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Tatiana and Andrey Kitskay, who got rid of their photos of the Mariupol siege, stand near their damaged car in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on April 18, 2022.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

As Tatiana and Andrey Kitskay fled their home in the besieged Ukrainian port of Mariupol last week, they packed the trunk of their car with their most precious belongings, including treasured framed photographs of their children and grandchildren.

Then Ms. Kitskay wiped her phone of all the pictures she had taken during Russia’s almost two-month siege of their hometown in southeastern Ukraine. Mr. Kitskay, whose battery was dead, threw his phone away rather than risk getting caught at a Russian checkpoint with photographs of the destruction wrought on Mariupol by the invading forces.

Such photographs, they knew, could lead to arrest – and perhaps even deportation to Russia, as they believed happened to seven friends who disappeared from the city.

“Mariupol is 75 per cent gone,” the 62-year-old Ms. Kitskay said on Monday, after she and her husband had finally reached the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia after a harrowing five-day journey, which in prewar times was a three-hour drive. She said Russian troops were checking mobile phones for photos because they didn’t want the truth to get out about what happened in Mariupol, which had a prewar population of almost 450,000.

The city, which has been under siege since shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine on Feb. 24, is still not entirely under Russian control. An unknown number of Ukrainian fighters are still holding out in the city’s sprawling Azovstal steel factory despite weeks of heavy bombardment.

The defenders ignored a Russian ultimatum to surrender on Sunday. On Monday, Mariupol City Council said that at least 1,000 civilians are in shelters beneath the factory. “Mostly the [civilians] are women with children and old people,” the council wrote on its channel on the Telegram messaging app.

The Kitskays were among only a trickle of refugees to escape Mariupol in recent days, as the heavy fighting has made large-scale evacuations impossible. The couple made their dash to freedom in a battered blue Skoda. Two of its windows were blown out by a March 2 air strike that destroyed much of their home. They crossed an estimated 25 Russian checkpoints to reach Ukrainian-held territory.

Although they got rid of their photos of the siege, the images of entire neighbourhoods reduced to rubble are seared into Ms. Kitskay’s mind.

“We were not allowed to go further from our homes than Veselka park,” the retired factory technician said, referring to a green space in the east of the city. “But if you looked past this park, nothing else existed in the city centre.”

As Russia sought to crush the last pockets of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol, it also launched new attacks targeting cities across Ukraine on Monday. The most dramatic strike in the western city of Lviv, where seven people were killed by a barrage of cruise missiles, was launched from some 2,000 kilometres away in southern Russia. It destroyed a car repair shop and damaged the railway line in a city that is the busiest hub for refugees fleeing to other parts of Europe.

Elena Nikitchenko and Valentina Nikitchenko, a Second World War survivor, leave Zaporizhzhia in an evacuation train to west Ukraine on April 18, 2022.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Lviv has also become a gateway for weapons supplied by Western governments to the Ukrainian military, as well as for foreign fighters looking to join the Ukrainian cause.

Russia’s Defence Ministry, which denies striking at civilian targets, said on Monday that it had hit more than 400 Ukrainian military facilities over the previous 24 hours, in what appeared to be preparation for a new offensive focused on eastern part of the country. The Russian military has been regrouping and shifting units to eastern Ukraine since the start of the month, when it abandoned an attempt to seize the capital city of Kyiv.

However, the fighting in Mariupol continues to absorb Russian military resources.

Galina Odnorog said her 27-year-old daughter Anastasiya, a member of the State Border Guard Service, had for weeks been among the defenders of the Azovstal factory – until her commander issued a March 20 order for all the women under his command to leave Mariupol.

Galina Odnorog at a volunteer centre in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on April 18, 2022.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Odnorog said she spoke to her daughter once a day while she was trapped inside the factory, and she would ask her to spread the message that Ukraine needed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to halt Russian air strikes by imposing a no-fly zone. “She would say, ‘Mom, please ask them to close the sky.’ And I would tell her, ‘They’re not going to do it.’ She would ask, ‘Is help coming?’ and I would say no … she didn’t believe me, because every day, her commander would tell his guys that ‘help is coming,’ and they believed him,” said Ms. Odnorog, a volunteer who heads the Mariupol Citizens Movement, which is now working to aid people fleeing the city.

“Her commander and all her comrades are still sitting in Azovstal. Every day, she has some contact with them, and only now they realize that no help is coming.”

Russia’s withdrawal from the areas around Kyiv has exposed apparent war crimes, such as mass executions, organized rapes and the targeting of civilian homes with heavy weaponry. While independent media have not been able to access Mariupol since the early days of the war, there are fears that even worse has occurred there. Satellite images show entire neighbourhoods have been flattened.

Ms. Kitskay says at least one of her friends was killed in an air strike that levelled a nine-storey apartment block. Her body is still beneath the rubble.

She and her husband are also worried about seven close friends – including two young children – with whom they shared food until the group suddenly disappeared last month. “We were told that they were taken out of their basement and put in an armoured personnel carrier and taken somewhere in Russia.”

The Ukrainian government says upwards of 20,000 Mariupol citizens have been forcibly deported to “filtration camps” in Russia. The claim has not been verified, but the Kremlin-run Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper has reported that 5,000 Ukrainians have undergone unspecified checks in the Russian-occupied village of Bezimenne, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, to prevent “Ukrainian nationalists from infiltrating Russia disguised as refugees.”

Yuriy Nikitchenko on an evacuation train in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on April 18, 2022.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

On Monday, the Kitskays arrived at a refugee centre in Zaporizhzhia, where they said they would stay for a couple of days before heading to western Ukraine, where their son and grandchild are staying.

Other escapees from Mariupol gathered on Monday at Zaporizhzhia’s train station, where air raid sirens wailed as a small group boarded a train headed north and west. Some expected never to see their home city again.

“For God’s sake, I wish to forget about Mariupol,” said Yuriy Nikitchenko, a 60-year-old dental technician, who was sitting with his wife, Elena, and his mother, Valentina, a Second World War survivor who was celebrating her 83rd birthday aboard the evacuation train. It was the second time the trio had fled their homes in the past eight years, having moved to Mariupol in 2014 after Russian-backed forces seized the nearby city of Donetsk.

After three weeks of sheltering in their basement, the trio emerged on April 13, a relatively quiet morning, and walked for six kilometres before a passing driver offered a ride out. Mr. Nikitchenko described the Mariupol they saw as a moonscape of smouldering ruins. “There is no city any more. It does not exist. It has been flattened, just killed.”

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With reports from Anton Skyba