“What release?” : Mariupol survivors rescued from last civilian bunker describe horrors of siege | Ukraine

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Spike, the quarrelsome dachshund, received something at every meal, even as the humans trapped in the bunker beneath the Azovstal steelworks starved to death.

In the end, there was so little food and water that the adults only ate one small meal a day. Two cups of macaroni went into 10 liters of water, and this “soup” was supposed to feed 30 people. The children ate twice. Yet they all shared their food with their pet.

“Someone gave him a spoonful of porridge and each family member gave him three or four spoonfuls when he ate. Fortunately, he is small, ”said Olena Chekhonatsky.

She fled underground to escape shelling at the start of the war with her husband, Yegor, and two sons, Artem, 12, and Dmitry, 17. They expected to stay maybe two weeks, but didn’t emerge until two months later.

“I was never into dogs until Spike came along,” she said with a sad look at the dog she starved herself to keep alive, as he bounded along from the sandy bank of the Dnieper on the family’s first day of freedom since late February.

The Chekhonatsky family dog, Spike, enjoys his freedom on the banks of the Dnipro in Zaporizhzhia. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

The family were among the latest group of civilians officially evacuated from Azovstal, arriving in Ukrainian-held territory the day before Putin’s declaration of war as a ‘sacred’ mission to free people like their family, during a a military parade in Moscow.

“What release? What was the reason for all this? Olena asked. “Our first feeling is disbelief, we made it. The last days we were losing hope. The shelling was so heavy that it seemed impossible to get out,” added Yegor.

While the family thought they might be in the bunker for two weeks, others they had sheltered with only prepared for two days. More than two months later, they were still there, food and water supplies dwindling as the buildings above them were destroyed by Russian bombs.

They had been deprived of almost everything except sleep. “Sleep more, eat less. Because when you sleep, you don’t need to eat,” Yegor said. “The plan now is to keep living. The rest will follow. »

When they moved in, there was electricity, but their world quickly shrunk into the moldy basement, its damp smell seeping into their clothes and skin. The electricity went out after a day and there was no internet, just a small radio that could pick up long wave transmissions.

(From left to right) Dmitry, Yegor, Artem and Olena Chekhonatsky
Dmitry, Yegor, Artem and Olena Chekhonatsky walk along the banks of the Dnipro. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

They used car batteries to power the LED lights and, in the dim light, tried to pass the hours with games. They had brought chess, backgammon and cards, and someone created a Mariupol monopoly, with the city’s factories and malls replacing the streets of London.

They can laugh at some things now. They searched for food in the remains of a warehouse that had been bombed by the Russians, and one day Yegor went with two older men, who insisted on joining them despite their failing strength and eyesight.

One of them came back with coffee beans that he had mistaken for small shapes of pasta and a giant bag of bay leaves. Neither helped with the hunger, but they decided to smash the coffee with a hammer. “I must say it was a great cup of coffee,” he said.

But every day was a wager with death. Even a trip to the toilet meant risking their lives, as the latrine was on the ground floor. For the children and the elderly and disabled, there were buckets in the shelter, which the adults took turns emptying.

child's drawing of tank
Photo of a tank drawn by children hidden in the Mariupol Steelworks bunker. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

“Nobody came out of it unchanged,” said Oksana, an Azovstal employee who asked not to give her full name for security reasons. “They were one person when they came in and another person when they came out.”

At first, the children were visibly traumatized, she says. The teenagers spent hours staring at the walls, the younger ones refrained from touching them, and when she encouraged them to draw, they avoided colored pens and only drew in black.

Over time, they have adjusted somewhat to their terrifying new existence. “Later, they let us hug them, especially during the shelling. They made friends and the older children taught the younger ones. There was a four-year-old child who could barely read the alphabet when they arrived, but by the end he could do math and read and write well.

Oksana herself emerged with three talismans from her descent into horror: her husband’s teaspoon, from his work canteen; the drawings of the children she guided at that time; and a passport cover with glittering beads that she added herself, the only piece of her work left from a favorite hobby. “I don’t have anything else from home.”

Children's drawings
Pictures drawn by refugee children in the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

They attempted to leave when a “green corridor” was announced in early March, but were driven underground by the fighting. They had seen dozens of people leave before them, including residents of a nearby bunker who ran out of food weeks before them, but every trip was a gamble.

“When the children went out, we made labels on their clothes with their name, blood type and date of birth. So at least if they were killed it would be easier to identify the bodies,” Oksana said.

One group decided to walk the 100 km to Berdyansk, through battlefields, minefields and ruins, as it seemed less terrifying than staying at the factory. “We don’t know if they succeeded.”

Then they heard about the latest attempts to set up civilian escape corridors on the radio and decided to see if they could find a way out. The soldiers found them waiting outside and said they had 15 minutes to get ready.

They fear there may be other desperate civilians trapped under the factory, who either had no radios to be notified of the evacuation, or were not found by the soldiers.

Oksana
‘No one came out of it unchanged’: Oksana, an Azovstal employee who asked not to give her full name for security reasons, cries as she explains how her time at the steel mill has affected her and others. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

In a Russian “filtration” camp, where the evacuees are searched by the authorities, the Chekhonatski family met a teenager who had spent the whole war hiding in a basement a few dozen meters from theirs with two other men. They had no idea he was there. They also worry about the troops who brought them out, through the ruined compound.

“Not even heroes… I don’t know how to describe it. There are no words to express our gratitude for what they have done for us,” said Yegor. “I beg God, I hope a miracle will happen and they will come out of this alive.”

Oksana was overwhelmed, when she was finally able to charge her phone and turn it on after two months, to find a flood of messages from her family, relatives and friends from all over Ukraine and around the world.

Many were beneficiaries of a charity where she worked, which provided food and other aid to families with young children. “I never imagined that I would be the one who needed help.”

Artem Mazhulin contributed reporting on this story

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