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ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — When Russian forces invaded Ukraine, 47-year-old Anna Krylova was working the night shift as a gas purification operator at Azovstal, a massive steel processing plant in the southern port city of Mariupol.
Her 14-year-old daughter, Maiia, came with her — no one was at home to watch her.
“We didn’t leave that plant for the next 70 days,” says Krylova. “As the bombing got worse, we moved further underground.”
Russian forces began bombing Mariupol at the very start of the war. Most of the besieged city is in Russian hands now, but reduced to rubble. The Azovstal steel plant, badly hit, is the last holdout.
The Krylovas are among dozens of civilians who were evacuated from the plant this weekend, in a joint effort by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which convinced Russia to hold its fire until some civilians got out. The evacuees arrived in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia on Tuesday. Some are now heading to various cities in Ukraine.
A vast network of tunnels with bunkers lies under the sprawling, Soviet-era plant, reportedly the last Ukrainian-held post in Mariupol. Hundreds of civilians as well as up to 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers sheltered there. But those inside say they never felt truly safe.
“It was really scary because we couldn’t go outside,” Krylova says. “It was just too dangerous. And inside we kept going from shelter to shelter, because the bombs kept hitting. We were hungry, we were scared, we were under constant shelling.”
She calls the experience “like the apocalypse, like a horror film.” Her daughter says, “Each day felt like it would be our last one alive.”
Osnat Lubrani, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine, told reporters that the UN was already planning another evacuation. But last night, Russian forces reportedly began storming the steel plant.
“It’s horrifying to think what could be happening there,” says English teacher Alex Dybko, who was evacuated along with his wife and young children. “It was already so terrible when we left. The steelworks looked like a mass of stone, iron and dust … like something out of the Second World War. I never thought I would see this with my own eyes.”
Dybko shared an underground bunker with the Krylovas. They pushed together benches to use as beds. The bunker shook, especially at night, when the bombing and shelling was the worst. His kids told him they were afraid to get up and go to the toilet.
“Tea [steelworks] was hit several times, it was burning several times,” he says. “We were trying to manage the fire and not to suffocate. So every day was a fight for survival.”
The only bright spot, he says, was that a plant worker sheltering with them found a generator, so there was sporadic electricity.
Many others lived in near-darkness for two months, including 57-year-old Oleh Yurkin, a Mariupol native. He used a headlamp to get around, “but only in areas where we were covered because otherwise the drones and fighter jets would spot us.”
He and his wife cooked on a stove made out of bricks blown loose from explosions. Soldiers had stockpiled goods inside the plant and shared them with civilians.
Yurkin is a musician who used to perform in the city’s restaurants and cafes. Every single one of those buildings is gone, bombed to rubble by the Russian military.
“Now,” he says, “the city is no more.”