Mariupol engineer shares his story of spending two months in the Azovstal bunker

11 May, 09:07 PM
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The family of Igor Khadzhava, Azovstal's chief engineer, spent two months in a bunker under one of the plant's buildings (Photo:DR)

The family of Igor Khadzhava, Azovstal's chief engineer, spent two months in a bunker under one of the plant's buildings (Photo:DR)

Ihor Khadzhava, a leading engineer at the Azovstal steelworks, spoke to NV about the months he spent in the factory’s bunker, while under constant bombardment and shelling.

Mariupol became one of the first and main targets of the invaders' attacks in the east of the country. The city quickly found itself trapped in a ring of Russian invaders, which was inexorably shrinking. At the moment, Ukrainian forces control only the territory of the Azovstal factory itself, repelling constant Russian assaults for the past week.

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This is where the Azov Regiment, the marines, and border guard units are concentrated – according to Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, this is about a thousand people, including hundreds of wounded.

The bunker under the factory also sheltered hundreds of civilians – including women, children, the elderly, and Azovstal workers. About 500 of them have recently been evacuated, but about a hundred may yet remain.

Azovstal's leading engineer, Ihor Khadzhava, was among civilians sheltering at the bunker, and one of those who survived. He, together with his wife and two children, spent two months underneath Azovstal, amid daily shelling and mass bombings, desperately rationing water and eating rations provided by soldiers.

Ihor Khadzhava, a leading engineer of Azovstal, together with his daughter - in the dungeons of Mariupol Azovstal (Фото: DR)
Ihor Khadzhava, a leading engineer of Azovstal, together with his daughter - in the dungeons of Mariupol Azovstal / Фото: DR

Khadzhava was able to escape this hell, along with his family, one May 1, as part of an evacuation column. He and his family have now reached Zaporizhzhya.

At the request of NV, he’s told us his story.

NV: How did you get to the bomb shelter under Azovstal?

Khadzhava: When I arrived to work on Feb. 24, I could already hear the explosions. Later, the management told everyone to go home and the plant was put into "hot canning": blast furnaces, converters, mixers were stopped.

NV: What's next?

Khadzhava: We stayed at home, and later I went to the shop with my wife to buy everything we needed. We didn't think it would take so long. It was reported on TV, in the news, everywhere: stay at home, everything is under control, everything will be fine. Of course, we stayed at home in vain.

NV: Did the first shelling start then?

Khadzhava: There were two blackouts. Later, apparently, (the power company) made some switches and supplied us with electricity. The water started running again, so we filled all the tanks in the house. Later, there was the first shelling attack on the left bank (the eastern part of the city, closer to the “LPR/DPR”). A school was shelled.

We lived on the 9th floor, and the sounds and vibrations there are much louder than on the lower floors. My wife and children slept in the corridor.

On Feb. 27, Ukrainian military hardware pulled up to the 23rd neighborhood (the central part of the city, one of the most populated neighborhoods of Mariupol). They retreated, and we understood that this would not stop on the outskirts. My wife asked me to find a bomb shelter. The same day I called the head of the plant, asked him to help take me, the children, my wife to the bomb shelter of the converter shop. We've been there since March 2nd. And we left Azovstal on May 1.

NV: Where was the bomb shelter located?

Khadzhava: Under AHB No. 1 (administrative and household building) of the converter shop, which houses the canteen, baths, office of the head of shops, deputies, all sorts of technological bureaus.

NV: How many of you were there in the beginning?

Khadzhava: Most of us got there from the left bank of the city, because the converter shop is located near the eastern checkpoints, and it was easier for people to get there. We came by car, with our children, with our things. Prior to that, we looked at options where we can go to a shelter nearer to our house – the Savona cinema and the TerraSport sports complex, the former consumer services center. But these premises are ordinary basements that are not equipped to accommodate civilians in such numbers.

The Russian army destroyed the plant with aircraft bombs and heavy artillery (Фото: AZOV via REUTERS)
The Russian army destroyed the plant with aircraft bombs and heavy artillery / Фото: AZOV via REUTERS

On the first day, there were up to 20 of us when we got to Azovstal (in the bomb shelter under AHB), and the largest number was about a hundred.

NV: What was happening in the city itself?

Khadzhava: The AHB of the converter shop is located on a hill. Therefore, when we went outside, we saw that the city was on fire. The territory of Azovstal was a nightmare, the sounds of gunshots echoed everywhere. I didn't hear the explosion near the drama theater (under the ruins of which hundreds of civilians died). We saw photos and the military, when they came, told us.

NV: It was said that packages of drinking water delivered earlier, according to production standards, were placed in the shop. Did you collect it? And where did you get food?

Khadzhava: Yes, we went around the shop, collecting bottled water. The head of the shop, who was still with us at that time, gathered the food supplies and installed a generator together with the military. We left our supplies in the refrigerators. The military delivered food: someone brought candy to the children, someone brought cereals, because we already had problems with food in April. The border guards brought a lot of cereals, pasta, we cooked soups from them. In general, our children never went hungry.

NV: How many children were in your shelter?

Khadzhava: 18 children. There were 100 people in early March. Later, the military came and said that there was a "green corridor" and those who drove to the factory in their cars could leave. But, as far as I know, those who got out of Azovstal by car in the first days were not allowed to leave the city and they returned: some to the bomb shelters under PSTU (Pryazovskyi State Technical University), some to the drama theater. The shelling began on the way out of the city. Someone pressed the gas pedal and broke through. An employee of my shop told me that she and her husband and son had managed to leave the city while surrounded by mine explosions.

NV: People were not allowed to leave by Russian troops who surrounded the city, right?

Khadzhava: Yes, Russian troops. Because they came to us "with peace," "to liberate."

NV: Was the bunker fortified?

Khadzhava: The bunker is not a bomb shelter, but a refuge from man-made disasters. The fact is that the converter can explode due to errors in the production process. And that explosion is equivalent to an atomic bomb. Therefore, shelters were built to shield from possible explosions. It includes 50 beds, namely bunk beds. There are two exits. There is also a ventilation room in case of lack of fresh air, where there are filters inside. If there is electricity, fresh air is driven there by electric motors. If there was no electricity, men stood up and manually twisted the so-called "ventilation snails" and forcibly drove fresh air from the surface.

NV: At what depth was this bunker?

Khadzhava: Mark "floor 6" (the floor level is six meters from the surface). The ceiling is high, about three meters, the floor slab itself, which was above us, is 0.5 m thick.

NV: Electricity was produced by generators. Did someone bring you diesel?

Khadzhava: We delivered diesel by ourselves. We had an employee of our shop, Roman Volkov, who monitored the generator like his own child, he turned it on and off. He turned it off at night to save it. We used electricity in the daytime. In early April, we even had a bread machine, we had flour in our dining room, three bags. So we baked bread.

NV: And where did you get the bread machine?

Khadzhava: In search of food, we searched all the surrounding buildings and found it. The diesel generator is large, it consumes 37 liters of fuel per day. We had a large-scale reconstruction of the gas cleaners around the shop, and the contractors brought a lot of equipment there, such as crawler cranes and conventional jib cranes on the pneumatic. That is a lot of equipment from which it was possible to drain the diesel. And the equipment itself was already destroyed, in the wreckage, beaten.

NV: And when exactly did they (Russians) start bombing Azovstal? They say the air raids took place almost every five minutes, 10 planes at a time.

Khadzhava: Nobody counted planes. Sometimes it was an explosion from an air bomb: there was a shock wave and only after that we could hear the sound of an airplane. So we could understand that above us was the sound of a jet plane. And everyone ran down to the shelter: men or women who were cooking. Even the children were almost left behind.

NV: From what day did they start bombing Azovstal en masse?

Khadzhava: Approximately since March 15. Once a day something flew in. We heard it from afar. The shop is 67 m high. Therefore, shells often hit the main building of the converter shop. Later they fell constantly, throughout the territory. Our AHB was destroyed, it caught fire many times. An air bomb hit nearby, there was a huge funnel. They hit the railway track. It was a rather fortified place, and a funnel one and a half meters deep and eight meters in diameter. The force of the explosion was enormous.

NV: Was there a moment that you said goodbye to life?

Khadzhava: Yes, when we were hit by two missiles at once. They hit correctly, two stairways were destroyed, both of our exits from the AHB.

NV: Were you trapped?

Khadzhava: Yes. The stairways were blocked, and there was a transition to the neighboring building on our mark "-6," it was also blocked in. The whole building crumbled. There was a sauna in the annex, a swimming pool, but five floors had collapsed in. And we got out of this mark somehow, and made our way through the blockages to the surface. And already there, with the help of soldiers, we took out children, women, and the elderly.

NV: Were there many old people?

Khadzhava: About 15 people. There are several dozen storage facilities at Azovstal. It was risky for the military to travel between all these AHBs and bring a kilogram of buckwheat to each of them. So they looked where there were few people and transported them to large bomb shelters.

NV: How were the servicemen set up? There are not only Azov soldiers there, but also border guards, marines, and policemen.

Khadzhava: Azov, the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the border guards came to us. They asked: what kind of help do we need? They told what was going on in Ukraine, in Mariupol.

NV: How did they survive? They also had to feed themselves and get you food somewhere.

Khadzhava: They came to us. They didn't stay long, there was no time for conversations. Two or three people came to us and asked. We told them what we need and what we don't need. As for where they got everything – most likely, they had stocks.

NV: Did they bring you medicine?

Khadzhava: There was a medical center at the shop. It was destroyed, but we grabbed the medicines that survived. We had a woman in a bunker, who had been working as a nurse for eight years. She was responsible for the medical stuff. All the medicines we found were given to her – first of all, bandages. We had an injured elderly woman, as she was in the annex when a rocket hit. There was a safe bathroom there, we thought. An explosive wave slammed her against the door, and her head was cut by the fragments of a mirror, so the bandages came in handy.

NV: Did anyone there get seriously ill?

Khadzhava: We all forgot about the COVID. The diseases were mainly colds. Some of those who came again had a severe cough, and the whole bunker started coughing at once. Everyone fell ill and coughed. We had two people with diabetes, but our insulin was running out. They could have died at any moment. There was an elderly woman there with cerebral anemia, who needed special pills to stop the process of anemia. These pills in the bunker ran out, and, in fact, nothing stopped the disease.

NV: Did she survive?

Khadzhava: Yes, when the medicine ran out, her family took her on their own. I don't know now where they are, what's happened to them.

There was a 15-year-old girl with diabetes. As far as I know, she is in a coma now. They left in mid-March, that group that was not allowed to leave. They were at the PSTU's bomb shelter. After we left for Zaporizhzhya, we contacted her family and they told us that she was in a coma. But everything seems to be under control and everything will be fine.

NV: Russian propagandists showed that the Russian army was firing rockets or some heavy artillery at the shops. That is, they don’t care whether there are civilians or not: they fire at everything.

Khadzhava: Yes, at everything. Azovstal is as ruined as the city. Our AHB has been destroyed, there are no upper floors, all the stairways are blocked, the floor in the dining room has collapsed.

NV: On April 21, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had a meeting with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, during which the latter said that the plant would no longer be fired upon. And on the same day the mass shelling continued.

Khadzhava: Yes. There was silence only when we were taken out on May 1 and the day before. Moreover, the "green corridor" was from 0700 a.m. to 2000 p.m., but the Russians approved the withdrawal of people from Azovstal only at 1930. There were no roads on the territory of the plant to drive to our AHB, so it was necessary to move through all these ruins for 15-20 minutes. The military arrived and said we had 10 minutes to get ready. We did not have this time, so we went the next day.

NV: What did you see in the city when you were rescued?

Khadzhava: I saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And I also saw "liberators."

NV: Why was it necessary to bomb the whole city?

Khadzhava: We have an assumption that they took a map of the city of Mariupol, the location of each building, and shells hit just every point. The destruction of the entire city is millions of shells fired, covering the entire area.

NV: Was Mariupol rebuilt before the war?

Khadzhava: Our city has just begun to flourish in recent years. We could not be satisfied with what was happening: what reconstructions, what repairs, what parks we had. Everything was for public use, to walk with our children, to enjoy. The city center had been completely renovated. Even the drama theater. A huge fountain was built right behind it, and there was a skating rink in winter around this fountain. Everything was designed for it from the beginning.

NV: Then you were brought to the filtration camps, right?

Khadzhava: On our way out of the plant, we approached a bridge where we were met by representatives of the Red Cross and the United Nations. Russians had started clearing mines off the road, so we were waiting in a bus for about an hour and a half until they finished – a special car was driving and detonating mines that were planted at night so that no one would run away from the plant. Later, we were moved to other buses and headed along the Taganrog route, past the left bank, to the village of Bezimenne. There we had written interrogations, we were asked questions. For example, who stayed in the city? I replied that our relatives did not want to leave the apartment, they stayed at home. And then they asked the following: do you care what happens to them? Why aren't you coming home?

NV: Did you want to stay here in the city?

Khadzhava: Yes, they were very surprised that we do not want to go to Russia, we wanted to stay in Ukraine. They had confused looks: why did we make this a decision?

NV: Most people from Mariupol left for Ukrainian-controlled territory.

Khadzhava: It's true. There were various cases otherwise, most often of a domestic nature. For example, a husband and a wife were traveling with me on another bus. They had two children, one with a disability. As far as I understand they have relatives in Russia, where they were invited to come, there was a place to stay. After all, all the houses had been destroyed, and people need to live somewhere, so they agreed.

NV: According to the city council, about 20,000 civilians died in Mariupol. Is this assessment accurate?

Khadzhava: According to the photos I saw, the Russians dug mass graves. People were being buried en masse. I think the estimated figure of 20,000 people is quite real, because there are even crosses near my house. People were buried near houses. As far as we know, my mother-in-law is still in her apartment, dead. Russia's Ministry of Emergency Situation reported that there were dead in this house, and no one removed the bodies.

NV: You were in the bunker. It was hard there, but maybe that’s what saved your life?

Khadzhava: We all regretted being in the bunker when we got there, because we did not have the opportunity to leave. It’s a 15 minutes walk to get to the nearest checkpoints through the territory of the factory on normal roads. But it's very risky during a shelling attack, when you don't know where the next shell may hit. To walk through the factory with children under constant bombardment is to take responsibility for their lives. We did not dare to do that. So we were waiting for an evacuation. But after we saw that the city had been destroyed, burned down, we realized that we had been somehow protected for two months. And those soldiers who were at the factory, held the line, and are still there.

NV: The actions of the invaders clearly fall under the definition of "genocide of the Ukrainian people." After all, Ukrainians are being killed on their national grounds. What do you think?

Khadzhava: I think it's inhumane what was happening in the city. Normal people would not do that. They would not burn a peaceful city, they would not fire at nine-story buildings, they would not burn the residential sectors. Of course, war turns people into beasts. And when Russian soldiers wash themselves with people's blood, they no longer understand what they are doing. I think they went wild here.

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