When translator Yulia Karaulan left Ukraine for a business trip to Italy on February 20, she thought she would be back with her family a few days later.
But the brief trip turned into a nightmare.
“When I came (back) to my city (it) was already blocked with Russian troops,” Karaulan, 38, said. “And now I cannot go back, because it’s impossible.”
All her family and friends are trapped in her home city of Mariupol in southern Ukraine, including her husband Evgeny, 10-year-old daughter Yasia, and her mother.
They are sheltering in a basement which is protecting around 4,000 people from Russian bombs, which continue to fall two weeks since the invasion began.
At least 1,300 civilians have been killed, according to two officials in Mariupol, and nearly half a million people are trapped in the city, where a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding.
“They cannot go out because of strong shelling most of the time,” said Karaulan, who is now in Zaporizhzhia, a city around 200 kilometers (124 miles) north of Mariupol.
On Wednesday, a Russian bomb hit a maternity and children’s hospital, killing three people including a child, injuring 14 others, and leaving a giant crater in the earth.
The attack came despite Russia agreeing to a short ceasefire to allow evacuations. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky called the attack “beyond atrocity” and a “war crime.”
“I (still) cannot believe that this can happen,” Karaulan said. “It’s very hard to believe.”
Karaulan, who speaks English, Russian and Ukrainian, had lost all contact with her family for the past eight days. But she finally got the call she’d been waiting for on Wednesday.
“My husband called me and he said they are alive,” Karaulan said, breaking down in tears. “My daughter told me she loves me.”
“She’s doing like all of the children (now), with almost no food, no water, no electricity,” she said. “It was -5 C this night (and) they have no heat in the city.”
The only drinking water available is dirty, and it is making them all sick, she added.
Karaulan’s 65-year-old mother is a pediatrician. “She told me that there are doctors there but they cannot help much because they have no medicine,” she said, with pharmacies and shops empty.
Karaulan is volunteering at a makeshift refugee center in the local circus, a spaceship-shaped building which before the war used to hold popular children’s shows featuring monkeys, horses and exotic goats.
Now, the central theater area is filled with mattresses and blankets, and the entrance area is piled with winter clothes, shoes and food supplies donated by local residents.
“I feel sorry for these people, especially the children,” said Irina Belich, a 65-year-old Ukrainian Red Cross volunteer.
“Some children had no clothes, they only had a blanket wrapped around them as they ran away so fast.”
Belich says her whole family is now volunteering at the center, which is designed to temporarily house refugees arriving in the city after the 7 p.m. curfew.
Every day Karaulan waits there, hoping that a convoy with her family will make it out of Mariupol.
“(I’m) just waiting for my family to be together,” she said. “For them to be able to come here or for me to have some chance to come to Mariupol.”
But the convoy never comes.
‘We need to eat and rest’
Other attempts at evacuating refugees were more successful on Wednesday.
Ukraine’s president said thousands of people had made it to safety, including convoys from the city of Sumy in the northeast and from the capital Kyiv.
Women and children also escaped from the city of Enerhodar, after being trapped in the shadow of the nuclear power plant which was seized by Russian troops last week.
“The shops are empty, there is nothing there,” said one female refugee from Enerhodar, who didn’t provide a name. “Not enough medical supplies. We’re tired, we need to eat and rest.”
In a convoy of 14 buses and dozens of private cars, the refugees traveled for around seven hours to reach Zaporizhzhia. It’s a distance of approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles), which should take around 90 minutes. Russian troops blocked the convoy halfway along the route and they were held there for more than three hours. Eventually they were allowed to pass.
Rolling slowly into the car park of the Epicentre supermarket in Zaporizhzhia on Wednesday evening, the faces peering through the bus windows showed a mixture of trauma, exhaustion and relief.
“(We’re in) safety,” said 21-year-old Krystina Ponomaryova, after she was allowed off the bus, following document checks by Ukrainian soldiers and officials. “At least that makes me happy.”
“The most important thing is the safety of my child,” Ponomaryova added, as she hugged her two-year-old daughter Angelina.
Shivering in frigid temperatures of -5 degrees Celsius plus added windchill, the families were given hot drinks and food in the entrance area of the supermarket, before being taken to separate buses or private cars to be transferred to accommodation in local schools and orphanages.
Although most of the arrivals were shell-shocked and terrified – having left their husbands and male relatives behind to stay to fight – they’re happy to be alive and out of harm’s way, at least for now. And some remained defiant against the Russian threat.
“The victory will be ours,” one woman said, as she boarded the bus to the shelter.
Some of the refugees said they will try to keep moving west to the city of Lviv, or out of Ukraine, joining the 2.1 million refugees who have fled the country since the beginning of the invasion.
The successful arrival of the convoy provided some hope for Karaulan, who desperately awaits a reunion with her husband and child. But so far there is no sign of humanitarian access being allowed into Mariupol.
“Every time they try to do it, there is no corridor, because Russian troops (are) shelling,” she said. “It’s impossible for buses to go and to evacuate people safely.”