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Ukrainian fighters are making their last stand in a steel mill in Mariupol

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Ukraine, the messages from inside the city of Mariupol are getting more desperate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERHIY VOLYNSKY: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: That's a local commander, Serhiy Volynsky, in a video plea posted to Facebook. He's saying, this could be the last appeal of our lives. We are probably facing our last days, if not hours. The enemy is outnumbering us 10 to 1. He goes on to appeal for a safe extraction of the civilians and soldiers from inside a steel plant where Ukrainian fighters are making their last stand. For more on the situation in Mariupol, we have NPR's Tim Mak on the line. He joins us from a cafe in Odesa. Hi, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey, there.

FADEL: So what do we know about what's happening inside Mariupol right now?

MAK: Well, city officials say that there are still some 100,000 people trapped in the city, and there are Ukrainian troops in particular in that steel plant you mentioned - this sprawling complex with a lot of underground tunnels that, according to both the Russian and Ukrainian military, has been the focus of Russian strikes over the past several days. Now, Russia has repeatedly told Ukrainian fighters in the city to surrender. And so far, Ukrainian fighters have refused to do so. The fact that this commander is now pleading for extraction shows you how desperate the situation has become.

Now, Mariupol has held out since the city was surrounded by Russian troops in early March. Officials have been working desperately to secure humanitarian corridors out of the city for civilians. And it sounds like after several days of stalemate, a preliminary agreement has been reached this morning by both sides. We should note, however, that these agreements have gone south many times in the past. The Ukrainian government is now seeking to send some 90 buses to pull civilians out.

FADEL: A hundred thousand people. And they've been in this besieged city for some 50 days with little access to food, water, medicine, as many fear Russia will soon raze Mariupol to the ground. But many have also gotten out. Officials say hundreds of thousands of people have fled the city. What can you tell us about where they've gone?

MAK: Well, many of them have sought refuge further west, away from the fighting - in places like where I am in Odesa, southern Ukraine, for example. This morning, I spoke to Olga Anasova. She fled Mariupol in late March, along with her son and husband.

OLGA ANASOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: She says that her mother died in the first days of the war, in late February. They're not sure exactly what happened, but she had a seizure before she passed. They wrapped her in a carpet and begged soldiers nearby - Ukrainian or Russian, she was so full of grief and shock she wasn't sure which ones - she asked these soldiers to help them dig a grave. Her mother's death delayed her family's escape from the city, she told us. And she said that she saw dead bodies rotting everywhere in the city that she called home.

ANASOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: She said it was like hell in the city, that people turned from humans to animals. There was no running water, no electricity, no light, even as it was -7 degrees Celsius. It was impossible to live in the city, she said. But in a way, she also said that people were able to adjust, that weeks into the conflict, an explosion happened 50 meters away from her as she was heating up water for tea, and they didn't even take cover. That said, she was ecstatic to escape Mariupol. Her favorite memory was entering Ukrainian territory and seeing a fresh piece of bread for the first time since the war began. It's been a real challenging task for Ukraine. Military analysts say that this new offensive that Russia has reportedly launched is going to really challenge civilians and soldiers on both sides of the battlefield.

FADEL: Devastating to listen to these voices. NPR's Tim Mak. Thank you, Tim.

MAK: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.