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Mariupol survivors, dazed and exhausted, describe horrors they endured

Ukrainians who fled the besieged city of Mariupol and surrounding villages arrive to a refugee center in the southeast Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia on April 21. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
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ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — As the buses from Mariupol arrived one by one, the shellshocked passengers inside looked exhausted. Barely any of them spoke when the doors opened.

Their escape from the shattered Ukrainian city over which Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory Thursday, even as his advisers acknowledged that thousands of Ukrainian fighters were still holding out there, felt like “a miracle,” one woman said.

“They destroyed everything,” another nodded softly.

“Glory to Ukraine,” a teenager shouted.

The convoy of vehicles, the first to be granted safe passage by Russia in almost two weeks, was meant to include scores of vehicles. As it was, only four buses arrived in the southeastern town of Zaporizhzhia, 140 miles north of Mariupol, the rest held up as night fell by Russian checkpoints along the route, officials said.

A trickle of private cars had also made it through.

“Everything that you see during the day, when people are not allowed out, when buses do not go and there is no evacuation, this is a violation of Russia’s guarantees,” said Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, who met the buses several hours after missiles landed on the edge of the town.

Four buses from Mariupol arrived in Zaporizhzhia after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in the Ukrainian port city on April 21. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post, Photo: Heidi Levine/The Washington Post)

The humanitarian corridor marks the latest in a string of attempts discussed by Ukraine and Russia to evacuate civilians from Mariupol. Other agreements have collapsed because of mistrust.

Victory in the city would be Russia’s most significant in this war to date. The port city is critical to Russian hopes of forming an unbroken land corridor stretching from the eastern Donbas region bordering Russia to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.

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On Thursday, the escaped civilians came with horror stories of the brutal tactics that Russian forces had used. They said that relentless shelling had lit up the sky as Russian soldiers went house to house in search of perceived enemies. Families lived underground and survived on dried pasta or raw grains. Even venturing out to find water could mean death from above.

“The ground was shaking,” said Ruslana, sitting alongside her daughter as she ate her first proper meal in weeks — fresh bread and stewed fruit — inside the Zaporizhzhia reception center.

Like other civilians interviewed, she did not share her surname out of concerns for her family’s security.

“The scariest thing was that when you went out in the street, you saw that nobody was allowed to collect the bodies,” she said, her eyes widening. “A lot of buildings were on fire. We know that a lot of families burned alive.”

When the first bus opened its doors in Zaporizhzhia, many of the families just sat and waited, as if struggling to grasp that they were safe. Some children sat painfully still. They stared in silence at the Ukrainian police and volunteers who were registering their arrival.

Outside a nearby yellow bus, other families cried over each other as reporters asked about the conditions they had escaped. “There were no light, there was no water,” shouted one woman. “It was hell,” another said.

An elderly woman closed her eyes and just looked lost amid the chaos. She hung her head and there were tears on her cheeks.

In a rare televised meeting broadcast Thursday, Putin addressed Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, telling him that “the work of the armed forces to liberate Mariupol has been a success. Congratulations.”

He added that he had “canceled” plans to storm the plant and forcibly oust the remaining Ukrainians, who for days have refused Russia’s demand to surrender.

But a deputy commander of the last remaining forces fighting for Ukraine in Mariupol said Thursday that his troops were fighting on, even as Russian officials claimed victory.

Mariupol fighters ‘dying underground’ at steel plant, commander says

Svyatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Battalion, a nationalist group that is part of Ukraine’s national guard, said from the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works — where his troops and the 36th Separate Marine Brigade have rebuffed Russia’s assault — that they were “surrounded” but “continuing to defend” themselves.

Palamar was able to communicate with The Washington Post via satellite messages with freelance journalist Khrystyna Bondarenko, and he painted a picture at odds with Russian claims of victory.

He said Ukrainian fighters in Azovstal had repelled a Russian advance and damaged Russian military vehicles.

“We are in Mariupol … so as long we are here, no one has surrendered Mariupol yet,” said Palamar, though he acknowledged that they were running out of steam and needed to be evacuated.

Palamar said Russian forces tried for two days but ultimately failed to storm Azovstal. He said Ukrainian fighters destroyed three Russian tanks, two infantry fighting vehicles, an armored personnel carrier “and a lot of infantry.” “The enemy was unable to take Azovstal in a storm,” he said. “For now, this is the situation.”

While Putin may have ordered his troops to not advance into the plant, Russian forces are still shelling it, Palamar said.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Thursday that Russian claims of victory in Mariupol were premature. “They cannot physically take Azovstal, they have understood; they have experienced huge losses there,” he said.

Shoigu, the Russian defense chief, estimated Thursday that some 2,000 troops remain in Azovstal, while Vereshchuk, the Ukrainian deputy prime minister, said there were about 1,000 civilians and 500 wounded soldiers there — and demanded “an urgent humanitarian corridor” to get them out.

Palamar said the civilians asked for guarantees of their safety before they would agree to leave the plant. He called on “the whole world to support our president and our politicians to give a guarantee of safe exit to civilians, remove the wounded and dead, and evacuate the garrison that is defending Mariupol.”

The 204 civilians who arrived Thursday from Mariupol were emerging from what felt like a black hole. In their hometown, cellphone signal was jammed or knocked out by damage to nearby infrastructure.

Many of the families had still not been able to tell their relatives that they had survived.

Inside the reception center, they waited anxiously for their phones to charge. Nadia, a mother of three, had only just learned that her son had survived. But there were others unaccounted for.

“I haven’t spoken to my mother since March 1,” she said. “We don’t know anyone who has heard from her.”

For many arriving Thursday, it was the first time they had been able to describe their ordeal to outsiders. Her voice small with exhaustion, 75-year-old Iryna said her home had been destroyed. “I am homeless now,” she said. “Everything has been turned into rubble.”

“It was very frightening, all this shooting and explosions. I was so scared that my legs could not carry me, and they still can barely do so.” She looked down at the dried food in front of her. “Now I’m calm, I don’t even want to eat,” she said, and started to cry.

“It is good that I am home now.”

Stern reported from Mukachevo, Ukraine. Eugene Lakatosh in Zaporizhzhia and Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.