On a fleet of city buses, flanked by white United Nations and Red Cross vehicles, just over 150 women and children who sheltered for weeks in the belly of Mariupol’s sprawling steelworks, amid the horror of an incessant Russian bombing campaign, arrived on Tuesday at the parking lot of a home goods store in the relative safety of Ukrainian-controlled territory.
Their evacuation was a rare but limited victory for diplomacy, and an unusual concession to human dignity by Russian forces who have inflicted death and misery upon civilian populations across a broad swath of Ukraine since the war began on Feb. 24.
“I was in Azovstal for two and a half months and they slammed us from all sides,” said Olga Savina, an elderly woman, as she emerged from a white bus. She said the sun burned her eyes after so many days underground.
Negotiators from the United Nations and the International Committee for the Red Cross brokered the deal with Russian interlocutors that allowed for the civilians to escape the Azovstal steel plant, the sprawling factory that had been their refuge.
But it came only after more than two months of searingly intense attacks that have turned Mariupol, once a lively port city, into a ruin of bomb-blasted buildings and corpse-strewn streets.
In the days leading up to a cease-fire that allowed the civilians to escape, Russian forces escalated their attacks on the plant, causing cave-ins that hampered rescue efforts and caused unknown numbers of deaths and injuries, according to Ukrainian officials and troops who are still at the factory complex.
Those who evacuated represent only a fraction of the civilians who remain trapped at the plant, together with an unknown number of Ukrainian soldiers, whose supplies of food, water and medicines have dwindled to critical levels. The mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boichenko, said in a televised interview on Tuesday that more than 200 civilians were still hiding at the plant, and that more than 100,000 people remained in the city.
Shelling of the plant resumed almost immediately after international negotiators departed with evacuees, according to soldiers based there. On Monday, Russian forces using aviation, tanks and artillery hit buildings where civilians were still sheltering, according to a statement on Telegram by the Azov regiment, whose fighters are inside the plant.
The evacuees’ journey from Mariupol took three days, passing through a strip of Russian-controlled Ukraine and dozens of checkpoints. In the parking lot of the Epicenter shopping complex in Zaporizhzhia, they were greeted by a parade of aid workers offering tea and snacks and a quiet place to rest in a large white tent.
Cora Engelbrecht contributed reporting from Krakow, Poland.