Inna and Dasha Pavlush just got out of hell. They have spent the last two months without seeing the light of day, sheltering in the tunnels and bunkers of the Azovstal steelworks, to escape constant attacks by Russian forces in the devastated city of Mariupol. Mother and daughter, pale and nervous, managed to reach the city of Zaporizhia, territory controlled by Ukrainian forces, on Tuesday. They traveled with a convoy of around 100 people who were evacuated from the factory, the last pocket of resistance in a town almost reduced to rubble and already under Russian control. “It’s a disaster, I don’t know what will happen to the people who still haven’t managed to get out,” laments Inna, 43.
The situation in the steelworks, say those who managed to flee, is desperate. There are wounded among the Ukrainian soldiers who remain inside the factory, where they retreated weeks ago. Food and supplies are scarce, as is medicine, Inna says. Olga Salvina, a pensioner who spent two and a half months at the factory, recounts the incessant strikes against Azovstal. “They attacked us from all sides,” she said after getting off a white bus upon arriving at the reception complex in Zaporizhia, where the group was received by Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, health personnel, police officers and a host of journalists.
The siege of Azovstal, the last Ukrainian resistance outpost in Mariupol, resumed almost as soon as the evacuees left the factory on Sunday. On Tuesday, the Russian military also launched a powerful attack on the steel plant with artillery and airstrikes, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. Ukrainian forces remaining at the plant with some 200 civilians, according to city authorities’ calculations, said two people with no military affiliation died and 10 were injured in Tuesday’s offensive.
The evacuation of the group – mostly women and girls, some of whom are workers or relatives of factory workers – was complex. The trip ended in a huge shopping center converted into a reception point for people displaced from the south-eastern territories of the country besieged and occupied by Russia. The trip, says Nadezhda, 18, would not have lasted more than four hours under normal circumstances; instead, it lasted nearly three days, passing through Russian checkpoints in the occupied territories, where the military searched buses and passengers, disembarking them, checking their papers and sometimes subjecting them to interrogation . Survivors of the Azovstal Odyssey were joined along the way by evacuees from other towns under attack.
Nadezhda arrived at the Azovstal plant on March 2. “I went there because it was the safest place I know in the city and there was shelter”, says this young woman with long hair, who explains that when the war broke out she was alone in Mariupol. In Azovstal, she lived with other people who huddled with her in the tunnels and bunkers, eating and sleeping in groups taking turns. There was no light except from a generator that provided electricity. “Mariupol was surrounded and the attackers were closing in on the factory. We were trapped there under bombs for two months, unable to leave as the attacks were constant. When we first set foot outside, we had been in the dark for so long that the sun blinded us,” adds this student who now plans to join her aunt in Germany. Either that or join the army.
Life in Azovstal was tough, admits Dasha Pavlush. There was a group of children, and the youngest was only one and a half years old. “We spent the day playing hide and seek, making paper toys,” she says. Dasha is scared. Her father, who is employed by the steel company, is still inside. “Now I just want to get out of this hell, wash my hair, take a shower,” says the young woman. “It was very difficult and we still have to process it. We had nothing, no food, and we were too scared to go out, but the army brought us supplies and helped us survive there,” Inna adds.
The rescue operation of the first group of civilians from Azovstal was carried out after a number of failed attempts and only after the UN and the International Red Cross reached the agreement to evacuate the bunkers. The steel plant has been under constant attack by the forces of Vladimir Putin, who seeks to overthrow the resistance of this industrial area and claim full control of the port city on the Sea of Azov. Mariupol is symbolic for the Kremlin, which failed to break it in 2014, at the start of the Donbass war. In this conflict, Moscow relied on pro-Russian separatists through whom it now controls part of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in eastern Ukraine. Mariupol and its steel plant are the last element that Russia lacks to consolidate the corridor uniting the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea – illegally annexed in 2014 – to Donbass.
With impatient looks and worn faces, Azovstal evacuees poured out of buses and onto a large white tent where volunteers, UN staff and organizations such as Doctors Without Borders provided first aid, a hot meal and even clothes and toys. These people left almost everything behind in Mariupol. Now, after the terror, it’s time for them to find a life in a war-torn country struggling to assimilate the trickle of displaced people from areas under Russian occupation, while fighting Kremlin forces in tough battles in the east. and in the south of the country.
Alina Tsibulenko, an employee of the steel plant, tells how the people at the plant had to live mainly on pasta, bread, oatmeal and sometimes canned meat. “You can’t imagine the conditions we lived in,” she said in a trembling voice. The situation worsened on April 7, when Russian attacks on Azovstal intensified. “The bombs shook the foundations of the bunker.” Wrapped in a red jacket despite the sunny day, Valentina Sitnikova says she thought no one would remember the factory refugees, some 17 families. “We thought no one knew we were there,” says the 70-year-old, who spent two months in the Azovstal tunnels with her son and 10-year-old granddaughter. Sitnikova promised the child that they would go out no matter what. And so it was, she said with a sad smile.
The Soviet-era steelworks, founded under Stalin, has a maze of tunnels and bunkers to withstand attack. The industrial complex southeast of the city, near the port, covers 11 square kilometers in an intricate network of warehouses, railway tracks and underground tunnels. Those who remain at the plant, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said, are “on the brink of life or death”. There are injured and sick in there, he noted in an online post. “They are waiting, praying for a rescue.”
Tuesday’s was the steelworks’ first evacuation and one of the last hopes for people who have been trapped for weeks in the darkness of the plant’s tunnels. Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenskiy said the government continues to work with the United Nations to evacuate more civilians from Azovstal. His chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, also hinted that the evacuations could go beyond the civilians hiding in the steelworks. “This is only the first step. We will continue to get our civilians and troops out of Mariupol,” he said on his Telegram channel.
There is no concrete information on the number of people remaining in the factory, where Ukrainian soldiers have also taken refuge, including members of the Azov battalion, an organization linked to the extreme right which is now part of the Ukrainian National Guard founded in 2014, at the start of the Donbass war between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists supported by the Kremlin. This battalion, on which Kremlin rhetoric has focused in a war it has defined as a “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine – a country led by a Jewish president – has gradually lost its founders over time and has become a group of special forces whose most emblematic headquarters are in Mariupol.
In the devastated port city, symbol of the Kremlin’s attacks on the civilian population where a few buildings are still standing, there remain about 100,000 people out of the 450,000 that once housed the prosperous city, according to estimates by local authorities. From there, refugees continue to arrive in Zaporizhia, now converted into a reception center for those fleeing the city and other places currently under attack or under Russian control – small groups of cars, packed to the brim, often with windows shattered by hard travel or by shrapnel.
Their stories about the city are similar. “Mariupol no longer exists, at least the Mariupol we knew,” laments Mariana Kaplum, a 44-year-old economist who managed to reach a tent for displaced people with her husband, their two young children and her parents. Kaplum and his family had been sheltering from bombs since mid-April in their country home on the outskirts of town. “Now they don’t bomb there anymore, the city is more or less calm. But they are attacking Azovstal with planes,” she explains in the parking lot of the reception center, while Lev, her five-year-old son, runs nervously.