A Red Cross convoy arrived in the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia on Wednesday after failing to reach the besieged port city of Mariupol, an AFP journalist on the scene reported.
Accompanied by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), seven buses and at least 40 private cars arrived in the city carrying hundreds of evacuees from Russian-occupied areas, in what was the first successful international evacuation six weeks into the war.
The ICRC said most of the people arriving were in fact from Mariupol, which is still held by Ukrainian forces, but had been evacuated from the nearby Russian-held city of Berdiansk.
“These people have really gone through the worst,” ICRC spokesperson Lucile Marbeau told AFP.
“We’ve been hearing people saying how they had to walk out of Mariupol. There in Mariupol there is still no food, no water, no electricity.”
Marbeau explained that there was “barely any connection” for residents to be able to call their families or try and find a way out.
The ICRC said in a social media post that more than 500 evacuees in total were brought to Zaporizhzhia.
Passengers said it took around 26 hours to travel to Zaporizhzhia through multiple checkpoints. They said men were taken from the buses and in many cases stripped of their clothes as Russian troops inspected them for military tattoos or skin marks that suggested they had been carrying a gun.
On arrival, stressed and also relieved, one man collapsed with an alcohol-induced fit, while a woman from Mariupol hugged ICRC representatives and thanked them for bringing her and her family to safety.
“There is a huge intensity of feeling when people are able to leave a dire situation, but also when you know they have had to leave people behind,” said Marbeau. “We met a 14-year-old girl who travelled out alone while her parents stayed.”
“There was very serious shelling. That’s why we were delayed,” said one of the evacuees, Iryna Nikolaienko, explaining that she had been able to make her way out during a pause in the fighting.
“The Mariupol that I knew and loved, it does not exist anymore,” she said.
“I understood that I was leaving forever, that I would never come back to my city and I would never see it again.”
On Monday, the Red Cross said that the team it had dispatched several days earlier to help evacuate civilians from Mariupol was being held by police in Russian-controlled territory.
The organisation said on Twitter Wednesday that it had attempted for five days to reach the city, which has been under sustained Russian bombardment since Moscow invaded in late February.
“But security conditions made it impossible,” it said.
“Thousands are still trapped in the city. They urgently need a safe passage out, and aid to come in,” it added.
Russian forces late last month struck a Red Cross facility in the city, home to half a million people before the war, where officials have warned of a humanitarian disaster.
An estimated 120,000 people are still in Mariupol and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday he believes Russia is trying to hide the evidence of “thousands” of people killed there and thousands more wounded.
Ukrainian human rights official Lyudmila Denisova said on Telegram on Wednesday, citing witness testimony, that Russian forces have brought mobile crematoria and other heavy equipment to clear debris in the city.
Repeated attempts to evacuate Mariupol residents have collapsed, though some have made the dangerous dash to freedom from the city alone.
Mariupol’s mayor earlier this week estimated that some 90 percent of the city had been completely destroyed as a result of the war.
The ICRC declined to comment on whether the aid they had been carrying was able to reach Mariupol.
A number of civilians fleeing occupied areas and humanitarian volunteers who have spoken with AFP in Zaporizhzhia over the last several weeks claimed that they have first-hand knowledge of Russian troops looting aid.