‘We are so sorry’: Mariupol plant evacuees feel relief and pain

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ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — When damp underground concrete walls, mold, cold and weeks without fresh fruit and vegetables became unbearable, some in the bunker below Elina Tsybulchenko’s office decided to visit heaven.

They made their way, through the darkness lit by flashlights and lamps powered by car batteries, to a prized spot at the bombed-out Azovstal steel plant, the last Ukrainian holdout in the ruined city of Mariupol. There, they could look up and see a band of blue or gray smoke. It was like looking from the bottom of a well. For those who could not or dared not come to the surface, it was as distant as peace.

But seeing the sky meant hope. It was enough to make Elina’s adult daughter, Tetyana, cry.

The Tsybulchenko family was among the first to leave the steel plant in a tense, days-long evacuation brokered by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross with the governments of Russia, which now controls Mariupol, and Ukraine, which wants the city back. A brief ceasefire allowed more than 100 civilians to flee the plant.

They arrived safely in the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia this week. There they described for The Associated Press their two months in the center of hell and their escape.

Hundreds of Ukrainian civilians and fighters remain trapped at the plant and Russian forces have forced their way inside. The seizure of Mariupol is expected to play a central role in Moscow’s May 9 celebration of Victory Day, which historically marks the end of World War II.

In the first days of the Russian invasion, Tsybulchenko, 54, was shocked by the bombing of her city. Like many residents with memories of civil defense exercises, she knew that the steel plant had the only real bunkers in the city. When she, her husband Serhii, her daughter and her son-in-law Ihor Trotsak decided to take refuge in the one below her office, she assumed they would stay for a few days.

“We don’t even carry toothbrushes,” Elina said. But a few days turned into 60.

They had only brought their documents, three blankets, two dogs and fruit that they carried in a basket that they used for Orthodox Easter. They did not think that they would celebrate the holidays there weeks later.

The steel plant has a maze of more than 30 bunkers and tunnels spread across its 11 square kilometers (4 miles), and each bunker was its own world. The evacuees had little or no communication with others in the plant; eventually they would meet on buses to Zaporizhzhia and compare experiences.

Their isolation complicates estimates of the number of Ukrainian civilians and fighters left. A few hundred civilians are still trapped, the Ukrainian side said this week, including more than 20 children. Another evacuation effort was reported to be underway on Friday.

The number of those surviving underground threatens to fall every day. Some evacuees recalled watching in horror as the wounded succumbed to their injuries as first aid supplies, including clean water, became scarce or ran out.

“People literally rot like our jackets did,” said Serhii Kuzmenko, 31. The tired plant foreman fled with his wife, his 8-year-old daughter and four others from his bunker; 30 stayed behind. “They urgently need our help,” he said. “We have to get them out.”

In another bunker, the Tsybulchenko family lived among 56 people, including 14 children from 4 to 17 years old. They survived by dividing among themselves the basic rations brought by the combatants: canned meat, porridge, crackers, salt, sugar, and water. There wasn’t enough for everyone.

The old cocker spaniel of the family was suffering, trembling and looking at them with wide eyes. The dog had to die, they decided. It was an act of mercy. They asked a soldier for sleeping pills, but he said the dog could survive and suffer more.

“Let me shoot,” he said.

The dog was given a hasty above-ground burial amid the bombardment; Debris and junk was placed on top to protect it from other hungry pets.

There was little consolation. The bunker shook from the bombardment. “We went to bed like this every night and thought, ‘Will we survive?’” Elina said.

The Tsybulchenkos and others slept on padded benches in the uniforms of steel plant workers. For the toilets, they used buckets. When the shelling became too heavy to empty the buckets upstairs, they used plastic bags. To pass the time, people invented board games or played cards. One carved pieces of wood into toys.

A room in the bunker was turned into a playground for the children. People found markers and paper and held an arts and crafts contest, in which the children drew what they would most like to see. They drew nature and the sun. As Easter approached in late April, they drew Easter eggs and bunnies.

The drawings were pasted on walls that were dripping with moisture. Musty-smelling mold crept in from corners and migrated to clothing and blankets. The only way to keep something dry was to use it. Even after the evacuation and after their first showers in months, the Tsybulchenkos worried they would smell musty.

While trying to collect rainwater, they often used disinfectant to clean themselves and their dishes, to the point where Elin’s hands showed an allergic reaction. At first, she would go up to her office and get lotion, deodorant, and a few other personal items that she had left there.

Then it became too dangerous to go upstairs. Half of the building, including his office, collapsed in the shelling.

Over and over again during the two months, people in the bunker heard news of possible evacuations from Mariupol, only to learn that they had failed. When news of the UN-negotiated evacuation broke, there was skepticism and fear. But the planning began with decisions about who should go first.

Others said the Tsybulchenkos should leave because Elina’s cramping legs had started to blacken and cause problems. “But there are little children here, and they should go,” she said. The others insisted. They assumed that the evacuation would continue in the next few days and would take everyone, including the fighters. Some hesitated, wanting to see if the first evacuation was a success.

A little girl who stayed behind, Violeta, took a marker and drew a flower, a heart and “Good luck” on Elina’s arm. The residents of the bunker had shortened the girl’s name to Leta, or “sunshine.”

Everyone in the bunker agreed to meet to celebrate in a cafe in Zaporizhzhia when the evacuation was complete.

“We are very sorry,” the Tsybulchenkos said to others as they headed to the surface.

“Don’t worry,” they replied. We will follow you.

Elina didn’t recognize her workshop. The roof had blown off. The walls were in ruins. The ground was pocked with craters and strewn with unexploded shells.

As they emerged from an opening in the rubble, the family and other evacuees blinked. After two months, the sunlight hurt his eyes.

It was calm. The Russian bombardment, for once, had stopped.

“The weather was brilliant,” said Ivane Bochorishvili, the UN’s deputy humanitarian director in Ukraine, who came to the plant to wait for the evacuees. “The one where you are waiting for the perfect storm, like the blue sky.”

A dangerous stretch awaited him. A railway bridge near the plant was the reception point for the evacuees. The waiting buses were another kilometer away.

For the evacuation, the Russians had tried to recover the mines they had planted. But the machine hadn’t caught everything, Bochorishvili said.

As he and a colleague approached in their vehicle, the Russians shouted from hundreds of meters away: “Don’t move!” The UN workers were told to get out and carefully return to the last checkpoint on foot. The demining machine was brought back. Eight more mines were found.

Ukrainian soldiers walked in front and behind the evacuees when they finally got out, making sure the column of people placed their feet safely.

“Thank God we didn’t see any bodies on the road,” Elina said. The Russians had eliminated them.

Twenty-one people came out the first day. The rest left the next day. When the second group met the first, “there were a lot of hugs and kisses. They had been in Azovstal but they had not seen each other, they did not know what had happened to them,” said Osnat Lubrani, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine.

The buses set off through a city in ruins. Makeshift graves lined the streets. People held their heads in pain and disbelief or hugged each other. “These people are going to have nightmares for a long time,” said Esteban Sacco, the UN official responsible for the first leg of the bus ride to safety.

And yet they could still see signs of life. It was market day. There were people walking or cycling, even children. Some were looking through the windows of bombed-out buildings.

The evacuees were still far from safe. At first, the buses were not heading west towards Ukraine-controlled territory, but east towards Russia. Even UN employees at first thought they were going there, Sacco said.

At a camp in Bezimenne, near the border, evacuees said the Russians pressured them to side with them. The Russians even tried to board the buses, saying they wanted to offer the children sweets, but they were not allowed to enter.

A Russian priest asked the evacuees why they were going to Zaporizhzhia. “Ukraine will cease to exist very soon,” Elina Tsybulchenko recalled her saying.

Evacuees were questioned and searched, sometimes even stripped to check for military-style tattoos. Some Russians were polite, said Ihor, Elina’s son-in-law. Others mocked or insulted her, especially if she slipped up and spoke Ukrainian instead of Russian. “Why do you speak a foreign language?” they asked.

The buses turned west on the slow route to Zaporizhzhia and safety. “We always had this fear,” Ihor said. “We knew we could have ended up going to Russia.”

As the convoy slowly arced around Mariupol, they could see distant flashes as the Russian bombardment resumed. Two female civilians at the steel plant were killed and 10 civilians wounded, said Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment there.

Ukrainian authorities said Russian forces entered the perimeter of the plant with “hard and bloody battles”.

The evacuees had entered their bunkers in winter. They emerged into a black and gray landscape, a grotesque spring. Only after passing through no man’s land did Elina notice the green and yellow fields again.

They entered Ukrainian-controlled territory after a harrowing final stretch of more than 20 checkpoints.

Ukrainian officials had urged residents of Russian-controlled communities to board the convoy en route. But in the end, the buses were not allowed to take them. Elina and other evacuees wept as they passed people waiting in vain near the road.

“We really feel embarrassed,” Elina said. “We never stop.”

Yesica Fisch in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine contributed.

Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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