The man and his crushed red van evacuated 200 people from Mariupol

KYIV, Ukraine – As Russian forces tightened their siege of Mariupol and missiles rained down, Mikhail Purishev entered the city six times last month to evacuate his citizens, his red van somehow surviving despite being 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 trips and others had joined him in caravans in his hometown.

Russia last week demanded control of the ruins of the strategic port city, subject to the most intense attacks of the war, despite the fact that hundreds of Ukrainian troops are still sheltering in a huge steel-work catacomb there. Ukraine says about 100,000 civilians are trapped in the city.

Personally organized trips like Purishev have become a lifeline for starving civilians as repeated attempts to establish humanitarian corridors have failed.

“When I first went (March 8), the city was like a cloud of smoke, like a fire. The last time I went there was only ashes with the black coal of the building …” Purishev said.

Russia denies targeting civilians in special operations to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists. Ukraine and the West say the fascist allegations are baseless and that the war is an unprovoked act of aggression.

Purishev has released an online video of his trip which gives a rare glimpse of the city. Mobile phones do not work there and information is scarce.

His bus, which his friends bought specifically for evacuation, had its windshield, three side windows and a side door destroyed in a strike, he said. “Thank God there was no one inside.”

He repaired the van during the trip.

“The bus came under fire, a strike, mortars, rifle fire, to be honest, there were a lot of signs of war.”

He said it took eight hours to drive through the Russian-occupied territory to Mariupol, crossing checkpoints and fearing land mines with occasional shaking of mud and dead bodies.

Inside the city, he would try not to look at the corpses lying on the ground or inside the burnt remains of vehicles, for fear that he might see a dead child and break down, he said.

People were buried in shopping centers, nightclubs and even in the grounds of a kindergarten, he said. Some of the bodies were wrapped in carpets and left on benches.

He set up a bomb shelter in the basement of his old nightclub staff. About 200 people, including elderly and pregnant women, took part in it. Initially to rescue the nightclub staff, he finds himself rescuing people hiding there.

“The scariest moment was when it would calm down. Once, it was quiet for eight hours. We thought: That’s it, it’s over. When it started again, it was so terrible that the kids got themselves wet.”

They had meths or “stalkers” to look for food and clean clothes or even tights for babies who couldn’t wash their dirty trousers and underwear. Shelter children knew him as Uncle Misha and he would give them sweets, he said.

She reminded a widow that she had been asked to remove her wedding ring from her dead husband who had been killed in the airstrike. He said he found himself unable to do it.

He said he was finally forced to abandon his trip on March 28 when a separatist soldier told him he would never return or he would be locked up – or worse.

Purishev said that God took care of him.

“A glass hole next to me was my only injury. But my coat saved me and I only got a scratch. God must have saved me. My bus took care of me.”

He has plans for a car after the war.

“When we get back to Mariupol we will turn it into a monument.”

(Edited by Tom Balmforth and Parnian Gemarialai; Edited by Alexandra Hudson)

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