Evacuees tell of nightmares in the basement of the Azovstal factory

The evacuees from the Azovstal factory could not forget the weeks without sunlight, severe food shortages and constant shelling.

“Under the incessant shelling, I had to sleep on a homemade rug, run away with my son and sometimes be knocked over by the shock wave. Everything was horrible,” said Anna Zaitseva, one of 156 civilians. evacuated from the basement of the Azovstal metallurgical plant in the city of Mariupol, southeastern Ukraine, sharing when they reached a safe place.

Holding her 6-month-old son in her arms, Zaitseva burst into tears as she expressed her gratitude to the support group, from the soldiers who worked to find milk for her baby, to those who brought her and her baby to safety.

Anna Zaitseva hugs her 6-month-old son after being evacuated from the underground bunker of the Azovstal factory to Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine.  Photo: AFP.

Anna Zaitseva hugs her 6-month-old son after being evacuated from the underground bunker of the Azovstal factory to Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Image: AFP.

Over the weekend, for the first time in weeks, fighting at the Azovstal factory stopped to evacuate civilians sheltering in underground bunkers, according to an agreement made by the United Nations, the International Red Cross and its side. Russia and Ukraine.

A group of civilians in the underground tunnel of the Azovstal factory were evacuated in white convoys of the United Nations and the International Red Cross, to the Ukrainian-controlled Zaporizhzhia area.

After nearly two months of siege, Russian forces have controlled most of Mariupol city, leaving only the last resistance of the Azov Battalion at the Azovstal factory. Ukrainian officials previously estimated that about 1,000 civilians had been trapped in the underground bunker beneath the plant for weeks.

Before being evacuated to Zaporizhzhia, those in the Azovstal factory spent weeks in terror living underground, enduring shortages of food and water, and hoping for an early rescue.

For 54-year-old Elyna Tsybulchenko, the obsession of being in the Azovstal factory is still intact. Tsybulchenko took refuge in Azovstal after her house was destroyed by artillery fire and the water source in the city of Mariupol gradually dried up.

“Bombs and bullets fell continuously, without stopping for a moment. Everything was shaking. All around were dogs barking and children screaming. The most difficult moment was when we were told the underground bunker could not hold. if it is bombed directly,” Tsybulchenko said. She was afraid at that time that the underground bunker under the Azovstal factory would become a mass grave.

“You can’t imagine how scary it was to sit in a damp cellar. We begged the missile to fly over the shelter, because if it hit, we would all die,” Tsybulchenko said. next.

Russian forces claim not to attack civilians in Ukraine, but only to destroy military targets. The Russian military also accused the Azov Battalion of entrenched in the Azovstal factory using civilians as a shield in the fighting.

When she was evacuated to Zaporizhzhia, Olga Savina, an elderly woman who had lived in the underground tunnel of the Azovstal factory for about two months, kept her face down on the street because she was not used to sunlight.

“We are used to the darkness. We still have to save food. The soldiers bring us what they can provide, from water, food to oatmeal,” Dasha Papush, who were evacuated from the underground bunker in the Azovstal factory, shared.

Black smoke surrounds the Azovstal factory, in the southern city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 2.  Photo: Reuters.

Black smoke surrounds the Azovstal factory, in the southern city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 2. Image: Reuters.

Many people in the Azovstal factory have moved into underground bunkers since the first days of Russia’s military campaign. Anna, 29 years old, spent 57 days in the bunker.

Anna said that sometimes people have to risk going outside, even though they know leaving the bunker is extremely dangerous. “The people who were with us had to find a way out to bring back generators, fuel. Of course we had to find the whole country,” Anna said.

For 60-year-old Sergei Tsybulchenko, the reason he got out of the bunker in the Azovstal factory was to find wooden pallets scattered throughout the factory to cook.

Tsybulchenko said he and about 50 other people living in the underground cellar gathered to prepare the meal for each day, often a mixture of pasta, oatmeal and canned meat cooked in a large pot.

Tsybulchenko said that they always had to keep the fire low, fearing that the thermal sensors on the Russian plane might detect their location in the underground bunker. “Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. It was really nerve-wracking,” Tsybulchenko recalls.

During his evacuation from Mariupol, Tsybulchenko looked into the distance, trying to picture what was left of the city where he was born. The house Tsybulchenko lived in since the age of 3 is no longer there.

Looking to the horizon, Tsybulchenko could make out the chimneys protruding above the Azovstal steel plant, where he had been sheltering for weeks. “There is only black smoke now,” Tsybulchenko said.

For more than a month, Russian forces besieged Mariupol.  Click on the picture to see details.

For more than a month, Russian forces besieged Mariupol. Click on the picture to see details.

Ngoc Anh (Theo Guardian/NY Times)

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