The National Times - Ukrainians fleeing occupation pour into Zaporizhzhia

Ukrainians fleeing occupation pour into Zaporizhzhia

Ukrainians fleeing occupation pour into Zaporizhzhia
Ukrainians fleeing occupation pour into Zaporizhzhia

A large white tent in a shopping centre car park in Zaporizhzhia has become the meeting place for thousands from southern Ukraine who have fled the Russian invasion and left everything behind.

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The lot is a transit point for those escaping besieged Mariupol, over 200 kilometres (124 miles) to the southeast, and the coastal region captured by Russian forces.

Under the marquee, displaced people eat at communal tables, are given clothes, medicine and even toys, as they wait for buses to take them on to regions less exposed to attacks.

Children's drawings have been stuck to the inside of the tarp, most of them celebrating Ukraine and its army. One is a portrait of a green-eyed black cat with the message: "If you find my cat Myka, let the psychologist know."

Further along, a noticeboard is filled with announcements offering spaces in cars heading west and the photos and numbers of missing relatives.

Angela Berg, an energetic 55-year-old with short hair, left everything behind in Mariupol, including her mother, too old to take on the journey.

"A man armed with a machine gun forced us to lie on the ground in front of our 12-storey building, on bits of broken glass. Then they started to fire on it with tanks. The building caught on fire and the man with the machine gun shot at the people trying to get out," she told AFP.

"They didn't let us retrieve anything from the building until it had all burnt, not our stuff, not any documents," said Berg, who worked in hospitality before the war.

"Even the clothes I am wearing now are the ones the welcome centre gave me."

Her voice begins to break at the mention of the mother and disabled sister-in-law, whom she left behind to save the rest of her family, including her sick three-month-old granddaughter.

"It's the hardest decision I have ever had to make. I had to choose between my mother and my grandchildren."

"Only people who can walk are able to escape. My mother and my sister-in-law have nowhere to go, and we have no information on what happened to them," she said.

- 'Burnt alive' -

The conditions faced by the 120,000 people still in Mariupol, scene of intense fighting for over a month, are "unliveable", the city's mayor Vadym Boichenko told AFP on Tuesday.

"We have passed the point beyond a humanitarian disaster, because for the last 30 days, these people haven't had heating, water -- anything," he said.

Ivan Kosyan, 17, who arrived in Zaporizhzhia on March 22 with his mother and some friends describes appalling scenes from the besieged port.

"In our building, three entrances were completely engulfed by the flames. People burnt alive. It was horrible," said the teenager.

"It took us between 10 to 12 hours to get here," he said over tea handed out by volunteers.

More than 3,800 people were evacuated on Tuesday, 2,200 of them coming to Zaporizhzhia from Mariupol and Berdyansk, another port city, according to Ukrainian authorities.

At another table, Natalia Babychuk, a teacher from Polohy, between Mariupol and Zaporizhzhia, is still trying to understand what happened to her.

"Truth be told, it's a month now that we haven't slept properly," she said, playing with her wedding ring.

"I asked one of the Russian soldiers, who they called 'Avenger' because his son had been killed by Ukrainians, what they wanted. He said it was payback for what is happening in Donbas," the eastern region where Ukrainian troops have clashed with pro-Russian separatists since 2014, Babychuk said.

"They take the kids' phones and ours, the SIM cards, the computers, everything... They take everything," she said. "I don't know how they can call themselves our brothers."