A Ukrainian teacher who spent 65 days sheltering underground with her six-month-old baby in the besieged Azovstal steelworks has spoken of life in the last outpost of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol.
In a striking account given to Ukrainian website The Village, Anna Zaitseva tells the story of her two-month ordeal trapped in the “fortress within a city”.
For months, defenders holed up in the Azovstal plant held out against Russian forces, pinning the invaders down in Mariupol and buying crucial time for Ukrainian forces elsewhere to organise and secure Western weapons.
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‘It was very dangerous to go outside, because the shelling started immediately’
A former marine, Anna’s husband had left the military and was working at the steel plant. Anna was a French teacher at a school in Mariupol.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, they decided to head to Azovstal with their newborn son. Her husband went on to join the Azov regiment.
The first bomb shelter the family lived in was only meant to be their home for several hours. There were no sleeping places, only benches to sit on.
“We spent a week on benches and almost without food,” Anna told The Village in Ukrainian.
“It was very dangerous to go outside, because the shelling started immediately.
“My child and I went to the surface for five minutes a day to stand and breathe at the entrance to the building.
“Even in prison, they walk more.”
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Unsuccessful evacuation attempts as food ran low
Food supplies ran low and had to be spread between more and more people.
Anna and her son moved to a second shelter, where they would live for the next 58 days.
She says it was the size of a three-room apartment.
“There were 75 of us living in this bomb shelter, 17 of them children.”
During their time at Azovstal there were numerous unsuccessful evacuation attempts.
In one such effort, on 25 April, Anna and her son came to the surface with a number of Ukrainians and two Russian prisoners of war.
“But Russian soldiers once again broke the silence,” she said.
“Four of our soldiers were wounded and one of the prisoners was killed. We had to quickly hide back in the bunker.
“An enemy drone flew over the building where our shelter was located 24/7. It was impossible to leave.”
Later that day, a three-tonne bomb hit a building above their shelter, trapping them until the morning, when the military dug one of the exits clear.
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‘Everyone was interrogated’
Eventually, the time came for Anna and her son to leave Azovstal after 65 days, sheltering in what has become known as the “fortress within a city”.
“Five metres into the bus, two Russian soldiers entered with a machine gun, who accompanied us all the way to the filtration camp”, Anna said.
When she arrived at the filtration camp, she saw men and women being divided. She says women were strip-searched by female Russian soldiers.
Arrivals had their phones taken so that the data could be downloaded.
“After that, everyone was interrogated.”
‘They surrounded me’
“In addition to the regular military, I was also interrogated by an FSB officer,” she recalled.
“When it became clear that I would not tell them anything, another military man appeared behind me, a third.
“They surrounded me and said that it would be better for me to answer them.”
The pressure grew until a French representative of the Red Cross passed by and asked what was going on.
“I answered him in French. The FSB officer immediately stopped talking to me, snorted, ‘Tell him we don’t eat you here,’ and broke away from me.”
Anna has been filtered and is now with her child in Ukrainian territory, The Village reports.
She hopes for the safe return of her husband, who is believed to be in Russian captivity.