© Reuters. Mikhail Puryshev poses for a selfie in front of a car as he evacuates people fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Zaporozhye, Ukraine, in this dateless photo obtained by Reuters on April 26, 2022. Courtesy of Mykhailo Puryshev / Handou
Authors: Tom Balmforth and Parniyan Zemaryalai
KIEV (Reuters) – While Russian forces intensified the siege of Mariupol and dropped rockets, Mikhail Purishev drove to the city six times last month to evacuate his citizens, somehow surviving despite the fact that his red van was almost destroyed.
The 36-year-old Ukrainian, who once ran a nightclub in the city, said he had evacuated more than 200 people on his six dangerous journeys and that others had joined him in a convoy to his hometown.
Russia took control of the ruins of a strategic port city last week, subject to some of the most intense attacks in the war, despite hundreds of Ukrainian forces still being left there in the catacombs of huge steel mills. Ukraine says about 100,000 civilians are stuck in the city.
Privately organized trips like Puryshev were a lifeline for starving civilians as repeated attempts to establish humanitarian corridors failed.
“When I first left (March 8), the city was like a cloud of smoke, like a bonfire. The last time I went, it was just ashes with black coal buildings … “said Purishev.
Russia denies targeting civilians in what it calls a special operation to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists. Ukraine and the West say that the fascist accusations are unfounded and that the war was an unprovoked act of aggression.
Puryshev posted online videos of his travels that offered a rare insight into the city. Mobile phones do not work there and there is little information.
His bus, which his friends bought specifically for the evacuation, had a windshield, three side windows and a side door destroyed in the strike, he said. “Thank God no one was inside.”
He was repairing the van between trips.
“The bus was shelled, attacked, mortar, gunfire, to be honest, there are so many traces of war on it.”
The drive through the territory occupied by the Russians took eight hours to Mariupol, passing checkpoints and bypassing the occasional swamps of mud and corpses, with a constant fear of landmines, he said.
Inside the city, he tried not to look at corpses scattered on the ground or at the charred remains of vehicles, fearing he might see a dead child and get crashed, he said.
People were buried on the street near shopping malls, nightclubs and even in kindergartens, he said. Some bodies were wrapped in carpets and left on benches.
He had the staff of his old nightclub set up a bomb shelter in the basement. There were about 200 people in it, including the elderly and pregnant women. Since he initially set out to rescue the nightclub staff, he found himself rescuing those who were hiding there as well.
“The scariest moment was when it would go quiet. It was quiet for eight hours once. We thought: that’s it, it’s over. When it started again, it was so terrible that the kids got wet.”
They had scavengers or “stalkers” who went out to look for food and clean clothes or even socks for children who could not wash their dirty pants and underwear. The children from the shelter knew him as Uncle Misha and he would share sweets, he said.
He recalled a widow who asked him to remove a wedding ring from her dead husband who had been shot down in an air raid. He said he was unable to do so.
He said he was eventually forced to give up his travels on March 28 when a separatist soldier told him he would never return or would be imprisoned – or worse.
Puryshev said God took care of him.
“The only injury I had was a shard of glass in my hip. But the coat saved me and I just got scratched. God protected me, of course. My bus was watching over me.”
He has plans for a vehicle after the war.
“We will turn it into a monument when we return to Mariupol.”