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When Russia shelled their building in Mariupol, 13 neighbors banded together to flee

Cars wait in a long line to leave Mariupol, on March 17. The city, on Ukraine's southeastern coast, has been heavily damaged by Russian bombardment.
Maximilian Clarke
SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
Cars wait in a long line to leave Mariupol, on March 17. The city, on Ukraine's southeastern coast, has been heavily damaged by Russian bombardment.

LVIV, Ukraine — On a Wednesday afternoon in February, Tetiana Myhalyova headed home from her job as a costume maker at the Drama Theatre in Mariupol, expecting to come back the next morning.

But she would never return.

In nearly four weeks since Russia's invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, no Ukrainian city has been more devastated than her home of Mariupol.

The industrial port city on Ukraine's southeastern coast has faced unrelenting bombardment from Russian troops: aerial attacks, rockets, tanks and shelling from Russian ships anchored offshore.

"It's hell on Earth," says Victor Perederiy, who escaped Mariupol in recent days alongside Myhalyova and 11 others. They arrived in Lviv on Saturday.

Before the war, the two didn't know each other — Myhalyova, the 49-year-old costume maker with the downtown apartment, and Perederiy, a 35-year-old metalworker who lived in the suburbs with his young son. But the Russian shelling brought them together, as Perederiy came to shelter in the basement of his brother's building — the same building where Myhalyova lived.

In Mariupol, they say, jets buzzed overhead and Ukrainian tanks patrolled the streets, surrounded by destroyed apartment buildings, unexploded shells, burned-out cars and dead bodies. "There was a man who was lying on the street near us for two days. Nobody could take him away," Perederiy says.

City officials say more than 2,000 civilians have died and 80% of the city's homes have been destroyed. Aid workers with the United Nations and other international groups say they have not been able to safely access the city and could not verify the casualty count.

Maxar satellite imagery showing burning apartment buildings in northeastern Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 19.
Satellite Image/2022 Maxar Technologies / Getty Images
Getty Images
Maxar satellite imagery showing burning apartment buildings in northeastern Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 19.

In the last two weeks, devastating strikes on civilian targets in Mariupol have included a maternity hospital where pregnant women were being treated, along with an art school and the Drama Theatre where Myhalyova worked. Ukrainian authorities say that hundreds of civilians were sheltering in each location.

"There was no water, no heating, no gas, anything. Under the shelling, we tried to prepare food on an open fire to eat at least once a day. We were all covered in dirt," Myhalyova says. When snow fell, she adds, people would collect it for drinking water and to wash their hands and the dishes.

"For a person who has never experienced such a thing, it's hard to imagine what it's like — you'd see it in some sort of film. But it's another thing to experience it yourself," she says.

Neighbors make the choice to flee together

For the first week of the attack on Mariupol, when Russian forces were still on the outskirts of town, Myhalyova says she wasn't worried. She lived in Mariupol in 2014, when separatist forces from the nearby breakaway region of Donetsk briefly took control of the city before Ukrainian forces wrested it back.

But this time was different. The shelling escalated, and the residents of the apartment building along with other people who were seeking shelter, like Perederiy, were soon living full-time in the basement. They'd leave only to cook outside on open fires and to search for food or water.

"We don't know anyone who was killed, but we know people who went missing, and we don't know anything about them," she says — such as her mother-in-law, who left one day to go to a shop and never returned. "There's no connection, there's no information. We don't know what happened to them."

Last week, the apartment building was hit by a shell that completely destroyed Myhalyova's fourth-floor apartment, she says. The rest of the building was badly damaged.

At the time, the neighbors were sheltering in the basement and survived. But they reasoned a second strike on the now-damaged building would kill them — and they decided to stick together and leave together.

"It's normal to be afraid. But we have children. We have wives," Perederiy says. "So we put that feeling away, and we focused on doing everything right so we could leave."

Last Wednesday morning, the group of 13 people piled into two small cars — the women and children packed into a boxy Soviet-era Lada, and mostly men in a Skoda sedan — and left their homes behind.

The trip from Mariupol to nearby Berdyansk — in peaceful times, about an hour's drive — took most of the day. The roads in Mariupol were filled with rubble and shells, they say. Once they were out of the city, potholes and burned-out cars slowed their progress.

The scariest part of the journey was the Russian checkpoints, Myhalyova says, but at all of them, Russian soldiers simply checked their documents, asked about weapons, and let them go.

Civilians are evacuated from Mariupol on Sunday.
Stringer / Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Civilians are evacuated from Mariupol on Sunday.

On the second day, they drove to the city of Zaporizhzhia, another 125 miles away, crossing the battle lines to the Ukrainian side. There, they each took a shower for the first time in weeks.

Why Mariupol has become the center of so much fighting

Russia appears bent on seizing Mariupol by any means necessary. It is one of Ukraine's major cities, a center of shipping and heavy industry with steel plants and machine factories and docks.

Strategically, taking Mariupol would allow Russia to complete its occupation of Ukraine's Sea of Azov coast, creating a land bridge from mainland Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, which it illegally annexed in 2014.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called the bombardment a "war crime" and that blocking humanitarian aid is a deliberate tactic designed to increase the pain on civilians stuck there.

"They will be held accountable for this, 100%. Every Russian figure who gives such orders and every Russian soldier who carries out such orders will be identified and will receive a compulsory one-way ticket to The Hague," Zelenskyy said in a video message posted Saturday.

Ukrainian officials say that several thousand people are escaping from Mariupol each day. But the city's population was nearly 450,000 before the war began, meaning tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands, remain.

Efforts to establish humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to evacuate have had mixed results, with the U.N. reporting challenges in securing a reliable cease-fire between the two parties.

Over the weekend, Russia said it would allow the safe passage of civilians out of the city if Ukrainian forces would surrender. Ukraine refused.

"All the Russians said — it's absolutely a lie. They block our city, destroy our city and kill our people. So when they say about humanitarian corridors or something else, it's a lie," Petro Andrushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol's mayor, said in an interview with NPR.

Instead, Zelenskyy has called for direct negotiations with Putin to put an end to the war altogether.

"What Russia is trying to get Ukraine to do is to get us to try to give up our freedom, our right to free choice, and our right to free existence as an independent country. There's nothing that Ukrainians value more than freedom. Life without freedom is no life for us," Lesia Vasylenko, a member of Ukraine's parliament, said to NPR from Poland.

Arriving in the safety of Lviv

With negotiations having so little to show so far — the Mariupol evacuees in Lviv wondered if it was too late for a deal.

"Before the shelling, if we were able to find some kind of compromise to save lives and the city wouldn't be destroyed — but now, it's hard," Perederiy says. "I don't understand what Zelenskyy wants to do with all this fighting. Why can't they sit at a table and negotiate?"

They are now able to speak those words from the safety of Lviv, the safe haven in western Ukraine that has drawn hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people. They arrived Saturday by train.

A gym is converted to accommodations for displaced people in Lviv, Ukraine.
Mykola Tys / SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
A gym is converted to accommodations for displaced people in Lviv, Ukraine.

About half their group has already crossed into Poland, Myhalyova and Perederiy say. Staying behind are Myhalyova and her husband, Perederiy and his young son, and another young couple.

The men are not allowed to leave because the Ukrainian government's martial law. "After what people have lived through, it's pointless to keep us here," Perederiy says. They are too traumatized to fight.

In Lviv, Myhalyova and Perederiy are spending their days in a resource center for internally displaced people, hoping that volunteers can help them find a longer-term place to stay.

Sitting around a table with a hot meal of chicken and beets, they swipe through photos on their phones.

None shows the devastated Mariupol, where their phone batteries had long since run dead without electricity. Instead, they show photos of the group smiling on the train to Lviv, filled with the joy of being free and alive.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.