ZAPORIJIA, Ukraine ( Associated Press) — Pale and exhausted, the last civilians to shelter in bunkers under the massive steel plant in the decimated Ukrainian port city of Mariupol arrived Sunday night in Zaporizhia, the first major Ukrainian city beyond the front line.
The steel mill, where an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters are fighting what appears to be their last battle, is the only part of the city not under Russian control. Thanks to its maze of tunnels and underground bunkers, many civilians had chosen it as the safest place to shelter from the incessant Russian shelling of Mariupol, once a thriving port city that has been largely reduced to rubble.
The emaciated survivors spoke of constant shelling, food shortages, and ever-present mold. They had to use hand sanitizer as fuel to cook.
Ten buses slowly entered the dark and deserted streets of Zaporizhia, bringing 174 evacuees from the Mariupol area. They included more than 30 of the 51 civilians evacuated over the last day from the Azovstal steelworks, where some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters are making what appears to be their last stand. Both Ukrainian and Russian officials have said that these civilians are the last non-combatants in the industrial complex.
“It was terrible to be in the bunkers,” said Lyubov Andropova, 69, who had been sheltering at the Azovstal plant since March 10. “Water was running from the roofs. There was mold everywhere. We were worried about the children, about their lungs.”
The shelling was constant and we feared “that our bunker would collapse,” he said. “Everything was shaking. We do not go out”.
Just days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, Dmytro Sviydakov took refuge in bunkers with his wife and 12-year-old daughter. They entered Azovstal on February 27. It would be more than two months before they could get out.
He commented that the first month and a half was bearable. Between 50 and 60 people crowded into a bunker, but then Russian attacks intensified. They blew up a food storage area, so he and others resorted to picking up debris, including searching workers’ lockers.
Cooking fuel was also in short supply, but then they found that hand sanitizer, plentiful due to the coronavirus pandemic, was a good substitute.
“What can’t you do when you have nothing?” she said, as she waited for a bus that would take evacuees from Azovstal to temporary accommodation in Zaporizhia.
Yehor, a steelworks employee who took refuge in the bunker and who gave only his last name, said he took refuge in the bunker with his two children, his wife and their dog. He said that when food was scarce, the soldiers defending Azovstal helped them.
“We wouldn’t have done it any other way,” he said. “I don’t know how long we could have survived, but we certainly wouldn’t have survived until today.” In the last days, they only had pasta, water and some spices, barely enough for one soup a day.