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Ukrainians navigate a perilous route to safety out of besieged Mariupol

Angelina Voychenko and Yuliya Bortnik and their children Becky Sullivan
Angelina Voychenko (left) and her children and Yuliya Bortnik (right) and her son fled Mariupol after hiding for weeks in the basement of Voychenko's parents' home, with no electricity, phone service or heat, as the building shook from fighter jets and explosions. When they emerged to buy food, what they saw made them decide to leave: destroyed buildings, looted stores, no food in sight.

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — They come packed into battered buses and cars, riding in new Audis, old Ladas and everything in between. Some arrive with windows blown out, with pieces of white cloth tied to door handles and antennas or signs that say "CHILDREN," in hopes that Russians will withhold their fire.

A month into Russia's bombardment of Mariupol, more than three-quarters of the population has fled this besieged city on Ukraine's southeastern coast, officials say, with thousands more escaping daily.

Each afternoon, crowds of people arrive from Mariupol at the parking lot of a mall on the edge of Zaporizhzia, after terrifying journeys through Russian-occupied territory. Officials have designated the parking lot as a reception point where buses come and go, and those who've fled can restock on food, water and clothing before continuing their journeys.

Zaporizhzia is the first major city on the Ukrainian side, some 25 miles from the front lines. The overwhelming majority of Mariupol residents have fled here.

"When we arrived and saw the Ukrainian flag, the Ukrainian military — " one woman started, as one of her relatives interrupted: "We had tears in our eyes. You just can't imagine."

The two women, Angelina Voychenko, 34, and Yuliya Bortnik, 44, arrived in Zaporizhzhia on Monday. Their extended family — four adults and three young boys — piled into a Daewoo sedan last week to begin their escape from Mariupol.

For weeks, they'd sheltered in the basement of Voychenko's parents' home, with no electricity or phone service or heat, as the building shook from fighter jets and explosions. When they emerged to buy food, what they saw made them decide to leave: destroyed buildings, looted stores, no food in sight.

They passed through checkpoint after checkpoint manned by Russians, they say, enduring soldiers' questions and praying that there would be no shelling. When they finally reached a checkpoint flying Ukraine's blue and yellow flag, they wept with relief.

"We haven't experienced such a feeling in life before — when you realize that you are back in Ukraine and that you are under protection, that you are free and can move freely," Voychenko says.

Those who manage to flee face rubble-strewn roads and Russian checkpoints

Shelling began in Mariupol soon after the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24. It is a strategic target for Russia: Seizing the city would create a land bridge between its border with Ukraine and Crimea, the peninsula it illegally annexed in 2014.

The bombardment has been unending. Local officials say that 90% of Mariupol's buildings are damaged or destroyed — a figure those who've fled say is too low. Satellite imagery shows entire blocks flattened and hardly recognizable.

Mariupol's prewar population of 450,000 has dwindled to fewer than 100,000, the city's mayor said last week.

Among those who've made it safely to Zaporizhzia, there are tears and smiles. One man in the parking lot laughs and pulls his wife close. A woman speaks so intensely she is practically shouting. A 29-year-old man teeters silently on the brink of tears, as his friend recounts their escape with no affect at all.

"It is either die or leave. We had no other way," says Lyudmila Ilina, a woman who arrived in Zaporizhzia on Monday after three attempts at escape. "A life. We want to live. That's all."

It can take three days or more to navigate the perilous, 180-mile route from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia. Bridges are destroyed and roads are littered with rubble, say those who've fled.

"Every kilometer, there is a Russian checkpoint where they search the cars and the phones. They can make you take off your clothes," says Vadim Timoshenko.

Together, he and his son Ilya led a 10-car convoy out of the city. It took four hours just to cross Mariupol, navigating rubble-filled streets under fire and shelling. "It was terrible," Vadim says.

Before the drive, Ilya, 26, deleted social media apps like Telegram and Instagram from his phone. But at a checkpoint, Russians found it suspicious that he had no social media apps at all — so they pulled him out of the car to interrogate him.

They found his Google search history, Ilya says, which included queries about a Russian battleship destroyed by Ukrainian forces.

"They made me lie face down on the floor and pointed a gun to my head. They told me that I'd be taken to Donetsk to be checked," he says, referring to the separatist-held region in eastern Ukraine. "They took me to a basement and told me I'd never see my family again."

Eventually, he says, the soldiers demanded 200 euros ($223). The Timoshenkos gave them all the money they had, and were allowed to leave.

Safe passage for civilians is a key point at peace talks

Peace talks in Turkey could include guarantees around safe passage for civilians, Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine's deputy prime minister, said Tuesday. Guarantees around safe passage for civilians are under consideration at ongoing peace talks.

"Our delegation had directives from the president of Ukraine to open humanitarian corridors to such big cities as Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Kherson and the region, the capital region — and, of course, Mariupol," Vereshchuk said on Ukrainian television. "Now there is a better chance that we will open these humanitarian corridors."

Humanitarian corridors have had mixed success. Ukraine's central government has sent buses to evacuate people, and volunteer organizations have organized caravans.

But previous agreed-upon cease-fires for the corridors have not always held. And practically speaking, with no electricity and phone service, it is nearly impossible to communicate with trapped residents. As a result, many must leave on their own and hope for the best.

Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of forcibly removing people from Mariupol to Russia.

Artyom, a software developer from Mariupol who declined to give his last name out of fear of Russian retaliation, doesn't know if that's true or not, but says people are desperate to leave the city just about any way they can.

"If you will say to the people, 'Okay, you have a choice: You can be in a basement, or go to some safe place, we have buses.' They will sit in the buses and go to any other country. They don't think about other options," he says. "After 10 days in a basement, I think every man or woman would make the decision to leave."

Of those who make it to Zaporizhzhia, few stay. Most are trying to get to safety in western Ukraine or out of the country altogether.

Artyom, who plans to move to Germany, says he has no plans ever to return to Mariupol.

"It looks like Chernobyl, but with burned houses. No people on the streets, only soldiers," he says. "I don't think it's a city for living in the future." Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.