ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — Pale and drawn, the last civilians sheltering in bunkers under a sprawling steelworks in the decimated Ukrainian port city of Mariupol arrived late Sunday evening in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine’s first major city beyond the lines head on.
Shattered survivors spoke of constant shelling, dwindling food, rampant mold and the use of hand sanitizer as cooking fuel.
Ten buses slowly stopped in the deserted streets of Zaporizhzhia in the dark, carrying 174 evacuees from the Mariupol region. They included more than 30 of the 51 civilians evacuated on the last day from the Azovstal steelworks, where around 2,000 Ukrainian fighters are fighting what appears to be their last stand. Ukrainian and Russian officials said these civilians were the last noncombatants in the industrial complex.
“It was terrible in the bunkers,” said Lyubov Andropova, 69, who had been in Azovstal since March 10. “Water was leaking from the ceilings. There was mold everywhere. We were worried about the children, about their lungs.
The shelling was constant and there were fears “that our bunker would collapse”, she said. “Everything shook, we didn’t go out.”
The seaside steelworks is the only part of Mariupol that is not under Russian control. Thanks to its maze of tunnels and bunkers deep underground, many civilians had chosen it as the safest place to take shelter from the relentless bombardment of the once thriving port city that has now been largely destroyed. .
Just days after the start of the war, on February 24, Dmytro Sviydakov took refuge in the bunkers with his wife and 12-year-old daughter. They entered Azovstal on February 27. It took them more than two months before they could leave.
Huddled in a bunker with about 50 to 60 people, the first month and a half was bearable, he said, but then the shelling intensified. A food storage area exploded and he and others resorted to cleaning up, including rummaging through workers’ lockers. Cooking fuel was also scarce, but then they found hand sanitizer – well stocked due to the coronavirus pandemic – was a good substitute.
“What can’t we do when we have nothing!” he said, as he waited for a bus that would transport evacuees from Azovstal to temporary accommodation in Zaporizhzhia.
Yehor, a steelworker sheltering in the bunker who would only provide his last name, was in the bunker with his two sons, his wife and their dog. He said that when food ran out, soldiers defending Azovstal helped.
“We wouldn’t have succeeded otherwise,” he said. “I don’t know how long we could have survived, but for sure we wouldn’t have survived until today.” For the past few days, all they had left was pasta, water and some spices – enough for a soup once a day.
His family entered the mill on March 1 for security reasons, he said, after narrowly escaping shelling while walking his dog.
Despite widespread destruction in Mariupol, some of the 51 evacuees from Azovstal chose to remain in the city, said United Nations officials, who helped secure passage for evacuees.
Two – a man and a woman – were arrested by Russian forces. The woman, believed to be a military doctor, was traveling with her 4-year-old daughter. The mother and child were separated and the baby girl arrived in Zaporizhzhia with the rest of the evacuees, UN officials said.
But several hundred others who wanted to join the evacuation convoy from other areas held by Russian forces had to stay behind after Russia and Ukraine failed to reach an agreement on their evacuation .
“It was quite heartbreaking to see them waiting and not being able to join us,” said UN Humanitarian Coordinator Osnat Lubrani.
“Overall, over a 10-day period, we were able to bring a total of 600 people into very complex, high-risk and very sensitive safe passage operations,” Lubrani said, adding that the UN hoped to be able to bring in more civilians. in the future.