The “hell” of life underground in Azovstal


The first civilians evacuated from the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, are safe in the city of Zaporizhia, after having traveled 200 kilometers through hostile territory in two long days. After a slow and difficult evacuation, they have slept for the first time in two months away from what has been their hiding place since the beginning of the war.

“A horror and fear of death. We were very afraid, it was hell,” Marina, one of the women who has passed two months locked up in the makeshift bunker which became the metallurgical plant, the last bastion of the Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol.

14 hours – Evacuated from Mariúpol: “We were very afraid, it was hell” – Listen now

After a long time without seeing sunlight or breathing fresh air, they have spent their first night away from the sound of bombing, although they have heard anti-aircraft alarms. “You can’t imagine how terrifying it was, a dark and dank bunker and suddenly everything started to shake“says a woman between tears.

“Some people are delaying facing that painful situation, they arrive in shock, as gone, still with the feeling of survival. Others upon arrival feel safe and emotion, sadness, fear explodes, especially when asked directly about their experience“, exposes to Lina Villa, one of the psychologists of Doctors without Borders who is attending to the evacuees who arrive in Zaporizhia from Mariúpol and other points in Ukraine.

The uncertainty for those who have not yet escaped

Likewise, those who are already safe do not forget those they have left behind. “I’m more worried about myself, for those who have stayed in Azovstal“, says Oksana, who has spent two months locked up there with her children. “More people and our military have stayed there, and they need help.”

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“Most of the people we receive have been hiding in basements and bunkers, not knowing if a missile was going to fall on them any night. They lose contact with their loved oneswith the men who are struggling, and that is their biggest concern, the uncertainty, the fear,” Lina explains.

Doctors Without Borders provides psychological help to a woman at the Zaporizhia refugee reception center MSF/Pau Miranda Pau Miranda / MSF

The city of Mariupol, which had a population of almost half a million before the outbreak of the war, has been practically destroyed. The Russian troops claim to have taken control of the entire area with the exception of the Azovstal steelworks and the Ukrainian authorities have indicated that more than 10,000 inhabitants still remain in the ruins without water, electricity or basic products. In addition, they denounce that Russia has blocked attempts to deliver humanitarian aid.

A childhood marked by war

“There was no water and the children were like zombies, without seeing sunlight,” says a woman as she holds her son in her arms. “They coughed, they felt bad, we thought we weren’t going out“. The baby of Ana, another of the mothers who has arrived from Azovstal, has spent two of her six months of life underground. “Sometimes I regret having my son. He has been very hard emotionally,” she says.

In Zaporizhia, says Lina Villa, a very vulnerable population arrives, such as the elderly, people with disabilities or minors who have seen their childhood taken away. Over there, they try to make them “feel like children” again through activities, but also by providing accompaniment and information. “Many become caretakers for their own family members. Sometimes they may look for their own answers and feel guilty about the situation. It is important that they know they are not and that they understand what is happening.”

The psychologist highlights, however, the feeling of solidarity among those present. “Sometimes they know that they can no longer do anything for their loved ones, I can’t save the one I love, but at least I will compensate for that pain by helping another. When I go back to the place where we sleep, I always think about it, about the looks of hope”, he concludes.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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