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How one city in southern Ukraine became a humanitarian hub


For nearly three months, civilians in parts of southern Ukraine have been living a nightmare. In cities that were quickly encircle and occupied in the early days of the war, it was too dangerous to leave the house, let alone make an escape. But some have found ways to cross the front lines, navigating tense, often dangerous checkpoints toward safer areas. NPR's Tim Mak reports on those who have escaped Russian-held territory.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: The city of Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine has become a humanitarian hub. Close to the front lines, it's one of the first cities that fleeing civilians reach after a dangerous ordeal. They face bombs and bullets, tense checkpoints, even looting soldiers before finally making it into the safety of the city, said Volodymyr Marchuk, an official for the local government.

VOLODYMYR MARCHUK: (Through interpreter) There were some cases where they even took people's cars and said, you can walk if you want to escape. Just walk if you want to save your life.

MAK: Men trying to escape combat areas have been forced to strip down at Russian checkpoints, including Sergey Protsenko, who owns a small restaurant now behind Russian lines.

SERGEY PROTSENKO: (Through interpreter) So they stopped us at checkpoint and asked the men to get out the vehicles. And they took off our top clothes to see if we don't have any tattoos or signs from being in the Ukraine army.

MAK: Olga Anasova is used to fleeing now, used to the violence, to the checkpoints. She had fled Donetsk in eastern Ukraine in 2014 after the initial Russia-backed violence, choosing to relocate to the southern port city of Mariupol. The Russian invasion this year led to the occupation of her new city. The fighting, she says, left dead bodies scattered all throughout Mariupol. And she was determined to leave early in the war.

OLGA ANASOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAK: But her mother, trapped for days in the basement of a house they were sheltering in, had a stroke.

ANASOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAK: Anasova's mother died. She remembers her husband burying her mother in a carpet. Blinded by grief, she says she doesn't remember whether she begged Russian or Ukrainian soldiers to help dig a grave.

ANASOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAK: She began her escape from Mariupol on foot before being picked up by chance by a passing bus.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: When evacuees arrive in Zaporizhzhia, they gather in the parking lot of a big-box store where, they can get food, toys and mental health counseling. Some have been hidden in basements for months. Others are too scared to move or even to accept help. Lubov Kremenetskaya, a mental health professional who is helping treat evacuees, has watched thousands of people pass through and recounted one story that stuck with her. A car had arrived packed with seven people, a dog and a cat.

LUBOV KREMENETSKAYA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAK: One woman was so traumatized by the war and the escape that in the shock of it all, she refused to get out of the car, even after fleeing to relative safety. The journey is neither easy nor cheap. Tatiana Venzik said she spent most of her life savings to escape the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol. Now out of immediate danger, she worries about her son, a soldier in the Ukrainian military.

TATIANA VENZIK: (Crying, speaking Ukrainian).

MAK: "I just want him to stay alive," she says. "He's the only one I have." And he's part of the effort to hold up the long front line in Ukraine that she escaped across.

Tim Mak, NPR News.


Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.