Residents of Mariupol are trying to escape the besieged Ukrainian city
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The war in Ukraine is not stopping, just changing locations. Russian officials made a hopeful-sounding statement yesterday. As Ukraine made proposals at peace talks, Russia said it would back off the capital, Kyiv, and another city. Russia said it was making room for negotiation, although U.S. officials think their troops are just moving. Russia's assault continues elsewhere, like the besieged city of Mariupol. Civilians who make it out and head west cross the Dnieper River over a bridge at a town called Zaporizhzhia. NPR's Jason Beaubien went there.
(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE WHIRRING)
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: They arrived packed into battered cars, the windows of many of them blown out by bomb blasts. Dirty strips of white cloth flutter like flags of surrender from their door handles. The evacuees have taped signs with the word children on their hoods to try to identify themselves as civilians. They've traveled for days to cover just over 100 miles to get back into Ukrainian-controlled territory. And many of them are emotionally frazzled.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: The happiest moment was when they saw Ukrainian flags and Ukrainian soldiers.
BEAUBIEN: Angelina Voychenko (ph) and Yuliya Bortnik (ph) just arrived along with five other people in a compact Daewoo sedan. Their journey out of Mariupol took them a week. They moved in fits and starts, sleeping in their car and trying to gauge the security situation in front of them. They both break down in tears when they describe finally getting through the last Russian roadblock. They'd been sheltering in a basement in Mariupol without electricity or running water for weeks. Explosions and fighter jets shook their building. Their phones were dead. And they didn't know whether it was safe to leave or not. Voychenko says when they came out of the basement last week and saw their city in ruins, they knew they had to leave.
ANGELINA VOYCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: When they realized that there will be not enough of supplies, they walked to the nearest street. And then they saw all the block of flats completely destroyed and no shops. And there were some store looters. So people were looking for some food. And they realized that it won't be possible to stay there.
BEAUBIEN: Another evacuee describes emerging from a bomb shelter into what he describes as a wasteland with dead bodies in the streets. The main bridge out of Mariupol has been destroyed, forcing the evacuees to try various routes out of the city under the constant threat of shelling and snipers. One man, Vadim Timoshenko (ph), says his family tried three times to get out. Then on the road, they were constantly being stopped by Russian soldiers and checkpoints.
VADIM TIMOSHENKO: (Through interpreter) Every kilometer, there is a Russian checkpoint. And they search the cars, the phones.
BEAUBIEN: He says they deleted everything off their phones because they knew the Russians were looking for signs of pro-Ukrainian sentiment. He says even in the cold, the soldiers would strip search the evacuees, looking for weapons. Another young man, Ilya (ph), who didn't want to give his full name, says despite deleting his social media apps, soldiers found references to Russian warships in his Google search history. Laying face down, naked, on the floor with a gun to his head, he says they told him to confess to being a spy.
ILYA: (Non-English language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: They took him to the basement. And he thought he would never see his family again. He asked if he could see his family for the last time. But they told him, you would never see them.
BEAUBIEN: After holding him for several hours, Ilya says a Russian soldier offered to let him go if his family paid 200 euros to release him. Before the war, Mariupol was a city of just over 400,000 people on Ukraine's southeastern coast. It's the last piece of Ukrainian territory blocking the Kremlin from having complete control of the land corridor between Russia and the Crimea region, which it seized in 2014. Most of the population has already fled. According to Ukrainian officials, up to 100,000 people may still be in the city. There have been reports of Russian troops forcibly deporting people from Mariupol to Russia. Artyom (ph), who just escaped, says residents are so desperate to leave and have so little information, they will go anywhere to get out of Mariupol.
ARTYOM: If you will say to the people, OK, you have choice - you can be in a basement or go to some safety place, we have buses, they will sit in the buses and go to any other country. They even don't think about other options.
BEAUBIEN: He looks around the parking lot filled with evacuees, a few Red Cross vans and Ukrainian police. It's not safe even here, he says. His hope is to get to Germany.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.