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Azovstal eyewitness recounts her ordeal

Alexander Savitsky
May 17, 2022

Two months of nonstop bombardments, without medicine or enough food: A civilian spoke with DW about her rescue from a bunker in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.

A bomb explodes at the Azovstal iron and steel works in Mariupol, Ukraine
Civilians and soldiers were trapped in the Azovstal steel works for two monthsImage: Alexander Ermochenko/REUTERS

Lydia was recently rescued from the Azovstal iron and steel plant after two months of Russian bombardment. She does not want to tell us her real name and where she currently lives, for fear of endangering her parents who are still in Mariupol.

In her first days in a secure place in Ukraine, she is still very disoriented and scared. She says she needed a week before being able to speak with anyone about her situation. Her face looks tired and pale, and her eyes are filled with terror — which only eases as she begins speaking about how her evacuation convoy finally reached its destination.

DW: How did you come to be at the Azovstal steel plant, and how long were you there?

Lydia: I worked in the factory and I knew that it had specially equipped air raid bunkers. On March 6, when the bombardments became too much to bear, my husband and I decided to find safety in the basement there. I knew it was safe. But we thought we'd only be there for a couple of days. In the end, we were there for two months.

Several dozen Ukrainian civilians stand around a car
Some evacuated civilians, seen here, were taken to a refugee camp in the village of BezymyannoyeImage: Leon Klein/AA/picture alliance

How many people sought refuge there?

That's hard to say; during the last few weeks no one bothered counting anymore. In the beginning there were about 30 of us, but people were always coming and going, new people arrived. At one point we figured there were about 47 of us, but the numbers were constantly changing. Before the evacuation it was impossible to say just how many people were there.

Ukrainian authorities have said the factory was under constant bombardment. Was it ever possible to leave the bunker?

In the beginning we were able to go outside for longer stretches, but when the bombardments started to pick up we only went out to cook at the fire pit. In the end we just stayed in the bunker. There are tunnels down there where we cooked. From about April 20, we no longer went outside. We didn't go out for the last two weeks.

Where did you get food?

There were provisions in the bunkers, placed there by the factory's administrators. But there wasn't much — just enough for a few days. The bunkers were built in the 1960s when no one thought people would be there for very long. There were canned goods, water, cookies and preserved meat. We stretched it as far as we could by making soup out of it all. In the beginning new arrivals would bring food, blankets and warm clothing with them. But not everyone shared their food. Some ate under their blankets. Everyone is different.

A bus carrying wounded service members of Ukrainian forces from the besieged Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol drives under escort of the pro-Russian military
This week, service members of the Ukrainian forces were also evacuated from the plantImage: Alexander Ermochenko/REUTERS

What kind of help did the Ukrainian military provide? Russian propaganda claimed they forced you to stay at Azovstal against your will.

No, my husband and I left and returned to the bunker several times while it was still possible. But when the heavy bombardments started we had to stay in the bunker. Sometimes soldiers came in. They brought sweets for the children. They told us we were free to go outside but at the same time they warned us about the massive bombing.

Were there sick or wounded people in the bunker with you? Was anyone able to help them?

There were no wounded, but there were people who needed medical assistance. I needed help myself. I have a blood disorder and need daily injections but no one could get them for me. There were also people who needed daily insulin injections but they couldn't get them. One man had such extreme pain in his arm that he need painkillers. He screamed all night long.

DW's Max Zander on Azovstal evacuation

Do you know people who volunteered to go to the Donetsk region? Was it clear to you where you would be taken during the evacuation?

We knew absolutely nothing. Our soldiers came in and told us we had five minutes to get our things together and go outside to be evacuated. Those who had ready backpacks got up and left. I have no idea who was taken to Donetsk or Russia. When we got outside we were greeted by people from the UN and the Red Cross. They told us we were safe and that no one would shoot at us. We could choose where we wanted to go when we were filtered.

Where exactly did that filtration take place?

I don't know. It was at a place I had never been to before.

What happened during the filtration?

[Long pause, as Lydia drops her head and closes her eyes] I'm not going to talk about that.

How long was the journey from the Azovstal plant to the place where you were given shelter?

I don't know. I can't even estimate. We left the Azovstal plant at night and arrived at the filtration point around midnight. After that we drove for a long time.

Who met you at your destination? Did you receive help?

We were very warmly welcomed! We received fresh clothing and new shoes and we could wash. People came and were constantly bringing us food, hygiene products and other things. We had absolutely no problems. We were put up in a separate room where we could stay comfortably and get a pleasant sleep.

Do you have a place to stay now? Do you intend to travel on?

I really don't know. I'm still not sure what exactly happened. First I just want to rest. That's all.

This interview was conducted in Ukrainian by Alexander Savitsky.