Azovstal bombing: how civilians survived

Azovstal plant. (Satellite image: Maxar Technologies / Google)

Russia’s three-month siege of Azovstal steelworks, the last bastion of the port city of Mariupol, approached a bitter end last week after the last Ukrainian troops holed up inside surrendered to pro-Russian forces. The city lies in ruins after weeks of relentless bombardment.  

Until 7 May when the last were evacuated, hundreds of Mariupol residents – women, children and elderly people – had also been hiding in bomb shelters beneath the steel plant. Here’s how they survived.

Fighting for Mariupol began the day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This city, in the words of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, became “the heart of the war”. Russian and DNR forces blockaded the city almost entirely by mid-March, cutting off the Ukrainian authorities’ ability to evacuate civilians and bring humanitarian aid to the city. According to official figures, 2,357 civilians had been killed in Mariupol by then; however, city authorities claimed that this figure was only a “small handful”, and that the actual number of casualties was in the tens of thousands.

Andrey Vodovozov, a 31-year-old Azovstal electrician (his last name was changed at his request) found himself in a bunker under the plant on 24 February, the day the war began. In the morning he went, as usual, to work, but this time he took his whole family with him: his wife, his two-year-old daughter, and his dog named Maya. That day gunfire had already been heard in Mariupol, and Vodovozov decided that his family would be safer in the shelter under the plant. At that moment he thought that he was taking his family out of the home “for a week at the most”: he was sure that the conflict would not last long.

He left his family in a bunker and with his colleagues he went to the canning shop where he had worked for four years: to cut the electricity in the equipment, to turn off the light in the rooms on military orders, so that they could not be seen from the street.

Azovstal is a huge metallurgical plant. It occupies an area of 11 square kilometres – a fifteenth of the entire territory of Mariupol.  In an interview in mid-May, the director of the plant, Enver Tskitishvili, called it “the most powerful ferrous metallurgy enterprise in Ukraine”. According to the plant director, almost 11,000 employees were working there before the war. When counting contractors and their family members, about 40,000 citizens of the city out of half a million were connected to Azovstal.

In August 1933, the plant began producing pig iron, or crude iron. During the Great Patriotic War, the plant was almost razed to the ground by German troops, who occupied Mariupol. The plant was rebuilt in the post-war years. Before the Russian invasion in February 2022, Azovstal was one of the leading Ukrainian steel mills: in 2020, for example, it produced 3.8 million tons of pig iron – 18.6 per cent of the country’s iron.

A system of bomb shelters – “an entire multi-story city” underground, in the director’s words – has remained under Azovstal since Soviet times. Until 2014, when the armed conflict in Donbas broke out, nobody thought that these bomb shelters would ever be useful, Enver Tskitishvili told the BBC in early May.

But then employees pulled up the archives and saw that there were a total of 36 shelters for 12,000 people at the plant during the Soviet era. And five of these bunkers, according to the director, are so strong that they could withstand a nuclear strike.

In addition to the bomb shelters, there are tunnels eight metres below the plant – some of which are so long that they go from one end of the plant to the opposite. Azovstal executives cleaned up these tunnels over the years and a week before the war with Russia they hid food and water supplies there.

“These tunnels themselves are not shelters, but their depth allows us to save people. And [after the Russian invasion] we made an announcement: all people can come to us at Azovstal, we will feed and protect them,” said the director of the plant. According to him, at the beginning of the war, plant employees even drove around their colleagues’ homes – helping them get to the bunkers.

The plant turned out to be suitable not only for giving shelter to civilians. Surrounded on three sides by the river Kalmius and the sea, it became, as the director put it, “a very convenient and strong fortified point” for the Ukrainian military. Already in the first days of the war it took up defences at the plant; according to the DNR authorities, at the beginning of April there were more than 3,000 troops on site.

The shelter where Andrey Vodovozov’s family ended up was spacious –  it could accommodate 300 people sitting on benches. But only 43 lived there, so it was possible to sleep not sitting, but lying down. “You put four benches together – that’s a great double bed,” he said.

Water was brought from the factory buildings: every summer the factory stocked up on bottles of mineral water so the workers would have something to drink in the heat. They were fed on dry rations, which were stored in a bunker. “It was a strange thing,” Vodovozov says, describing the food. “Two porridges: pearl barley and buckwheat. A can of stew. And a lot of ‘paper’ crackers, as we called them. Every day we cooked soup for everybody from two ration packs. One potato and four pasta per bucket of soup. If there was a piece of pasta on the plate, it was a feast!”

People ate hot food only once a day, at lunch. “Boiled water in the morning, boiled water in the evening, soup in the afternoon. It doesn’t taste as disgusting as you think,” laughs Vodovozov.

For tea, coffee, sugar and salt, he had to make forays into the plant: “You go and wait to make sure [the bombardment] doesn’t come, God willing.” Vodovozov describes how he used to walk around Azovstal buildings, where he used to work: “For example, a missile blew up some duty room (the room where duty personnel sit and where tools are stored – ed.). You go into the duty room, look, the drawers are open – well, great.”

The bunker inhabitants needed to go outside not only to get food but also to get some information about what was going on in the city. Vodovozov himself recalls climbing onto the roof of a factory building where he could clearly see his parents’ neighborhood – and watching their house burn down.

‘There are no civilians at the plant’

At the end of March, when fierce fighting for Mariupol had been going on for over a month and the city was almost completely destroyed, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) officials said  one of the last pockets of resistance by the Ukrainian military was the Azovstal plant.

On 18 April, Russian military aircraft, as claimed by Mariupol authorities, began dropping super-heavy bombs on Azovstal. Two weeks earlier, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the Russian and DNR militaries were “mopping up” the territory of the plant: “Heavy shells are bursting at the Azovstal plant. The artillery men’s hands are finally untied: there are no civilians at the plant.”

These shells were bursting right over the head of Anna Korchmina, a 35-year-old factory worker from Mariupol (her name and surname  have been changed at her request). Since 5 March, she and her parents, sister, aunt and three-year-old daughter had been sitting in a bomb shelter under a workshop at Azovstal, which provided the plant with telephone and dispatch communications.

Her father sent her together with the child and her sister to the shelter when shells came very close to their house. He stayed in the apartment with his wife because he didn't want to leave his home. But a few days later, they too came to the bunker: a shell landed in their house and the roof collapsed.

As the shells flew into the factory grounds, the ground “swayed under her feet”, Korchmina recalls. And when they fell near the bomb shelter, the metal beams with which the bunker was fortified would begin to rumble deafeningly. “It was like being in a steel pot. Imagine having a pot put on your head and banging on it,” she says.

To her three-year-old daughter, who woke up in the night from bombing raids and crying, she told that there were elephants upstairs. “Elephants play soccer and fall down. They stumble, they can’t walk, and they have to be treated,” Korchmina says.  “She's that age: she asks ‘why’ about everything.”

The bunker where Korchmina was sitting was deep underground. It was “absolute darkness”, she recalls, and at first people walked around with flashlights. Then they came up with an LED strip attached to a battery, and instead of darkness they lived in semi-darkness: “The lighting was just enough to avoid bumping into each other.”

The rooms in her bunker were cramped. Twenty-four people lived in one room with her and their bunk beds were next to each other. There were no beds – the inhabitants of Mariupol made their sleeping places themselves: they put two boxes and stretched a stretcher between them. It was very cold and damp to sleep on the stretcher, but Korchmina and her father managed to find some sweatshirts in the half-destroyed plant building and put them on the stretcher instead of the mattress – it became warmer.

Above Korchmina’s shelter was a basement with several flights of stairs. The residents set up a kitchen in one of them. Two hearths were built: bricks were stacked on top of them and a grate from a refrigerator was placed. The pots and pans they had managed to take from their apartments were placed on the grate. The fire was started with the pieces of chairs and storage pallets that had been brought in from the ruined city.

In mid-April – she could not remember the date because it was impossible to recharge her phone – she was cooking food for her family in the basement. A woman next to her was baking dumplings on a griddle. There was a rumbling noise and right that second the pan with the dumplings was filled with crumbling plaster. A shell had hit the building above the basement. The woman’s family hadn't had any dumplings that day. “There wasn't much food. Not everyone had it,” Korchmina says.

To survive, people in the bunker shared with each other.

“We didn’t have diapers, and our neighbours didn’t have food. We used to joke bitterly about trading three diapers for three potatoes. Three diapers meant three quiet nights. Food, clothes, fever syrups, and nasal drops were exchanged; you couldn't stand by while a child suffered.”

In March and early April, before shelling and bombing raids began unabated, people made trips from the plant to their homes to bring food. The 62-year-old father, the only man in the family, got food for Korchmina’s family. Their apartment burned down, but the barn remained intact for days.

“Rarely did we manage to get out of the basement – during periods of calm. At first you could track them by the clock somehow, usually early in the morning, at five or six o’clock, it was quiet. At that time he would run to the barn, fill a bag with canned food.”

Then the barn next to Korchmina’s apartment was also bombed – but the basement remained, where the family used to store canned goods.

“The upper shelves were damaged, the lids on the jars flew off, something was boiled. The compote was already cooked – so it boiled over. The condensed milk burned, turned brown, but you could still eat it.”

The problems of ordinary, peaceful life did not disappear in the shelter either: Korchmina had, for example, to figure out how to get her three-year-old daughter to eat. Her shelter neighbour helped her in this – she allowed the girl to feed her cat, Basya, as a reward for breakfast or dinner: “A spoonful of porridge for my daughter, a crumb of food for Basya.”

Besides children, there were many old people in the bunker. Along with Korchmina in the shelter was her house neighbour – in the past she worked as a librarian, and then retired, often feeding stray dogs in the yard and giving her daughter, Anna, candy. She was taken to the bunker with a man who lived nearby. When the shelling began, she “went a little crazy”, Korchmina recalls. The woman could not walk on her own, sometimes going to the toilet under herself while lying on a stretcher. The neighbour who brought her in took care of her: fed her, warmed her, brought her boiling water, took her to the bathroom.

At first, she recalls, there was a large community living in the air-raid shelter. “We cooked for everyone. But when we ran out of food and water stored in the bunker, we divided into small groups in order to get food: it would be very difficult to survive alone.”

And it was impossible to feed everyone at once: “We boiled porridge for everyone, and the grandmothers said that the porridge was not so good that they could not chew it. Not everyone liked the common dish. When we first arrived, we weren’t all hungry right away,”  she explains. “We weren't born homeless. It was later that we became very much like them.”

The toilets in the bunker were one for everyone – a “big hole”. The first time Korchmina saw it, she didn’t even know how to use it. But after a few days it became clear to her why they made the hole so big.

When the hole under the toilet was filled to the top, the men took shovels and started shoveling it out. They put the contents in sacks and, bombarded by gunfire, began dragging the sacks away from the entrance to the shelter. We had to do it three times in two months. “We all laughed about having to run with these sacks,” Korchmina says. “It’s bad enough, but you don't want that in front of your front door.”

“The inhabitants of Mariupol tried their best to improve life in the bunker,” Korchmina said. “They even set up a smoking lounge in the basement above the shelter . They brought chairs from the plant offices and sat in them, laughing and chatting, as long as there was no shelling.”

One of her neighbours happened to be a hairdresser, so both children and adults in the bunker had their hair cut beautifully. Nastya came to the shelter after a shell hit her house twice, and she only had time to pack the essentials, and all her hairdressing tools were left at home. “But my father ran into her apartment on the way and brought her scissors and a machine,” Korchmina says.

“What we couldn’t do was wash properly.” There wasn't even enough water for drinking: “We had a reserve of water in the barn in case of a power outage, to wash our hands and water our flowers. We dragged this water to the shelter. At first we drank it, but when it ran out, we began to collect rainwater. The rain was a blessing. It was dangerous to collect water, but here you have to choose: you either die under a shell or from dehydration.”

But you couldn't do without laundry, especially when Korchmina’s young daughter “had little accidents”. “Sometimes you would wash your hair and then wash in this water.”

The water in which the clothes were washed was used again – it was poured into five-liter bottles to wash their hands with it. At first Korchmina was squeamish about the black, dirty soapy water. But after a few days, she stepped out of the darkness of the shelter into the sunlight and saw her hands – ugly, black. “I realised that they were no longer afraid of anything, it wouldn't get any worse,” she says.


……


Azovstal electrician Andrei Vodovozov with his wife and daughter escaped from the plant on 4 April. Not long before, he claims, Azov soldiers had set up a firing point in the building next door to the building, under which his bunker was located. Vodovozov decided that since the Ukrainian gun was firing besides him, it meant that the Russian shells would also be coming at him. So he decided to run.

He and his wife discussed this plan with two other families and agreed to leave together. On the morning of 4 April, they woke up, packed their things, and walked across the plant to the central gatehouse, where the Ukrainian military was on duty.

“We said, ‘we're going out’. They said, ‘Where are you going? They'll kill you,’” Vodovozov recalls. The families were told to go back to the shelters. “And for us to go back or to go forward would be like death either way,” Vodovozov says. “Because in order to go back, we had to walk through the open space, I think, the entire plant.” In the end, his family and the other people who had decided to flee took refuge in a military warehouse not far from the gatehouse.

Half a day later, the Vodovozovs met another Ukrainian military man and he helped them get out. He arranged at the checkpoint to let them out and explained which road to take. “At the end he added: ‘Don't you dare get caught by the Russians. If you get caught, they will kill you.’”

“We were in a panic, carrying a bunch of bags, and a baby in our arms,”  Vodovozov says.  “Tears, screams – but we ran out.” While they ran, it was quiet – no one was shooting.

On their way, the Vodovozovs met some people from Mariupol who had stayed in their houses: they were going to fetch water. People showed them an empty house where they could spend the night: “They said, live there while no one is persecuting you, have a rest.”

That same evening Vodovozov saw Russian soldiers in the yard of the house - and ran to them: “I wanted to know whose territory we were on.”

At first the soldiers took aim at him and started “pointing their machine guns at him,” says Vodovozov. Then they found out he was a civilian and answered: “The zone is under Russian control, but sabotage is still possible.” One of the soldiers, according to Vodovozov, gave him a can of stew and a jar of porridge from his personal reserve.

A few days later, Vodovozov’s family was taken to Russia – they were not offered a choice. Like most refugees, they had stomach problems due to poor nutrition. Already in Russia, Vodovozov’s wife went to the hospital to check her health. When she returned, she told her husband that she was pregnant.

Despite the fact that Russian troops destroyed their city, the Vodovozovs decided to raise their child as a Russian citizen. They themselves had already applied for citizenship. Vodovozov explains that he would not live in the DNR – but in his opinion, the economic situation in Russia is much better.

‘It's going to get worse, and it's not going to end anytime soon’

The organized evacuation of civilians from bomb shelters at Azovstal did not begin until 30 April – two days after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with UN secretary general António Guterres and said he was ready to “immediately” negotiate the rescue of people from Azovstal and implement all agreements – but Russia’s consent was needed. The civilians were removed from the plant with the mediation of the UN and the Red Cross. Some of the people were taken to the territory controlled by the self-proclaimed DNR, while others were taken to Zaporizhia.

……

The Russian military evacuated civilians from the basements of houses near Azovstal even earlier in April. They were taken out towards Russia and the DNR. Anna Korchmina was among the evacuees – the exit from her bomb shelter was outside the plant.

Russian soldiers appeared in their bunker on  24 April, Easter. That morning Korchmina and her family and neighbours congratulated each other and baked whatever festive food they could. One man even assembled an oven from bricks to make paski (Ukrainian Easter bread). After breakfast, she said: “There is a rumor that the military had come. Soon the inhabitants of the shelter crowded around the Russian soldiers. They were telling them that they would be taking them out.”

Before that, the Ukrainian military sometimes came into the bunker – but they did not talk to the residents about evacuation, Korchmina recalls. She didn’t ask them about it, though. She expected to stay in the bunker until the shelling ended and stay in Mariupol. Somewhere in the city her elderly grandmother remained. For two months, while she and her family were hiding in the shelter, nothing was known about her grandmother’s fate: there was no communication and no way to get information. Korchmina wanted to wait until it was safe to go out and find her grandmother. That is why the Korchmins first told the Russian military that they would stay in the bunker.

“It wasn’t scary to stay, it was scary to run. Because we knew a lot of cases where you sit-sit-sit, and then you run – and... that's it.” “We had a lot of stuff with us. We dragged them from the apartment to the barn, from the barn to the shelter. The first time we jumped out with everything we had. We sort of settled in the shelter - and then we had to leave everything behind again. The second time, it turns out, to lose everything.”

But the servicemen told her that they mustn’t stay in the shelter: “It will get worse and it will not end soon.”

Anna still knows nothing concrete about her grandmother’s fate. Already out of the shelter, she was able to contact her neighbour. She said that her grandmother’s apartment had burnt down because of the shelling – and she might have been home at the time of the attack.

Civilians were evacuated from the Azovstal shelters for a week – from 30 April to 7 May. During those days, despite the fact that civilians still remained in bunkers under the plant, there was still fighting on the territory of Azovstal. The parties blamed each other for disrupting the evacuation. On 3 May, the Azov regiment commanders said that Russia resumed air and artillery strikes on the plant – and two women were killed under the bombing.

By 7 May, as stated by Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, all women, children, and the elderly had been removed from Azovstal’s bomb shelters. The deputy commander of the Azov battalion, Svyatoslav Palamar, however, said afterwards that he could not confirm information that all civilians had been removed – some may remain under the destroyed buildings: “Since no international organisation or authority or Ukrainian politician came to Azovstal, there is no special equipment to remove the rubble.”

While the civilians were being evacuated, Azov's deputy commander asked Volodymyr Zelensky to also take care of the wounded soldiers at the plant, “who are dying in terrible agony from inadequate treatment”. Ukraine negotiated with Russia to evacuate wounded Mariupol defenders and exchange them for captured Russian soldiers. On the night of 16-17 May, the general staff of the AFU announced that 264 Ukrainian fighters had been evacuated from Azovstal, of whom 53 were seriously wounded. They were all taken to the territory of the unrecognized DNR to be returned to Ukraine under the exchange procedure.

At the same time, the speaker of the Russian State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, said that the soldiers evacuated from Azovstal should not be exchanged, but “tried as war criminals”. As early as next week, the Russian Supreme Court will consider the request of the Prosecutor General's Office to recognise the Azov regiment as a terrorist organisation and ban it on the territory of Russia.

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A longer version of this article was originally published in Russian by independent media Holod, who is partnering with Geneva Solutions on our Ukraine Stories project.

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