Anna Zaitseva, a girl who spent 65 days in a bomb shelter at Azovstal with her six-month-old child
Before the war, I was a French teacher at school #10 in Mariupol. A year ago, I got married, and six months ago, I became a mother of a boy Svyatoslav. My husband, Kyrylo, was a marine, but after the birth of our son, we decided that the military profession was not conducive to family life. So he started working at Azovstal. He managed to work for three months, and a full-scale war began.
On February 25, Kyrylo went to work at the factory, and shells started flying near our house. We lived on the left bank of Mariupol, on the border with Novoazovsk. From the first day, we heard that the offensive was coming from there.
Kyrylo wrote me that the families of Azovstal employees could wait out the bombing in the plant’s shelter.
I took documents, a blanket, food for a few days, diapers, and some baby formula because I felt that the stress was making my breast milk disappear. To say that it was not enough is an understatement. Together with my parents and son, we went to Azovstal.
Our first bomb shelter was not very deep. It was built for waiting out the bombing for a few hours. There were no beds, only benches to sit on. Civilian rations were prepared for us, but they were not enough. When we entered the bomb shelter, there were already about ten people there. We lived on benches and almost without food for a week. It was very dangerous to go outside because the shelling started immediately. I went up to the surface with my child for five minutes a day to stand and breathe near the entrance to the building. Even in the prison, we’d walk more.
On February 28, my husband said that being a military man, he could not stay here.
He decided to join the Azov regiment, which was already at the plant. He justified it by saying that we would be with him all the time. But it was not so.
Civilians and the military at Azovstal crossed paths about once a week when the military brought food and medicine. At first, they also brought printed news of the week. Then they just quickly told us what was happening in the country.
Kyrylo came to our bomb shelter only twice during the whole time. He was almost always on missions all over the city and came to Azovstal only when he was seriously wounded.
He was lying on the concrete for a day because they thought he was dead.
They even put him on the “lists of the two hundredths [dead].” It turned out that he had a severe leg wound. He was shot by a sniper and hit by bomb fragments. Of course, they did not tell me about it.
I was wearing a “suicide medallion,” a military badge with all my husband’s data. I showed it to the Azov, my husband’s comrades-in-arms so that they could tell me at least something. But they did not want me to be upset.
LIFE AT “AZOVSTAL”
On March 2 or 3, a rocket flew into our bomb shelter. It turned out that it was not very reliable. In addition, the issue of food was quite acute. It was running out, and there were more and more people coming. Azovstal workers who were among us contacted other bomb shelters via radio. We were told that we could use ambulances to move to another, deeper, and slightly larger bunker. Since then, we hardly ever went outside.
The room of our second shelter, where we lived for 58 days, was about the size of a three-room apartment. Its advantage was that it was elongated. We were placed under the walls. There were 75 people living in this bomb shelter, 17 of them were children.
My son was the youngest. When the war started, he was 3.5 months old.
Compared to other children, our son was “lucky”. He did not need much food yet, and the military gave us semolina. Therefore, he even left the bomb shelter still having cheeks. As for the other children, who were from 3 to 5 years old, they were constantly hungry. All their games revolved around food. They drew toy money for which they bought toy food.
For adults, we cooked watery soup with pasta and a pinch of corn grits. It was not very filling, but we did not starve. The military brought us something every week. They gave us everything they had. When we asked, “What about you”, they replied that everything was already clear with them. The most important thing is that we and our children survived and got out.
None of those who were in the bunker believed that we would get out of there.
We were constantly shelled, even anti-bunker bombs were used. The shelter was shaking, the plaster was falling off, the generator was thrown by the blast wave and it stopped working. Sometimes, to heat water for my child, I had to sit motionless over a candle with a metal cup in my hand for half an hour.
We found a battery-powered clock on the territory of the plant, which helped us with keeping the track of time. We strictly set the time when we turn on the generator to save diesel fuel. Fuel and water were also found at Azovstal. But to get them, we had to go under fire to different buildings of the plant and search there. It was very dangerous.
At Azovstal, we wore the factory uniform. It was very warm and dense – it could protect us from debris. Civilian clothes were hidden as a reminder of home. We wore it for the first time before evacuation.
There were three-tiered wooden beds for sleeping in the bomb shelter, but they were not enough for everyone. So we made improvised sleeping places from wooden pallets and foam. It was very hard and uneven material, so it was painful to sleep – bruises constantly appeared on the body.
Later, in the filtration camp, we would be reproached for these bruises. They [russians] would suspect that we were military because civilians don’t have bruises.
We were saved by antiseptics and masks that were stored in the buildings of Azovstal since the coronavirus. We used them as an alternative to showers – we wiped ourselves to prevent unsanitary conditions. Also among the people in the bunker were those who had an alcohol addiction. They evaporated alcohol from antiseptics and drank it to even out their emotional state.
EVACUATION AND FILTRATION
We had several unsuccessful attempts to evacuate. The military informed us about the evacuation. For the first time, the convoy tried to leave on March 15, but on the way out of the city, the shelling started. Some managed to break through toward Zaporizhzhia, but the majority had to return to Azovstal.
Until mid-April, there were no more attempts to leave. But Orest (Dmytro Kozatskyi, Azov’s press officer – ed.) kept insisting that we shoot a video. He asked me to make a video message because I have a small child. To make people believe that we are real civilians and that we are sitting here in the bomb shelter all this time.
One of the most terrible days was April 25. Another attempt to evacuate.
We came to the surface, one of the Ukrainian militaries read out the lists of those who had to leave first. Two more Russian prisoners of war were supposed to go with us. But Russian soldiers once again broke the ceasefire. Four of our fighters were wounded, and one of the prisoners was killed. We had to quickly hide again in the bunker. An enemy drone was flying 24/7 over the building where our shelter was located. It was impossible to get out. Twenty Ukrainian soldiers and one wounded Russian prisoner of war stayed with us that night. We fed and watered him, but it was forbidden to talk to him.
We thought the worst had already happened, but the same day a huge bomb was dropped on us.
The military says it weighed about three tons. In one “arrival” the whole five-story building we were under collapsed. There were two exits in our bomb shelter, and both of them were completely covered. We were dug out the next morning by our military. They unblocked one of the exits.
From the impact of this bomb, both my mother and I received a slight concussion. Mom fell on her side and broke her arm. This will also become a clue for the Russian military in the filtration camp in the future. They will suspect my mother of having been injured due to participation in hostilities.
There were also many repeated concussions in the military. I spent a day near one of our guys after a heavy blow. He could not see, could not hear, and none of his senses worked. He tried to put a screwdriver in his ear, it was ringing so much.
The real evacuation took place on April 30. It was surprisingly quiet that day.
Some of the pro-Russian neighbors behind the bunker escaped through a hole in the fence from a shell to the territory of the so-called DPR. We were waiting for the Ukrainian military. They came around 19:00 pm and said we had 10 minutes to pack. They helped us with our things and advised us to wear masks, because there is a lot of harmful dust at the plant, and the bus that will take us had no windows and doors.
We left Azovstal, said goodbye to the military, and were met by representatives of the UN, the Red Cross, and the church. Five meters before the bus, two Russian soldiers with machine guns entered and accompanied us all the way to the filtration camp.
It was very difficult morally. For two months, people have been dying from Russian bombs in front of your eyes, and now the Russian military accompanies you in evacuation.
Everyone without exception passed the filtration, but not everyone returned from it. In general, the procedure lasts about four hours.
The filtration camp resembles an ordinary military camp. There are many people in uniform, weapons, and white tents. We were separated, men and women separately. We were taken to the first tent, where we had to undress completely. In the tent, Russian female soldiers felt each of us, every inch of our bodies, including intimate areas. They did it without changing gloves, one pair for all.
The observers were terribly indignant that we looked too good for people from the bunker. They picked on the fact that our hair was clean, our clothes were intact, and some of us even had painted eyelashes.
In the second tent, they scanned our documents. They knew everything about us and our relatives. They immediately understood from my name that I was a military wife. They had more information about my husband than I did. Then they took our phones, from which they downloaded all the data, contacts, photos, and access to social networks. They were able to restore what I deleted and keep it for themselves. They took prints not only from my fingers but from my whole palm.
After that, everyone was interrogated. They asked for biographical data, as well as information that could help the enemy. They asked to draw a map of the plant, show where the positions of the military were, asked their call signs. In addition to the usual military, I was also interrogated by an FSB officer. He sat down with me and started asking something about the child. He praised my son’s finger motor skills, and I asked him if he was a pediatrician. When it became clear that I would not tell them anything, another soldier appeared behind me, the third one. They surrounded me and said that it would be better for me to answer them. They asked if my husband was a fascist, and what tattoos he had. I answered that I don’t know because we make love in the dark. The pressure intensified, but I was saved by a French man, a representative of the Red Cross who was passing by. He saw that there were three of them [russians] against me and asked what was going on. I answered him in French. The FSB officer instantly stopped talking to me and snapped, “Tell him we don’t eat you here.” They left me alone.
Now I really hope for one thing, that our men, the military, who are in captivity, also have protection in the form of representatives of the Red Cross or the UN.
I really hope that they are not mocked there. That they will return home. During the last conversation with my husband, the day before they were taken captive, I promised that when he returns, I will give birth to a daughter.