(Reuters) – It took two days of searching under heavy shelling before twin sisters Hanna and Anastasiya Hrechkina from Mariupol managed to find a ride out of the city.
“I lost any hope because people were not stopping,” said Anastasiya, a 22-year-old psychology student.
Together with their mother and aunt, a cousin and a friend, the sisters said they decided to leave Mariupol after more than two weeks of a siege by Russian forces which has laid their city in eastern Ukraine to waste.
On the first day they tried to escape, the shelling was so intense that every 5-10 minutes they had to abandon their belongings by the roadside and run for cover, Anastasiya said. Eventually, they abandoned the attempt and returned home.
Then on the second day, a man fleeing the city with his family in four vehicles agreed to take the group.
Although there were only seats for four additional passengers, all six people squeezed into the vehicles in what Hanna said was the “happiest moment of the day.”
Mariupol, once a city of 400,000 people, has been almost completely flattened by prolonged Russian bombardment aimed at breaking the resistance of the city’s Ukrainian defenders.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been hiding in basements with no running water, food, medicine or power, unable or unwilling to leave. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said there was “nothing left” of the city.
Russia’s Defence Ministry has blamed “Ukrainian nationalists” for what it called the “humanitarian catastrophe” in Mariupol.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation” to destroy its southern neighbour’s military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists. It denies targeting civilians.
The Hrechkina sisters and their family held out for the first weeks of the siege, even as conditions deteriorated and the fighting moved closer.
“We didn’t want to leave. We were hoping it would stop,” said Hanna, also a student.
Anastasiya said they rationed food, eating only two times a day. With no gas supply, the sisters said residents built fires outside to heat their food, some destroying benches or cutting trees.
With cell phone networks disrupted and no electricity to charge their devices, the sisters were cut off from the world.
“We thought that maybe if no one comes to save us, maybe the world just doesn’t know about the situation,” Anastasiya said.
When the shelling became so intense that they could no longer get water from a nearby well, they knew they had to leave, the sister said.
As the four vehicles returned to the road, the sisters did not ask where they were headed.
“I don’t know where we’re going, I don’t know how much time it will take but I was happy that I am in the car, we are all with our family,” Hanna said.
But the sisters then discovered that not all the cars were going to the same destination, realising with horror that they had been separated from their mother.
Their car took them to Berdiansk, from where they managed to get a bus laid on by the Ukrainian Red Cross which was to take them to Zaporizhzhia, where they hoped to reunite with their mother.
However, heavy shelling forced the bus to stop about 50 km (30 miles) from the city.
“I had a panic attack there, I thought that after we escaped Mariupol, I didn’t want to die on the road,” Anastasiya said.
Finally reunited with their mother, relatives took the sisters from Zaporizhzhia to Kryvyi Rih, 400 km northwest of Mariupol.
“I want to be in Ukraine and I want to come back to Ukraine, but right now I feel (the) need to be in a more safe place than we have now in Ukraine,” Hanna said.
“There is always a threat to be surrounded again. I don’t want to go through that,” Anastasiya said.
(Reporting by Natasa Bansagi; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Janet Lawrence)