As Russian forces tightened the siege of Mariupol and missiles rained down, Mykhailo Puryshev visited the city six times last month to evacuate its citizens, surviving despite his red van being destroyed.
The 36-year-old Ukrainian, who once ran a nightclub in the city, said he evacuated more than 200 people on his six perilous journeys and more began to join him in convoys in his hometown.
Last week, Russia claimed control of the ruins of the strategic port city, subject to some of the most intense attacks of the war, despite the fact that hundreds of Ukrainian forces have still taken refuge there in the catacombs of a large steelworks. Ukraine says around 100,000 civilians are stranded in the city.
Trips organized by individuals like Puryshev’s have been a lifeline for starving civilians, as repeated attempts to set up humanitarian corridors have failed.
“When I first went there (March 8) the city was like a cloud of smoke, like a bonfire. The last time I went there, it was just ashes with the black coal of the buildings…” Puryshev said.
Russia denies targeting civilians in what it calls a special operation to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists. Ukraine and the West say the fascist allegation is baseless and that the war is an unprovoked act of aggression.
Puryshev posted online videos of his travels that offered a rare glimpse into the city. Cell phones do not work there and information is scarce.
His bus, which his friends clubbed together to buy specifically for evacuations, had its windscreen, three side windows and a side door destroyed during a strike, he said. “Thank God no one was inside.”
He fixed the van between trips.
“The bus suffered a shelling, a hit, mortar fire, rifle fire, to be honest, there are so many war marks on it.”
Journeys through Russian-occupied territory took eight hours to Mariupol, passing checkpoints and occasionally bypassing swamps of mud and corpses, while constantly fearing landmines, he said.
Inside the city, he would try not to look at corpses strewn on the ground or inside the charred remains of vehicles, fearing he would see a dead child and break down, he said.
People were buried in the streets near shopping malls, nightclubs and even in the grounds of a kindergarten, he said. Some bodies were rolled up in rugs and left on benches.
He had the staff of his old nightclub set up a bomb shelter in the basement. It housed about 200 people, including elderly people and pregnant women. Having initially set out to rescue the nightclub staff, he also found himself rescuing those hiding there.
“The scariest moment was when it got quiet. One time it was quiet for eight hours. We were like, this is it, it’s over. When it started again, it was so horrible that the kids got wet.”
They had scavengers or “stalkers” that would come out to get food and clean clothes or even tights for kids who couldn’t wash their dirty pants and underwear. The children in the shelter knew him as Uncle Misha and he was handing out sweets, he said.
He recalled a widow asking him to remove the wedding ring from her dead husband who had been hit by an airstrike. He said he found himself unable to do so.
He said he was finally forced to abandon his travels on March 28 when a separatist soldier told him never to return or he would be locked up – or worse.
Puryshev said God took care of him.
“The only injury I had was a shard of glass in my side. But my coat saved me and I only got a scratch. God protected me of course. My bus took care of me.”
He has plans for the vehicle after the war.
“We will make it a monument when we return to Mariupol.”
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