The first evacuees from the ruins of Mariupol’s Azovstal steel works were expected to arrive in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia later on Monday after weeks of cowering from Russian shelling in underground bunkers.
The sprawling industrial complex in the Sea of Azov port city that has been devastated by weeks of Russian shelling has been a refuge for both civilians and Ukrainian troops as Moscow claimed control of Mariupol.
The United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross began an operation coordinated with Ukraine and Russia on April 29 to bring out women, children and the elderly from the steel works.
Some civilian evacuees reached Zaporizhzhia from Russian occupied territory on Monday morning after making their own way.
One of them, Natalya Tsyntomirska, arrived in a funeral service van. She said she had left the devastation of Mariupol some time ago and been hiding in a basement in a nearby village.
“Our house is completely destroyed. We had a two-storey building, it’s not there anymore. It burned to the ground,” she said.
Two buckets of soup
Another evacuee, Yelena Aytulova, 44, described sheltering in a bunker in Azovstal since Feb. 24. She spoke to Reuters at Bezimenne, in an area of Donetsk under the control of Russia-backed separatists on the route of the UN/Red Cross convoy.
“For a month we were eating – over 40 of us – six tins of food. We boiled two buckets of soup out of them and that was it for the whole day,” she said.
She said some civilians remained there after she left.
“The soldiers came and escorted the first 11 people out, those who were seriously ill, had asthma or needed insulin and also three of us, randomly. More than 40 people, including little children are left there.”
Olga Savina, 65, said her home in Mariupol had also been destroyed.
“It can’t be intact because there was bombing every day. All the time we spent in the bunker, they were bombing,” she said through tears.
Another convoy of civilians from the wider city was delayed as the buses had not reached the agreed pickup point, the city council said. Petro Andryushchenko, an aide to Mariupol’s mayor, had earlier reported they had already left. The council urged the evacuees to remain in place at the agreed pick-up point.
There was no indication of a plan to pull out the Ukrainian forces holed up at Azovstal. These are thought to include members of the Azov regiment, the national guard, marines, border guards and other units.
Russia resumed shelling of the complex on Sunday once the evacuation buses had left the area, Andryushchenko said.
A group of relatives of the forces dug in there met on Kyiv’s Independence Square on Monday to record a video appeal to Ukrainian authorities demanding that their loved ones also be evacuated from Mariupol. Some of them also headed down to Zaporizhzhia to continue to lobby.