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Escape from Azovstal: Surviving Mariupol’s last stand

Margarita was sure, up to the last moment, that she would be killed running for the buses waiting to save civilians like her from months of terror under Russian bombardment in the holdout Azovstal steel works.
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“I never thought I would see sunlight again,” the 23-year-old Ukrainian told AFP on condition her full name not be published.

“I was thinking if a bomb hits, please let it kill me instantly. I don’t want to be handicapped. I was afraid I could end up bleeding to death,” she added.

A dramatic humanitarian effort is carrying to safety the last of the hundreds of civilians who were stranded in bunkers under the site, where Ukrainian fighters are making a last stand against Russians seeking full control of the key port city Mariupol.

But to escape they have had to pass through Russian “filtration” sites where several evacuees told AFP they were questioned, strip-searched, fingerprinted, had their phones scrutinised and documents checked — and checked again.

It was particularly risky for Margarita who said her father and husband are both members of the far-right Azov regiment that is central to the Azovstal battle against Russian troops, who consider the fighters their arch-enemies.

Figuring a degree of honesty would boost her chances of getting to safety and that the Russians would have a reasonable idea of who her husband was already, she did not dispute his affiliation when interrogators asked.

Margarita said the Russian troops’ animosity toward Azov fighters surfaced quickly when she asked they return her passport in the final steps of the humanitarian convoy that would finally reach the safety of the government-held city of Zaporizhzhia on Tuesday.

“They told me ‘Why? You need it? We will send you the passport in a body bag with the corpse of your husband’,” she added. “They told me that they will send us photos of my husband killed and eviscerated.”

Several women evacuated from Azovstal said they were strip-searched in tents by female Russians and checked for tattoos or scars, had their mugshots taken and were subjected to questioning that ranged from their mothers’ maiden names to political leanings.

“They asked us if we wanted to go to Russia or to stay in (eastern Ukraine’s self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic) or stay and rebuild the city of Mariupol,” said Azovstal evacuee Natalia, who spoke on condition that her full name not be published.

“But how can I rebuild it, how can I return there if the city of Mariupol doesn’t exist anymore?” she said of the settlement now devastated by heavy bombardment.

Another Azovstal evacuee, Elyna Tsybulchenko, said the convoy was brought to a village east of Mariupol, Bezimenne, for “filtration”.

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