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‘Are they captives?’: A Mariupol family’s nightmare only deepened as they fled

Anastasiia with her brother and nephew, who died while trying to escape Mariupol, according to family members. (Family Photo)

Her brother died immediately when a land mine exploded by the car. Her 14-year-old nephew survived just long enough to cry for help as he burned in the wreck.

For 19 days this month Anastasiia lost contact with her family after their Ukrainian city was severed from the outside world, deprived of food, water, medicine, heat and mobile communications. Finally she was getting news of them again.

But on what should have been a day of relief — the day her family drove out of Mariupol — the nightmare had only deepened.

“Your dad’s fingers are moving; that’s a really good sign,” her former sister-in-law told Anastasiia from a Russian-controlled hospital in eastern Ukraine, speaking about six hours after she watched her son and ex-husband die. Six thousand miles away in Florida, Anastasiia sobbed and wondered what would happen to those who survived.

“Are they going to be kept in Russia forever? Are they captives?” the 39-year-old asked in an interview this week, speaking in Ukrainian while a friend translated. She requested that The Post not use her last name or her family’s names because she worries about relatives’ safety in Russian territory.

“I never wish anyone — anywhere, ever — a day like today,” said Anastasiia, who moved to the United States with her husband nine months ago.

The Post has not spoken to her surviving relatives. Anastasiia shared images of messages and call logs with her mother and a Ukrainian friend that corroborated her account.

Like so many others, Anastasiia has watched the war in horror from afar, struggling for the most basic information. Like millions of Ukrainians, her family faced awful choices: Staying in key cities like Mariupol was dangerous, but so was leaving. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of violating cease-fires meant to allow safe passage through “humanitarian corridors,” while a leader at the International Committee of the Red Cross warned recently that a path out of Mariupol appeared to have land mines.

Drone video shared by Ukraine’s far-right Azov Battalion on March 23 showed widespread damage to a residential neighborhood in the besieged city of Mariupol. (Video: Azov Battalion via Telegram)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address Tuesday that about 100,000 people remain in Mariupol under “inhumane conditions,” a fraction of the more than 400,000 who once lived there. Ukrainian leaders say thousands flee the city each day as Russia’s weeks-long siege gives way to street fighting and, according to the Pentagon, shelling from the sea.

It’s the place where Anastasiia was born, where she lived “24 beautiful years” and loved to spend time by the water. Now it was on the news every day — a strategic target for Russia, a “humanitarian catastrophe” for those trapped in the blockade. Strikes hit a maternity hospital, an art school, and a theater-turned-mass-shelter where the word “children” was written large enough to show up on satellite images.

On March 9 — the day of the hospital strike — Anastasiia learned her brother was alive by spotting him in a video online. He seemed to be on a road near the medical center, she said, and wondered aloud: “Is this really a bomb?”

“People couldn’t believe that that happened,” Anastasiia said. “The people were just in shock.”

A cousin near Kyiv was able to make contact with their relatives in Mariupol. She heard her family was boiling snow for water and spending freezing nights without heat. But still, they were out of reach.

Then, last week she got a message from her mother’s account on Telegram, telling her what she already knew: Mariupol was destroyed.

Photos from the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Her mom was typing unusually fast. Anastasiia had a hunch. “Timur?” she asked.

Behind the keyboard was her nephew, a bright teenager who dreamed of becoming a programmer or a graphic designer. He had found some Internet service on the ninth floor and said the family was okay.

Early one morning this week, Anastasiia sat awake in Boca Raton, Fla., waiting for news as her family attempted to evacuate west. She asked a friend in the western city of Lviv to call her mother for updates, hoping someone located in Ukraine would have better luck getting through.

The friend called shortly after 5 a.m. while running to a bomb shelter and gave a quick, cryptic warning: “You’ll have to hold yourself together.” He had overheard an explosion. At 5:38 a.m., Anastasiia said, her mother called — but she was sobbing, speaking to someone else. It seemed like an accidental dial.

“Can you help him?” Anastasiia says her mother cried. “Can you save him?”

It took several hours to learn what happened.

Anastasiia said her surviving family recounted trying to push the car when it got stuck; another vehicle tried to go around, driving slightly off the road, setting off a mine. The blast sent one car flying into the other, and Timur and his father, 41-year-old Dmitry, were pinned as a fire raged. Russian soldiers took the others to the hospital in Russian-controlled territory, Anastasiia said.

Anastasiia said she is grateful to the doctors treating her family but angry at Russia. “They’re destroying our nation. They mine our fields. They kill our people,” she said. “They’re not saving us.”

She said it was not clear what will happen when her family’s treatment ends.

One person was physically unharmed in the mine explosion: Anastasiia’s mother. But Anastasiia said she sounds “like a different person” on the phone. “Her son and her grandson became char in front of her eyes,” Anastasiia said.

Her friend in Florida, Vera de Chalambert, struggled to speak after translating the mother’s ordeal.

“I don’t even know what to say,” de Chalambert said.

She also has family in Ukraine, and so far they have stayed in Kyiv as Russian forces close in. It’s a dangerous place — early this week a missile turned much of a shopping mall to debris, killing at least eight people. But “where am I going on go?” her father’s cousin in the capital asked her.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

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