Ukraine has sent dozens of buses to the devastated city of Mariupol in order to deliver aid and evacuate thousands of trapped residents after Kyiv and Russia finally agreed on the opening of a humanitarian corridor.
Around 170,000 people are thought to still be stranded in the strategic Black Sea port city that has been under constant bombardment and siege from Russian forces for more than a month.
The city has been described as “worse than hell” by those who escaped in their own cars under shelling and were interviewed by The Independent in the city of Zaporizhzhia.
Several previous efforts to establish a ceasefire in Mariupol and evacuate civilians have collapsed, but Russia’s defense ministry said it was prepared to observe a ceasefire in the city on Thursday and Ukraine said 45 buses had been deployed from Zaporizhzhia.
“We received a message from the International Red Cross Committee that the Russian Federation confirms its readiness to open access for the humanitarian convoy to the city of Mariupol,” Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Thursday morning.
She added: “We will do everything possible to ensure that buses arrive in Mariupol today and pick up people who have not yet been able to get out of the city.”
Makysm Dotsenko, the head of the Ukrainian Red Cross that is manning logistics on the ground for the evacuation convoy, told The Independent later on Thursday that the buses had left Zaporizhzhia – a city around 200km west of Mariupol – and were en route.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said the evacuation was planned for Friday, and that “the lives of tens of thousands of people in Mariupol depend on it”.
“For logistics and security reasons, we’ll be ready to lead the safe passage operation tomorrow, Friday, provided all the parties agree to the exact terms,” a spokesman said.
Zaporizhzhia has become the main reception point for those fleeing the coastal city.
Those who managed to make it out of Mariupol alive told The Independent that they had been spending the last four weeks living underground only to surface to make food on camp fires.
When water, electricity, mobile networks and heating were cut they were reduced to tapping their radiators for water, melting snow, drinking rainwater or running through shelling to get to springs.
“More than 80 per cent of the city is completely destroyed. There must be thousands of dead, it’s too dangerous to even pull the bodies out from under the rubble to count them,” said Ruslan, 39, who escaped Mariupol the day before yesterday with his three-year-old daughter and wife after stumbling upon a Red Cross volunteer who had a car trying to find survivors.
He said his mother, sister and step-father remain trapped in the city as there were in an area of the city known as the Left Bank, which has been hardest hit.
The has not been able to get through to them since the second week of the war which erupted when Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine on 24 February.
“The shelling was too intense to even get to the surface to cook, we were cooking in the corridors of our home. I saw bodies ripped apart in front of my eyes. Corpses laying on the ground for days, ”Ruslan added, showing him photos of his neighborhood where missiles had demolished entire sides of buildings.
Mr Dotsenko of the Red Cross said the situation in the city was so dire it was “crucially important” that these buses be allowed to come through.
“Past attempts at corridors have not worked,” he said adding that they had come under shelling from Russian forces.
“If this is successful, it will be the first proper evacuation from Mariupol,” since the war began.
There are reports of hungry people eating stray dogs and claims that Russians have committed a war crime in Mariupol, with regards to the bombing of a theater where thousands of civilians were sheltering.
The UN also claims there is increasing evidence of mass graves within the city – which was corroborated by over a dozen eyewitnesses who left the city and have spoken to The Independent. Russia has said it is not targeting civilians.
Surivvors shared video footage and photos revealing the devastating conditions in Mariupol. Drone footage also emerged on Thursday showing the true extent of the damage showing charred houses with the city’s skyline covered in white smoke.
On Wednesday, Ukraine claimed that Russian forces had struck a Red Cross warehouse in Mariupol, amid intense shelling.
At a reception center in Zaporizhzhia, Nadezhda, 57, said the elderly, disabled and sick were trapped in their homes unable even to take cover in their basements.
“My aunt suffocated to death and then burned because we couldn’t get her to the shelter when the bombing set fire to our building,” she said, as her leg – injured by shrapnel from shelling – was being treated by volunteers. Mariupol is a nightmare. It’s worse than hell,” she added in tears.
Mr Putin has said his troops will continue attacking the city until Ukrainian forces in Mariupol surrender.
While agreement on a humanitarian corridor is being seen as a positive sign, such efforts in the past have repeatedly collapsed with fighting occurring during the agreed ceasefire time, making the evacuation of citizens difficult.
Most citizens who have managed to leave the city so far have done so in private vehicles as the two sides could not previously agree on allowing buses inside.
Home to more than 430,000 people before the war, the city has seen attacks on maternity hospitals, fire department locations and civilian homes.