‘We comforted the kids, crossed ourselves, and bid our lives farewell’ Three Azovstal steel plant workers tell the story of their escape
The Azovstal steel plant remains the sole point of resistance against the Russian invaders in Mariupol. Though fighting has been ongoing outside of the plant for almost two months, none of the civilians hiding inside were evacuated until April 30. Azovstal workers Ilya and Pavlo (names changed) were some of the first civilians to escape the plant; they’re now safe in Zaporozhye. They spoke to Meduza along with Azovstal HR director Ivan Goltvenko, who left the city on March 9 and has been helping others escape ever since.
Russian soldiers began bombing Ukraine on February 24. By March 1, they had surrounded Mariupol.
The fighting soon shifted to the area around the Azovstal metallurgical plant, where Russian troops closed in on the Ukrainian forces defending the city, including the Azov Regiment, the Ukrainian Naval Infantry, border guards, and police officers. Ukrainian forces haven’t revealed the total number of soldiers in the plant.
The entire time, civilians have been hiding there as well. It was only after UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres got personally involved that evacuations could begin and UN and Red Cross workers began transporting people out of the city.
As of May 8, about 600 people had been rescued over the course of three evacuations. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk announced that all women, children, and elderly people had been evacuated from the plant; on May 9, however, Donetsk regional administration head Pavlo Kyrylenko said that about 100 civilians remained there. This doesn’t necessarily contradict Vereshchuk’s report; the remaining civilians might be young and middle-aged men who worked in the plant.
Who we spoke to:
Ilya is a converter plant repairman who spent 55 days in the Azovstal plant — March 8 to May 1 — along with his wife, daughter, mother-in-law and sister-in-law.
Pavlo is an engineer who spent 61 days in the Azovstal plant — March 2 to May 1 — along with his wife and two children.
Ivan Goltvenko is Azovstal's HR director. He left Mariupol on March 9 and has been working to help evacuate other civilians ever since.
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— How did you end up in the Azovstal plant?
Ilya: When Russia attacked us on February 24, I was at work. I saw the news, called my wife, and said, ‘Pack your things and get out of the city.’ She got packed, picked up our daughter and her sister, and went to our dacha outside of the city. At work, we agreed on a plan to conserve our facilities, then the workers were allowed to go. My mother-in-law left the city behind me, and she and I went to the dacha where the others were.
We thought we’d be there for two or three days, and that we could leave for Zaporozhye at any time. But then the [Russian] offensive from Crimea began. And right at the time we’d been thinking of leaving, fighting broke out [in the Zaporozhye region], so there was no safe route.
At the beginning of March, we returned to Mariupol; already, there was no power, no water, and no phone signal. We stayed in the city until March 8. When the shelling began, when the schools and the Port City shopping center burned down [March 2 and 3], we decided to go to the plant for shelter. We went to one of the shelters at Azovstal in two cars — two families of five. That's when our new reality began. We were there from March 8 to May 1.
Pavlo: I was at work on February 24, [and when the news of Russia’s attack broke,] we were released. I went home, began stocking up on water, food, and baby food. I didn’t even think about leaving town. On March 2, I asked my boss to take me and my family to Azovstal.
— Why did you go there rather than the basement of your apartment building?
Ilya: On February 25, the facility’s leaders opened the territory to everyone who needed shelter. People knew about it.
Ivan Goltvenko: We outfitted 36 bomb shelters in the facility. We restored them after Russia’s first attempts to take over the city in 2014. There were reserves of food and water, and generators. All of the plant’s employees knew it was an option.
— How many people were in the shelter? And were you all in the same one or in different ones?
Ilya: We were in different shelters. We had 70 people, 15 of whom were children.
Pavlo: There were 76 people in our shelter. 17 of them were children of different ages; the youngest was four months old. There were elderly people and women. There were 20 middle-aged men; they were the ones who could go get water and extract diesel fuel for the generator by siphoning it from cranes.
Ivan Goltvenko: The video posted by Azov that shows them giving candy out to children was taken in Pavlo’s shelter.
— What was the food situation like?
Pavlo: At first, people had food from home and we had the reserves that had been kept in the shelter. Then [Ukrainian] soldiers started bringing food.
Ilya: Yes, there were food reserves in the shelter. In mid-March, we made a run under fire to a neighboring building that had a cafeteria with some food reserves on its second floor. That lasted us until the end of March.
After that, Azov helped us with food. They would bring porridge, cereal, and canned goods. At first, they would even bring us sweets — candy and candied fruit for the children. For the infants, they brought dry formula and whatever diapers they could find.
— How did you cook?
Ilya: We ate once a day. At first, we ate in a factory building, about 20-30 meters from the shelter. The first strike on the facility occurred on March 13; a building’s walls and my car were damaged. Some debris hit the radiator and it wouldn’t start anymore. On March 14, another shell hit, and the roof collapsed and landed on my car along with nine or so other cars, making them all inaccessible. After that, we started cooking in a basement near the shelter. We would burn wood and good food on top of the fire.
Pavlo: We started off cooking outside, when there was still gas in the main lines. We would power up the oven and cook with the gas. There were these big, 20-liter pots. When [the Russians] damaged the main gas line, we built an oven over wood and started cooking there. Then shells started falling and it became unsafe; the pathway to the oven was destroyed. We had four gas tanks in the facility. We set up a rudimentary kitchen and used the tanks to cook.
— Where did you get water?
We had no problems with drinking water. The plant’s management started having bottled water, even seltzer water, brought in for workers in the hot shops — 1.5-liter bottles. Before we lost power, management had workers fill the facility's tanks with non-drinking water.
— Judging from the video, you also had electricity?
Pavlo: We thought we would have electricity. But it was cut off on the first day. While we still had a truck-mounted crane, we moved the generator. We installed it next to the shelter and used it to power our lights and our phone charger.
Ilya: There was no generator in our bomb shelter. Or rather, we had one, but it was defective, it wouldn’t turn on. So we took the batteries from a diesel locomotive, and every three or four days, soldiers would take them back to their generator, and charge them up so that we would at least have some light. But sometimes all we had was candlelight.
— You’ve mentioned the soldiers who were there several times. What detachment was it?
Ilya: Initially, only Azov fighters came to the plant. The marines appeared in early April, when some of them broke off from the Illich plant to Azovstal. And the border guards and the police appeared later on.
Pavlo: Our only communication with the outside world came through the soldiers, but even they were getting limited information, as far as I understand. One of them would come and say, “It will just be a few more days.” And then, “Just another month.” We’d all look at him and think, have you lost your mind? But it actually did take two months.
Ilya: Yes, everything we learned about what was happening in the city came from the soldiers. Initially, they said everything was fine and they were still in control of the city. Then they told us about the Russians bombing the Drama Theater. That shocked us all, and our spirits really sank. They told us that Ukrainian helicopters had brought some ammunition. They told us which parts of the city Ukrainian forces were defending, and where they were having trouble.
— How did the civilians hiding in Azovstal feel about the soldiers? Russian propaganda tries to make everyone fear the Azov Regiment.
Ilya: Azov fighters are courageous guys. The ones that came to us were 25-35 years old and had all been serving for 2-3 years. They didn’t have any questions for us — all they asked was what we needed, how they could help. So the civilians had no issues with the soldiers; they were always offering to help us and treated us very humanely.
Ivan Goltvenko: The Azov fighters are Mariupol residents just like us. A lot of them have settled down and gotten married here. They don’t have any fortified bases or [National Guard] units separate from the city.
— Russian propaganda has been saying that the Azov fighters were using people as shields and not letting them go.
Ilya: Nobody was keeping us in there — we were afraid to leave. For the first few days, we kept going up to the first floor. But in mid-March, a shell hit our building and an office caught on fire. We knew there was nothing to gain by roaming around to other floors. We put out the fire in the office and sat there for a while, keeping our heads down. After that, the women and children stopped going out, and the men would only leave to find warm clothing or to gather antiseptic to make a burner when we wanted to warm up a cup of tea or a pot of water.
The artillery fire — Grads [multiple rocket launchers], mortars, and naval artillery — was all audible. There was a night when my wife couldn’t sleep, so she counted the explosions: there was an hit every five minutes. The Russians would launch 20-25 of these attacks in the course of a single night.
A girl lived with us who had relatives in Hospital No. 4, not far from the plant. Up until March 14, she would go see them regularly, but then she decided not to risk it anymore.
Pavlo: We would ask the soldiers if we could leave. They’d said, “Go ahead, but where will you go? They’re firing out there.” And it was clear from the burning city we could see from our building that there was nowhere to go. Look at the photographs of Azovstal, see for yourself. You’ll see how the firing never stopped, not even for a minute.
Ivan Goltvenko: The Russians are “hiding behind” the people. They won’t open humanitarian corridors, and they keep people in “filtration camps” for weeks on end. When they learned that one of our workers was in Azovstal and was skilled at communication, they captured him and began torturing him. I have a video that shows the burn marks [on his body]. That leads me to believe that the people who were kidnapped and who appear in Russian videos were made to “cooperate” by force.
They don’t let people go, because they [the Russians] need a labor force to sort through the rubble. And as a shield — because the Ukrainian army is certainly going to liberate Mariupol, so they [the Russians] are hiding behind civilians.
— Let’s get back to the topic of daily life in Azovstal. Did you have a shower or some way to wash yourselves?
Ilya: There was no shower. Everyone — men, women, and children — wore Metinvest [Azovstal's parent company] workwear, cotton pants, and winter coats, because it was cold. We brought all of the benches and tables down to the bomb shelter and used them to sleep on. To wash ourselves and wash our hands, we were able to warm up some of the non-drinking water. Roughly one time over the entire period, we were able to go up to the work area and rinse off from a bucket — if there wasn’t any shelling going on.
Pavlo: Nobody bathed, but they did rinse off the children. Children are sacred. But nobody was able to bathe completely for the entire time we were there. We used the children’s bathing water to wash their clothes.
— What was daily life like? What did you do?
Ilya: The same thing, day after day. We woke up, started making flatbread, kneading the dough, making soup. By about three p.m., we would eat; play cards, checkers, or dominoes for a while; then drink tea in the evening. That was the entire routine.
Pavlo: I was occupied with the children. We had some cards in the shelter. Everyday was about the same, like the movie Groundhog Day. We had a generator and kettles, so we would boil water and drink tea quite often. We had more water than Ilya’s shelter because 1500 people worked in our department, so there were more resources.
— Do you remember what the scariest moments of the entire two-month period were?
Ilya: During the heavy shellings, we would close the door, comfort the children, cross ourselves, and bid our lives farewell. Me, my daughter, and my wife all spent our birthdays in the shelter. We would have “birthday” soup.
Pavlo: It was scary one time when people came from the neighboring building and asked for help from a nurse because a shell had hit their building. It happened right when people had left the shelter and gone up to the first story — some of them wanted to smoke and some of them just wanted to get some fresh air. The shell hit, killed four people, and injured the rest. At that point, I prohibited my wife and daughter from going up at all.
— How did you learn about the evacuation?
Ilya: From the soldiers. They said it would be possible to evacuate under the auspices of the UN and the Red Cross. The first group left on April 30. That evening, they told us that if everything went according to plan, we would leave the next morning [May 1].
On May 1, a group of seven people left on foot. The soldiers didn’t accompany us. We set out for the corridor. As we walked, we saw the awful damage that had been done to the facility. I saw two-story buildings that were folded up in two spots. In other words, airstrikes had landed just 25 meters apart from one another. The ends of Grad missiles were sticking out, and there were parachutes from cluster munition.
We went towards the city’s Eastern district and onto the bridge, which, judging by news reports, the Russians are currently trying to get their troops across. After we crossed the bridge, we could see Russian soldiers from afar.
They were shouting, “Stop!” They said the area was mined, and they showed us how to get around it. We went through an improvised checkpoint, then we came to some DNR buses.
Pavlo: We family and I also ended up on these buses and left together. I had already seen the destruction — the Azov fighters had shown us photos.
— Who drove you to Zaporozhye?
Ilya: We really hoped that the Red Cross and the UN would immediately take us to Zaporozhye, but we were taken in a completely different direction — towards Rostov, to Bezimenne [note: a village in the Donetsk region] to undergo “filtration.”
Pavlo: They called for women and children to exit the bus first. They inspected their things and checked their bodies for tattoos. They didn’t check the children [for tattoos].
Then it was the men’s turn. They searched us thoroughly — including our phones and the photos on them. We’d been warned [ahead of time] to delete any messenger apps, as well as any photos related to the war, Mariupol, or Azovstal. We only kept pictures of family.
They undressed us down to our underwear and inspected us front to back. They took our fingerprints. They made us give statements, and then sign them.
They asked us what nationality we were. I told them I’m Ukrainian and I live on Ukrainian territory, though we speak Russian. They asked me why I wasn’t going home and who I had left in the city. Overall, they went easy on us, because there were UN and Red Cross officials present.
But yesterday, I was texting with a friend who evacuated [from Mariupol] on his own [in his own car, without UN or Red Cross protection]. He and his 14-year-old son have been undergoing “filtration” in Bezimenne for four weeks now. They’re passports were taken, they’re not allowed to leave, and nobody will tell them anything.
Ilya: Yes, at the “filtration camp,” they asked whether we knew any of the soldiers who lived at Azovstal, where they were now, how much equipment they had, whether we knew their call signs, and where they might be stationed. Then they asked whether we knew anyone from the Ukrainian Security Service, the Prosecutor General, or the city authorities. They wanted to know how we felt about the Ukrainian federal government and the city government.
The options they gave us were to stay in Mariupol, go to Rostov, or go to Zaporozhye. Of course we chose Zaporozhye. They didn’t pressure us, but I think it’s because there were UN and Red Cross officials around. It was extremely important that the UN and Red Cross officials constantly be at the filtration points.
Pavlo: And at the checkpoints. We saw a civilian vehicle on fire in a ditch. I don’t know what happened to the people inside. But I don’t think it would have caught on fire if there had been riot police at the checkpoints.
— They made Pavlo undress down to his underwear. Ilya, did you have to do the same thing? Did the women?
Ilya: They made my wife undress down to her underwear and looked into her panties. They made other girls take off their bras and examined them. They looked at their feet, too — I don’t know why.
They made me undress down to my underwear, then they searched for tattoos and bruises [to determine whether I’d fired weapons]. They turned all of my clothes inside out, all of my pockets, and looked through my phone — all of my messages and photos. They also looked through my kid’s phone, then turned on a laptop and searched for my page on VKontakte, but they couldn’t find it.
They started looking through my things and they found some work goggles. They thought they were tactical — “What, are you a gunman?” I explained that they weren’t for warfare, they were just for working. We also pulled out a few tourniquets that we had in case of emergency, but the Russians had never even heard that word before.
— Did everyone with you pass the “filtration?”
Ilya: Not everyone. Initially, there were seven of us who left the shelter: my family and two sisters, 22 and 15 years old. The older one worked for the police. They didn’t let her through, and they took her away somewhere — we didn’t see her after that. Her 15-year-old sister stayed in the camp. She got in touch with her parents and told them her sister had been taken. The UN and the Red Cross answered every question by saying, “The Russians are armed, they have their own rules, and there’s nothing we can do.”
— Where did you go after that?
Ilya: On the morning of May 2, we left for Zaporozhye in a convoy of 50 buses, but only three of them were full. We made a large loop, about 140 kilometers long (87 miles), around Mariupol. First, we went through Novoazovsk (note: even further from Mariupol in the direction of Rostov), then through Volnovakha and Buhas to Manhush. On the evening of May 2, we arrived in Manhush, where people who had undergone “filtration” filled two more buses.
According to someone I know who works for Ukraine’s State Emergency Service, there were about 500 people in Mariupol waiting to be evacuated at that point. But [the Russian military] intentionally sent us on a detour so that we wouldn’t be able to take those people; that way, the Russians could still use them as a labor force.
Pavlo: The Russians are leaving people in the city so they can use them as a “human shield.” If all of the civilians leave, Ukrainians troops will be able to launch an offensive without worrying about the civilian population.
Ilya: On the way [to Zaporozhye], we spent a night in Dmitrievka, near Berdiansk. The women and children were put in a school, while the men slept in the buses. On the morning of May 3, we set off for Zaporozhye.
In two or three villages we passed on the way, there were people standing on the side of the road with their things who also wanted to go to Zaporozhye. We would stop, and the Red Cross and UN workers would approach the Russian soldiers and try to convince them to let us take the people, but they never did. At one point, the Russian soldiers even came out in an armored vehicle and pushed the people standing on the road aside so that the buses could pass.
We didn’t feel safe until we passed the first Ukrainian checkpoint near Zaporozhye. Nobody in my family cried; we were all very tired from traveling and worrying. Volunteers came to meet us; they gave us food, personal hygiene products, and several blankets and put us up in a hotel.
— Are there still civilians in Azovstal?
Ivan Goltveno: We don’t know. But there have been reports that at least 100 people are still there.
The bomb shelters are spread apart from one another; there’s no way for them to communicate with one another, and it’s dangerous to move frmo one to another, so it’s difficult to determine whether there are still people there. There are a lot of places in the plant where they could still be.
But we can’t forget that the soldiers [who remain in the plant] are people, too. We want them to be able to return to their families too.
— Why do you think Russians did this to Mariupol?
Ivan Goltvenko: Rinat Akhmetov, one of our company’s shareholders, is from the city of Donetsk, which is 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Mariupol. In 2014, he was forced to leave Donetsk, but he couldn’t take his business out of Mariupol. On the contrary — he decided to invest in the city. He legally re-registered the company Metinvest and the soccer club Shakhtar in Mariupol so that their taxes would go to the city. That significantly increased the city’s budget. They started to build new squares and parks, and they decided to build Metinvest Polytechnic University.
[Back then,] we didn’t realize, but now we understand how much this annoyed Russia. I literally just watched a video where Donetsk residents were saying, “Now the Russians will restore Mariupol, but they should be helping us.”
Translation by Sam Breazeale