© Reuters. Ukrainian refugee Alisa Artiukh from Mariupol plays a ukulele for her son Konstaiantyn and her friend Yuliia Boiko with her son Kostiantyn inside of a cabin, after fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in the village of Kramolin, near Plzen, Czech Repu
By Michael Kahn
KRAMOLIN, Czech Republic (Reuters) – Alisa Artiukh and Yuliia Boiko sheltered underground for two weeks in the decimated, besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol before braving the fighting to flee on foot when both food and hope for their young children’s future ran out.
Carrying only water, cookies, clothes and a ukulele, the single mothers walked with their two boys out of the city, past landmines and dead bodies, to start an eight-day journey that took them to safety in a small Czech village.
“We decided if we die we were going to meet it in the face instead of hiding,” said Artiukh, 31, a social worker and music teacher who described navigating military checkpoints and burnt out tanks and cars littering the city.
“We wanted to walk out of Mariupol because of the shelling,” said Artiukh, who spoke in English. “Everything was exploding.”
She said walking was safer than driving “because you could see the mines.”
Tens of thousands of civilians have been trapped for weeks in the Black Sea port city, many in basements with diminishing supplies of food, water and medicine. Once home to 400,000 people, Mariupol has been encircled and devastated by bombardment since the early days of Russia’s invasion more than a month ago.
Local authorities say thousands have been killed. The United Nations says thousands of civilians may have died in the city, which has emerged as a key objective of what Moscow calls its special military operation in Ukraine
Bombs destroyed Artiukh’s apartment, which she finished paying off in December, she said. Boiko said her home was hit in a military strike and her documents burned in the resulting fire.
Since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, more than 4.2 million refugees have fled Ukraine, with most crossing into the European Union at border points in Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.
Russia says it aims to demilitarize and “denazify” Ukraine with a “special military operation.” Ukraine and the West say the Feb. 24 invasion was illegal and unjustified.
Boik and Artiukh fled on March 17, describing a journey in which they walked nearly 100 kilometres (62 miles) before travelling by bus and train to the western city of Lviv. From there they escaped to Poland.
“We lost everything when we left,” Boiko, 34, said at a cottage on the edge of a forest some 122 kilometres (76 miles)from Prague. “My mind and heart stay in Mariupol because of my family. I don’t know what happened to them.”
While some refugees have moved further west, many have stayed in central European countries like the Czech Republic and Poland, which boast large pre-war Ukrainian communities.
The priority of the two friends is now finding schools for their 8- and 11-year old sons and learning Czech so they can begin to work. They plan to move closer to Prague but hold out little hope of ever returning home.
“There is nothing to go back to,” Artiukh said.
(Additional Reporting by Jiri Skacel, Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)