The bunker of the Azovstal steelworks became a home and rescue fortress for two months for Hanna, a 24-year-old teacher of French, her six-month-old son Sviatoslav and her parents. Hanna's family came to the basement of the plant when her child was less than four months old.
People in the bunker called Sviatoslav an angel, and the Ukrainian military said he was a real 'Cossack.' His smile made everyone believe that they would finally get out to safety. The military was looking for food for the baby, and they cooked semolina with water that was heated up in a mug with a candle.
This family arrived in Zaporizhzhia on the first buses that took people out of the plant's bunkers late on the evening of May 3. Hundreds of media outlets were present at the center for the registration of displaced persons at the time, and Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk came to meet the column in person. It was not possible to talk to Hanna at the moment as her family left for a safer region. But Hanna still agreed to tell her story to an Ukrinform correspondent.
She kept a "war diary" for two months. She wrote about life in a bunker, terrible silence, concussion and her first meeting with Russian soldiers.
- When did you get to Azovstal and why did you decide to hide there?
- On February 24, we heard explosions. As it turned out, it was an offensive from Novoazovsk. And early on February 25, I heard explosions near our house, about two or three streets away. We decided to go to the Azovstal bomb shelter. My husband received a message that people can hide there.
- Did you know what kind of bunkers were at the plant?
- We only knew they were there. When we got there, we were told that there was everything we needed for the first time and we could not worry.
- How old was your son Sviatoslav at that time?
- Almost four months old.
- What did you take with you?
- We took documents, some jewelry, food for the first time, water, baby food and a few things. We thought we would stay there for two or three days, and when the main attack is over, we will be able to return home. We didn't even take pets. Our dog and three cats stayed at home.
- When did you realize that you would obviously stay there longer?
- At first, we really thought we would stay there for a week - and that's it. Then the second week came. Well, we thought we would also stay for that week, we just need to wait. When we were in the first bunker for about a week, it was hit by a powerful rocket, and we realized we needed to change the bunker. We went to another one and there we began to realize that all this would last long. There were more people there. And the situation was escalating, explosions became more frequent. It was no longer possible to go outside. There was a toilet on the ground floor of the building and even a usual trip to the toilet was a challenge for us. To get there, look out the window, breathe the air and go back was considered a very brave deed.
- What was Sviatoslav's reaction?
- When there were the first explosions, at first he was scared, he cried. Then he got used to it. He really liked the darkness, because most of the time we spent in the dark or by candlelight, lanterns, in humidity and cold. I was very afraid that he would catch some kind of infection, tuberculosis. The room was poorly ventilated and there were a lot of people. Moreover, we were on the premises where baths were once located, the ceiling was leaking, and the dampness had a great effect on our health.
At first, I combined breastfeeding with formula milk, but due to stress I stopped breastfeeding and I had to switch to formula milk.
On February 24, we bought formula milk and diapers because we realized that this was the most important thing, and the Ukrainian military helped us in the bunker.
Formula milk was enough for a few weeks, and then we did not know what to do, and the military brought us more. They were looking for it somewhere. When there was no formula milk left, we mixed milk and sugar. We found a bag of semolina and tried to boil it - we found iron mugs, poured water and heated it.
LITTLE ANGEL WHO INSPIRED CONFIDENCE
- How did you hold out? I'm sure it was scary.
- There were a lot of such moments. It was especially difficult in the morning, when you wake up and realize that you are returning to this reality, and it's not a dream, it's a horror movie, and you're in the lead role. You could cry, swear, or shout. But it's emotional discharge ... you cry and then put yourself together.
I was very inspired when my child smiled, and I knew I had to hold on for her sake. And the people in the bunker called Sviatoslav an angel, saying that if we get out, it is thanks to him. He supported and amused everyone with his smile, childlike spontaneity and kindness.
- Sviatoslav probably had his first achievements in the bunker?
- Of course. He began to eat semolina. Before that, he had only a pacifier, and now we eat from a spoon. He started sitting and saying "mom." He learned to do a lot of things within two months.
- How many people were in the bunker?
- 75 people, including 17 children. The figure varied: someone left, someone arrived, and there were such daredevils. It amazes me when some bots from the Russian media are beginning to say: how does she know the exact number of people and children staying there? When you live with them for two months, you know everything: you know everyone's habits, relatives, and favorite songs. And I know the exact number of children, because we shared food -- separately for children and adults. The children could have some cookies and a piece of bread if we managed to bake bread. That is, the children had privileges.
- How did you divide the duties? Was there a shift schedule in the kitchen, for example?
- So. We immediately made a shift schedule so that everything was fair, so that some people did not risk their lives and get water, cook food, while others could just sit and enjoy everything. Well, if, God forbid, a rocket arrives, it was good luck.
- How did you get water?
- There was a hot workshop at the plant, and according to the rules, water and milk were to be given free of charge to the workers every day. That is, there were water supplies. Of course, there was not enough milk but there was enough water, but it was necessary to look for it. Since all the workshops were half-destroyed and every trip there could cost a life, water really had to be found.
- Do you remember how our military reacted when they first saw your child?
- Yes. They were all shocked. They immediately said that they would do something because such a small child is unbelievable.
Some of them carried him in their arms and played with him. One of the guys asked what the baby's name was and I said "Sviatoslav,"and that guy answered: "A real Cossack. At a boy."
GET OUT OR STAY IN A MASS GRAVE
- When was there an opportunity to evacuate?
- We have been trying to get out since the beginning of March. There was talk of green corridors, but, unfortunately, they were all shelled.
Some said people were leaving through a green corridor, but in reality these people were just leaving on their own. They reached the city center, where the column was divided into two parts by shelling from Russian soldiers, and one part of the people were able to escape, and the other was forced to return to the bunker. We had a boy with a cat. He put the cat in one car and was driving another car. The cat went to Zaporizhzhia, and he returned.
In mid-March, we realized that there were no options at all as shelling intensified.
In mid-April, we were told that the situation was bad and that our military would do everything to save us. They started making videos about us, about the need to rescue us, that we are civilians, that there are many of us, and something needs to be done with us. On April 25, they came to us and said that we would be evacuated today. We took our things and made preliminary lists of who goes first and who goes second. Children, women with children, and the wounded had a privilege [among civilians]. I was on the first list. When we went out into the hall, buses had to take us to the factory checkpoints. But at that moment, the Russian military saw us from a drone and threw a mine right under our door. Four of our servicemen were wounded.
Several times we tried to go outside, thinking that maybe it was a mistake, but no. Every time someone came out of the bunker, the drone responded and they fired a mine. Once our military could not get out, stayed overnight. A huge bomb was dropped on us. According to the information that was available to us, it is either a phosphorus bomb or a three-tonne bomb.
- When this bomb struck, did anyone get hurt or injured?
- I was a little above the bomb shelter. My mother was with me, she was hit by the blast wave. Then it turned out that she had a broken arm. I had a mild degree of concussion - vomiting began immediately. Our guys had concussions, some of them had multiple concussions. It's terrible. I saw a person with a second concussion, it's a terrible condition, and a person gets hysterical.
One woman was in the toilet, and there was a mirror, which broke and fell on her head after the explosion and we could not stop the bleeding for a long time. She had a bunch of complex diseases.
At that moment, the generator we had was thrown four meters away, and it stopped working. We found ourselves in complete darkness. We found candles and helped both civilians and the military. After the bomb hit, two evacuation exits were blocked, and we understood that if one more bombs strikes, this would be a mass grave.
- And what about a ceasefire promised by the Russians?
- It was declared for a few days ... for a few hours. There was another attempt to evacuate. People came out, our guys helped them, handed over children and bags. And we hear shots, the buzzing of planes, and we understand that the silence regime is over and we need to go back to the shelter. Honestly, after such attempts, we did not believe that we could escape. It was risky to go out every time and understand that you are now being fired upon by the Russian military.
- What were you most afraid of?
- Silence. It sounds paradoxical, but it was the most stressful thing. When you constantly hear shots fired, you can roughly understand where they are. When there was silence, it was always followed by a mine or a bomb. The calm before the storm. We didn't like it.
BUNKER AND PRO-RUSSIAN VIEWS
- It's April 30 - your last day in the bunker. Tell us about it.
- We woke up. There was silence, and it lasted all day. Some people with pro-Russian views went through a hole in the fence on the same day. There were many holes made by explosions. There were many workers who knew Azovstal well. Subsequently, many of these people disclosed all call signs, all our positions. I really hope that the "law of the boomerang" will work and everything will turn against them.
Well, how can they be so mean?
- So you stayed with these people (with pro-Russian views) for two months?
- Yes, we did. Back in the bunker, we understood each other's political views, which complicated the situation. After all, when people act together, it's one thing, and when people have different opinions but they have to somehow survive, it turns out like you're in a submarine - you cannot go anywhere.
MEETING WITH RUSSIAN SOLDIERS
- Let's go back to April 30.
- Our military came to us in the evening. They said we had ten minutes. We packed our things very quickly. We went to the bus, making our way through the rubble. It was very difficult to go and understand the scale of the destruction. The plant doesn't exist any longer. It's like a computer game. We only heard and did not think this could happen to us. I went and thought I would see half-destroyed houses, but I saw that there were no houses at all. They were all destroyed.
Our guys took us to the checkpoints, then through the checkpoints to Naberezhna Street and there we were handed over to the Red Cross, the UN and church representatives. I remember the words of a church representative, who said, "For you, the war is over." But that was just the beginning.
- Did the Russian military appear at this stage?
- We drove a few meters, and Russian soldiers entered our buses. There was one person with a machine gun in front and another behind him.
- Did you know that this would be like that?
- No! No! We thought we would go with the Red Cross, but we had no idea that we would be sitting face to face with Russian soldiers. It was a shock for us.
As we drove, our joy was replaced by fear and a lack of understanding of where we were being taken.
- Did you go for filtration?
- Yes, we went to Bezimenne [in the Donetsk region]. We arrive there at night. In the first tent, we were told to undress. They selected thin women. They thought we could be military or connected to them. They took off all our clothes, including underwear. They were looking for tattoos and scars. I have a scar after appendectomy and they asked if there was surgery. If you have a tattoo, you have to explain what it means. I had a medallion with a trident and I was immediately asked to name the person who gave it to me.
They checked all of our personal belongings. All sharp objects, including manicure sets, were taken away.
- Did it last long?
- It lasted very long. Especially when you hold a baby in your arms at one or two o'clock at night.
- In this camp among "employees" there were women who didn't react to your kid in any way?
- They said, 'if you want, we will hold your baby.' I said, 'Sorry, you won't take my child for anything in the world.'
In the second tent, there was a screening. There is a whole group of Russian servicemen with computers. They took our phones, connected them to their computer and downloaded all the information: photos, contacts, messages, social networks. Even the photos that my mother deleted were returned to her phone. They got all the photos. Passports were scanned. They learned everything that could be learned about us. Then we sat down one by one in front of the Russian military, who interrogated us. They asked us about our connections with the military. If there were any, then psychological pressure began, and they said that it would be better for us to tell them everything. Everything is like the KGB.
WE DID NOT HAVE BREAKFAST TO SAVE FOOD
- When you were at Azovstal, did you understand whether those in government-controlled areas knew about you?
- We did not understand whether they knew about us. It was a shock to me when a representative of the Red Cross said, 'We are approaching Zaporizhzhia, there will be about 300 journalists.' I thought he was exaggerating. But when we arrived, I realized that there was a crowd of people.
I am told that Katia Osadcha, Podoliak were looking for me. And I say, 'Who is Podoliak?' I was cut off from information for two months.
- What did you do first of all, when you were already in Zaporizhzhia, when you spent the night in a hotel?
- I had breakfast. There was no breakfast in the bunker. The first meal started at 2 o'clock in the afternoon in order to save food. I had breakfast, watched the news and realized how strong Ukraine has become, and our people is changing so much…
- How much weight did you lose while in the bunker?
- I lost 10 kilos. My father lost 20.
- I'm going to interrupt you, but I can't help but ask you. Have you saved the medallion with the trident?
- Yes. I carried the things that could not be carried. Thanks to my child.
- What do you want to do first?
- I want to help our guys from Azovstal to get out. I really want a third country to try to take the guys to the ship. In accordance with Article 37, 38 of the UN Convention, any country can undertake to extradite them without Putin's consent.
- Hanna, if you went back in time, knowing all this, would you go to the bunker?
- No, never. I would immediately try to leave and pick up my husband.
- I understand that you, like most Mariupol residents, simply did not believe that the city would be killed?
- On February 24, when I saw a post from one of my friends on Facebook early in the morning that Russia had attacked Ukraine, I read and thought that it was 2014. I didn't even pay attention to that. But then I heard explosions and realized that the war started.
- Do you maintain contact with any of those from the bunker?
- Yes, I do. There is one family: a mother and her 14-year-old daughter. We continue to communicate. They supported me a lot and helped me and my child. It is very difficult to be alone with your child in such conditions.
- What would you like to say to our military? I believe that they will be able to read this material.
- I love them very much. They are great guys. My family and I and the whole of Ukraine - we owe them our lives. We will pray for them, we will do everything so that they can return alive and well to their families.
Olha Zvonariova, Zaporizhzhia
Photo credit: Dmytro Smolienko, Hanna