Zaporizhia, Ukraine (AP) — A part of the bunker under Elina Tsybulchenko’s office visits the sky when a week without wet concrete walls, mold, cold, fresh fruits and vegetables deep underground becomes intolerable. I decided to.
They went through the darkness illuminated by flashlights and car battery-powered lamps to the treasured location of the bombed Azovstal Ironworks. Last Ukrainian holdout In the ruined city of Mariupol. There, they could look up and see a blue or smoky gray sliver. It was like peeking from the bottom of a well. For those who couldn’t or dare to climb the surface of the water, it was as far away as peace.
But seeing the sky meant hope. It was enough to make Elina’s adult daughter, Tetiana, cry.
The Tsybulchenko family is one of the first families to emerge from a steel factory. Tensioned, several days of evacuation The United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross have negotiated with the Russian government, which currently controls Mariupol, and the Ukrainian government, which wants to regain the city. A brief ceasefire allowed more than 100 civilians to flee the factory.
They arrived safely in the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia this week. So they described the two months in the center of hell and their escape for the Associated Press.
Hundreds of civilians and Ukrainian fighters remained trapped in factories, and Russian troops pushed their way in. Mariupol’s seizures are expected to play a central role in the celebration of Moscow on May 9th, Victory Day, which historically marks the end of World War II.
In the early days of the Russian invasion, 54-year-old Tsybulchenko was shocked by the bombardment of her city. Like many inhabitants with memories of civil defense training, she knew that the steelworks had the only genuine bunker in town. When she, her husband Serhii, her daughter, and her son-in-law Ihor Trotsak decided to pierce what was under her office, she thought they would stay for a few days.
“We didn’t even take a toothbrush,” Elina said. But she turned 60 in a few days.
They brought only the documents, three blankets, two dogs and fruits that were carried in the baskets used for Easter in the Orthodox Church. They didn’t expect to mark a holiday there in a few weeks.
The steelworks had a maze of over 30 bunkers and tunnels spanning 11 square kilometers (4 miles), each with its own world. The evacuees had little or no contact with people elsewhere in the factory. They finally met on the bus to Zaporizhia and compared their experiences.
Their isolation complicates estimates of the number of remaining civilians and Ukrainian fighters. The Ukrainian side said this week that hundreds of civilians, including more than 20 children, are still trapped. Another evacuation effort It was reported to be in progress on Friday.
The number of people surviving underground can decline daily. Some evacuees remembered being scared to watch over the injured as they were injured while they were short or short of first aid kits and even clean water.
“People literally rotted like our jackets,” said 31-year-old Serhii Kuzmenko. The tired foreman of the factory escaped from his wife, an eight-year-old daughter, and four other bunkers. 30 people were left behind. “They are in great need of our help,” he said. “We need to get rid of them.”
In another bunker, the Tsybulchenko family lived among 56 people, including 14 children aged 4 to 17 years. They survived by splitting the bare food (canned meat, porridge, crackers, salt, sugar, water) that the fighters dropped. It wasn’t enough to go around.
The family’s old Cocker Spaniel was suffering, shivering, and staring at them with a wide eye. They decided that the dog had to die. It was an act of mercy. They asked the soldiers for sleeping pills, but he said the dog could survive and suffer more.
“Let me shoot it,” he said.
The dog was hurriedly buried on the ground during the bombardment. Debris and scrap metal were placed on it to protect it from other hungry pets.
There was little comfort. The bunker trembled from the bombardment. “We slept like this every night and wondered,’Will we survive?'” Elina said.
Tsybulchenkos and others slept on a bench filled with workers’ uniforms in a steel factory. I used a bucket for the toilet. They used plastic bags when the bombing became so heavy that they couldn’t empty the bucket upstairs. To spend time, people made board games and playing cards. A piece of wood carved into a toy.
The bunker room has become a playground for children. People found markers and paper, held arts and crafts contests, and drew what children wanted to see most. They painted the sun naturally. As Easter approached late April, they painted Easter eggs and rabbits.
There was a picture on the wall where the humidity was dripping. Dunk-smelling mold sneaked up from the corners and moved to clothing and blankets. The only way to keep something dry was to wear it. Even after taking a proper shower for the first time in a few months after evacuating, Tsybulchenkos was worried that he might smell mold.
While they were trying to collect rainwater, they often used disinfectants to clean themselves and their dishes, until Elina’s hands showed an allergic reaction. In her early days, she went to the office and brought lotions, deodorants and some other personal belongings.
Then it was too dangerous to go up. Half of the building, including her office, was destroyed in the bombing.
Over and over for two months, the bunker people heard words about the possibility of evacuation from Mariupol, but only knew they had failed. There was skepticism and fear when the news of the evacuation negotiated by the United Nations arrived. But the plan began with a decision on who should leave first.
Others said Elina’s cramped legs began to turn black and began to give her problems, so Tsybulchenkos should go. “But there are small children here, so they should go,” she said. Others insisted. They assume that evacuation will continue and will take everyone, including fighters. Some hesitated to see if the first evacuation was successful.
Violeta, the little girl behind, took a marker and drew a flower, a heart, and “luck” on Elina’s arm. Bunker residents shortened the girl’s name to letter, or “Nikko.”
When the evacuation was completed, all the bunkers agreed to meet at the cafe in Zaporizhia to celebrate.
“I’m sorry,” Tsybulchenkos said when others started heading to the surface.
“Don’t worry,” they replied. “I will follow you.”
Elina was unaware of her workshop. The roof was blown away. The wall was in ruins. The ground was struck by craters and unexploded ordnance was scattered.
Family members and other evacuees blinked as they emerged from the rubble opening. Two months later, sunlight hurt their eyes.
It was quiet. Russian bombardment once stopped.
“The weather was great,” said Ivane Bochorishvili, Ukrainian UN Deputy Humanitarian Officer, approaching the factory to wait for the evacuees. “Like a blue sky, waiting for a perfect storm.”
There was a dangerous stretch first. The railway bridge near the factory was the place to receive evacuees. The waiting bus was another kilometer away.
For evacuation, the Russians tried to recover the mines they had planted. But the machine didn’t detect everything, Bochorishvili said.
When he and his colleague drove closer, the Russian shouted hundreds of meters away- “Don’t move!” UN workers went out and carefully returned to the last checkpoint on foot. I was told. The demining machine was brought back in. Eight more mines were found.
Ukrainian soldiers walked in front of and behind the evacuees when they finally appeared, confirming that the line of people was safely on their feet.
“Thanks to God. I couldn’t find my body along the way,” Elina said. Russians have deleted them.
21 people appeared on the first day. The rest came out next. When the second group met the first group, “there were all these hugs and kisses. They were in Azovstal, but never met each other and did not know what happened to each other. “Ukraine’s UN humanitarian coordinator, Osnat Lubrani, said.
The bus left the ruined city. Makeshift tombs lined up on the street. People held their heads and hugged each other in sadness and distrust. “These people will have many years of nightmares,” said Estebansacco, a UN employee responsible for the first leg of the bus journey to safety.
Still, they could still see signs of life. It was a market day. Some people walked and rode bicycles, and some had children. Some people looked through the windows of the bombed building.
The evacuees were still far from safe. The bus initially headed east towards Russia, rather than heading west towards Ukraine-owned territory. Even UN officials initially thought they would go there, Sacco said.
At the Vegimenne camp near the border, refugees said they faced pressure from the Russians to go to their side. The Russians tried to get on the bus saying they wanted to give the children candy, but they were locked out.
A Russian priest asked the evacuees why they went to Zaporizhia. “Ukraine will soon disappear,” Elina Tsybulchenko recalled what he said.
Evacuees were questioned, searched, and occasionally stripped to check for military-style tattoos. Some Russians were polite, said Ihol, Elina’s son-in-law. Others were ridiculing and insulting, especially if he slipped and spoke Ukrainian instead of Russian. “Why do you speak a foreign language?” They asked.
The bus turned west for Zaporizhia and a slow route to safety. “We always had this fear,” Ihor said. “We knew we might have gone to Russia.”
They could see a distant flash of light when Russian artillery resumed as the convoy slowly arced around Mariupol. Two civilian women were killed and 10 civilians were injured at the steelworks, said Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Battalion in Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials said Russian troops had pushed around the factory in a “fierce, bloody battle.”
The evacuees were in their bunker in winter. They appeared in a black and gray landscape, a grotesque spring. After passing through the human land, Elina once again noticed the green and yellow fields.
They entered the Ukrainian-owned territory after a disastrous, final stretch of over 20 checkpoints.
Ukrainian officials urged residents of a Russian-controlled community to board a convoy along the way. But in the end, the bus wasn’t allowed to take them. Elina and the other evacuees cried as they stood near the road and passed by people waiting in vain.
“We were really ashamed,” Elina said. “We never stopped.”
Yesica Fisch in Zaporizhia, Ukraine contributed.
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