People fleeing besieged Mariupol described weeks of bombardments and deprivations as they arrived Monday in Ukrainian-held territory, where relief workers awaited the first group of civilians freed from a steel plant that is last redoubt of Ukrainian fighters in the war hit port city.
Video posted online Sunday by Ukrainian forces showed elderly women and mothers with small children climbing over a steep pile of rubble from the sprawling Azovstal steel plant and finally boarding a bus.
More than 100 civilians from the plant were expected to reach Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles northwest of Mariupol, on Monday, informed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The evacuation, if successful, would represent rare progress in easing the human cost of the 10-week long war, which has caused suffering particularly in Mariupol. Earlier attempts to open safe corridors out of the city on the Sea of Azov and other places could not succeed. People fleeing Russian-occupied areas in the past have said their vehicles were fired on, and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of shelling agreed-upon evacuation routes.
“Today, for the first time in all the days of the war, this vitally needed green corridor has started working,” Zelenskyy said Sunday in a pre-recorded address published on his Telegram messaging channel.
At least some of the people evacuated from the plant were apparently taken to a village controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, though Russian state media reported they would be allowed to continue on to Ukrainian-held territory if they wanted to. In the past, Ukrainian officials have accused Moscow’s troops of forcibly relocating civilians from areas they have captured to Russia; Moscow has said the people wanted to go to Russia.
While official evacuations have often faltered, many people have managed to flee Mariupol under their own steam in recent weeks. Others are unable to escape.
“People without cars cannot leave. They’re desperate,” said Olena Gibert, who was among those arriving an a U.N.-backed reception center in Zaporizhzhia in dusty and often damaged private cars. “You need to go get them. People have nothing. We had nothing.”
She said many people still in Mariupol wish to escape the Russia-held city but can’t say so openly amid the atmosphere of constant pro-Russian propaganda. A siege of the city since the early days of the war has trapped civilians in terrible conditions, with scarce access to food, water, medicine and electricity. They have suffered intense bombardment, including a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital and the bombing of a theatre.