Live Updates on the Russian-Ukrainian War: News from the Mariupol Steel Plant
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine – Some flashed bright smiles and others leaned in sobbing, sharing the end of their hellish underground ordeal. Here, at last, were ordinary things they thought they would never see again: sunlight, enough food, and escape from the incessant Russian bombardments.
In a fleet of city buses, flanked by white United Nations and Red Cross vehicles, nearly 130 women, children and the elderly reached the relative safety of Ukrainian-held territory on Tuesday, after weeks huddled in the womb of the sprawling Mariupol steelworks.
They had sheltered in the near darkness of underground bunkers, with little food or water as explosives of all shapes and sizes rained down day and night, slowly chipping away at the steel and concrete above their heads. who were their only protection.
“For some reason I remember Easter, Easter Day,” said Inna Papush, who spent 58 days underground with her daughter, Dasha, 17. “We thought it would be a holy day and they would take a break,” she said. Russian forces.
“But the shelling got even heavier,” Dasha said, complementing her mother’s thought.
US and European leaders pressed harder on Tuesday to arm Ukraine, stymie the Kremlin and bolster the NATO alliance – President Biden visited a factory that makes anti-tank missiles that have been vital to the Ukrainian cause – even as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia warned they were only making matters worse.
And in the parking lot of the Epicenter shopping complex in Zaporizhzhia, southeastern Ukraine, evacuees from Mariupol emerged from buses, blinking in the sun. They were greeted by a parade of aid workers offering tea and snacks and a less than quiet place to rest in a large white tent buzzing with journalists, psychologists and the occasional politician. The children received sweets, while an air raid siren sounded briefly, ignored by all.
Their evacuation was a rare but limited victory for diplomacy and an unusual concession to human dignity by Russian forces who have inflicted death and misery on civilian populations across much of Ukraine since the start of the war on February 24.
Negotiators from the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross brokered a deal with the Russians that allowed civilians to escape from the Azovstal steelworks, the sprawling complex that had been their haven. But that only happened after more than two months of intense attacks that turned Mariupol, once a bustling port city, into a ruin of bombed-out buildings and streets littered with corpses. In addition to the 127 evacuees who fled to Zaporizhzhia, about 30 escaped from the plant but chose to stay in Mariupol, according to The Associated Press.
In the days before a ceasefire that allowed civilians to escape, Russian forces intensified their attacks on the factory, causing cave-ins that hampered rescue efforts and killed and injured scores unknown, according to Ukrainian officials and troops who are still there.
“I was in Azovstal for two and a half months and they hit us from all sides,” said Olga Savina, an elderly woman, as she got out of a white city bus provided by Zaporizhzhia authorities. for evacuation.
As she spoke, she repeatedly cast her gaze toward the sidewalk, explaining that the sun was burning her eyes after so many days underground.
From the evacuees, a picture began to emerge of life in Azovstal. The steelworks looked like a small town, with roads and buildings dating from after World War II, when any major Soviet construction project included reinforced bomb shelters equipped with everything needed for long-term survival. .
Evacuees described bunkers, most housing 30 to 50 people, with kitchens, bathhouses and rest areas. Shelters were spread across the compound’s grounds, so there was little contact between groups hiding in different locations.
There, in the dark, a semblance of everyday life takes shape.
“We got used to it being very dark. We had to save food,” Dasha Papush said. “The soldiers brought us what they could: water, food, oatmeal.”
“We weren’t eating like we did at home,” she added.
Many evacuees had been underground since the early days of the war. For a woman named Anna, 29, who soothed her young son, Ivan, with a pacifier, it was 57 days. While there, she was separated from her husband, a National Guard fighter, by a brisk 15-minute walk through the ruins of the factory, though visits were rare due to constant shelling and fighting.
Leaving the safety of the underground shelter was treacherous, but necessary for survival.
“The guys who are with us came out under fire and tried to get us a generator and fuel, so we would have electricity to charge our flashlights,” she said. “We of course had to fetch water.”
For Sergei Tsybulchenko, 60, the reason to emerge was firewood. Scattered around the factory grounds were shipping pallets that he and a few men were collecting and smashing to fuel the cooking fire he and his fellow inmates had made in part of their bunker. He and the 50 or so other people crammed into his bunker congregated to cook and share one meal a day, he explained – usually a mixture of macaroni, oatmeal and canned meat, cooked together in a large saucepan.
Mr Tsybulchenko said the fire had to be kept low lest it could be detected by thermal sensors on Russian jets.
“It was always, boom, boom, boom, boom,” he said. “It was a real strain on the brain.”
Under constant bombardment, he said, the shelter began to disintegrate, with part collapsing.
Over the weekend, for the first time in weeks, it stopped.
At Mr Tsybulchenko’s shelter, three soldiers from the Azov Regiment, a Ukrainian military unit whose soldiers make up the bulk of those fighting in Azovstal, called on anyone with an illness to come forward. Mr. Tsybulchenko’s wife, Nelya, who suffers from asthma, raised her hand. The couple emerged from the shelter in the sun with their daughter, her husband and a small dog.
Only 11 people from their bunker were chosen to leave, leaving behind around 40 others. Among those who remained was a mother with her two children, who Mr Tsybulchenko said was afraid to leave because her husband was a high-ranking officer fighting at the factory.
“She was worried that if they found out she would end up in a prison camp with the kids,” he said.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko said in a television interview on Tuesday that more than 200 civilians were still hiding at the plant and more than 100,000 people remained scattered in the city. Inside Azovstal, supplies of food, water and medicine have reached critical levels.
The Russians resumed shelling the factory almost immediately after the international negotiators with the evacuees left, according to soldiers on the spot. On Tuesday, Russian forces attempted to storm the complex after bombarding it with planes, tanks and artillery, said Captain Svyatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov regiment at the plant, in a statement on Telegram. The regiment released a video showing the bodies of two women, who it says were killed in the new attack.
“We will do everything we can to repel this assault,” Captain Palamar said. “However, we call for immediate action to evacuate civilians from the factory grounds.”
It took Mr. Tsybulchenko and his family almost two hours to get out of the complex. An old man who accompanied them had to be carried over twisted material, through massive craters and around unexploded ordnance.
Once outside, the evacuees were handed over to Russian troops and eventually put on buses for what would become a three-day circular journey through dozens of checkpoints, where Russian soldiers took their fingerprints and photographed and questioned them about the location of Ukrainian fighters still at the plant.
At some point during the trip, Mr. Tsybulchenko looked into the distance and saw the remains of Mariupol, his hometown. The apartment that his grandfather had received from the Soviet authorities in the 1960s and where he had lived since the age of 3 has disappeared. On the horizon he could make out the jagged shapes of the steelworks.
“Black smoke hung over Azovstal,” he said.
Cora Engelbrecht contributed reporting from Krakow, Poland.