Constant bombing, fear and survival underground. For some of the civilians who took refuge in the guts of the Azovstal steel plant in the city of Mariupol, the ordeal ended on Tuesday, the day in which more than 100 people managed to arrive in a bus convoy to the city of Zaporizhia, controlled across Ukraine, in a five-day evacuation operation that has captured the world’s attention.
The Azovstal plant, a Soviet fortress of underground tunnels for the Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol
The massive Soviet-era plant has become the last major holdout for Ukrainian fighters, outnumbered in the devastated southern Ukrainian port city that is symbolically and strategically important to Moscow. Covering more than 11 square kilometers, the industrial complex is a labyrinth of railway lines, warehouses, ovens, factories and tunnels that have allowed the Ukrainian military to hold out in Mariupol, a city in ruins and almost entirely under Russian control. .
Its interior has also housed civilians these weeks, some of whom arrived in Zaporizhia on Tuesday, about 230 kilometers from Mariúpol. The Humanitarian Coordinator for Ukraine, Osnat Lubrani, confirmed that 101 civilians were successfully evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant in a safe passage operation coordinated by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The operation began last Friday and was agreed with Russia and Ukraine, after contacts with the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, who visited Moscow and kyiv last week.
Dozens of women, men, children and the elderly were able to “finally come out of the bunkers under the Azovstal steelworks and see the light of day after two months,” Lubrani said. Another 58 people joined the convoy in Mangush, a town on the outskirts of Mariupol. This Tuesday they accompanied 127 people to Zaporizhia. According to the head of the office of the Ukrainian presidency, 156 citizens who took refuge from the shelling in the cellars of the Azovstal plant finally arrived in Zaporizhia on Tuesday.
“In recent days, traveling with the evacuees, I have heard frail mothers, children and grandparents speak about the trauma of living day after day under heavy incessant bombardment and the fear of death, and with the extreme lack of water, food and sanitation,” says Lubrani. “They speak of the hell they have lived through since this war began, seeking refuge at the Azovstal plant, many of them separated from their relatives whose fate they still do not know.”
“They bombed every second”
Evacuees emerging from a convoy of white buses were greeted at a makeshift center by excited loved ones and dozens of journalists. They recounted how they spent the days sheltered in the darkness of the plant’s underground bunkers, with little food and water, while the bombs did not stop falling.
One of the evacuees, Anna Zaitseva, told the press that they were “under constant fire, sleeping on makeshift mats, hit by shock waves” at the steel mill. “Running with your son and being knocked to the ground by an explosion… it was all horrible.”
“We are very grateful to everyone who has helped us. There was a time when we lost hope, we thought that the whole world had forgotten about us, ”Zaitseva said, holding her six-month-old baby in her arms, in statements collected by AFP.
Elina Tsybulchenko worked at the plant doing quality control before the war trapped her there. According to the French agency, she described days and nights of endless bombing. “They bombed like every second…everything was shaking. Dogs barked and children screamed (…). But the hardest moment was when we were told that our bunker would not survive a direct hit.”
He also said that every night he went to sleep with fear of not waking up. “You can’t imagine how terrifying it is when you sit in the bomb shelter, in a damp, wet basement, and it’s bouncing and shaking,” said in statements collected by the agency Associated Press.
The evacuee rejected the notion that the Ukrainian military does not allow civilians to leave the plant, saying they were told they were free to leave, but would risk their lives if they did! “We clearly understood that under these murderous weapons we would not survive, we would not get anywhere.” “We thought we would not get out of there,” said a woman who only gave her first name, Anna, and arrived in Zaporizhia with two children.
“I was in Azovstal for two and a half months and we were attacked from all sides,” said Olga Savina, an older woman, to the New York Times. He explained that the sun burned his eyes after so many days underground.
“For some reason I remember Easter,” Inna Papush, who spent 58 days underground with her 17-year-old daughter, Dasha, also told the American media. “We thought it would be a holy day and they would take a break.” “But the shelling became even more intense,” continued her daughter Dasha. “We got used to being very dark. We had to save food. The soldiers brought us what they could: water, food, oatmeal.”
The steel mill has been compared to a small town, with reinforced and equipped bomb shelters. Interviewed evacuees described bunkers, most holding between 30 and 50 people, with kitchens, bathrooms and sleeping areas. The shelters were scattered throughout the grounds of the complex, so there was little contact between the groups hiding in different places, according to the US media.
Zaitseva, who said she tried to leave the site three times but “the truce was broken”, also told reporters that it had been difficult to find basic things to survive in Azovstal. “To find water we had to move between buildings. The men did that for us.” She also recounted the difficulties in feeding her young son, cooking between candles. “Raising a child is a difficult thing (…). It is even more difficult in a bunker without light”.
The attacks continue
According to the Ukrainian Army, Russian forces continue this Wednesday to launch air strikes and fire on their positions in the Azovstal area. The Russians resumed attacks on the steel plant on May 3 after the conclusion of evacuation efforts, according to military experts.
On April 22, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to seal and secure the Azovstal plant so that “not a fly can get through” instead of sending them to the labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers between repeated ultimatums to the Ukrainians. for them to give up. Western military analysts believe Russian forces are likely to try to starve the remaining steel plant soldiers and continue to launch air, artillery and ground attacks.
The Ukrainian presidential office has denounced that Russian troops continue to shell the complex, which continues to house wounded civilians and soldiers who “need urgent medical care.” As reported by Reuters quoting the mayor of the city, more than 200 civilians are still locked up with the fighters in the steel plant and a total of about 100,000 civilians are still trapped in the city.
The UN official expressed concern that there may be more civilians who remain trapped and said they are ready to return to Azovstal to evacuate them, “and to do the same in all other areas experiencing intense and increasing fighting in Ukraine.” “The UN will continue to work with the parties to the conflict to this end.” During the Russian invasion, kyiv has consistently accused Moscow of impeding evacuation efforts.