Their bunker couldn’t withstand a direct hit from ferocious Russian bombardment, food was running out and finding water could get them killed. For some civilians inside the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, it was an ordeal that finally ended on Tuesday when more than 100 managed to reach the safety of a shopping centre car park in Ukrainian-held Zaporizhzhia.
Some members of the group told of their experiences over the past few weeks in the besieged plant. They had survived in tunnels below the steelworks among Ukrainian troops, having to pick bomb-shattered glass from their food and hoping for rescue.
“Under permanent fire, sleeping on improvised mats, being pounded by the blast waves, running with your son and being knocked to the ground by an explosion – everything was horrible,” said evacuee Anna Zaitseva. She carried her six-month-old baby in her arms and cried when expressing her gratitude to everyone from the troops who found formula for her child to the urgent international rescue effort that got them to safety.
“Thank you,” she said, before being escorted to a private area inside the shopping centre.
The group of about 100 civilians who became trapped in their refuges beneath the steelworks were granted passage in an agreement worked out with the invading Russian forces, and which took days to carry out as the world watched.
Yet Ukrainian officials noted that some civilians had been left behind during the operation, prompting fresh concerns for their fate after Kyiv announced that Russian forces had launched an offensive with tanks and armoured vehicles at the site.
Stretching over 11 square kilometres (4.2 square miles), the Azovstal complex is a sprawling warren of rail lines, warehouses, coal furnaces, factories, chimneys and tunnels seen as ideal for guerrilla warfare.
The terror of her time at the steelworks was fresh for Elyna Tsybulchenko, 54, who used to work at the site doing quality control. Tsybulchenko sought shelter there after shelling destroyed her home and water was running short in the city, yet even getting water inside the plant carried immense risks.
“They bombed like every second … everything was shaking. Dogs barked and children screamed,” she said. “But the hardest moment was when we were told our bunker would not survive a direct hit.
“We understood that it would just be a mass grave and no one could save us under fire,” she added. “It would be impossible to save us.
“You can’t imagine how scary it is when you sit in the shelter, in a wet and damp basement which is bouncing, shaking,” she said from Zaporizhzhia, about 230km north-west of Mariupol. “We were praying to god that missiles fly over our shelter, because if it hit the shelter, all of us would be done.”
In Zaporizhzhia, evacuees made their way from the buses into a tent offering hot food. Inside, mothers fed small children. Zaitseva said it had been hard to find basics for survival in Azovstal.
“To find water we had to move between buildings. The men did that for us, including my dad,” she said. “He was wounded but thank god it wasn’t fatal.”
She said Ukrainian troops located formula for her infant son, and when that ran out, they came up with semolina that she cooked over candles.
“Raising a child is a difficult thing,” she added, noting about 70 people were sheltering in the same place as her. “It’s even harder in a bunker with no light.”
Mariupol is among the most battered cities in Ukraine, and the Azovstal site is where Kyiv’s troops have managed to hold out against Russian forces.
The risk to civilians has been repeatedly decried, with accusations that Moscow has done little to protect people from its strikes.
“We personally tried to evacuate three times. One time everyone went out and shooting started. The truce was broken,” Zaitseva said. “And, of course, after that, we were very wary. We thought we had been left behind. But in the end, that turned out not to be true.”
At a reception centre in Zaporizhzhia, stretchers and wheelchairs were lined up, and children’s shoes and toys awaited the convoy. Medical and psychological teams were on standby. Some of the elderly evacuees appeared exhausted as they arrived.
“I’m very glad to be on Ukrainian soil,” said a woman who gave only her first name, Anna, and arrived with two children, ages one and nine. “We thought we wouldn’t get out of there.”
With Agence France-Presse and Associated Press