ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Five storeys below the besieged Azovstal steelworks, Ukrainian soldiers told Nataliya Babeush she had a few minutes to prepare to escape the underground bunker she called home for more than two months.
The 35-year-old grabbed little more than a handful of children’s drawings: some sketches of flowers and food that had helped to cheer dozens of civilians who had sheltered for weeks in one corner of the vast, dimly lit concrete warren.
“I’ll keep them as long as I can,” she told Reuters, speaking after a humanitarian convoy brought her on Sunday to the city of Zaporizhzhia in southeast Ukraine.
Babeush and hundreds of others had sought refuge in the enormous complex beneath the Azovstal plant soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in the early hours of Feb. 24 and laid siege to the port city of Mariupol.
She saw the plant as a short-term shelter before a retreat to safety elsewhere. Instead, the refuge became a trap as Azovstal became the focus of the fiercest fighting in the war.
Reuters spoke to four evacuees from the plant who spent weeks underground in dark, dank conditions enduring bombardment in one of the steelworks’ numerous bunkers. They described how the group of strangers was bonded by a need to survive, to ration food and keep their spirits up, as Russian forces drew closer.
“Every second was hellish. It’s very scary underground – to be underground like moles in the dark,” said 51-year-old nurse Valentyna Demyanchuk.
Russia has strongly denied targeting civilians in the conflict, which it calls a “special military operation” to demilitarise Ukraine. Authorities in Kyiv say thousands of civilians have been killed in Mariupol and has accused Moscow of war crimes.
Russia’s defence ministry and Ukraine’s government did not respond to a request for comment on the women’s testimony.
All four women described being woken up before dawn on the first day of the war by the bombardment of Mariupol.
Accountant Larisa Solop, 49, fled her apartment in the east of the city when fighting drew near. She hoped to meet her daughter’s family on the other side of town but there was no cellphone reception.
“Lots of buildings were burning … and shells whistled overhead,” she said. As an evening curfew neared, she realised her only hope was to shelter in nearby Azovstal – “just a stop-over.”
Two months later, she would be one of the last civilians to be evacuated on May 6 from the plant by the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Most of the roughly 40 people sharing Solop’s shelter arrived in early March. Many had just the clothes on their backs, others brought a few belongings and a bag or two of canned goods, pasta, porridge or potatoes, the women said.
Babeush, a former plant worker, became the main cook, stirring pots of soup on a wood-burning stove in the concrete storey above their bunker.
“The kids called her Auntie Soup,” said Demyanchuk, laughing ruefully. The group ate one meal a day, she said.
A strike knocked out all power supplies in early March, after which the group was plunged into darkness. They started rationing candles, while some of the men fashioned little torches from banks of industrial lighting that could run on individual batteries.
As the bombing intensified, some people attempted to leave but didn’t reach the perimeter of the complex before returning to the shelter, the women said.
“Planes from the sea were bombing so much that we couldn’t even get outside,” said Solop, recalling her elderly father being knocked off his feet in the bunker by the force of a blast.
As a distraction, Babeush encouraged the eight children in the group to decorate workers’ helmets. She made a robot costume out of a box with holes cut out of for eyes and organised a drawing competition at Orthodox Easter. Everyone voted and the first prize was a tin of meat paste.
Her favourite drawing was of a pizza with lovingly detailed strings of melted cheese.
But privately, Babeush had given up hope. She wrote her parents’ phone numbers inside her jacket in case she died in the bunker. “I didn’t think we’d get out.”
Demyanchuk, her husband, son and elderly mother were among the first to make a break for it. Weary of the shelling, they decided to try their luck on foot on March 26 even though her mother needed two walking sticks and had to be carried part of the way.
“The food was running out and we were tired of sitting underground,” Demyanchuk said by phone from central Ukraine in early May.
Demyanchuk said the soldiers made her wait for when the skies appeared clearer and urged them to move as fast as possible. They did not try to stop her leaving.
Their journey to Ukraine-controlled territory lasted several days. As bombers flew overhead, they walked past buildings with fresh graves dug in the yard and saw the charred body of a soldier on the seafront, she said.
But, being outside the bunker, she said she felt “an indescribable feeling of freedom.”
The other three women had more than a month to wait before hearing via their one crackly radio of international efforts to evacuate civilians from the plant.
“It gave us a bit of strength that soon, in just a little bit more time, we would get out of there,” said 25-year-old Tetyana Trotsak, whose asthmatic mother was suffering in the damp air.
After a local ceasefire was brokered, evacuation began in early May. But it was a bittersweet moment for those in the bunker – the group would only be allowed to leave in stages.
“The hardest part was waiting and hoping we’d get out. It was a kind of despair,” said Solop.
Food was running dangerously low, even with extra rations shared by the Ukrainian forces who were holed up in another part of the plant that had become their last redoubt after Russian troops seized control of Mariupol.
Eleven people, including families with children and people with health problems, went first, clambering out of the bunker and weaving their way through rubble to get to a convoy of buses.
“We were so happy for them, but we stayed there and thought what if they’ve taken this group and are not able to do more?,” said Solop.
A couple of days later, the soldiers told Babeush and others they had five minutes to get ready. They were told they had to hurry to make it to the buses or the final group in the bunker might miss the chance to evacuate that day.
Babeush grabbed little more than some of the drawings that had been taped up around the shelter. “The war has taught me you don’t need material things. For life, you don’t need anything – just people you can rely on,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Maria Starkova, Oleksandr Kozhukhar, Bogdan Kobuchey, and Leonardo Benassatto; Editing by Daniel Flynn)