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Witnesses of Hell. How Civilians Survived Russian Bombing by Hiding in Azovstal Factory

Before the war, Azovstal in Mariupol was one of the largest steel production factory in Ukraine.  Founded in 1933, the factory was truly astonishing in its scale. Over 10 thousand employees, an area of 11 square kilometres. Territorially the factory was situated closer to the centre of the city, that is why Mariupol inhabitants rushed there after the bombing. Some of them are employees of the factory. Serhiy Kuzmeno, production foreman in Azovstal, says that on 24 February the factory top managers opened the checkpoints to let people in. This step can be justified by the fact that since the first days of the war the city has been shelled and the frequency of shelling has only increased. Serhiy Kuzmenko and his family were hiding in the shelters of the factory from 8 March to 1 May.

On the territory of the factory there are several production workshops and administrative and amenity complexes (ABK), under which bunkers are often located. Usually they are called bomb shelters, but often they are just a fortified basement and less often a truly reliable bunker. For example, in one workshop at a depth of two flights of stairs there is a bomb shelter. In another workshop, one flight down, right under the building there is a basement, its doors are metal, but more lightweight and weaker in construction.

It should be noted that, nevertheless, under some workshops there were more fortified bunkers. Igor Khadzhava, chief engineer at Azovstal, who spent almost two months in shelters with his wife and two children, says the premises were also called “refuge from man-made disasters.” So, for example, because of some errors in the production process, the so-called “converter” could explode. Moreover, the explosion is equivalent to a small atomic bomb. Therefore, such shelters were built from possible explosions, 6 meters deep, with two exits. The shelter includes 50 beds – two-story beds. There is also a ventilation room and filters in case of lack of fresh air. If there is electricity, then with the help of electric motors fresh air is driven there. In the absence of electricity, the men stood, manually twisted the so-called “ventilation volutes” and forcibly drove fresh air from the surface.

Serhiy Kuzmeno says that when they came into the shelter at Azovstal, dead civilians were already lying around the city. At first, there were about 60 of them in the bomb shelter at the factory. After a week or two, another 7 people were brought there. Serhiy Kuzmeno recalls his shelter like this – a square type room with reinforced columns. It was built as expected with three exits: the main and two emergency exits. Blast resistant door. A bomb shelter is reliable if it is not hit in the same place many times.

Electricity in the city went out on March 1. Therefore, civilians in shelters at Azovstal got out as best as they could. Serhiy Khadzhava says that they had a diesel generator. There was even a special person who was taking care of the generator like his child – turned it on, turned it off. I turned it off at night to save money. During the day they used electricity. Diesel generator is large, it consumes 37 litters of fuel per day. They were lucky – a large-scale reconstruction of the gas cleaning facility was taking place around the factory and contractors brought a lot of equipment there – crawler cranes, conventional boom cranes on pneumatic traction. It was possible to drain diesel from these machines.

The military brought batteries and removed equipment to the Serhiy Kuzmeno bunker. These batteries were charged by the military, and it was enough for people for two or three days in an economical mode. In this way, civilians could cook their own food. Serhiy Khadzhava explains that somewhere in early April, even a bread machine appeared: in search of food, they examined all the premises that were in the district and found it. Three bags of flour were found in the local canteen. Thus, bread was baked in the bunker.

His colleague adds – at first, they were trying to look for food by themselves. We slipped in to the ABK, there was a canteen with food supplies. But it was necessary to get to the ABK under constant bombing. The men gathered and fled across the territory of the factory, but the shelling did not stop. It took about 10 minutes to run at most, and during this time they went down to the basements two or three times – they were bombing from the aircrafts, Serhiy Kuzmeno explains. Then, from the beginning of April, the Ukrainian military brought food: canned food, cereals, cereal, and pasta. They brought sweets and candied fruits for children. By the way, Serhiy Kuzmeno says that they had 14 children in the bunker: the youngest was half a year old.

We ate once a day – by three o’clock we tried to cook soup. 4 buckets of soup were prepared for 70 people. In the thick-plate workshop, a beam was delivered according to the production technology, and we dragged this beam into the basement, doused it with fuel, set a fire on it and cooked it,” explains Serhiy Kuzmeno.

Fortunately, before the last power lines fell, the factory managers pumped water into the boiler – the containers that supply water to the baths. Resident of Mariupol says that there was a boiler room next to the shelter. There were five cubic meter containers filled with technical water to wash hands and face. Plus, the factory provides employees of hot shops with drinking bottled water in accordance with the standards – they must receive 2 litres of mineral water. The bottles of water were placed everywhere in the workshops, people went to collect them.

Survivors say that there was a first-aid centre at the workshop, however it was destroyed, but the medicines that survived were taken away. So, in one of the bunkers there was a nurse and all the medicines that were found were given to her.

“We had an elderly woman wounded – during the missile attack she was in the building extension, there was a safe public bathroom, as we thought. An explosive wave hit her against the door, her head was cut by fragments of a mirror – and the bandages came in handy. Illnesses were of the cold nature – one of the newcomers coughed heavily, and the whole bunker caught the cough at once. Everyone got sick and coughed. A fifteen-year-old girl had diabetes. As far as I know, she is now in a coma. They left in mid-March, the group that Russians did not let through. They were sitting in the bomb shelter of the university. After we left for Zaporozhye, we contacted the family of a diabetic girl – and then we were told that she was in a coma. Everything is allegedly controlled, they promised that everything would be in OK,” Ihor Khadzhava says.

Eyewitnesses say that many wounded soldiers remained. The marines from the factory named Ylich moved up to Azov. Then the border guards with the police came from the seaport. They move through the underground rooms, but the conditions in the basements are actually terrible – constant dampness.

“Doctors lack the usual basic chlorhexidine and hydrogen peroxide because wounds are treated every day or every other day at least. This breaks the heart – how wounded people suffer and no one can help them”, Serhiy Kuzmeno says.

The factory was actively bombed on March 14th. Serhiy Kuzmeno says that the Russians dropped the bombs without any purpose, at random. Therefore, it is not clear where they could fly.

“There were moments when we closed the door, and everyone sat silently because they were praying. Plus, there was a hit in the building. The men put out the fire, the fire was on the floor, the smoke filled the room, and it was difficult to breathe. There were attacks by planes, mortars, and naval artillery. We saw a lot of cluster munition remnants. Somehow, a two-story building was folded down to the basement, which was a bomb shelter. They were shooting all the time. Azovstal was bombed all month,” he says.

His wife wrote down for herself – every 5 minutes an arrival and explosion. According to the military, more than 10 aircraft simultaneously flew in and circled over the territory of the factory. Serhiy Kuzmeno says: bombs flew several times at one shelter – a funnel formed near the building, and on the next arrival the bunker itself was already destroyed. They had a military hospital there. That is, people were poured over and covered with rubble. More than 10 wounded were killed.

Ihor Khadzhava also came under fire – flights of stairs were blocked in their bunker, but at the mark “-6” there was a passage to the next building extension, which was also blocked. The whole building collapsed. There was a sauna and a swimming pool in the building extension and now 5 floors collapsed. From the mark “-6” they got out somehow, made their way through the rubble to the surface. And already there, with the help of soldiers, they picked up children, women, and old people.

“We just think that a map of the city of Mariupol was taken, the location of each building, and shells just hit every point. Millions of shells were fired for destruction of the entire city that covered the entire area. In recent years, our city has begun to flourish. We could not get enough of what was happening: we had a lot of reconstructions, and repairs going on, new parks have been developed,” the production engineer says.

They started taking out civilians from Azovstal at the end of April. So, the Kuzmeno family was taken to the bus on May 1 and put in jail. They had to go to the village of Bezymennoe for the so-called “filtration”. When people were brought there, they were not even allowed to go to the toilet without a military escort. Then they were taken for interrogation. Men separately and women separately. They ordered me to turn out all my pockets and to show everything. They checked the phone, photos, phone calls – incoming and outgoing, turned the laptop on and checked it.

“They started interrogation asking where I was sitting, how many people were there, where the military was staying, what equipment they have, what I know about them, call signs, if I know anyone from the prosecutors, the police, someone else from state institutions. They undressed us up to our underwear. They examined me and turned to all sides. I talked to my wife – they were stripped to their underwear; they took off their bras and were looking at their underpants. It was so humiliating. They turned all our stuff upside down,” the resident of Mariupol says.

Ihor Khadzhava was also able to leave with his family. The man recalls that, being in the bunker, they all regretted that they got there, because there was no way to get out. On the territory of the factory, on normal roads, it takes 15 minutes to get to the nearest checkpoints. However, during shelling when you don’t know where the next projectile will land, it’s very risky. Walking through the territory of the factory with children under constant bombing means taking responsibility for their lives. We did not dare to do so. That’s why they were waiting for the evacuation.

However, after we saw that the whole city was destroyed and burned down, it turned out that we were somehow protected for two months. Therefore, they survived. I think it’s inhuman what the Russians have done to the city. Normal people won’t do that. They will not burn down a peaceful city, they will not shoot at nine-story buildings, they will not set fire to the private sector. War, of course, turns people into beasts. When Russian soldiers wash themselves with blood, people no longer understand what they are doing. I think they went berserk here,” Ihor Khadzhava concludes.

According to the Ukrainian government, more than 500 civilians were taken from Azovstal, but wounded soldiers, medical staff and soldiers of the remaining units remained on the territory of the factory.

Maksim Butchenko

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