Russian soldier flees from Ukraine's capital

Russian soldier flees from Ukraine's capital

Before the invasion, Shashkov said he had used his van to ferry his students to dance competitions. Shrapnel has since torn a hole in the bodywork near his dance school logo on the side of the vehicle.

I was terrified, describing his first trip out of the city, said Shashkov. I wasn't driving very carefully. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has divided the country, sending more than 11 million Ukrainians fleeing for safety farther west and sometimes splitting families, with many civilians stuck in cities behind Russian lines or in the midst of Russia's military push in the east. Humanitarian corridors have been stop- and- start, leaving some Ukrainians to stage their own rescue efforts.

Mariupol is almost completely occupied by Russian forces after weeks of heavy bombardment, except for a pocket of Ukrainian soldiers holed up at the Azovstal steel plant. After the Russian invasion began in late February, power, water and gas was cut off, and there was no cell service.

The city officials estimate 21,000 people have been killed in fighting in and around Mariupol, and plans for formal humanitarian corridors out of the city have failed repeatedly despite accusations of cease-fire violations by both Ukrainian and Russian officials.

Like many Mariupol residents, Shashkov said he had spent weeks sheltering in a basement, and was black from head to toe with dirt when he first made it out of the city with a small contingent of students and their family members on March 16.

When they could wash with warm water, some of them started crying, he said.

After his first proper meal in weeks, he sat in a refuge for the night, and Shashkov said he couldn't sleep.

He said that you are thinking about the rest of your friends, and kids and students, not in such conditions as you are right now.

They were starving, they were cold. There was an information vacuum. He said that we are lying on the warm floor with a full stomach.

He organized a convoy of vehicles with the father of one of his students to go back into the city on March 19. They lied to Russian soldiers at checkpoints, saying they were picking up family members and bribing the soldiers with packets of cigarettes.

The mother of Shashkov, who had taught him how to dance, had already left Mariupol. She refused to flee with him during his initial escape, insisting that her son first rescue his students. The 69-year-old walked 30 kilometers out of Mariupol on foot, Shashkov said.

I tried, but it was useless, he said, smiling at the memory of trying to cajole his mother into his van.

Shashkov said that he scoured the city for his students, a task made difficult by a lack of a mobile phone network.

Shashkov's trips also provided him with little information about the outside world making it to the city and Ukraine's battlefield successes against Russia's military, as well as crucial information about safe routes out of the city on foot.

There are no buses. That Ukraine doesn't care about you, that Ukraine doesn't care about you, Shashkov said.

Russian news tells them that most of Ukraine is already occupied. The rest of Ukraine will be occupied in two days. He said that the only way to evacuate is toward Russia.

After repeated forays into Mariupol, his luck ran out on March 27 when he said he had the gun held to his head at a checkpoint.

He said he ferries displaced people around unoccupied parts of Ukraine, but misses his dance school and his students, who felt like family. The children he had rescued gave him for good luck are stuffed toys on the dashboard.

My students grew up with me, all my school grew up with me and we made it together. He said I was not on my own, wiping away a tear.

Shashkov said that this van is the only thing I have of my old life.

He got behind the wheel and drove away a short while later.