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As hundreds await rescue from Mariupol steel plant, CBS News sees how a Ukraine town sacrificed itself to stop Russia

Evacuation efforts continue in Mariupol
Evacuation efforts continue at steel mill in Mariupol, Ukraine 06:21

Kyiv — More than 200 civilians were still believed to be holed-up inside a decimated steelworks in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on Tuesday, along with a couple thousand Ukrainian defense forces, with Russia reportedly blocking further evacuations. As CBS News correspondent Chris Livesay reports, a ceasefire finally enabled the evacuation of about 100 civilians from tunnels under the Azovstal steel plant over the weekend. 

That first group — rescued after two months of relentless Russian shelling of the city and the plant — were still headed for safety in Ukrainian-held territory on Tuesday.

It's estimated that about 100,000 people are still sheltering in basements and other hiding places around Mariupol. The strategic port city has been pummelled by Russian rockets and artillery since Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on February 24. It is now controlled by the invading forces, with only a couple thousand members of the Ukrainian National Guard's Azov Regiment still holding out under the steel plant.

Smoke rises above a plant of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol
People walk their bikes across the street as smoke rises above a plant of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works during Russia's war on Ukraine, in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, May 2, 2022. ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/REUTERS

With Russia, Ukraine and aid organizations reportedly negotiating to secure the evacuation of the remaining 200 civilians at the steelworks, Livesay said the shelling continued. After six weeks of war, weary residents like Tatyana no longer even flinch at the sound of exploding Russian bombs.  

She's watched as some 300,000 people have either escaped from the city, or died there.   

"You wake up and cry, then you cry in the evening," she said. "I have nowhere else to go."  

In much of Russian-occupied Mariupol, the living have become the undertakers. Pharmacist Kristina Burdiuk, 25, said she was offered about $460 "to sort through the rubble and take out the corpses."

To the north, in what is left of Ukraine's second largest city of Kharkiv, 95-year-old Yefrosiniia Aksionova left her home for what she feared could be the last time. 

"I want this Putin to be battered," she said through sobs, "so he feels what we are going through." 

Evacuation efforts stall in Ukraine's besieged city of Mariupol 04:42

Outgunned and outsized in its war with Russia, Livesay said Ukraine has compensated with heart, and creativity. The country has been unafraid to blow up its own bridges and roads - anything to slow down the Russian advance.   

Just outside Kyiv, that meant breaching a dam. Doing so inundated the nearby town of Demydiv, flooding homes, possessions and vehicles, but residents were happy to do it because they knew the Russians would have destroyed their town for them otherwise. The drastic measure helped stop Russian troops from reaching Kyiv.

One resident, Vladimir, rowed Livesay and his team through the flooded town in a small boat. He said the Russians were stopped there, but a neighbor, Maria, shouted a warning to us in the boat: Some of the invaders' unexploded shells remain — including in her flooded vegetable garden, lurking invisibly under the murky water. 

Maria Didovets, 82, stands in floodwater outside her home in the small Ukrainian town of Demydiv, April 30, 2022. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty

Many of the shells did explode, however. Some tore into Maria's neighbor Valentina's house as her family of six hid in the basement, while it slowly filled with water from the breached dam.    

"We had to climb out," Valentina told CBS News. "But at the same time, the Russians had to retreat. This water saved us."

Ukraine's ingenuity on the battlefield is paying off. The Pentagon says Russia's invasion has shown "minimal progress at best," suffering from "poor command and control," and "low morale."

But the fight is far from over. A senior U.S. diplomat said Monday that the U.S. believed Putin was planning to annex large swathes of eastern Ukraine — where the fighting continues to rage — this month, as he did eight years ago with the Crimean Peninsula.

CIA World Factbook

Michael Carpenter, U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the expectation was that Russia would orchestrate "sham referenda" in the two separatist-held regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which would see them accept Russian dominion.

He called the predicted move "straight out of the Kremlin's playbook," and said the U.S. and its allies would not recognize any further unilateral Russian annexations of Ukrainian territory. No Western nation has recognized Putin's claim over Crimea, despite Russia's undisputed control of the Ukrainian peninsula.

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