First evacuees from Mariupol reach relative safety
By Michael Schwirtz and Austin Ramzy
The first people to flee Mariupol during a brief cease-fire this past weekend started arriving in the city of Zaporizhzhia, in southeastern Ukraine, on Monday morning, with international observers expressing optimism that more civilians would be able to leave a steel plant in Mariupol despite Russian attacks resuming.
As of Monday morning, evacuees from the Azovstal steel plant had not yet arrived in Zaporizhzhia. But other residents of Mariupol who had taken advantage of the brief cease-fire began to trickle into the parking lot of a home-goods store that has served as a way station for refugees fleeing territory controlled by Russia.
“The day before yesterday it was relatively quiet,” said Anastasiya Dembitskaya, describing the situation in Mariupol on Sunday. She arrived in Zaporizhzhia on Monday morning with her two children and a dog.
Residents of Mariupol were invited to join a convoy Monday that was being overseen by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Hundreds of civilians have sheltered for weeks in the Azovstal plant alongside Ukrainian fighters, who had become increasingly trapped as Russian forces expanded their control of the key port city.
About 20 women and children were able to leave Saturday from Azovstal, followed by about 100 Sunday. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine said that they were headed northwest to Zaporizhzhia.
“Today we finally managed to start the evacuation of people from Azovstal,” Zelenskyy said Sunday in his nightly address. “After many weeks of negotiations, after many attempts, different meetings, people, calls, countries, proposals. Finally. There was not a single day when we did not try to find a solution that would save our people.”
Dembitskaya said that she had hoped to bring her sister and parents with her but that they had refused to leave behind their home, which was one of the few still in one piece, along with their dogs and cats. Dembitskaya, 35, described Mariupol as a largely unlivable city, desolated by more than two months of continuous shelling by Russian forces.
But with a reduction of fighting in Mariupol in the past two or three weeks, signs of life have also begun to return, she said. Though power and water remain cut off, there is now spotty telephone service, she noted, and small markets have begun to appear, selling food brought in from Russia and Russian-controlled Ukrainian territory and sold at stratospheric prices.
“They’ve begun to at least remove the trash, which is good,” Dembitskaya said. “The bodies and the trash and the wires that were lying everywhere.”