Inna and Dasha Pavlush come out of hell. They have spent two months without seeing sunlight, sheltering in the tunnels and bunkers of the Azovstal metallurgical plant, to escape the constant attacks by Russian forces on the devastated city of Mariupol. Mother and daughter, pale and nervous, have managed to reach the city of Zaporizhia on Tuesday, a territory controlled by the Ukrainian forces. They traveled aboard a convoy with a hundred people evacuated from the plant, the last pocket of resistance in the Azov Sea city almost reduced to rubble and already taken by Russian troops. “It’s a catastrophe, I don’t know what will happen to the people who still haven’t managed to get out,” laments Inna, 43.
The situation in the steel mill, say those who have managed to flee, is desperate. There are wounded among the Ukrainian soldiers who remain in the metallurgical factory, where they became strong weeks ago, food and supplies are lacking; also, medicines, explains Inna. Pensioner Olga Salvina, who spent two and a half months as a refugee at the plant, recounts that the bombings against Azovstal have been constant. “They attacked us from all sides,” he laments after getting off a white line bus upon arrival at the reception complex in Zaporizhia, where the group was received by Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, health care personnel and police, in the middle of a swarm of journalists.
The siege on Azovstal, the last outpost of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol, resumed almost as soon as the evacuees left the plant on Sunday. On Tuesday, the Kremlin Army also launched a powerful attack on the steel mill with artillery and aircraft, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. The Ukrainian forces that remain in the plant along with some 200 civilians, according to calculations by the City Council, have assured that two people without military affiliation have died and ten have been wounded in the Kremlin offensive on Tuesday.
The evacuation of the metallurgical factory, mostly women and girls —some, workers and relatives of metallurgical workers—, has been complex until reaching the huge shopping center set up as a reception point for displaced people from the southeastern territories of the country under Russian siege and occupation. The trip, explains Nadezhda, 18, which in normal situations would have taken no more than four hours, has lasted almost three days, passing through Russian checkpoints in occupied territories, where the military searched white buses and people. evacuated. Survivors of the Azovstal odyssey have been joined along the way by evacuees from other cities under attack.
Nadezhda arrived on March 2 at the Azovstal plant. “I went because it was the safest place I knew of in the city and I had shelter,” says the young woman, with very long brunette hair, who explains that when the war started she was alone in Mariupol. In Azovstal she shared life with other people who huddled in the tunnels and bunkers. There was no light, except for a generator that supplied some power. “Mariupol was surrounded and the siege was getting closer to the plant. We have been there trapped under the bombs for two months, unable to leave because the attacks were constant”, she explains. “When we set foot outside for the first time, we had been in the dark for so long that the sun blinded us,” adds the young Ukrainian Philology student, who now plans to join her aunt in Germany. Or join the Army.
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Life in Azovstal has been hard, admits Dasha Pavlush. There was a group of children on the floor, says the young woman; the youngest, a year and a half. “We spent the day playing hide-and-seek, making paper toys,” she says. She is scared. Her father, employed in the steel company, is still inside her. “Now I just want to get out of all this hell, wash my hair, take a shower,” says the young woman. “It has been very difficult and we still have to process it. We had nothing, no food and we were too scared to go out for her, but the Army has helped us survive there,” says Inna.
The operation to rescue the first group of civilians from Azovstal has been achieved after a number of failed attempts and only after the UN and the International Red Cross led the agreement to evacuate the bunkers of the steel mill, which has been under sustained bombardment. of Vladimir Putin’s Army, which aspires to overthrow the resistance of that industrial area and thus claim total control of the city in the port of the Sea of Azov. Mariupol is symbolic for the Kremlin, which failed to break it in 2014, at the start of the Donbas war. In that conflict, Moscow relied on the pro-Russian separatists through whom it now controls part of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. The total control of Mariupol and the steel mill is the last point that Russia lacks to consolidate the corridor of invaded territory to unite the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea – illegally annexed in 2014 – with Donbas.
With expectant and consumed faces, the women evacuees from Azovstal have spilled from the buses to a large white tent where volunteers, UN staff and organizations such as Doctors Without Borders have provided them with first aid, a hot meal and even clothes and toys. They have left almost everything in Mariupol. Now, after the terror, it is time to find a life in a country at war, which is struggling to take on the trickle of displaced people from the areas under Russian occupation, while fighting the Kremlin forces in tough battles in the east and south of the country.
Alina Tsibulenko, a steelworks worker, recounts how the refugees at the plant have had to subsist basically on pasta and bread. “You can’t imagine the conditions we’ve lived in,” she lamented shakily. The situation worsened on April 7 when the Russian attacks on Azovstal intensified: “The bombs shook the foundations of the bunker”. Wrapped up in a red jacket despite the sunny day, Valentina Sitnikova says she thought no one would remember the refugees at the plant, some 17 families. “We didn’t think anyone knew we were there,” said the 70-year-old woman, who has spent two months in the Azovstal tunnels with her son and her ten-year-old granddaughter. Sitnikova promised the girl that they would get out of her as she was. And so has she, she says with a sad smile.
With the city of Mariupol surrounded, constantly bombarded and without water, without gas or electricity supplies and an enormous lack of food, several hundred civilians had taken refuge together with the Ukrainian military in the Azovstal facilities. The Soviet-era steel mill, founded in the Stalin era, features a maze of tunnels and bunkers to resist attack. The industrial complex in the southeast of the city, near the port, spreads over 11 square kilometers in an intricate network of warehouses, railway tracks and underground tunnels. Those left at the metallurgical plant, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko has said, are “on the edge of life and death”. There are injured and sick people, he has pointed out. “They are waiting, praying for rescue,” he commented in a post. on-line.
This Tuesday’s is the first evacuation of the steelworks and one of the last hopes for the people who have been trapped for weeks in the darkness of the plant’s tunnels. The Ukrainian president, Volodímir Zelenski, has stated that the government continues to work with the United Nations to remove other civilians from Azovstal. His chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, has also suggested that the evacuations could go beyond the civilian refugees in the steelworks. “It’s just the first step. We will continue to get our civilians and troops out of Mariupol,” he said on his Telegram channel.
There is no concrete information on how many people remain in the factory, where Ukrainian soldiers also took refuge and took refuge, including members of the Azov battalion, an organization now part of the Ukrainian National Guard founded in 2014 —in the Donbas war between the kyiv troops and Kremlin-backed pro-Russian separatists—with ties to the far right. Over time, the battalion, one of the focuses on which the Kremlin’s rhetoric has focused in a war that it has defined as a “military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine – a country led by a Jewish president -, it gradually lost its founders and became a group of special forces, which has its most symbolic headquarters in Mariupol.
In the devastated port city, a symbol of the Kremlin’s attacks on the civilian population, where some entire buildings still remain, about 100,000 people remain of the 450,000 that the once prosperous city welcomed, according to estimates by local authorities. From there they continue to arrive in Zaporizhia – converted into a reception center for those fleeing in horror from the city and from other places now under bombs or under Russian control – small groups of cars, packed to the brim, often with the windows burst by the hard journey or by the fire of the shrapnel.
His stories about the city are repeated. “Mariupol no longer exists, at least the Mariupol we knew,” laments Mariana Kaplum, a 44-year-old economist who managed to get to a tent for displaced people from Zaporizhia with her husband, her two young children and her parents. . Kaplum and her family had been sheltering from the bombs since mid-April at her farmhouse outside the city. “Now they don’t bomb there, the city is more or less calm. But they attack Azovstal with planes”, she explains in the parking lot of the reception center, while Lev, her five-year-old son, runs around nervously.
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