In the bunker. The stories of the Azovstal employees, who survived the two‑month‑long siege in the plant’s underground shelters
Максим Бутченко
In the bunker. The stories of the Azovstal employees, who survived the two‑month‑long siege in the plant’s underground shelters
14 July 2022, 20:19

Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, 7th of May, 2022. Photo: Alexei Alexandrov / AP

Russian troops surrounded Mariupol on the 2nd of March. On the 19th of March, they arrived in front of the Azovstal steelworks but despite continuous shelling and aerial bombing, it took them two months to capture it. The last Ukrainian soldiers holding the by-then devastated plant only surrendered on the 16th of May. Kyiv journalist Maxim Butchenko spoke to people who watched these events unfold from the inside, from shelters erected in the plant’s basements.

Back to 2014. How the steelworkers fortified Mariupol

Ivan Goltvenko, HR director. I would suggest going back to 2014 because that was when the first attempt to seize Mariupol, coming from Novoazovsk and Donetsk, was made. At that time, two main decisions were taken that people should know about. The first was to refit and upgrade all the bomb shelters and organise food and water supplies at the Azovstal plant.

Because during the peace years these areas were used as warehouses. The order was then given to conduct an audit of all existing bomb shelters; to make repairs if necessary; to restore the ventilation system; to make a list of dry rations and stock up on food and then to renew the stocks if they had expired. Starting in 2014, staff started practising evacuating to bomb shelters. We drew up lists of who should go where; we identified supervisors and we held large-scale plant-wide training sessions at least twice a year. Thats how we spent those eight years. If that decision had not been made then, a lot would have been different, cluttered rooms would not have been able to accommodate so many people. In 2022, why were there more city residents rather than employees in the bomb shelters? Only 15% were employees, the rest were families, relatives, neighbours, and residents who knew about those shelters beforehand.

Employees work at the Azovstal plant on 20th of May, 2014. Photo: Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters

The second point from back in 2014. At that time, the management of the company and the two plants, Azovstal and Illich, agreed to help the military build fortifications. They were producing “slabs”, rectangular steel semi-finished product 200 millimetres thick, i.e. 20 centimetres, and 12 to 25 metres long and 2-2.5 metres wide, from which sheet metal is later rolled in the rolling mills. Now that’s a steel plate. They were distributed to the military with our own transports and so we were building defence lines around the city in 2014.

If you look at the map of the city, the defences were built from the north to the east. Because at that time the threat came from Donetsk, Shyrokyne, and Taganrog. Generally speaking, by the third or at most fourth day [of the war], the [Russian] airforce started bombing the city. This perfectly answers the question, had there been no military in the city, would it have been targeted or not? The answer is yes, because the defence line was 20-25 kilometres outside the city borders, running north to east. I know this for a fact because I personally drove those slabs there.

In 2014, this defence line successfully withstood the blows because it was artillery, tanks, and infantry attacking us. We thought we were experienced. We were not expecting the enemy to use their airforce this year. That is why when the army was defending the lines running north to east the enemy started flying over and bombing the city chaotically. They encircled the city from both sides, coming from the south, through Kherson. This answers why many residents did not plan on leaving: they had experienced 2014 and they believed in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the steelworkers knew about the fortifications and what was needed to withstand the same blows as in 2014. But it turned out that we were not ready. Two factors were at play: the airforce and the enemy came from the south.

24th of February. Hot standby

Sergei Kuzmenko. Courtesy photo

Sergei Kuzmenko, foreman of production preparation at the basic oxygen furnace (BOF) shop. On the 24th I got up for work as usual, at four in the morning. I live in Vostochny. Shooting broke out on the Shyrokyne side of town. It woke us all up. I got ready and went to work. At half-past five in the morning, the first news arrived that there were explosions going off all over the country. At six in the morning, I was at work.

Initially, we were told that for the time being, we were to work as normal. Closer to lunchtime, the news broke that Vostochny was being shelled and factory management decided to put the plant on hot standby for seven days. They determined the steps and the necessary number of people in order to finish production safely, that is, to make the pig iron and turn off the furnaces. We were working until 9 pm, producing semi-finished products, pig iron, so that everything could be finished and would be safe and less painful to restart in the event of a quick start-up.

Igor Khadzhava, lead engineer. On the 24th I went to work. Work wasn’t cancelled, so everyone went to work. Explosions could already be heard. Then management told everyone to go home and the plant started to be put on hot standby, so shutting down the blast furnaces. They closed the lids on the converter, well, and the mixers started, to reduce the amount of pig iron. A production stoppage, so to speak.

Ivan Goltvenko. We were shutting down the plant over seven whole days; the units are supplied with natural gas and they emit coke oven gas. These gases are toxic to humans with death occurring within three seconds of exposure. You can’t simply unplug a blast furnace or a converter with a capacity of 350 tons of molten metal. You need to carry out a number of technical operations: blow out all the hot metal, pour in the charge, cool it down, turn off the gas supply and shut down the outgoing gas supply. Then the blast furnace or the converter is safe if a projectile hits it, from a purely technogenic point of view. It took a week to do that. And we have three such hazardous gas areas: coke shop, blast furnace shop and converter shop. The coke shop has three coke oven batteries with 180 coking chambers each, the blast furnace shop has three blast furnaces, and the converter shop has two 350-tonne bowl converters. It takes seven days to shut them down because it runs non-stop production.

Sergei Kuzmenko. People have been notified and people were dismissed. Only I won't say whether on the 24th or 25th [of February] the company management decided to open all the passages to anyone, to let all the personnel drive in if they needed to get to the bomb shelters, and even outsiders without restrictions: families, relatives, no matter.

The first week of March. A city without gas, light, water or government.

Ivan Goltvenko. A military patrol was posted in front of the central gatehouse on the second or third day. While we were stopping the machinery over those seven days, sabotage groups entered the plant twice and shot at our employees. The military went into the plant and tried to find these saboteurs. I don't know how those attempts ended. But I know that our employees twice complained about the attacks. And the soldiers said that saboteurs had infiltrated the city and were even caught in the plant.

Igor Khadzhava. Courtesy photo

Igor Khadzhava. We stayed at home, my wife and I ran to the shops and bought food but we didn't think it would take so long. On TV, on the news, people everywhere were saying: stay at home, everything is under control, everything will be fine. Of course, we were staying put in vain.

The electricity went out twice, so we had no power for two days. Then we got electricity and water back for about half a day. Again, we filled up all the tanks we had at home, recharged our phones. Then it went out again. From almost the second day onwards, the sounds of bombs and incoming fire were getting closer and closer. We live on the ninth floor and both the sounds and the vibrations up there were much louder and stronger than on the lower floors. My wife slept with the children in the corridor.

On the 2nd of March, the sound of gunfire got very loud because our Ukrainian units had retreated into the 23rd district. We realised that the attack wouldn't stop on the outskirts of the 23rd. We didn’t know any specific news, we just heard the sounds of gunfire. My wife wanted us to go hide somewhere, away from the ninth floor, because the upper floors are always at risk. When the lights came back on, we got phone service again, so I called the head of the workshop and asked him to help get my wife, children and I to the shelter of the converter shop. We arrived at Azovstal at about noon and phone service dropped again. And it didn’t come back.

Ivan Goltvenko. There was no resupply of food. Somewhere people tried to break into shops on their own. Kyivstar and Lifecell mobile networks were the first to stop working; only Vodafone still had mobile phone service. So people began to look for new SIM cards in order to communicate. Later on, in mid-March, I know that the Ukrainian military was breaking the shops open and advising people to take away all necessary goods.

Sergei Kuzmenko. By the 5th of March, the gas was out. Or it was the 6th? So people started wandering around looking for the shops. One shop in the district, Zerkalny, was still open. They brought everything from the other shops there and people waited in line, they were only open till 2 pm. On the first day, we weren’t able to get in. On the second day, we went earlier and waited for three and a half hours to get into the shop. There wasn’t any water left, so we bought juices, which are at least liquids because there was nothing else there. At the same time on the 3rd and 4th it was raining, that sort of half-rain, half-snow. Water was streaming down from the roof so we collected it by pouring it into the bathtub, either we used the water to flush the toilet or we had to boil it because we knew there wouldn’t be any drinking water.

Probably from the 4th or 5th, the first rumours started circulating: police were still driving around the city and looters were being stopped with trolleys. But then looting started on a massive scale: people started breaking into everything, just everything. The Evas, all kinds of pharmacies and even the dentist’s. Total anarchy. At that point, there was no leadership in the city nor any information.

No one informed the city that there was no water. The authorities should have distributed information immediately about where there were wells and streams so that people would not just wander around town. That's how most of our people died, just walking around looking for water. An employee from my subdivision... His wife died, and he was heavily wounded in the non-controlled territory. They were simply walking around, looking for water.

Igor Khadzhava. We were brought by car on the 2nd of March, my children, my things and myself. On the first day we were there I didn't count the people, of course. There must have been about 20 of them, these were the workshop employees who had their own offices and had stayed overnight in them. And then, on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th, there were more and more people. The largest amount was about 100 people. There were 18 children. We were under the BOF Shop, BOF facility no. 1. This is the administration and amenities building, which houses the canteen, women's and men's baths, offices of the shop managers, deputy shop managers and all sorts of technological bureaus. Just a normal office. Some came running on foot, some escaped from destroyed apartments, but most people, most of them who were with us, were from the Left Bank because the BOF Shop was near the eastern gatehouses and it was easier for people to get there from that side.

Ivan Goltvenko. On the 2nd of March, few people arrived. I know that shop managers, their deputies and senior foremen started bringing their wives. The majority came on the 3rd–4th of March when we stopped all production.

Sergei Kuzmenko. On the 8th of March, we reached the Azovstal shelter. There were about 60 of us. In another week or two, another seven people were brought there, only one of them an employee.

Below ground zero. How and why Azovstal's shelters were built

Ivan Goltvenko. Four thousand people work at the plant, that is the maximum working shift excluding contractors. Plus about the same number of contractors. So the plant can comfortably accommodate up to eight thousand people.

There are 36 bomb shelters at the Azovstal steelworks. On average each shelter can hold 60 to 80 people. Each shelter is equipped with dry rations consisting of crackers, dried bread, canned meat, fish and dried pasta, as well as stocks of bottled water. According to civil protection and defence standards, each bomb shelter must be provided with seven days' supply of dry rations. We equipped the bomb shelters with 14 days' worth of supplies, double the standard.

Approximate locations of military personnel and civilians during the siege of Azovstal (by Ivan Goltvenko, as of late April). Civilians are shown in green, military in red, shelter locations in yellow.

1. Coal storage area. Maritime transport section. Wharf edge.

2. Auxiliary power workshop area. The shelter here held 60 civilians.

3. Blast furnace shop. Soldiers were stationed here.

4. Oxygen plant. There were about 60 civilians in a shelter under the BOF.

5. Coke production facility. About 40 and 50 civilians in BOF-1 and BOF-2 shelters respectively.

6. Stock preparation area at BOF Shop

7. BOF Shop scrap yard

8. Railroad shop. Military personnel were stationed here

9. Pig iron desulphurization section in BOF Shop

10. Sheet Rolling Mill Railway Station 11.

11. Plate Mill. At BOF-1 and BOF-2 shelters - about 60 and 70 civilians, respectively

12. Plate rolling shops. Around 60 and 50 civilians were in the BOF-1 and BOF-2 shelters, respectively.

13. Auxiliary workshop area

14. Converter shop. 76 civilians were sheltered in the BOF-1. The health centre in BOF-2 was operational since April, where about 100 wounded soldiers were kept.

15. Slag Heap

16. Administration of Non-Rail Transport. About 60 civilians

17. Auxiliary workshops. Eastern Gateway

18. Sortirovochnaya railway station. This is where the soldiers were stationed.

At the same time, another 9-12 basements in the administrative buildings, such as the plant management and personnel administration buildings and those outside the mill, were converted into bomb shelters. It was like a basement, but with two exits and two ventilation systems.

In the main shops, such as the blast furnace, converter and plate mill shops as well as the coke plant and railworks, there were bomb shelters with maximum capacity and safety. Because the plant was opened in 1933, with the main stages of modernization occurring in the period from 1933 to 1977, when the plate mill was built. Ultimately, this was the height of the Cold War. At that time, it was decided that the bomb shelters of the plant should be built to the standards of Safety class III (there were 5 classes). That is, it was assumed that the enterprise would continue operating during periods of combat operations on the home front. They were built according to the following standards: below ground level, metal doors, a double ventilation system and a second exit from the bomb shelter. But the standards of civil protection and technogenic safety address two types of threats: military and man-made disasters.

Igor Khadzhava. A bunker is no bomb shelter. A bomb shelter is significantly better protected against against aerial bombardment and any other type of bomb, while this shelter is for man-made disasters. We have a converter shop, so there is the possibility of a water tuyere bursting in the converter. The tuyere that supplies oxygen to the metal furnace is water-cooled, with a very high flow of water, tens of tonnes per second. If the tuyere burns through and water enters the metal bath, it would instantly evaporate, releasing hydrogen, and this mixture, well, it's equal to an atomic bomb. So the shelters were built against possible explosions.

The shelter itself includes sleeping areas with army double-decker bunks. There were probably 50 beds, no more than that. The shelter has two exits. The floor mark is minus six [metres], not much given that the ceiling was high, at about three metres and the floor slab itself, which was above us, was 500 millimetres thick.

The emergency exit was a tunnel and an exit to the side of the building, you had to climb six metres up a vertical ladder there. There was also a ventilation room. There were filters there, if there was electricity, there were electric motors spinning so-called snails, well, forced ventilation. If there was no electricity, the men would stand and spin this ventilation system to exchange air. We were spinning it like a meat grinder, you know. When you spin it, the blades inside it are spinning and they are forcing the air in.

Sergei Kuzmenko. Generally I used to work in the BOF shop, but I moved to the plate mill, which was commissioned in 1971–1972. And the construction of the bomb shelter was also relatively new, not old like the first buildings were. The bomb shelter was of the square type with reinforced columns. The columns were 2–2.5 metres apart and had slabs on them. We even had three exits: the main one and two emergency ones. There were anti-explosive, bent doors, which fit tightly; a bomb shelter is reliable in principle if it is not hit in the same place many times. It was cleverly designed because we would feel very strong vibrations, which would come from the ground. In other words, the foundation of this bomb shelter was made to dampen the vibration.

There were 36 bomb shelters at the plant, they did not differ much. Our bomb shelter was like this: we had two flights of stairs going down, we went under the BOF building, and into another one, there was one flight down and directly under the building; the doors were also metal, but lighter, of weaker construction. It was just an older building.

I haven't been in all of them. There's no connection between them. They are separate workshops and they are scattered all over the territory of the factory. As the administrative and residential buildings were located around the plant, so were the bomb shelters.

Under siege. Lights on antiseptic and underground fires

Ivan Goltvenko. Courtesy photo

Ivan Goltvenko. No one expected that the plant would essentially turn into a fortress, which would endure two and a half, even three months of solid, constant blows. We learned from the staff that in the first week people began to reduce their number of meals from three to two and then from two to one. Children still had three meals. Meanwhile, there were seven buffet canteens at the plant. These were places where employees could buy and receive food round the clock during working hours. Food was also available there. There were still stocks of bottled water, various biscuits and chocolates and candy bars. Somewhere there were sausages and pasta. Most importantly, there were vegetables, and some even managed to make soup.

I know that near the converter's [shop], people went out and cooked food on a barbecue. Then cartridges on parachutes with ribbons were dropped. They fell down and started to explode. One of the shells exploded next to the person who was cooking the food. At that time the fighting was still on the outskirts of the city. It was a long capsule with three white ribbons. His chest was hit. The diggers were still working then. They dug a grave and he was buried near the bomb shelter.

Sergei Kuzmenko. When we were coming out we saw a lot of remains of cluster munitions, I mean the parachutes that remained.

Igor Khadzhava. There was no one to bring in diesel fuel. We had an employee of our workshop, Roman Volkov, who watched the generator, basically, like his own child. We switched it off at night to save energy and only used electricity during the day. Around the beginning of April, we even got a bread maker and we had flour in our canteen, three whole sacks of flour. So we baked bread. The generator is big and consumes 37 litres of diesel a day. But we had a massive reconstruction of the gas treatment plant going on and the contractors brought in a lot of equipment, including tracked cranes and conventional pneumatic boom cranes, meaning a lot of machinery. So we drained them of their diesel fuel. The equipment itself was already destroyed, battered and broken

From the 15th of March Azovstal became a mess. Once a day something would drop on us—well, we heard it in the distance. The shop is large, with the highest point of 63 metres while the roof is probably 70 plus. When shells started hitting the main building of the converter shop, we could hear that. Then they started falling all the time, all over the place, our BOF was destroyed, it was burning on several occasions. An aerial bomb landed nearby, most likely, it was aimed at the BOF, but it missed. The crater was huge, it hit the railway track, on the rail, on concrete sleepers. The crater was one and a half meters deep and eight meters in diameter. It is quite a fortified place, designed for locomotives, for transportation of liquid metal, it is not a city tram, you know, the sleepers were dug into the ground. The force of the explosion was enormous.

Devastation near Azovstal in Mariupol on the 1st of April 2022. Photo: Maximilian Clarke / SOPA Images / Sipa USA / Reuters

No one counted the planes. There were times when there was a shockwave and only after that could you hear the sound of a plane, the planes were going at supersonic speeds. And then everyone ran downstairs to the shelter, the men or women who were cooking. Children were practically never brought to the surface.

There was a moment when two rockets hit us simultaneously. It was a direct hit, two staircases were destroyed as well as both of our exits from the BOF. We were pinned down. Stairwells were blocked, but at our minus-six mark, there was a passage to the neighbouring annexe. It had collapsed too. The whole building collapsed. There was a sauna in the annexe and a swimming pool in the sauna. Five floors of the annexe collapsed and fell into the pool. We had to get to the surface from there and with the help of soldiers, we lifted up the women, children and elderly.

Sergei Kuzmenko. As for electricity: some of the bomb shelters had generators, although ours didn't have a working generator. It wouldn't start, having been made in the Soviet Union. The soldiers helped us, they brought us the batteries. They took the batteries from the trains, charged them on their generators and brought them back to us, so we could at least switch on the lights. The battery was enough for two or three days. There were times when they simply could not get to us in time and we so sat in complete darkness for a couple of days, lighting candles. Thankfully there was a large amount of antiseptic in the plant. We started to to burn it, so that we could heat food and tea.

As far as food is concerned, there wasn't much food in our bomb shelter to begin with. The employees of the shop in which we were sheltering had brought it right away. Plus, we made a sortie into the adjoining building, where there used to be a canteen and we found a large supply of food. The men and I got together and ran through the workshop just under the roof. The shelling did not stop while we were running. It took us maybe ten minutes at the most to run there, but during that time we went down to the basements two or three times, because of aeroplanes flying over. But then we had enough supplies to last until the end of March.

We ate once a day. We would start cooking soup by three o’clock, making four 10-litre buckets for 70 people. We had an exit from the bomb shelter on the right, with a small ladder that brought you right into the workshop. At first, we cooked outside but from the 12th or 13th of March, when the first shells landed right in the workshop, we cooked in the basement. Nobody wanted to go up to the shop anymore. In the plate mill, a timber beam had been brought in, in accordance with production techniques, and it lay under covers. We managed to coax this beam down into the basement, during a quiet period, and then poured fuel on it and set it alight.

From the beginning of April, the soldiers would bring us food every three or four days, giving us canned products, porridge, groats, and pasta. At the beginning of March, they brought candy and candied fruit for the children. We had more than ten children, probably 12 or 14. The youngest was six months old. The soldiers tried to find baby food and nappies for the little ones, as long as they had it all in stock, they tried to distribute it.

Ivan Goltvenko. They took from their own supplies. In the beginning, the soldiers used the factory as a rear quarter for the delivery of products to the front line. Meaning that the first thing that came into the factory was the supplies. They hoarded food there while the front line was 20 kilometres away from the city.

Sergei Kuzmenko.  As for water, before the last power lines went down management had pumped the tanks full of industrial, non-potable water, which people used for washing. We had a boiler room at the exit to the shelter and there were two five-cubic-meter tanks. There was industrial water, to wash hands and wash up with. In addition, the factory has been providing bottled drinking water to the hot-workshop workers for probably four or five years, according to the law and regulations: we, the hot-workshop workers, should be given salted water at two litres per shift. Therefore, the enterprise bought this water so as not to bother with saturators and water purification. This year it was brought in winter; one does not drink water in winter, so we had large supplies in the workshops. In that respect we were very lucky, previously it was brought in only in the summer months. It was Buvette branded carbonated water, in one-and-a-half litre bottles. We would go through the shop and find them in various small lockers.

Igor Khadzhava. We had a medical station in the workshop. During the first days, there was an explosion in the street and the windows and doors were destroyed. We took away what was left of it. We had a woman in the bunker who had been a nurse for eight years and had been given these duties. All the medicines that were found were given to her and she was in charge of them. First and foremost, of course, were bandages. We had an elderly woman who was in an annexe during a rocket attack, which we thought was a safe bathroom. The blast wave hit her on the door hatch and her head was cut by shards of the mirror. Since she was cut the bandages came in handy.

We all forgot about COVID-19, thank God. For two months we all slept side by side underground. I mean, COVID-19 was cancelled by bunker No. 1 of the converter shop. We still got sick, someone new came in with a bad cough, so the whole bunker caught it. We all got sick and coughed a lot, but we managed to get through it.

We had two diabetics. They were all running out of insulin and that they would die at any moment. There was an elderly woman who had brain anaemia and who needed special pills. These pills ran out in the bunker and her family left on foot. I have no idea where they are now or what happened to them.

Sergei Kuzmenko. The conditions in the basements were really awful. I hung a jacket on a hook for three days and it got mouldy. It was so damp there that any ventilation had no effect.

Igor Khadzhava. The converter shop's administrative building is on a hill. So when we went out in the street, we could see that the city was on fire. The sounds of gunshots and explosions and you could see the city on fire.

Ivan Goltvenko. I can tell you exactly where our soldiers weren’t. They weren’t in the heavy rail shop, the plate mill or the converter shop because it was our people who were in there. About 70 people in each shelter. And about 70 people in the coke shop too. There were two shelters in both the converter shop and plate mill. There were also civilians under the plant management building.

The people, who were there up to the 1st and 2nd of May, before evacuation in coordinated columns, said that on the eve of the evacuation there were air raids every 15 minutes. A bomb landing every 15 minutes.

Ivan Goltvenko. I can tell you exactly where our soldiers weren’t. They weren’t in the heavy rail shop, the plate mill or the converter shop because it was our people who were in there. About 70 people in each shelter. And about 70 people in the coke shop too. There were two shelters in both the converter shop and plate mill. There were also civilians under the plant management building.

The people, who were there up to the 1st and 2nd of May, before evacuation in coordinated columns, said that on the eve of the evacuation there were air raids every 15 minutes. A bomb landing every 15 minutes.

Ten minutes to pack and a bottle of vodka. Escape, evacuation and 'filtration'

Ivan Goltvenko. It was dangerous to leave the city from about the 4th or 5th of March onwards as Russian soldiers were approaching from the south. I got out on the 8th and 9th of March. At only half a kilometre from the city, a Russian checkpoint was visible. There was a Ukrainian checkpoint inside the city and literally 500 metres away was the first Russian checkpoint. Later, as I went on, I saw four checkpoints, half a kilometre apart, encircling the town. They let us pass for some vodka, cigarettes and food; I gave one a bottle of vodka and another a bottle of Pepsi-Cola so they wouldn't bother us. Later, people told me that they were asking for cigarettes and spirits.

The fighting was moving into the city centre and lots of people had already realised that nowhere was safe and that food supplies were running out. Some people left the factory on the 12th, some on the 20th and some on the 25th of March. The plant's dispatcher had a satellite phone which he used to stay in communication, he came up twice a day from a bomb shelter in the yard of the plant office to communicate with staff on the ground. Having arrived in Zaporizhia, I told him exactly how I managed to get there. He told people and they started to leave the city in batches. I told him about the place where liquor was kept for receiving delegations. They took it with them. It was in the CEO’s office. Ten bottles of champagne and a few bottles of vodka. A column of 40 cars and another of 12 cars full of people left. But there were also unsuccessful attempts to leave and they came back.

Igor Khadzava. There was a 15-year-old girl with diabetes. As far as I know, she is now in a coma. They left in the middle of March, the group that was not allowed out. The military arrived and said that there was a green corridor and that people who had entered the territory of the factory with their cars were allowed to leave. As far as I know, they were not let out of the city. They were sitting in a bomb shelter in PSTU, and her grandmother was staying in the bunker with us. People stayed wherever they were, some in the PSTU, some in the Drama Theater. The shelling started there on the way out of the city, someone pressed the accelerator and got through. I have an employee from my workshop who told me that she, her husband and her son managed to get away from the explosions of mines.

Russian military evacuate the surrendered wounded from the steelworks of Azovstal, 16th of May, 2022. Photo: Alexander Ermochenko / Reuters

Ivan Goltvenko. There were several options. The first was the Zaporizhzhya highway, the second was the route to Odesa, Melitopol via Berdyansk. But first, the Russians mined the highway, and then the other highway was mined, the exit from the city. And people began to bypass this section through Melekino, Portovskoye and exit to Mangush. So they had to take a detour southwards. Melekino goes in the direction of Berdyansk.

Igor Khadzhava. We were 76 when we left the bunker. When they took us out on the 1st of May, there was silence. The day before, on the 30th of April, there was also silence. On the 30th of April, the soldiers came to us in the evening, it was about 7.45 pm, and they told us that the green corridor had been set for the next day.

Our soldiers were making arrangements all day for the evacuation of civilians from the factory. Only in the evening at 19:30, were they given the go-ahead, well, that was what one soldier said. There weren’t any roads through the plant left, it must have taken 15-20 minutes to drive through all the ruins to our BOF. They came and said, “you’ve got ten minutes to get ready, we can take 20 people, those who manage to get on the bus in 10 minutes can go, the rest go tomorrow in the second evacuation group.”

When we left the factory we drove up to the bridge, where we were met by representatives of the Red Cross and the UN. Russia began demining the road. We waited an hour and a half in the bus while they were demining, there was a special vehicle driving around and blowing up the mines which had been laid during the night. The first group had left before us the evening before, so the Russians had mined the road during the night. Then we changed buses and went along the Taganrog highway, past the left bank in the direction of the village Bezymennoye (30km to the east of Mariupol).

Sergey Kuzmenko. On the 1st of May, we went out to the buses. The buses were provided by Russia. They put us on the bus and told us that we were going to Bezymennoye. The Red Cross and the UN said, “no, we need to wait for the others”. We waited for two more buses, people got on board, about 70 in total, and we drove towards Bezymennoye. Then we were told: wait, there will be 'filtration' now.

They kept us completely penned up, we were only able to go to the toilet if accompanied by a soldier, so we couldn’t go ourselves. Then they started to take a few of us at a time and take us for, shall we say, interrogation. The men were separated from the women. They led me in and said, “empty your pockets, of all your clothes, show me everything and give me your phone. They went through my phone, looking at the the pictures, the phone calls, seeing who called who. They started the laptop up and poked around it, to see if there was anything interesting on it.

They started interrogating me, “Where were you staying? How were you? How many of you were there? Where were the soldiers? What weapons did they have? What did you know about them? What were their callsigns?”. They asked whether I knew anyone from the prosecutor's office, the police or from any state institutions. They stripped me down to my underwear. They looked me over and spun me around. I talked to my wife, they stripped her down to her underwear, even partially took off her bra, looked into her panties, [demanded] to see her heels.

When they finished with one, they got the next. They took our fingerprints, palm prints and photos. Everyone went round in circles three or four times, tell us there, tell us here, how many people were there, who you knew, how often they came to see you, in which workshops, whether they had tanks. It all went on for perhaps an hour and a half. Then they let us go to the bus. And we sat in the buses until ten p.m., until everyone had completely passed this 'filtration' procedure.

There were two girls with us, one was 22, while the other was 15 years old. The girl who was 22 years old was a police officer. At 9 p.m. they came and took her, saying, “You are coming with us”. Later, when we came out, we asked her what was going on. She was in tears and said: "They found out that I have a military identification card and they are taking me somewhere. They took her away in an unknown direction and we never saw her again. Her 15-year-old sister stayed at the camp. We found her parents' phone number and called them so that they would come and pick her up. The parents were in Belarus at that time. But we still don't know what happened to the police girl.

Ivan Goltvenko. We know for a fact that one of our employees was tortured with a stun gun. They found photos of the mill on his phone. They found out that he works in the engineering team, as a repair worker and, accordingly, is familiar with the communication system of the plant. We don't know anything about him. We tried to call him, but there was no way to reach him.

Sergei Kuzmenko. At 10 pm we were settled in a tent city and fed, then we went to bed. At six in the morning, our column began preparing for drive to Zaporizhzhya with the UN and the Red Cross. Russian buses took us from Mariupol to Bezymennoye and Ukrainian buses took us from Bezymennoye. Fifty buses arrived in total but of them, they only loaded three. Not everyone was going to Zaporizhzhya. They were offered the following options: stay in the DPR, go to Russia or go to Zaporizhzhya. To say that they twisted our arms for us to go to Russia would be to tell a lie. But I understand it was because we were monitored by the UN in every tent and at every stage.

On the 2nd of May, at 6 am, the convoy formed, at 8 am we were counted 28 times, they re-listed our names and we set off in the direction of Novoazovsk. On the way we passed through several settlements where there were a lot of people, maybe 200, maybe 300, who wanted to leave. [The Russians] wouldn't give permission to anyone. The UN went out to them, asked them, the Red Cross went out to the Russian military command to talk about letting people go. They did not let anyone go. Everyone could perfectly see that there were 45 empty buses on their way, they could have taken a whole bunch to freedom.

And so by five o'clock in the evening of the 3rd of May, we had reached Zaporizhzhya.

Scrap metal. What remains of Azovstal

Ivan Goltvenko. There were 10.5 thousand people working at the Azovstal steelworks and 14.5 thousand people at the Illich Iron and Steel Works. And we can safely say that about as many people worked in the organizations servicing or working alongside the plants: contractors, suppliers, and so on. One way or another, every family in Mariupol was connected with metallurgy.

Destruction at Azovstal in Mariupol, 24th of June, 2022. Photo: Yegor Aleev / TASS

Out of 10.5 thousand employees, we have made contact with 4.5 thousand. Unfortunately, today we know nothing about six thousand employees. At the same time, out of the 4.5 thousand, 2.5 thousand are in [Ukrainian] controlled territory and two thousand are on the non-controlled territory. That is only 2,500 out of 10,500.

Even in its completely destroyed state, the plant has value in terms of scrap metal. At the port alone, $68 million worth of products ready for shipment were stolen from Azovstal and $80 million from Illich Iron and Steel Works. These are our slabs and coils from Illich. And there are ten times more unfinished products and metal in our warehouses. Basically, the whole plant is scrap metal, which has its own value.

They are looting the plant for metal.

Editor: Dmitry Tkachev

Translation: Ivan Hanbury

Produced with the support of Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom.

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