ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine, May 13 (Reuters) – Five stories below the besieged Azovstal steelworks, Ukrainian soldiers told Nataliya Babeush she had a few minutes to prepare to escape from the underground bunker she has called home for more than two months.
The 35-year-old took little more than a handful of children’s drawings: a few sketches of flowers and food that had helped cheer dozens of civilians who had sheltered for weeks in a corner of the large, dimly lit concrete warren.
“I will keep them as long as I can,” she told Reuters, after a humanitarian convoy took her to the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia on Sunday.
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Babeush and hundreds of others sought refuge in the huge complex below the Azovstal plant shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in the early hours of February 24 and laid siege to the port city of Mariupol.
She saw the plant as a short-term refuge before retiring to safety elsewhere. Instead, the shelter became a trap as Azovstal became the focus of the fiercest fighting of the war.
Reuters spoke to four evacuees from the plant who spent weeks underground in dark and humid conditions enduring shelling in one of the mill’s many bunkers. They described how the group of strangers was united by the need to survive, ration food and keep their spirits up, as Russian forces closed in.
“Every second was hellish. It’s so scary underground, being underground like moles in the dark,” said nurse Valentyna Demyanchuk, 51.
Russia has strongly denied targeting civilians in the conflict, calling it a “special military operation” to demilitarize Ukraine. kyiv authorities say thousands of civilians have been killed in Mariupol and have accused Moscow of war crimes.
The Russian Defense Ministry and the Ukrainian government did not respond to a request for comment on the women’s testimony.
All four women described being awakened before dawn on the first day of the war by the bombing of Mariupol.
Accountant Larisa Solop, 49, fled her apartment in the east of the city as the fight approached. She expected to meet her daughter’s family across town, but she had no cell phone reception.
“Many buildings were on fire … and shells were whistling over our heads,” he said. As evening curfew approached, she realized that his only hope was to take refuge in nearby Azovstal, “just a stopover.”
Two months later, she would be one of the last civilians to be evacuated on May 6 from the plant by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). read more
Most of the 40 or so people who share the Solop shelter arrived in early March. Many had just their clothes on, others brought a few belongings and a bag or two of canned goods, pasta, oatmeal or potatoes, the women said.
Babeush, a former plant worker, became the head cook, stirring pots of soup in a wood-burning stove on the concrete floor above his bunker.
“The kids called it auntie soup,” Demyanchuk said, laughing sadly. The group ate one meal a day, he 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 banks of industrial lighting that could be powered by individual batteries.
As the shelling intensified, some people tried to leave but did not make it to the compound’s perimeter before returning to the shelter, the women said.
“The planes from the sea were shelling so hard we couldn’t even get out,” Solop said, recalling his elderly father being knocked down in the bunker by the force of an explosion.
As a diversion, Babeush encouraged the eight children in the group to decorate the workers’ helmets. He made a robot costume out of a box with holes for the eyes and organized a drawing contest on Orthodox Easter. Everyone voted and the first prize was a can of meat paste.
His favorite drawing was of a pizza with carefully detailed strips of melted cheese.
But privately, Babeush had given up hope. He wrote his parents’ phone numbers inside his jacket in case he died in the bunker. “I didn’t think we’d go out.”
Demyanchuk, her husband, her son and her elderly mother were among the first to escape. Tired of the bombardment, they decided to try their luck on foot on March 26, even though her mother needed two walking sticks and had 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 kept her waiting when the skies seemed clearer and urged them to move as quickly as possible. They didn’t try to stop her from leaving.
His journey to Ukrainian-controlled territory lasted several days. As the bombers flew overhead, they passed buildings with freshly dug graves in the courtyard and saw the charred body of a soldier on the boardwalk, he said.
But, being outside the bunker, he said he felt “an indescribable sense of freedom.”
The other three women had to wait more than a month before hearing through their only crackling radio of international efforts to evacuate civilians from the plant.
“It gave us a little strength that soon, in a little more time, we would get out of there,” said Tetyana Trotsak, 25, whose asthmatic mother suffered in the humid air.
After negotiating 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 out in stages.
“The hardest part was waiting and hoping that we would get out. It was kind of desperate,” Solop said.
Food was running dangerously low, even with extra rations being shared by Ukrainian forces sheltering elsewhere in the plant that had become their last redoubt after Russian troops took control of Mariupol.
Eleven people, including families with children and people with health problems, got out first, exiting the bunker and making their way through the rubble to reach a convoy of buses.
“We were very happy for them, but we stood there and thought, what if they’ve taken this group and they can’t do any more?” Solop said.
A couple of days later, the soldiers told Babeush and others that they had five minutes to prepare. They were told that they had to hurry to get to the buses or the final group in the bunker might lose their chance to evacuate that day.
Babeush took little more than some of the drawings that had been plastered around the shelter. “The war has taught me that you don’t need material things. For life, you don’t need anything, only people you can trust,” he 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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