperate situation

Ugur Sahin, whose wife, son, and daughter are trapped in Mariupol, sounded desperate in a phone call with MEE. He hasn’t heard from his family since 5 March.

Sahin doesn’t know whether his family managed to reach the mosque, whose officials have told him that food is scarce. 

“My son Zulkarneyn Danyal is four-and-a-half years old, his birthday is so close,” Sahin told MEE.

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"My daughter, Eva Umay, is two-and-a-half years old. I’m praying, reciting the Quran all the time. What else can I do?

"Can you imagine that my babies are living for three weeks under bombardment with no clean water? They have to collect snow and boil it to drink.”

Ozlem Ayyildiz is also desperately looking for information about her brother and his family.

“I just know that they managed to leave Mariupol for a small town near Zaporizhzhia [to the city’s west] immediately after the Russians invaded the city. However, Russian troops entered this town, too,” she told MEE. “Now, they don’t have any electricity, water, internet or a telephone.”

Ayyildiz hasn’t heard from her family since 3 March.

Turkish authorities have called on people to remain calm as negotiations with Ukraine and Russia to create a safe passage out of the city continue.

“We’ll evacuate our citizens as soon as possible,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday.

Cavusoglu was heading to Moscow on Wednesday and will visit Kyiv too. One of his most urgent topics is expected to be the evacuation of trapped Turkish citizens.

'If nobody finds a solution, I’ll go there at any cost to save my family'

- Seckin Oktay, whose wife and son are in Kharkiv 

Even though Turkey has managed to evacuate thousands of its citizens from other cities, the Mariupol operation has failed multiple times. A source close to the evacuation organisation told MEE that air strikes and mines have stopped buses from entering the city.

“Our [Turkish] foreign minister and defence minister step in when Russians stop our evacuation buses. But they [Russians] do so at every checkpoint,” the source, not authorised to speak to journalists, told MEE.

Some 2,000 civilians have managed to leave Mariupol in their own cars.

But the self-organised evacuation comes with no security guarantees, the city council has said.

“Many people don’t know where their families are,” Cetinkaya told MEE. Hundreds of people have taken refuge in shelters or begun sharing neighbours’ homes.

“Because the consulate system doesn’t work, they can’t see [exactly] how many Turkish citizens are in the city,” Sahin added.

Trapped son in a trapped city 

MEE reached another father whose wife and son were trapped in a village near Kharkiv, in Ukraine’s northeast, which is on the frontline of fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces.

“They have had almost no food for 20 days. They must go to a lake to take water, boil it and drink,” Seckin Oktay said over the phone. “My son, four years old, has been living in a garage for three weeks. I can’t believe this.”

His wife and son went to visit their family but got trapped there when Russian forces deployed a few kilometres from the house. “Eight [Ukrainian] missiles landed in the garden of the house where my family is staying.”

Demir Oktay son Kharkov
Demir Oktay and her young son are trapped in Kharkiv (Provided)

A nearby house was hit. “The whole family died from a Ukrainian missile, which in fact was aimed at Russian forces. So, they are in the middle of the crossfire,” he shouted, stopping to smoke a cigarette.  

“The town is a minefield now. I don’t know how they could leave even if there was a way to do so.

“The last time I spoke to my wife, I couldn’t hear her voice because of the heavy shelling. If nobody finds a solution, I’ll go there at any cost to save my family.” 

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