ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine, May 13 (Reuters) – Five stories below the besieged Azovstal steelworks, Ukrainian soldiers told Nataliya Babeush she had minutes to prepare to escape from the underground bunker she called home for more than two months.
The 35-year-old grabbed just over a handful of children’s drawings: a few sketches of flowers and food that had helped lift the spirits of dozens of civilians who had sheltered for weeks in a corner of the vast, dimly lit maze of concrete.
“I will keep them as long as possible,” she told Reuters, after a humanitarian convoy took her to the southeastern Ukrainian town of Zaporizhzhia on Sunday.
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Babeush and hundreds of others had sought refuge in the huge complex under the Azovstal factory shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in the early hours of February 24 and laid siege to the port city of Mariupol.
She considered the factory as a short-term shelter before retreating elsewhere to safety. Instead, the refuge became a trap as Azovstal became the center of the fiercest fighting of the war.
Reuters spoke to four evacuees from the plant who spent weeks underground in dark and damp conditions, enduring shelling in one of the steelworks’ many bunkers. They described how the group of foreigners was bound together by a need to survive, ration food and maintain morale, as Russian forces closed in.
“Every second was hellish. It’s very scary underground – to be underground like moles in the dark,” said 51-year-old nurse Valentyna Demyanchuk.
Russia has strongly denied targeting civilians in the conflict, which it calls a “special military operation” to demilitarize Ukraine. Kyiv authorities say thousands of civilians were killed in Mariupol and have accused Moscow of war crimes.
The Russian Defense Ministry and Ukrainian government did not respond to a request for comment on the women’s testimony.
The four women described being awakened before dawn on the first day of the war by the shelling of Mariupol.
Accountant Larisa Solop, 49, fled her apartment in the east of the city as the fighting approached. She was hoping to meet her daughter’s family across town, but there was no cell phone reception.
“Many buildings were burning … and shells were whizzing over our heads,” she said. As the evening curfew approached, she realized her only hope was to seek refuge in the nearby town of Azovstal – “just a stopover”.
Two months later, she will be one of the last civilians to be evacuated from the factory on May 6 by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Read more
Most of the approximately 40 people sharing the Solop shelter arrived in early March. Many had only the clothes on their backs, others brought a few personal effects and a bag or two of preserves, pasta, porridge or potatoes, the women said.
Babeush, a former factory worker, became the lead cook, stirring pots of soup over a wood-burning stove in the concrete floor above their bunker.
“The kids called it Auntie Soup,” Demyanchuk said, laughing sadly. The group ate one meal a day, she said.
A strike cut off all power supplies in early March, after which the group was plunged into darkness. They began to ration candles, while some of the men made small torches out of batteries of industrial lighting that could run on individual batteries.
As the shelling intensified, some people tried to leave but did not reach the perimeter of the compound before returning to the shelter, the women said.
“The sea planes were bombing so hard we couldn’t even get out,” Solop said, recalling his elderly father being knocked into the bunker by the force of an explosion.
To amuse himself, Babeush encouraged the eight children in the group to decorate the workers’ helmets. She made a robot costume from a box with eye holes and held a drawing contest on Orthodox Easter. Everyone voted and the first prize was a box of meat paste.
Her favorite design was a pizza with lovingly detailed melted cheese chains.
But privately, Babeush had lost hope. She wrote her parents’ phone numbers in her jacket in case she died in the bunker. “I didn’t think we would go out.”
Demyanchuk, her husband, son and elderly mother were among the first to take a break. Tired of the shelling, they decide to try their luck on foot on March 26 even though his mother needs two canes and has to be carried part of the way.
“Food was running out and we were tired of sitting underground,” Demyanchuk said by phone from central Ukraine in early May.
Demyanchuk said the soldiers made him wait until the sky seemed clearer and urged them to move as quickly as possible. They didn’t try to stop him from leaving.
Their journey to Ukrainian-controlled territory lasted several days. As the bombers flew overhead, they passed buildings with freshly dug graves in the yard and saw the charred body of a soldier on the waterfront, she said.
But, being outside the bunker, she says she felt “an indescribable sense of freedom”.
The other three women had to wait more than a month before hearing via their only crackling radio the international efforts to evacuate the civilians from the factory.
“It gave us a bit of strength so that soon, in a bit more time, we would get out of there,” said 25-year-old Tetyana Trotsak, whose asthmatic mother suffered in the humid air.
After the negotiation of a local ceasefire, the evacuation began in early May. But it was a bittersweet moment for those in the bunker – the group would only be allowed to leave in stages.
“The hardest part was waiting and hoping that we would get out. It was kind of a desperation,” Solop said.
Food was dwindling dangerously, even with additional rations shared by Ukrainian forces who were entrenched in another part of the factory that had become their last redoubt after Russian troops took control of Mariupol.
Eleven people, including families with children and people with medical conditions, left first, climbing out of the bunker and making their way through the rubble to get to a bus convoy.
“We were so happy for them, but we just sat there and thought what if they took this group and they couldn’t do more?” Solop said.
A few days later, the soldiers told Babeush and others they had five minutes to prepare. They were told they had to hurry to the buses or the last group in the bunker might miss the chance to evacuate that day.
Babeush grabbed a little more than some of the drawings that had been taped around the shelter. “War taught me that you don’t need material things. For life, you don’t need anything – just people you can rely on,” she said.
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Additional reporting by Maria Starkova, Oleksandr Kozhukhar, Bogdan Kobuchey and Leonardo Benassatto Editing by Daniel Flynn
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