Ukrainian families on the run describe the “hell” they left behind in the besieged city of Mariupol, seeing dead bodies in the streets and sleeping in sub-zero temperatures, hiding in cellars.
Pounded relentlessly by Russian forces, they said they were forced to melt snow to drink water and cook leftover food over open fires, food, water and electricity being cut.
“They’re firing so many rockets,” Tamara Kavunenko, 58, one of more than 4,300 Mariupol residents who fled to the central Ukrainian town of Zaporizhzhia, told AFP this week. .
“In the streets there are the bodies of many dead civilians,” she said.
“When the snow came, we scooped it up and melted it to get water. When it didn’t, we boiled water from the river to drink it,” added Kavunenko.
“It’s not Mariupol anymore. It’s hell.”
Ukraine says more than 2,000 people have died so far in the city, a key strategic target for Moscow, potentially linking Russian forces in Crimea to the west and Donbass to the east, while cutting off the Ukrainian access to the Sea of Azov.
Ukraine on Thursday accused Russia of bombing a theater in the port city where hundreds of people had taken refuge, despite a sign reading “DETI” – or children in Russian – carved into the ground on either side of the building.
– “Smell in the air” –
About 6,500 cars remained in the past two days, Mariupol Mayor Vadim Boychenko said on Telegram overnight Wednesday-Thursday.
Many of them escaped by chance in the midst of a communication breakdown.
In the building of a Soviet-era circus in Zaporizhzhia, Red Cross volunteers wait for evacuees. Piles of children’s shoes and blankets are stacked on the floor.
Dima, his fingernails overgrown and his hands black with dirt, told AFP he had not washed for two weeks. He looted stores for food to feed his children and grandparents, he said.
“We lived underground and if it was minus four degrees Celsius it was a good temperature,” he said, raising his leg to show he was wearing three pairs of pants for warmth.
“Sometimes the bodies are on the street for three days,” he said.
“The smell is in the air and you don’t want your kids to smell it.”
He arrived in Zaporizhzhia on Tuesday with his wife and two young children, he told AFP, in what he said was his third attempt to leave.
Daria, another civilian who fled, said she lived in the basement of her building with her baby daughter for 10 days.
– ‘Sick, in tears’ –
“Every day it got worse and worse,” she said as she cradled her baby in her lap.
“We found ourselves without light, without water, without gas, without the means to exist. It was impossible to buy anything anywhere,” she added.
Marina, a Red Cross volunteer in Zaporizhzhia, said the fleeing residents arrived in dire condition.
“They (were) tired, sick, in tears,” she said. The shopping center offers them shelter and the possibility of a shower. “We take care of them,” he said. “Everything is planned for them.”
The only escape is by private car. Many said they had been unable to leave the shelters due to repeated attacks and, without a phone or internet connection, had found safe passage by chance.
“We saw people with white ribbons (on their cars) leaving,” said a woman who gave her name only as Darya, adding that she had asked a neighbor if she could come too.
For some, the journey to Zaporizhzhia – which usually takes around three to four hours – took a day and a half.
A father-of-two said he turned on the radio and managed to find a weak connection, where he heard news from the hallway.
Hugging his young son, Dmitry said they spent ‘nine or 10 days’ hiding in the theater – which Ukraine later said was destroyed by Russian forces – after the collapse of their house.