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The latest on the Ukraine-Russia crisis

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been another day of fighting in Ukraine. Earlier in the day, Russia and Ukraine announced a cease-fire so that civilians could evacuate along a defined corridor. More than 1.3 million Ukrainians have fled their homes since the war started. But within hours of the cease-fire, local Ukrainian officials accused Russia of violating the cease-fire and actually firing on points where evacuees were gathering. Not long after that, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy got on a Zoom call with more than 280 U.S. lawmakers from both parties to repeat his plea for more assistance, which congressional leaders say they are working to approve.

Also today, Israel's prime minister traveled to Moscow for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, hoping to act as a mediator between the two sides in the war, and the U.S. State Department urged Americans in Russia to leave the country immediately. Here to tell us more is NPR's Tim Mak, who is in western Ukraine. Tim, thanks so much for being here.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: First, could you tell us about the cease-fire today, how it fell apart? Do you know what happened?

MAK: Yeah. Well, the Russians and Ukrainians announced this temporary cease-fire localized to two places in Ukraine, including the southeastern port city of Mariupol. A city official in that town told my colleague Lauren Frayer that just as soon as people began to arrive at these designated humanitarian corridor locations, those locations were shelled. Here's Irina Vereshchuk. She's a deputy prime minister of Ukraine.

IRINA VERESHCHUK: (Through interpreter) The Russian Federation started shelling the city of Volnovakha with heavy weapons.

MAK: The Russian Defense Ministry denied that claim and said Ukrainian forces were the ones that broke the cease-fire. Now, it should be noted that Russia has a history of organizing cease-fires then using them as opportunities to make military advances. This was the case in Syria, where the Russian government was backing this dictator named Bashar al-Assad.

MARTIN: What's it been like in those cities that are surrounded by the Russian military?

MAK: Well, it's really the conditions are worsening everywhere, all across the country, and no more so than the cities that are under Russian bombardment. Civilian areas have been targeted by the Russian military, and residents now have to endure this harsh March cold without basic necessities. Here's Petro Andrushchenko. He's a city official in Mariupol.

PETRO ANDRUSHCHENKO: In our city, we haven't electricity more than three days. We haven't heat, and we haven't water.

MAK: The situation will only get worse if the war grinds on and more munitions are expended, more shots are fired, more infrastructure is destroyed.

MARTIN: So we know there's been a steady stream of refugees from Ukraine. Are people still trying to get out?

MAK: Hundreds of thousands over just the last few days and now well over 1 million in total. And as more people leave, it's getting harder to do. I visited a major train station in western Ukraine, saw this disturbing scene. A train arrived from Kharkiv, that Ukrainian city along the border with Russia. The doors had jammed shut, and the train was packed to the brim with people and babies crying, children crying. Those who wanted to get off were shoving and pushing to inch their way out of the few doors that were open.

LUDMILLA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: I spoke to Ludmilla, who took her family from Kyiv by train because the situation just wasn't tenable for her anymore.

LUDMILLA: (Through interpreter) So the sirens got more intense almost all the time, and they intensified a lot with the shootings, with the bombing. So because it got worse, we decided to escape Kyiv.

MAK: It's striking what people will carry with them when it feels their whole world is ending. Michel, this image that stuck with me was Ludmilla's daughter, this young girl named Sophia (ph). She carried her pet rabbit, named Rebecca (ph), in her arms in a cardboard box all the way from Kyiv on this 15-hour journey, and now they face a really uncertain future.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Tim Mak reporting from western Ukraine. Tim, thank you so much for your reporting, and of course, our thoughts are with you and everyone there.

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

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.