Large convoy from Mariupol reaches safety, refugees speak of ‘devastating’ escape

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine, May 14 (Reuters) – A large convoy of cars and vans carrying refugees from the ruins of Mariupol arrived in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhya on Saturday, after waiting days for Russian troops to let them go.

Mariupol, now largely controlled by Russia, was razed to the ground during the 80-day-old war. Ukraine has been evacuating civilians from the destroyed city for more than two months.

Refugees had to get out of Mariupol first and then somehow get to Berdyansk – some 80 km further west along the coast – and other settlements before driving 200 km northwest to Zaporizhzhia.

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Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, said he lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed. A relative managed to get him from Mariupol to Berdyansk via “secret detours”.

“We barely made it, there were a lot of elderly people among us… the journey was devastating. But it was worth it,” he said after the convoy arrived in the dark.

An aide to the mayor of Mariupol had previously said the convoy numbered between 500 and 1,000 cars, representing the largest evacuation from the city since the Russian invasion of February 24.

Iryna Petrenko, 63, said she initially stayed to care for her 92-year-old mother, who later died.

“We buried her next to her house because there was no one to bury anyone,” she said. For a while, Russian authorities had not allowed large numbers of cars to leave, she said.

Only the huge Azovstal steel factory in the port city is still in the hands of Ukrainian fighters after a protracted battle.

“My parents’ house was hit by an air raid, all the windows were blown out,” said Yulia Panteleeva, 27, who was absent along with other relatives.

“I can’t stop imagining things that could happen to us if we stayed at home,” she said.

Moscow calls its actions a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and rid it of what it portrays as anti-Russian nationalism. Ukraine and the West say Russia has started an unprovoked war.

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Reporting by Gleb Garanich and Leonardo Benassatto; Written by David Ljunggren; Editing by Daniel Wallis

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