The bodies of the children all lie here, dumped into this narrow trench hastily dug into the frozen earth of Mariupol to the constant drumbeat of shelling.
There's 18-month-old Kirill, whose shrapnel wound to the head proved too much for his little toddler's body. There's 16-year-old Iliya, whose legs were blown up in an explosion during a soccer game at a school field. There's the girl no older than 6 who wore the pajamas with cartoon unicorns, among the first of Mariupol's children to die from a Russian shell.
They are stacked together with dozens of others in this mass grave on the outskirts of the city. A man covered in a bright blue tarp, weighed down by stones at the crumbling curb. A woman wrapped in a red and gold bedsheet, her legs neatly bound at the ankles with a scrap of white fabric. Workers toss the bodies in as fast as they can, because the less time they spend in the open, the better their own chances of survival.
“The only thing (I want) is for this to be finished,” raged worker Volodymyr Bykovskyi, pulling crinkling black body bags from a truck. “Damn them all, those people who started this!”
More bodies will come, from streets where they are everywhere and from the hospital basement where adults and children are laid out awaiting someone to pick them up. The youngest still has an umbilical stump attached.
Each airstrike and shell that relentlessly pounds Mariupol — about one a minute at times — drives home the curse of a geography that has put the city squarely in the path of Russia's domination of Ukraine. This southern seaport of 430,000 has become a symbol of Russian President Vladimir Putin's drive to crush democratic Ukraine — but also of a fierce resistance on the ground.
In the nearly three weeks since Russia's war began, two Associated Press journalists have been the only international media present in Mariupol, chronicling its fall into chaos and despair. The city is now encircled by Russian soldiers, who are slowly squeezing the life out of it, one blast at a time.
Several appeals for humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians went unheeded, until Ukrainian officials said Tuesday that about 4,000 passenger cars carrying civilians had fled Mariupol in a convoy. Airstrikes and shells have hit the maternity hospital, the fire department, homes, a church, a field outside a school. For the estimated hundreds of thousands who remain, there is quite simply nowhere to go.
The surrounding roads are mined and the port blocked. Food is running out, and the Russians have stopped humanitarian attempts to bring it in. Electricity is mostly gone and water is sparse, with residents melting snow to drink. Some parents have even left their newborns at the hospital, perhaps hoping to give them a chance at life in the one place with decent electricity and water.
People burn scraps of furniture in makeshift grills to warm their hands in the freezing cold and cook what little food there still is. The grills themselves are built with the one thing in plentiful supply: bricks and shards of metal scattered in the streets from destroyed buildings.
Death is everywhere. Local officials have tallied more than 2,500 deaths in the siege, but many bodies can't be counted because of the endless shelling. They have told families to leave their dead outside in the streets because it's too dangerous to hold funerals.
Many of the deaths documented by the AP were of children and mothers, despite Russia's claims that civilians haven't been attacked. Doctors say they are treating 10 civilians for every injured Ukrainian soldier.
“They have a clear order to hold Mariupol hostage, to mock it, to constantly bomb and shell it,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on March 10.
Just weeks ago, Mariupol's future seemed much brighter.
If geography drives a city's destiny, Mariupol was on the path to success, with its thriving iron and steel plants, a deep-water port and high global demand for both. Even the dark weeks of 2014, when the city nearly fell to Russia-backed separatists in vicious street battles, were fading into memory.
And so the first few days of the invasion had a perverse familiarity for many residents. About 100,000 people left at that time while they still could, according to Serhiy Orlov, the deputy mayor. But most stayed put, figuring they could wait out whatever came next or eventually make their way west like so many others.
“I felt more fear in 2014, I don't feel the same panic now,” Anna Efimova said as she shopped for supplies at a market on Feb. 24. “There is no panic. There's nowhere to run, where can we run?”
That same day, a Ukrainian military radar and airfield were among the first targets of Russian artillery. Shelling and airstrikes could and did come at any moment, and people spent most of their time in shelters.?Life was hardly normal, but it was livable.
By Feb. 27, that started to change, as an ambulance raced into a city hospital carrying a small motionless girl. Her brown hair was pulled back off her pale face with a rubber band, and her pajama pants were bloodied by Russian shelling. She was no older than 6.
Her wounded father came with her, his head bandaged. Her mother stood outside the ambulance, weeping.
As the doctors and nurses huddled around her, one gave her an injection. Another shocked her with a defibrillator. A doctor in blue scrubs, pumping oxygen into her, looked straight into the camera of an AP journalist allowed inside and cursed.
“Show this to Putin,” he stormed with expletive-laced fury. “The eyes of this child and crying doctors.”
They couldn't save her. Doctors covered the tiny body with her pink striped jacket and gently closed her eyes. She now rests in the mass grave.