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Russia strikes a Ukrainian maternity ward as evacuations continue

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ghastly images are coming in from southern Ukraine, where a Russian strike appears to have hit the courtyard of a maternity hospital. Photos show pregnant women being carried out of a crumbling building on stretchers. Ukraine's president calls it an atrocity. Russia denies targeting civilians, but condemnations are pouring in from around the world. Today, we got some of our most vivid accounts of the toll this war is taking on Ukraine. And just a warning to listeners - there will be graphic descriptions of what is happening there. NPR's Lauren Frayer is in western Ukraine and has been talking to Ukrainian officials. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: Hi. So can you tell us a little more about this strike on this maternity hospital?

FRAYER: Yeah, so this is a maternity hospital in the southern port city of Mariupol, and it was basically blown up. The courtyard is charred. Victims were being carried out across debris on stretchers. Now, Mariupol is already under Russian siege. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shared video of this attack on his Instagram account, and it shows a view of inside the hospital, a pink baby changing table still standing, some blood splattered on the floor. NPR has not been able to independently verify this video, nor a lot of the facts that we're hearing on the ground because we simply can't get to these places. But today, we saw some of the most horrifying images of this war or any war really.

CHANG: Well, Mariupol is one of the cities where civilians have been trying to evacuate through what's called humanitarian corridors. Have people actually been able to get out of that city safely?

FRAYER: So Russia agreed to pause attacks for 12 hours today to allow civilians to flee through six humanitarian corridors. One of them was supposed to be out of Mariupol. But the city's deputy mayor, his name is Sergei Orlov, and he says the cease fire lasted less than an hour.

SERGEI ORLOV: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: And I was on a Zoom call with him today. He said Russian forces fired on evacuation points. Now, both sides accuse the other one of violating the cease fire. But Orlov says 200,000 people want to get out of Mariupol. Only a tiny fraction of people have been able to. He says 1,200 civilians have died in his one town, that they're being buried in mass graves. And meanwhile, the city has no electricity, no gas, no water. The deputy mayor says it's like medieval times. The only way to cook dinner tonight in Mariupol is on an open fire.

CHANG: Oh, my God. Are we seeing this kind of situation across a lot of Ukraine right now?

FRAYER: Mariupol in the south is one of the worst hit, but the capital Kyiv today had its first air raid sirens in several days. I was on a Zoom call with several mayors across Ukraine, and it was like this litany of horror stories. Here's the mayor of Trostyanets in the Sumy region near the Russian border. His name is Yuri Bova.

YURI BOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: He says an armada of Russian troops is occupying his city, that they've taken over city buildings. They're even taking over people's homes. He says they've set up a checkpoint at the cemetery, so it's very difficult for people to even bury their dead. Half a dozen mayors all had stories like this, like kindergartens being bombed, searching for survivors in the rubble, trying to get food and medicine for their residents, and you could hear the anguish in their voices. Now, it's unclear whether the damage they described is from airstrikes or artillery, but one thing that all of them said is that they want a no-fly zone over Ukraine. They were practically begging for it. And the U.S. and NATO have said a no-fly zone is just one step farther than they're willing to go. They say it risks a wider war in Europe.

CHANG: And I understand, real quick, that there were safety concerns at Chernobyl, which was the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster back in 1986. What happened there today?

FRAYER: So the plant lost power, but basically diesel generators kicked in, so the spent fuel rods are still getting cooled. There was no radiation leak. Kind of a sigh of relief there. One of the rare ones in Ukraine right now.

CHANG: That is NPR's Lauren Frayer in western Ukraine. Thank you, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.