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Civilians and soldiers remain trapped in a Mariupol steel plant


Today in southern Ukraine, an evacuation convoy took more civilians out of the battered city of Mariupol. For weeks, they've been hiding out under a massive steel plant. Hundreds of civilians are still trapped there, along with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, and many of them are wounded. They've refused to surrender to the Russian invaders even as conditions grow worse.

NPR's Joanna Kakissis is following the story from the Ukrainian city of Dnipro and joins us now. Hi, Joanna.


SHAPIRO: First, bring us up to speed on the evacuation of civilians. What's the latest?

KAKISSIS: So the evacuees from the Azovstal plant in Mariupol were supposed to arrive today in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia. We were waiting for roughly 100 evacuees. These are mostly women and children who have not seen sunlight for a month. But the convoys are actually still making their way to safety. There's been some confusion about why. The mayor of Mariupol is really angry. He's blaming the Russians for the delay.

The U.N. and the Red Cross managed to set up these evacuations by securing a short ceasefire from Russia. But after the evacuees left, the Russians began bombing Mariupol again. And the Russians have destroyed the southern port city. Nearly all the buildings are rubble, and Ukrainian authorities say tens of thousands of people may actually still be in the city. The Azovstal plant is the only part of Mariupol that is not occupied by Russian troops.

SHAPIRO: You've been speaking with somebody who is sheltering in that plant, a soldier. What has he told you about the conditions there?

KAKISSIS: So yeah, we've been speaking with a naval border guard named Stanislav Kerod. He's a husband and a father and a native of Mariupol. And I wanted to see what life was like for him and others inside this plant, which, you know, kind of feels like a last stand of sorts. So about a week ago, NPR started exchanging voice memos with Stanislav Kerod. Iryna Matviyishyn, one of NPR's local producers in Ukraine - she sent him questions in Ukrainian and translated his answers.

SHAPIRO: OK. Let's listen.

KAKISSIS: The first message from Stanislav Kerod is grim.

STANISLAV KEROD: (Through interpreter) The situation is really catastrophic, and it's getting worse every day. We can't do anything about it because we're trapped. No one can bring us any kind of aid.

KAKISSIS: Kerod describes watching army medics dress wounds with whatever is available - water, rags, plastic bags.

KEROD: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: He explains that moving around the labyrinth of tunnels under the Azovstal plant is dangerous even though the space stretches for miles. The Russians attack it repeatedly.

KEROD: (Through interpreter) How can anyone leave the plant if it's under airstrikes and shelling 24/7? If we leave this bunker, we die.

KAKISSIS: What needs to be done, above all, he says, is to take civilians out, especially those who are wounded. He assures us that the morale among the soldiers here is high, though more than 500 are injured.

KEROD: (Through interpreter) We're all together here - the fighters of the Azov regiment as well as the naval infantry, 36th brigade, the land border guards and my group, the naval border guard. The police and volunteers from the territorial defense are also here.

KAKISSIS: He says they will hold onto Mariupol as long as they are alive. A couple of days later, we receive more voice memos. There's talk of an evacuation plan, though previous ones have been blocked by the Russians.

KEROD: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: He says he and the other soldiers have been doing whatever they can to help civilians, many of whom are women and children.

KEROD: (Through interpreter) We're trying to help civilians with food and medicine. We will not leave them hungry and fighting for survival, but we can only share what we have.

KAKISSIS: And that's not much. Food, water, medical supplies, hygienic products - they're all running low. In one photo released on social media, a toddler wears a plastic bag as a diaper.

Kerod's family is not under the plant or anywhere in Mariupol.

KEROD: (Through interpreter) I sent them to a safer city inside Ukraine. My family wants to stay in Ukraine, and I also think it's unacceptable for us to leave. We have to stay and do everything we can to support our country.

KAKISSIS: He has heard that there are high-level negotiations to evacuate injured soldiers, but he is staying. He says he will fight.

KEROD: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: He says, "all of us soldiers who are not injured will keep defending Ukraine, and we will only leave with weapons in our hands, stepping on territory that is Ukraine's."

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Dnipro.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIPPIE SABOTAGE SONG, "OM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.