Darya Peshkova’s decision to leave her family home in Mariupol came slowly, then all at once.
Russian forces were shelling the southeast Ukrainian port city she had lived in for all of her 37 years, but her family had good supplies of food and water, the gas was still working, and friends who had tried to leave had come under fire.
“There was no guarantee that we would make it,” said Ms. Peshkova. “But the chances of staying alive in Mariupol were shrinking.”
Then, at the beginning of March, Russian airstrikes brought new terror to the city of some 450,000. A neighbor said a convoy of cars was preparing to head out the next morning at 8.30 a.m. sharp.
Ms. Peshkova told her husband and two daughters, “We are leaving.” No one protested.
What followed was a “whole life in one journey,” she recalled, including an hourslong standoff with Russian gunmen, a detour through countryside strewn with dead bodies, and a dash through a disputed village.
Russia’s bombardment of citiestowns and villages is confronting millions of Ukrainians like Ms. Peshkova with a painful dilemma: abandon their shattered lives and seek safety elsewhere, or cling on in the hope it passes.
That decision has been particularly stark in Mariupolwhich is surrounded by Russian forces that are bombing it heavily. Local authorities say more than 2,000 civilians have died, some of whom were buried in vegetable gardens, mass graves or, if no relatives or neighbors remain, left where they fell.
The situation since the Peshkovs left has turned sharply worse. The city has been under constant Russian shelling and air attack, with an average of 50 to 100 bombs dropped on the city a day, authorities said. Eighty percent of the city’s residential buildings are wrecked, with around one-third beyond repair.
Thousands of people have left the city in recent days on safe routes agreed upon with Russian forces, while 350,000 remain, authorities said.
Ms. Peshkova recalls a different time in Mariupol, a steel-producing city on the Sea of Azov with green parks and sandy beaches. Ms. Peshkova, who is head of investments at the commercial port, enjoyed playing board games with her husband and friends. On weekends, the family would go to the park, the movies or the skating rink. Alexandra, their 8-year-old, was into tennis, while 14-year-old Veronika preferred dance.
“We lived like any other family in the peaceful world,” she said.
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Russian-led militants briefly took control of Mariupol in 2014 before a Kyiv-backed militia kicked them out. The city became a hub for those from Russian-occupied territories who wanted to live in Ukraine. Funding poured in from Kyiv and its Western backers, seeking to make it a success to contrast with occupied areas.
When Russia invaded on Feb. 24, Ms. Peshkova quickly filled up on gas and stocked up on food and water.
The Peshkov family lived in the district near the port and the beaches, which was largely spared early bombing. But the shelling grew louder by the day, so they moved mattresses into the corridor of their three-room apartment for the girls to sleep on.
Four days into the war, electricity and heating went out. Water followed at the start of March. A shell killed one of Veronika’s classmates.
But the Peshkovs hung on.
The route out was fraught with risk: Friends who tried to flee shared tales of shelling and cars hit by shrapnel.
“We knew we should go,” Ms. Peshkova said. “But when you have kids, you think: no way.”
Ms. Peshkova recalls at one point fantasizing about accepting the loss of Mariupol to the Russians if only her family could flee to safety.
“It may not be patriotic, but I’m a peaceful person,” she said. “People just want to save their children.”
The tipping point was the airstrikes. Then a neighbor said she was hoping to take advantage of a so-called “green corridor” announced by the Russians to allow civilians to escape.
The Peshkovs rose early on March 5 and piled into two cars, along with their cat, Rafaella, and Ms. Peshkova’s parents.
The convoy delayed their departure as the shelling had barely let up. Families hung white flags from their cars. Alexandra drew a sign saying “children” along with a picture of a dog.
Around 11 a.m. they passed the Ukrainian checkpoint on the western edge of the city, where a soldier wished them good luck. Some 120 cars made it through before shelling started and the Ukrainians halted the rest.
Less than a mile down the road, they hit the first of five checkpoints with Russian flags, where soldiers examined passports and car trunks before allowing them through.
Some 25 miles along the road to Zaporizhzhia, the nearest large city, they ran into a different kind of unit. Sixteen gunmen with no armored vehicles or body armor said they were from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, a pseudo-statelet that Moscow carved out of Ukraine in 2014. The men, all recently mobilized from the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, said they had arrived the previous day and been told not to let any adult men through.
The people in the convoy pleaded, led by a man whose wife had been killed in shelling and was traveling alone with his daughter. But the young gunmen, including a schoolteacher, trolley-bus driver and two miners, wouldn’t budge, saying they had no contact with superiors and no instructions about a “green corridor.”
Some cars carrying only women and children were allowed through. Others tried to return to Mariupol. The rest, around 80 vehicles with passengers including pregnant women and small children, sat with their engines off to conserve fuel.
March 6, 2022
Ukrainian servicemen distribute water to people in Mariupol as Russia’s siege of the city leads to shortages.
March 11, 2022
A woman hugs her one remaining child in a corridor of a Mariupol hospital. Her other two children were killed during Russian shelling.
March 17, 2022
Evacuees sit in a cargo vehicle waiting in a line to leave Mariupol.
As dusk fell, a woman appeared, saying she was the mayor of the nearby village of Temryuk and offered the Mariupol escapees shelter. Ms. Peshkova feared a trick. “We thought they could take us into the woods, kill us, and take our things,” she said.
But the evening cold was starting to bite. So they jumped into their cars and followed the woman.
The whole village was waiting to greet them. Temryuk was poor but had a stroke of luck: It was off the beaten track so the Russians had bypassed it when they seized the main road.
They didn’t have electricity or heat but could burn coal to warm their homes. The Peshkovs lodged with a woman named Maryna and her teenage son, who fed them borscht and hot tea.
“They didn’t have much, but gave us everything they had,” said Ms. Peshkova. “It warmed our hearts.”
They slept squeezed onto three small sofas in the two-bedroom house.
The next morning, Maryna refused any payment, instead proffering a bag containing snacks including boiled eggs and a chunk of salo, or cured pork fat, a local delicacy.
While four men set off to scout out another route, the rest of the group gathered at the school, where villagers had prepared a breakfast of pancakes and tea.
After a nervous 90 minutes without word, the men returned. The good news: They had found a route to the main road avoiding the checkpoint. The bad: There had been fighting there recently.
The convoy set off at a crawl along a potholed road, with children lying on the floor in case someone opened fire. Soon, they were swerving around the detritus of a battle: soldiers’ corpses, burned-out vehicles and unexploded munitions.
They made it back onto the main road to Zaporizhzhia. In a village called Polohy, they met their first Ukrainian soldiers since the previous morning. The soldiers said there were street battles in the village.
“We can’t stay still,” a man in the convoy countered. They decided to make a break for it.
Everyone ducked as low as possible apart from the drivers. As they approached the exit from the village, Russian warplanes appeared overhead and opened fire on a Ukrainian army position 200 yards away. The drivers slammed on the brakes. The plane didn’t make another run, so the cars sped onward.
A few miles down the road, they spotted a group of armored vehicles at a checkpoint with a Ukrainian flag. They had made it.
A couple of hours later, the Peshkovs were in Zaporizhzhia with friends. Now, they are in southwestern Ukraine, waiting and hoping for the chance to return to Mariupol, even if it is in ruins.
They didn’t go any further westward, because they didn’t want to move too far from home.
“Anyone who leaves their home believes that things will be over soon and we’ll return,” said Ms. Peshkova.
Write to James Marson at firstname.lastname@example.org
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