The last civilians are leaving Ukraine’s steel plant in Mariupol

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine – Pale and drawn, the last civilians hiding in bunkers under an extensive steel mill in the decimated Ukrainian port city of Mariupol arrived late Sunday night in Zaporizhzhia, the first major Ukrainian city beyond the front lines.

The crushed survivors talked about constant shelling, dwindling food, ubiquitous mold – and the use of hand alcohol to cook fuel.

Ten buses drove slowly into the deserted streets of Zaporizhzhia during the darkness, transporting 174 evacuees from the Mariupol area. They included more than 30 of the 51 civilians evacuated from the Azovstal steelworks on the last day, with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters doing what appears to be their last stand. Both Ukrainian and Russian officials have said these civilians are the last non-combatants from the industrial complex.

“It was awful in the bunkers,” said 69-year-old Lyubov Andropova, who had been in Azovstal since March 10. “Water would run down from the ceilings. There was mold everywhere. We were worried about the kids, about their lungs.”

The shelling was constant and there was fear “that our piles would collapse,” she said. “Everything shook, we did not go out.”

The steelworks by the sea is the only part of Mariupol that is not under Russian control. Thanks to its multitude of tunnels and bunkers deep underground, many civilians had chosen it as the safest place to take cover from the relentless shelling of the formerly thriving port city that has now been largely destroyed.

Just days after the war began on February 24, Dmytro Sviydakov sought refuge in the bunkers with his wife and 12-year-old daughter. They entered Azovstal on 27 February. It would take more than two months before they could travel.

Collected 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 was blown up and he and others resorted to cleanup, including searching through workers’ closets. Fuel for cooking was also scarce, but then they discovered that hand alcohol – well-assorted due to the coronavirus pandemic – was a good replacement.

“What can you not do when you have nothing!” he said while waiting for a bus that would transport Azovstal evacuees to temporary housing in Zaporizhzhia.

Yehor, a steelworks worker who lived in the bunker and who only wanted to disclose his last name, was in the bunker with his two sons, wife and their dog. He said that when the food ran dry, soldiers defending Azovstal helped.

“We would not have managed it otherwise,” he said. “I do not know how long we could have survived, but we certainly would not have survived until today.” The last few days they only had pasta, water and a little spice left – enough for soup once a day.

His family went into the mill on March 1 for safety, he said, after he barely escaped being shot while walking his dog.

Despite the extensive destruction of Mariupol, some of the 51 evacuees from Azovstal chose to stay in the city, said UN officials, who were involved in ensuring safe passage for the evacuees.

Two – a man and a woman – were detained by Russian forces. The woman, who was detained on suspicion of being a military medic, had been traveling with her 4-year-old daughter. Mother and child were separated and the little girl reached Zaporizhzhia with the rest of the evacuees, UN officials said.

But hundreds more who wanted to join the evacuation convoy from other areas held by Russian forces had to stay behind after Russia and Ukraine did not reach an agreement on their evacuation.

“It was quite heartbreaking to see them wait and not be able to join us,” said UN humanitarian coordinator Osnat Lubrani.

“Overall, within a period of 10 days, we have been able to bring a total of 600 people into very complex, high-risk, very sensitive safe passage operations,” Lubrani said, adding that the UN hoped to be able to bring more civilians. in the future.

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