“I felt a minute away from death the whole time”

After being trapped for 56 days in besieged Mariupol, the Grinchuk family had two hours to get from the ruined building they had taken refuge in to the evacuation point on Taganrog Street.

Ryna Grinchuk, a 47-year-old cradling two Chihuahuas, credited a tiny transistor radio with allowing her and her family to escape.

“It was our only connection to the outside world,” she said from a treatment center for Ukrainians fleeing the invasion.

However, it would take them another 24 hours to reach safety, navigating a gauntlet of more than a dozen Russian checkpoints along a “green corridor” to the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia. east of Ukraine.

They were among 79 people to arrive on the first evacuation convoy to leave Mariupol since last week.

Ukrainian authorities had hoped to save up to 6,000 people, including civilians trapped inside the Azovstal steelworks, the last stronghold of the battered port city which is still defended by Ukrainian forces.

But difficulties negotiating terms with Russian forces and communicating with the civilians trapped inside the city – some estimates suggest there are as many as 100,000 left – mean that only a fraction of those who want to leave are able to do so.

“We were afraid to do this trip, we knew that Russia had promised green corridors (and) then shot at buses. But we had been cut off from civilization for over 50 days, so we decided to take the risk,” Iryna said, as her dogs Tyson and Nike slept in her lap.

This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Mariupol had been ‘liberated’ and ordered his army not to storm the Azovstal stronghold but rather to cordon it off, with the apparent aim of freeing Russian troops. elsewhere in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian fighters entrenched in Azovstal would be allowed to leave if “white flags” were raised “around the entire perimeter or in certain areas” of the factory, the Russian Defense Ministry announced yesterday.

A video then emerged showing Chechen fighters with the Russian army standing amid the bombed-out concrete ruins of the city, with fires still burning in the background.

“Today we can say with certainty that the city of Mariupol has been completely cleaned up,” the men shouted.

“Russia is the power!”

Ms Grinchuk described surviving in ‘apocalyptic’ conditions in crumbling basements and buildings as fighting raged in the key port city whose capture would offer the Russians a land bridge between annexed Crimea and their small states from the separatist Ukrainian territory in Donetsk and Luhansk.

“All this time, I felt like I was a minute away from death,” she said.

“The helplessness in the face of danger was the hardest thing to bear.

“For two weeks where we were hiding, we were under crossfire from Russian and Ukrainian forces.”

As the fighting got closer, they were forced to flee from a basement to another building in which only one apartment was undamaged by shelling.

“People from the DPR (the separatist Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic) came to where we were and told us to leave – they didn’t care where to go – because we were in an area of fight.”

After previous attempts to organize evacuation routes had failed since the weekend on Wednesday, Vadym Boychenko, the mayor of Mariupol, took to the radio to encourage residents able to get to a point evacuation plan to do so.

The Grinchuks heard the broadcast.

The pick up point was a 30 minute drive away and they didn’t have a car.

It would be too far for Iryna’s mother, Valentina, 72, to walk.

Miraculously, Iryna found a woman with a Lada car that still had fuel.

“I begged her, I had to pay her 400 hryvnia (around €12). If I hadn’t convinced her, we wouldn’t have been able to arrive in time,” she said.

They emerged in a
hellscape of overturned cars and destroyed buildings.

“I love my hometown, but now it’s a ruin. It is worse than Grozny (the Chechen capital),” Irynya said.

They left with the clothes they were wearing. For Valentina, it was slippers and a black fur coat. She was carrying an old sequined handbag with a broken zipper.

After having her first meal in more than 24 hours at the reception centre, she filled her bag with biscuits and pastries before closing it with a safety pin.

“I’m an optimist so it’s fine,” she said over a hot coffee.

“I believe in the best so I’m not scared and I don’t panic, that was very important to get through that.”

At the same table in a tent in the treatment center, brothers Bohdan and Ruslan Kagadi, aged 17 and 16, gorge themselves on cookies and talk animatedly about their ordeal.

“We haven’t had the opportunity to leave so far,” Bohdan said.

“It was dangerous to drive alone because the road passes in front of the Azovstal steelworks.

“Some people came out in mid-March but since then no one has come out of our neighborhood.”

The boys had stayed with their aunt and uncle while their mother lived in another apartment a mile away.

Their mother’s apartment was hit by four shells, Bohdan said. “Two shots from the north and two from the south. It’s a miracle that she survived.

The boys finally decided to flee at the next opportunity.

“There were supposed to be three pick-up points on the evacuation route, but only one worked,” Bohdan said, describing himself as lucky to pull through. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)