Evacuees from Azovstal steelworks arrive safely in Zaporizhzhia

After getting off the buses, the evacuees headed to tents that the Ukrainian government has set up to help them on the next part of their journey.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his late night address on Tuesday that 156 people arrived in Zaporizhzhia from the plant and around Mariupol through evacuation corridors.

“I am grateful to all those on whom the salvation of these people depended. Who accepted and who helped. I am grateful to all those who ensured the physical movement of people through the humanitarian corridor,” he said. .

CNN spoke to some of the evacuees upon their arrival.

An elderly woman who got off a bus was carrying small amounts of medicine, a plastic cup, a toothbrush, a tissue – the things she lived on for the past few weeks.

“I don’t have anyone here. I don’t know where to go now,” she told CNN.

She had taken refuge underground in Azovstal for weeks and seemed exhausted. She had lived in the dark and always had a headlamp wrapped around her neck. She had difficulty seeing in broad daylight.

“A huge relief”

Many evacuees looked overwhelmed, exhausted, pale and thin, but also relieved to be safe.

Elina Tsybulchenko, a former worker at the factory, said she was there in a bunker with her family from March 2 to May 1.

They survived on soup, canned food and unsweetened tea – but not much, she said.

She told CNN that when they left there were still 42 people – civilians – left in their bunker.

Speaking of the bombing, Tsybulchenko said, “I never thought the earth could shake like this. It didn’t just shake. The bunker jumped and shook.”

“Mariupol used to be my city, but now it’s gone, there’s nothing left,” she said.

Tsybulchenko said she lost precious heirlooms, including a 150-year-old traditional embroidered costume.

“He survived the Holodomor [Stalin’s policy of collectivization that led to the Great Famine, where millions of Ukrainians died of starvation], deportation, WWI, WWII – even the Nazis didn’t destroy it. And the fascists did not destroy Mariupol. But the Russians came and destroyed it,” she said.

Evacuees disembark from a bus after arriving in Zaporizhzhia.

The family had three apartments, she said. “And everything burned, everything burned.”

On the way to Zaporizhzhia, Tsybulchenko said she started crying when she saw the Ukrainian flag.

Sergey Kuzmenko, an Azovstal employee who had been at the plant since March 8, described conditions in the bunker as damp and without ventilation.

“People rot in basements,” he said, “…there’s humidity, there’s no ventilation.”

“At the start of the war, the factory had 36 bomb shelters. But at the moment there are only a few left,” he added.

A man greets Anna Zaitseva and her 6-month-old son, Svyatoslav, at a registration and processing area for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia.

Kuzmenko said that as he left the factory, he saw that two floors of their bunker were filled with seriously injured soldiers.

Russian troops searched all of his belongings after he was evacuated and he was examined for tattoos, he said. “They offered options to return to Zaporizhzhia, or go to Russia or stay in the DPR. Some stayed in Russia. They didn’t force them.”

Kuzmenko described a torturous journey with many stops and detours. He said the evacuees knew that hundreds of people they passed could not join the convoy, of whom around 500 were waiting at a shopping center outside Mariupol and in villages along the way.

The UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Ukraine, Osnat Lubrani, said in a statement: “Seeing a 6-month-old boy playing with a grass straw, his delighted mother told me that it was the first time to his life that he was able to do that. saw the tears of joy as family members trapped in different parts of the factory for two months were reunited.”

The evacuation from Azovstal was negotiated and organized by the UN and the International Red Cross (ICRC).

“It is a huge relief that some civilians who suffered for weeks are now out,” ICRC President Peter Maurer said on Tuesday.

“The ICRC has not forgotten the people who are still there, nor those who are in other areas affected by hostilities or those in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, wherever they are. We will spare no effort to achieve them.

On Tuesday evening, Zelensky said he “will continue to do everything to get all our people out of Mariupol and Azovstal. It’s difficult. But we need everyone who remains there: civilians and military.”

He also accused Russian troops of not respecting the ceasefire and of continuing strikes on the Azovstal factory.

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