Civilians fleeing Mariupol's Azovstal steel works tell harrowing tales

Escape from hell: Civilians fleeing Mariupol’s Azovstal steel works tell of the horrors of constant Russian bombing and fears they may be shipped off to Russian-controlled territories

  • Footage shared by the Azov battalion showed civilians evacuating this weekend
  • They spoke of the terrors of living under constant Russian bombardment
  • Others are afraid to leave as they may be taken to Russian-controlled territory
  • Russia says it hit the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol with planes and artillery 
  • Moscow’s commanders claim they are destroying new defences set up during ceasefire at the weekend, and blame Ukrainians for ‘taking advantage’ 
  • But defenders say Russia is trying to storm the plant, after bombing all night 

Heart-wrenching footage has emerged of terrified and exhausted Ukrainian civilians being evacuated from the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol this weekend before Russia commenced yet another bombardment.

The clips were captured by Ukraine’s Azov battalion and give harrowing insight into the conditions endured by the civilians holed up in the factory, many of whom shared their thoughts on the conflict and the impact of the Russian invasion. 

‘There are more than ten children from 10 to 12 years old in our bunker alone,’ one woman said as her child sobbed into her chest.

‘A few more bombs and our bunker will be no more… you can imagine the mental condition of the children.’

Another evacuee expressed fear among civilians that they would be shipped off to Russian-controlled regions instead Ukraine-held Zaporizhzhia, as has happened to many internally-displaced Ukrainians in the Donbas region.

‘There are a lot of children here, a lot of women. If everything goes well, civilians will leave…. A lot of people are still here, they’re afraid to go because there are no guarantees they will be taken to Zaporizhzhia as promised.’

Others spoke of their desperation simply to make it to any part of Ukraine not under Russian control, and claimed it was impossible to even attempt leaving prior to the brief ceasefire due to daily bombing campaigns.

The final clip shared by the Azov battalion showed a bus full of evacuees driving away from the steel plant, presumably to relative safety in Zaporizhzhia.

But instead of relief or elation, the passengers were overwhelmed with sadness, bursting into tears as they witnessed the destruction around them. 

‘There are more than ten children from 10 to 12 years old in our bunker alone,’ one woman said as her child sobbed into her chest. She explained how the steel plant had been pounded with Russian shells and was close to collapsing

Another evacuee expressed fear among civilians that they would be shipped off to Russian-controlled regions instead Ukraine-held Zaporizhzhia as they evacuated the plant

Ukrainian evacuees being driven away from the Azovstal steel plant burst into tears as they witness the destruction on the surface

An elderly civilian uses his walking stick to clamber up the mounds of rubble as he evacuates the Azovstal steel plant

Others spoke of their desperation simply to make it to any part of Ukraine not under Russian control, and claimed it was impossible to even attempt leaving prior to the brief ceasefire due to daily bombing campaigns

Russia today attempted to storm the Azovstal steel works with infantry and armoured vehicles after heavy bombing overnight which killed two civilians, the Ukrainian defenders have said. 

Captain Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov battalion which is holed up inside the plant, said Russia spent all night bombing and is now trying to storm the complex using armoured vehicles, tanks, boats and ‘a large number of infantry’. 

Palamar said two women were killed in the bombardment with another ten injured, and called for an immediate ceasefire so hundreds of civilians still stuck inside the plant can be evacuated.

Moscow acknowledged bombing Azovstal but said its troops were taking out new defensive positions set up during a ceasefire at the weekend. 

Commanders made no mention of storming the plant, after Putin vowed last month that the operation had been called off to preserve the lives of his troops.

Smoke rises over the Azovstal steel works in the besieged city of Mariupol, as Russia says it has hit the industrial complex with artillery and bombs

Ukrainian defenders say Russia spent all night bombing the steel plant (interior damage, pictured) and are now trying to storm inside

The Azovstal steel plant is the last holdout of Ukrainian resistance in a city that is otherwise controlled by Moscow’s forces and key to their campaign in Ukraine’s east.

The UN confirmed today that it had helped to evacuate 101 people – mostly women and children – from the plant last week during a five-day operation.

It said ‘most’ of those people arrived in the city of Zaporizhzhia, 125 miles from Mariupol through Russian-held territory, today – though some had decided to remain in occupied areas.

The BBC reported that 156 people arrived in Zaporizhzhia as part of a convoy,  which had grown in size as people from outside the steel works joined en route.

Images and video of those arrivals showed some people weeping as others – including a disabled man – were helped off buses to be given medical care. 

Mariupol has come to symbolise the human misery inflicted by the war. 

A Russian siege has trapped civilians with little access to food, water and electricity, as Moscow’s forces pounded the city to rubble. 

The plant – where about 1,000 civilians sought shelter in a warren of underground bunkers along with some 2,000 fighters who have refused to surrender – has particularly transfixed the outside world.

Mariupol Deputy Mayor Sergei Orlov told the BBC that high-level negotiations were underway among Ukraine, Russia and international organizations on evacuating more people.

A Russian rocket artillery truck opens fire on the Azovstal complex, where the last Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol are holed up

Moscow’s commanders have not mentioned storming the complex, and instead say they are destroying new defences set up during a ceasefire at the weekend

101 civilians – mostly women and children – were evacuated from the Azovstal steel works at the weekend and today arrived in Zaporizhzhia (pictured)

But Russian forces and their allies resumed strikes on the plant on Tuesday. 

Vadim Astafyev, a Defence Ministry spokesman, said that Ukrainian fighters at the plant used the cease-fire that allowed civilians to flee to take up new positions.

They ‘came out of the basements, took up firing positions on the territory and in the buildings of the plant,’ he said. Russian troops along with the Moscow-backed separatist forces used ‘artillery and aircraft… to destroy these firing positions.’

After failing to take Kyiv in the early weeks of the war, Russia withdrew some of its forces and then said it would switch its focus to Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of the Donbas. 

Mariupol lies in the region, and its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops for fighting elsewhere in the Donbas.

Michael Carpenter, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Monday that the U.S. believes the Kremlin plans to annex much of eastern Ukraine and recognise the southern city of Kherson as an independent republic. Neither move would be recognised by the United States or its allies, he said.

Russia is planning to hold sham referendums in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the Donbas that would ‘try to add a veneer of democratic or electoral legitimacy’ and attach the entities to Russia, Carpenter said. He also said there were signs that Russia would engineer an independence vote in Kherson.

Mayors and local legislators there have been abducted, internet and cellphone service has been severed and a Russian school curriculum will soon be imposed, Carpenter said. Ukraine’s government says Russia has introduced its ruble as currency there.

Getting a full picture of the unfolding battle in the east has been difficult because airstrikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around. Both Ukraine and the Moscow-backed rebels fighting in the east have introduced tight restrictions on reporting.

But so far, Russia’s troops and their allied separatist forces appear to have made only minor gains, taking several small towns as they try to advance in relatively small groups against staunch Ukrainian resistance.

Women and children evacuated from Mariupol arrive in Zaporizhzhia, 125 miles to the west, after a weekend ceasefire allowed them to flee

A family who managed to flee from Mariupol arrives in Zaporizhzhia, where reception centres for those displaced by the fighting have been set up

A father with children in the back of his car – and a sign on the side reading ‘kids’ in Russian – arrives safely at a reception centre in Zaporizhzhia

Hryhorii, a member of the Ukrainian military hugs his wife Oksana who he had not seen for nearly a year, after she fled from a Russian-occupied village to Zaporizhzhia

A woman from Mariupol cries after arriving at an evacuation point in Zaporizhzhia

In its daily Twitter statement on the war, the British military said Tuesday it believes the Russian military is now ‘significantly weaker’ after suffering losses in its war on Ukraine.

‘Recovery from this will be exacerbated by sanctions,’ the ministry said. ‘Failures both in strategic planning and operational execution have left it unable to translate numerical strength into decisive advantage.’

Ukraine’s resistance has been significantly bolstered by Western arms, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday announced a 300 million pounds ($375 million) in new military aid – including radar, drones and armored vehicles.

In a speech delivered remotely to Ukraine’s parliament, he echoed the words of Britain’s World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill as he lauded the country’s defiant response to the Russian invasion.

‘The so-called irresistible force of Putin’s war machine has broken on the immoveable object of Ukrainian patriotism and love of country,’ he said. ‘This is Ukraine’s finest hour, that will be remembered and recounted for generations to come.’

Pope Francis was quoted Tuesday in an Italian newspaper as saying that he offered to travel to Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin about three weeks into the invasion. The pontiff told Corriere della Sera that he has not received a response.

On Monday, Ukraine said Russia struck a strategic road and rail bridge west of Odesa, a major Black Sea port. The bridge was heavily damaged in previous Russian strikes, and its destruction would cut a supply route for weapons and other cargo from neighbouring Romania.

Evacuees from the Azovstal steel plant hug each-other as they are evacuated from Mariupol to Russian-controlled areas of Donetsk

A convoy of evacuation buses heading from Mariupol into Russian-held territories in Donetsk is seen in an image released by the Kremlin

A satellite image captured by Planet Labs PBC and analyzed by The Associated Press showed the bridge still standing as of noon Monday.

Another image, taken Monday, showed nearly 50 Russian military helicopters at Stary Oskol, a Russian base close to the Ukrainian border and some 110 miles northeast of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

Highlighting the toll of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday that at least 220 Ukrainian children have been killed by the Russian army since the war began, and 1,570 educational institutions have been destroyed or damaged. He also noted that some people trying to escape the fighting are afraid they’ll be taken to Russia or Russian-controlled areas.

More than 1 million people, including nearly 200,000 children, have been taken from Ukraine to Russia, Russia’s Defence Ministry said Monday, according to state-owned news agency TASS. 

Defence Ministry official Mikhail Mizintsev said that number included 11,550 people in the previous 24 hours, ‘without the participation of the Ukrainian authorities.’

Zelensky said that the U.N. assured him people fleeing Mariupol would be allowed to go to areas his government controls.

Separate from the official evacuations, some Mariupol residents left on their own, often in damaged private cars.

As sunset approached Monday, Mariupol resident Yaroslav Dmytryshyn rattled up to a reception center in Zaporizhzhia in a car with a back seat full of youngsters and two signs taped to the back window: ‘Children’ and ‘Little ones.’

‘I can’t believe we survived,’ he said, looking worn but in good spirits after two days on the road.

‘There is no Mariupol whatsoever,? he said. ‘Someone needs to rebuild it, and it will take millions of tons of gold.’

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