‘Everything was shaken’: the last civilians to leave Ukraine’s steel plant

Zaporizhia, Ukraine (AP) – The last of the pale civilians in hiding under a sprawling steel mill in the devastated Ukrainian port city of Mariupol arrived late Sunday night in Zaporizhia, the first major Ukrainian city outside the front lines.

Shattered survivors spoke of the constant bombardment, the dwindling of food, the spread of mold everywhere – and the use of hand sanitizer for cooking fuel.

Ten buses slowly pulled out through the deserted streets of Zaporizhia in the dark, carrying 174 evacuees from the Mariupol region. They included more than 30 of the 51 civilians evacuated on the last day of the Azovstal steel plant, where an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters are doing what appears to be their last battle. Ukrainian and Russian officials said these civilians were other than combatants from the industrial complex.

“It was horrible in the bunkers. Water was pouring from the ceilings. There was mold everywhere. We were worried about the children and their lungs,” said 69-year-old Lyubov Andropova, who has been living in Azovstal since March 10.

She said the bombing was continuing and there was a fear that our shelter would “collapse”. “Everything shook, we didn’t go out.”

The seaside steel plant is the only part of Mariupol that is not under Russian control. With tunnels and bunkers deep underground, many civilians chose it as the safest place to take shelter from the constant bombardment of the formerly prosperous port city now largely destroyed.

A few days after the start of the war on February 24, Dmytro Svidakov took refuge in bunkers with his wife and 12-year-old daughter. They entered Azovstal on February 27. It will take more than two months before they can leave.

Gathered in a basement of about 50 to 60 people, he said, the first month and a half was bearable, but then the bombing intensified. Blow up a place to store food, and he and others resorted to garbage collection, including searching workers’ lockers. Cooking fuel was also scarce, but then they discovered that hand sanitizer – well stocked due to the coronavirus pandemic – was a good alternative.

“What can’t you do when you have nothing!” He said, while waiting for the bus that will take evacuees from Azovstal to temporary accommodation in Zaporizhia.

Yehor, an employee of a steelworks sheltering in the bunker who only gave his surname, was in the basement with his two sons, his wife, and their dog. He said that when the food ran out, he helped the soldiers defending Azovstal.

“We wouldn’t have done it any other way,” he said. “I don’t know how long we could have survived, but we certainly wouldn’t have survived until today.” In the past few days, they’ve only had pasta, water and some seasoning – enough for soup once a day.

He said his family entered the factory on March 1 to seek safety, having narrowly escaped being shelled while walking his dog.

Despite the widespread devastation of Mariupol, some of the 51 evacuees from Azovstal chose to remain in the city, said UN officials, who were involved in securing safe passage for the evacuees.

And the Russian forces arrested two – a man and a woman. The woman, who was detained on suspicion of being a military medic, was traveling with her 4-year-old daughter. UN officials said the mother and baby were separated, and the little girl arrived in Zaporizhia with the rest of the evacuees.

But several hundred who wanted to join the evacuation convoy from other areas controlled by Russian forces were forced to stay after Russia and Ukraine failed to reach an agreement on their evacuation.

“It was very sad to see them waiting and not being able to join us,” said the UN Humanitarian Coordinator, Osnat Lubrani.

“Overall, during the 10-day period, we were able to bring a total of 600 people into highly complex, high-risk and highly sensitive safe corridor operations,” Lubrani said, adding that the UN hopes to be able to bring in more civilians in the future.