ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — From their cold and fetid bunker, deep underground, the survivors of Mariupol’s Azovstal Iron and Steel Works had feared the wreckage that would greet them if they made it out alive.
After a three-day-long evacuation from the steelworks under Russian siege, during which Ukrainian soldiers have been staging a dramatic last stand for weeks with hundreds of civilians also sheltering there, the first 100 civilians arrived 140 miles northwest in the relative safety of the town of Zaporizhzhia, and began to tell their stories.
Women and the elderly said that they had lived for more than a month without sunlight as fear pervaded and food dwindled. Russian bombardments struck the sprawling complex so hard that dust swirled down from the bunker’s ceiling.
When several dozen civilians finally stepped above ground Friday to meet a U.N.-backed evacuation convoy, that first daylight in weeks felt like it was burning people’s eyes as the scene they witnessed sent some into shock.
“On the one hand seeing the sky for the first time, but on the other seeing the destroyed city,” said Osnat Lubrani, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine.
After the convoy arrived in Zaporizhzhia, a red-haired woman, who asked The Washington Post not to identify her out of fear for her family, was asked by reporters whether the reality of her escape from Mariupol had sunk in. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but nothing came out. There was silence for a moment as her eyes filled with tears and she shook her head.
“I don’t have words for this question,” she said, finally. “Nothing is real anymore.”
Victory in Mariupol would be Russia’s most significant in this war to date, and the Azovstal steelworks is Ukraine’s last redoubt there. The port city is critical to Russian hopes of forming an unbroken land corridor stretching from the eastern Donbas region bordering Russia to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.
Hundreds of fighters are holed up in the four-square-mile steelworks, with civilians taking shelter alongside them in the network of bunkers below.
As the evacuation buses neared Zaporizhzhia on Tuesday, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk insisted that Mariupol would not fall into full Russian control.
“Mariupol is Ukraine,” she said. “It was Ukraine, it is Ukraine, it will be Ukraine.”
The evacuation backed by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross took weeks to negotiate as Ukrainian fighters inside the facility pleaded with the international community to help evacuate civilians taking shelter.
On Tuesday, officials involved in the operation described a mission fraught with risk.
Aid workers left Zaporizhzhia for Mariupol on Friday but were not able to begin evacuating civilians until Saturday afternoon. First they had to negotiate with the Russians, then they waited for civilians to emerge. A rickety minibus brought them groups of six or seven people at a time, often with a 40-minute wait between groups. Mortar shells landed in the area; it was unclear who had fired them.
At some point, the evacuation’s planners changed routes after they discovered unexploded ordnance in the roads, including mines.
The drive normally takes less than four hours, but because of active shelling, shooting and numerous Russian checkpoints along the way, it turned into a grinding 36-hour ordeal. When the buses arrived in Zaporizhzhia, the passengers looked shattered.
A few waved and flashed victory signs, but then slumped back in their seats with exhaustion. When the first passenger, an elderly woman, stepped out, she looked lost for a moment, before her face creased into a sob. A young girl with blond braids just looked haunted.
For the most part, only women and children were able to join the evacuation effort, as the Russians did not allow young men of fighting age to leave. At least three mothers interviewed by Post reporters said that they had ultimately had to make a choice: to stay with their husbands or save their children.
Oksana, a mother of two, was one of them. Trapped inside with her husband and boys ages 10 and 14, she watched as her sons somehow adjusted to a life in which bombs shook the foundations as they ate less and less each week. Their only food was packages of humanitarian aid that the Russians allowed in.
“During the first month, they cried and shuddered,” she said. But later, they grew quiet, and retreated into themselves.
When she boarded the evacuation bus Sunday in the hope of carrying the boys to safety, her husband stayed behind.
Oksana said that living as a parent under siege conditions had brought her “more fear” than she had ever imagined. But seeing the devastation above ground had brought greater terror still. “I felt so much fear that my mind went blank,” she said. “The only thought I could grasp was that I wanted to run.”
On Tuesday, reports indicated that Russian forces had redoubled their shelling of the steelworks shortly after the evacuation began.
In a message to The Post, the head of the regional police force said Russian fighters had repeatedly shelled the facility and were attempting to storm the plant’s perimeter. The latest attacks had killed at least two civilians, he said, and as many as 200 others were still hiding out in bunkers below the plant, desperate for evacuation.
“It’s very serious things happening,” said the chief, Mykhailo Vershynin.
Earlier Tuesday, Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, posted a video of the Azovstal plant to Telegram, showing it almost destroyed, with smoke billowing in the air and what appeared to be Russian tanks rolling around the facility’s grounds.
A Red Cross official said he was “extremely concerned” about the civilians who remained trapped at the plant.
“We would have hoped that much more people would be able to join the convoy and to get out of hell,” Pascal Hundt, the head of the Red Cross’s delegation in Ukraine, said during a video call with reporters.
“That’s why we have a bit of a mixed feeling today.”
As the United Nations and other aid groups readied the evacuation plan, the loved ones of trapped civilians had gathered in Zaporizhzhia awaiting news. In the case of Vlada, 24, with dark eyes, she had come daily, asking anyone who would listen for news of her best friend. Anna had given birth to a baby six months earlier, but life had intervened, and Vlada had still not met the child. When Russian soldiers moved in on Mariupol and then Azovstal, the news filled Vlada with dread.
On Tuesday, Vlada was back in the Zaporizhzhia evacuation point again, waiting for Anna. And then she saw her. In one arm was a healthy-looking baby. In the other, was a cellphone, and she was calling Vlada first.
The women embraced so fast that they almost fell on each other. Vlada’s whole body shook with relief and shock. Anna was so tired that she could barely muster any emotions, but when her friend took the baby, Svait, in her arms, she joined their embrace and cried.
“I waited so many days for you,” Vlada told Anna, her voice breaking as tears fell.
“I’m so glad you’re here.”
Dmytro Plotnikov in Zaporizhzhia, David L. Stern in Mukachevo, Ukraine, and Brittany Shammas in Washington contributed to this report.
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