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A mother’s mission: Reach her family stranded in Ukraine’s ravaged Mariupol

Yulia Karaulan awaits a Red Cross humanitarian convoy in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on March 12 in an attempt to enter Mariupol, a city under Russian attack and where her husband, daughter and mother have moved to a shelter. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
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ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — As hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol have waited in desperation for an escape, Yulia Karaulan has been desperately trying to make it in.

Carrying nothing but a small blue leather handbag, the 38-year-old mother hauled herself into the last truck in a more than 30-vehicle humanitarian convoy heading into the city Saturday.

She couldn’t bear the feeling of helplessness, of being outside as her husband, mother and 10-year-old daughter were at the mercy of Russian bombs and slowly running out of food.

“My life is my child, and I cannot get to her,” she said. “I feel so guilty that I’m not there.”

Mariupol, the port on the Sea of Azov where Karaulan grew up, is under a stranglehold from Russian troops. For the past week, a convoy laden with food and essential medicines has repeatedly set off from Zaporizhzhia, 120 miles to the northwest, attempting to reach the city. In addition to the 10 trucks carrying food and medical supplies that left Saturday, there were 20 empty buses, optimistically readied for evacuating civilians.

Each time so far, the vehicles have been forced to turn back.

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Past convoys have been shot at and shelled by Russian forces. An ambulance returned pockmarked with bullet holes. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called it “outright terror” by Russian forces. Inside Mariupol, bodies lie rotting in the streets in areas too dangerous to retrieve them, witnesses said. Municipal workers have dug mass graves.

The death toll is impossible to verify, but city officials say it amounts to more than 1,500 people — above the number of civilian deaths the United Nations has verified in the entire country. This past week, a massive explosion destroyed parts of the maternity and children’s hospital. Swaths of the city have been laid to waste. There is no drinking water, and desperation has led to looting and lawlessness, according to accounts.

Karaulan knows that even if she makes it in to her child and husband of 11 years, she could get stuck with them.

“It’s my right as a mother for us to die together,” she said. “But I don’t want to die together. I want us to live together.”

Away during invasion

Karaulan was on a business trip to Parma, Italy, when the invasion began. Her photo gallery is a reel of pizzas and frivolity. The war rhetoric had been building for weeks but “nobody believed it,” she said. “We hoped he wasn’t crazy,” she said of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

She was supposed to fly home Feb. 24, the day Russia attacked, but the airspace was closed. She arranged a flight to Poland. She still wasn’t too concerned. Her husband reported back that all was fine at home in Mariupol. “If I had imagined what was going to happen, I would have got there immediately,” she said.

It was only on March 2 that the seriousness of the situation sank in. Her husband and daughter were forced to move from the apartment the family bought two years ago. They relocated to a community shelter to escape the shelling and explosions.

“How are you?” she messaged her husband. But the message didn’t go through. Communications had been cut.

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Karaulan quit smoking a decade ago when she was pregnant, but started again that day. Eight days later, gripping a slim menthol cigarette between her baby-pink manicured nails, she shivered in the cold outside a performance space turned welcome center in Zaporizhzhia for Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s advance.

“I will stop when I see my family again,” she said. She crossed the Polish border on March 4 and made her way southeast to as close as she could get to Mariupol. She has been coming to the center every day to volunteer. Anything to distract her mind.

She’s been stuck in Zaporizhzhia, waiting.

“I go to bed every night hoping I will see my daughter the next day, but then every day realize that’s not going to happen,” she said. She’s dissociating, she said, and is watching her life pass by like it’s a movie. She can’t look at photos of them. It’s too hard.

She messaged details to her husband about where to go to meet the buses that were supposed to arrive via a humanitarian corridor supposedly hashed out between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators. That message also didn’t get through.

It wasn’t until a week after communications were cut that she knew whether her family members were alive or dead. When the call came on a faint phone connection, it was her daughter who spoke first.

“I told my daughter I was coming,” said Karaulan. Her husband took the phone.

“Don’t, please. It’s hell here,” he told her. “Please don’t come, you can’t imagine.”

He described the shelter where they were trapped with 4,000 other people. He said food was running out. Because it’s a large group, some water is delivered when possible amid the bombing.

But the water isn’t good to drink, she said.

And then her mother’s voice came over the phone. “If God allows it, we will meet,” her mother said.

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Her mother, a Russian national, is sheltering with Karaulan’s husband and child. “I never divided Russians and Ukrainians. For me it’s like one nation,” Karaulan said. “It’s Russian people bombing Russian people. It’s crazy. I thought we were all brothers.”

“It’s the most senseless and unfair war,” she said. “It’s not my story. It’s not the story of my husband.”

A friend called on Wednesday. She told Karaulan that her family was lucky to be in a community shelter where there are some supplies. Her friend and her family are trapped in the basement of their home.

For drinking water, they melt snow or gather water from pools. There is no electricity.

“They bought liver and meat before the war,” she said, but it has gone bad. “They now salted it, and tried to cook it somehow, the spoiled food, at least to try to eat something.”

And rats are everywhere.

“She said they are all just dying there,” Karaulan said.

Her words are urgent and tumbling: “While we are talking here, they are simply dying.”

The city she loved is in ruins, but there is still a chance to save lives, she said.

“Today they are alive,” she added, “but what will be tomorrow, we don’t know.”

The same day she talked to her husband, Karaulan met one family that managed to escape Mariupol, a couple with a baby. They turned up at the center, the windows of their vehicle smashed out. They said they drove through the front lines and the shelling.

They exchanged numbers. Later that evening, the woman called to tell Karaulan that a bomb had fallen on the shelter where her family had sought refuge. She told Karaulan that her family was killed. At that moment, Karaulan was in the apartment where she was being put up in Zaporizhzhia, with friends of a colleague. She collapsed in the corridor.

“I couldn’t even move,” she said. “I was just sitting watching the wall.”

She needed the bathroom, but she couldn’t stand.

“I thought my family is dead, and I was thinking about how to join them,” she said. “I wasn’t sane.”

Her hosts, however, told her there had been no news of such a bombing in Mariupol.

“I didn’t believe them,” she said. She called the police, the emergency services, everyone she knew, before realizing it was not true. She has no idea why the woman told her that her family was dead. She has now blocked her on messaging apps.

The next day her husband got through again, but just for a moment.

‘Everything is bad’

“What is the news?” he asked. “Please do something, everything is very bad, people are dying.”

The call ended.

Since that Thursday morning she’s had no contact.

“I don’t know whether they are alive. I have no idea what is going on there right now. I cannot reach them again.”

She’d thought of simply getting to a nearby village and walking to the city.

“But I understand that if I do that, I’ll probably be dead, and my child will still be alive,” she said. “It’s not a solution. I’m just trying to understand what I can do in this situation.”

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Yulia Karaulan left on a humanitarian convoy in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine on March 12, seeking to reunite with her family in the besieged city of Mariupol. (Video: Loveday Morris, Photo: Wojciech Grzedzinski/Loveday Morris)

She managed to get on the humanitarian convoy for the first time on Friday afternoon. Speaking by phone en route, she described her mission as if she were doing a quick school run: “I just want to pick up my family.”

Friday’s convoy made it only a few miles. They parked on the highway for hours. She was told the route was not safe, that there was shelling. They turned back. She cried all the way to Zaporizhzhia.

On Saturday, they set out earlier. She was more hopeful. A dozen clergymen from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church chanted a prayer before dividing themselves among the convoy.

A priest on one of the buses made the sign of the cross as the convoy pulled out. “God’s with me,” said Andrey Kovalenko, a bishop who traveled in an ambulance with a wooden cross taped to the windscreen. “Of course, who doesn’t worry, every normal person worries.”

Karaulan, though, said she feels no fear. Wearing a faux-fur-lined coat and a top with the slogan “Best Runner” across the front in diamanté studs, she waved goodbye as her truck pulled out toward the highway.

“How can you be afraid if your child is there?”

Anastacia Galouchka contributed to this report.