“They promised women to send their husband’s heads.” Stories of those who escaped from Azovstal

In the two months of war, Mariupol has become a new symbol of the struggle for Ukraine. Despite constant attacks, blockades and fighting in the city, members of the “Azov” Regiment and marines have continued to defend Mariupol heroically.

The Azovstal metallurgical plant has become a veritable fortress, where both defenders and residents of the city are hiding from Russian shells.

Two months ago, Mariupol received the status of “hero city”. But these strong words are not just about military glory and military dedication. They are not only about counterattacks and elimination of the aggressors.

The hero city designation is also about civilians who were surviving under blockade conditions, without food, water, gas or phone connection. About those who seem to be living through the worst episodes of books and movies about war. But they stood by Ukraine.

After two months [in such conditions], some Mariupol residents were evacuated from Azovstal. On 3 May, 150 people from the city arrived in Zaporizhzhia.

Ukrainska Pravda recorded several stories of people who escaped, about their lives in the besieged city, where they got food and water, and how they escaped to Ukrainian-controlled territory.

Vova, 14 years old, left Azovstal with his brother and mother


My dad brought us to Azovstal. He said it was the safest place. There, without seeing the sun, we spent 2 months.

Dad is a soldier, so he stayed behind. I would like to tell him that we are fine and that he should be more careful.

We ate oatmeal with burdocks, with peels that shouldn’t be eaten. The men would run to the next building, risking their lives to prepare food for us. The soldiers brought and gave us their food so that we could survive.


My dad brought us to Azovstal. He said it was the safest place. There, without seeing the sun, we sat for about 2 months.

Dad is a soldier, so he stayed behind. I would like to tell him that we are fine and that he should be more careful.

We ate oatmeal with burdocks, with peels that shouldn’t be eaten. The men would run to the next building, risking their lives to prepare food for us. The soldiers brought and gave us their food so that we could survive.


Our [Ukrainian] military personnel brought us out of Azovstal, then handed us over to the Russian military [once the evacuation corridor was agreed]. We were going to Manhush almost entirely through territory that they [the occupiers – ed.] had seized.

Then we were put up in a camp, where we spent the night in tents and then went to Berdiansk. When we were taken to the camp, women were undressed, everyone’s fingerprints were scanned, photos were taken, and phones were checked.


Katia, left Azovstal with two children

Honestly, on several occasions we lost hope that we would ever get out. In fact, there is no longer a factory there; it was wiped off the face of the earth, only storage facilities remained, and some of those have already been buried.

We were hiding there for almost two months. There are also bunkers there: they are strong and seemed designed to withstand bombs. But then we were encircled – no one expected that.

They say that there were still 200 people left in Azovstal, but I can’t say for sure. Because we were sitting in the bunker, we didn’t see anyone.


There was no light. Our Ukrainian military helped us with water and food, they dug up some bombed-out warehouses, and in recent days they gave us their rations.

What we saw in the city when we left were just empty shells of buildings, with huge black holes inside. There are no houses.

A very thorough inspection was conducted when we departed. We were undressed, any scars and tattoos were checked, and women’s underpants were searched. They checked all the backpacks, completely turned them over, checked the phones, and read all the correspondence.

Women who had acquaintances serving in the Ukrainian military or the police were threatened. They were told they would be found, and were promised that they would be sent their husband’s head in a box.

Elina, 54 years old, left with her husband, daughter and son-in-law

I worked at the Azovstal plant, in the same building where we had the bomb shelter, as a controller in the technical control department.

The bomb shelter did not protect us 100%. If there had been a direct hit, the bomb shelter would have collapsed and we would all have died. We would have just been buried there. That was the worst.

The fact that we were starving, dirty, in a damp and mouldy place wasn’t so bad. The scariest part was that nothing depended on us.


Every night, I went to bed and prayed to God, “Lord, please let all the bombs fly past our bomb shelter. At least they won’t hit us. May we survive.” I prayed that my child would survive. The first, the second [child]. So that our family does not disappear.

I don’t know the fate of my mother – she is 82 years old. When I called her, I said, “Mom, come on [go out].” She replied: “Elia, don’t panic. Why are you starting to panic? Nothing will happen! He [Putin – ed.] would not dare, he will not be given [to do anything].” She used to work as a journalist in the USSR, and she was convinced she was right.

We saw the pictures of our houses, the condition in which they were. Soldiers came and showed us a photo taken from a drone. At first, my daughter didn’t tell me, so I would not be upset. Only on 30 April did she say that we were left with nothing. That everything had burnt down.

We were homeless and without any means of subsistence. And we have already put up with that.

The military would rarely come to see us. They would just run past, leaving food for the children, because adults can starve, but children can’t.


We had a boy in a bomb shelter, 4 years old. He kept saying, “Mom, I want to eat.” His mom said that he did not eat so much at home, and there he would constantly ask [for food]. She would tell him, “You don’t like it.” And he would say, “I love it, I love everything.”

And what could our Natalka [daughter – ed.) cook there? She could only fry flour and water in oil with salt. We then ran out of sugar.

Our whole team would surround the military, if they came to us (not just to bring us food), and would ask: when can we leave? We have neither food nor medicine. How can we get out? And what about this address? And what about that?

If the soldiers had information, they showed us [pictures]. Some people could not believe that they were left homeless. Some were still sure they would return.


And when we were taken away… Do you know the movie “2012” [disaster movie made in 2009 – ed.]? When everything collapsed, at the apocalypse? This [what happened in Mariupol] is the apocalypse! The most natural one!

There was a nine-storey residential apartment. Walls were still there and the middle just collapsed. Or everything burned down. Our apartments were just black.

These Russians said during the “filtration”: “Go back to Mariupol! Why don’t you want to go back to Mariupol?” I was about to say to them: “What? Am I supposed to live amongst the embers?”

The Russians gave us these rations – one ration of food per month, the other was for hygiene. First, it took three days to get the rations.

And second, I could not look at them. We used to sit in a bomb shelter, and I would say: “Please God, do not let us to be taken to Russia, I can’t, the FSB [Russian Federal Security Service] will imprison me as soon as I open my mouth.”

In Ukraine I got used to speaking freely, thinking freely. Yes, sometimes I say too much. But I’m used to it. But there [in Russia] it is not possible. I would be taken to jail immediately, that’s all. Or even shot at the first crossroads. I said, “God, please do not let us be taken forcibly to Russia”.

Do you know what else was scary? We were put [on the bus], taken away, along a route I know more or less. And I saw that we were driving along the Taganrog highway, not to the “Port City” [the meeting place in Mariupol for evacuation to the safer places of Ukraine]. And I was afraid that they would take me to Russia. I did not know that we were going to a “filtration camp”. And while we were driving from Mariupol to Bezimenne [the settlement where the filtration camp is located], I was crying the whole way.

And then, when I saw the Zaporizhzhia buses, I realised that everything was fine.

There were no wounded people on the bus with us. Our military said that if they came with us, it would put us in danger.

Once we were taken from the bomb shelter to make room for the wounded, they said that people with “minor injuries” would be housed there. I saw these “minor injuries”. Hands that were severely broken. The bones were visible through the wound. And they had no medicines or bandages.

The military came and asked whether the civilians needed anything. I am an asthmatic, and said that I needed an inhaler. They brought it. And then I thought: What a fool! Why did I take it? What if they do not have [any more left]. I said: no, leave it for the military. And they said: no, no, keep it. They would give the last to civilians.


Julia left Azovstal with her husband and cat

We ran out of the house, grabbed the basic things, and went to the bomb shelter of the Azovstal converter shop.

How did we live? We were surviving. We had food thanks to the canteen of the converter shop. First there were 3 meals a day, then we switched to 2 meals a day for adults; children and the elderly had 3 meals a day. Soups were cooked to save food.

Then we found flour. We had a woman who baked bread. The bread was cut into thin slices. It was such a happiness when we saw this bread. And the smell was like walking past a bread bakery.

There were about 72 people in our bomb shelter, including 14-17 children and 10 elderly people. There was a baby who was 5 or 6 months old; when they arrived, he was just 3 months old. He grew up there [in the shelter], learned how to sit.

When there was a ceasefire, half the people left the shelter and half remained there. The first group, mostly women and children, was taken away on the evening of 30 April. I stayed in the second group because I did not want to leave without my husband. And we were evacuated early in the morning on 1 May.


Our military took us to the embankment, where they handed us to the Russians, the United Nations, the Red Cross, and a priest. Then we were taken to the Bezimenne, where we were “filtered”.

We were examined. I took off my top, showed the bottom. I showed my fingers so they could see whether I had shot or not. They looked through the phones.

Olena left with her daughter


I was not in Azovstal, I just saw it.

At the beginning of the war we were brought water and firewood several times. On 1 and 2 March the electricity was turned off, the [phone] network was cut off, and the next day the gas went off, so after that we cooked food on a fire.

We were saved by the Petra Mohyly Church, famous for its Petrykivka painting. They found some food somewhere and first of all gave it to the children: some packets of porridge, a handful of a mixture of lentils, peas, and dried vegetables that could be cooked; sometimes they got cookies, one or two candies for the children.

We could not evacuate, because the evacuation was from the drama theatre and allegedly from Illichivets [indoor sports complex – ed.]. I would also have to get there. Some [people] had their own cars, and they left; and some did not have cars and stayed in their homes.


We lived there for a long time. There were a lot of “incomings” [missile strikes] in recent days, coming from different directions, because we were surrounded. Then we lived in the basements, in the entrance hall, everywhere.

Last night we were sitting in the basement and heard the sound of shells directly under the foundation of the house. The child would say after each explosion: “Mom, I love you”. And I understand that she, in fact, was saying: “Mom, goodbye”.

We decided that we could not stay there, we had to leave. And the next morning we went out through the Zintseva Balka [location in Mariupol], which had already been damaged, through the private sector, to the plane [monument in Mariupol – ed.], where it was already relatively quiet.

My aunt had an apartment there, thank God, and had left the key with the neighbours. We lived there for a few days. The first night was still more or less quiet, but every night it got louder and louder – Azovstal was bombed. And I said: no, we can’t stay there, we have to go further.

There were three options: Rostov, Donetsk and Volodarsk. We left for Volodarsk, as it was closer.

I had to go through “filtration” there, because without it you can’t go anywhere at all, you won’t pass any checkpoint. They take fingerprints, take photos as if you were a criminal and give you a stamp.

A piece of paper that the occupiers give out to those who have passed the filtration. Show by a woman who was evacuated from Mariupol.

In Mariupol, “filtration” had probably just begun, while in Volodarsk and Manhush everything was already organised. People have to stand in long lines. Especially those who live in the villages, in order to move between the villages, you need to go through “filtration” and get a car permit, which is valid for 3 days.

“DNRovtsy” [self-proclaimed authorities of the Donetsk People’s Republic] write a lot, they write all the time. They say you can get porridge for free, and they write down your passport data, write down every step.


Nadiia, 18 years old

The servicemen brought us food. In the last month, they gave us their food and water. They ate once a day, if they could. If not, they didn’t eat at all.

They would come to visit us and were very kind. We are very grateful to them and we really want them to be allowed to leave. There are a lot of dead and wounded soldiers who need to be taken away. There is no medicine left, people die there, they just bleed.

About 200 civilians and 30 children remained there.


We were brought out of the plant by our military, handed over to the Russian military and taken to the village of Bezimenne. We were accompanied by the Red Cross and the United Nations, and we are also grateful to them.

Along the way we were housed in a camp, where we were searched and our phones were checked. I’m worried that there’s probably a wiretap on my phone now. They looked for tattoos, scars.

They asked provocative questions. This is not even a question, but more of a statement: were you beaten? They wanted us to speak [ill] of our military. But they did not succeed.

They said bad things to the wives of the [Ukrainian] military; they called them prostitutes, broads. Just because we were going to Ukraine.

Sonia Lukashova, Fedir Popadiuk, Ukrainska Pravda

Photo – Dmytro Larin, Ukrainska Pravda

Source: https://www.pravda.com.ua/eng/articles/2022/05/3/7343828/

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