- Laura Bicker
- BBC News, Dnipro
Kateryna closes her eyes and takes a deep breath when I ask about her husband, a military man who is still believed to be in a maze of tunnels under the Azovstal metallurgical plant in Mariupol.
Up to this point, she was calm and patient. She also spent more than two months in one of the bunkers under a huge industrial facility with her two sons, where it seemed the bombing would never end.
“The missiles were so heavy that it seemed that the walls of the bunker were moving and the rooms themselves were getting smaller,” she said.
“Sometimes there was an hour’s break, and we hoped that maybe that’s all. Maybe that’s the end of it. But no. They kept going.”
Behind us are two of her boys, ages 6 and 11, playing with weapons made of paper and duct tape.
“They get used to being outside again,” says Kateryna. “Seeing them running in the sun again is the best feeling in the world.”
She remembers that all three were blinded by the light when they finally came out after two months in the dark under a steel plant.
When two guys run around the park, they pretend to be fighting with the Russians. At one point, they fall to the ground and shout “shut your ears.” One shouts “everything is clean” and they get up and start running again.
It’s a little scary to look at.
Even games with weapons look realistic, as they pretend to put new ammunition into the gun. They obviously saw it all directly.
Kateryna believes that their father is still at the factory. She spoke to him earlier this week, and he was as cheerful as ever.
“He is a very strong man, strong in spirit. He has supported me all my life,” she said.
It was love at first sight, she said with a smile. Their hometown of Mariupol is now destroyed by Russian bombs.
Kateryna first took her two boys to Azovstal in early March, right after the first strikes on the port city.
She thought they would hide there for a day or two, a maximum of a week. But as the bombing intensified, they had to stay underground for more than 60 days.
Stocks were running low. There was a lack of food and water – as well as information. When Russian troops surrounded the city, she and about 30 other people in their bunker were cut off from the rest of the world.
Her husband visited her from time to time as he and about a thousand other Ukrainian fighters continued to defend the metallurgical plant, their last position.
“Every time he came to us, he always told us to hold on, encouraged everyone, joked, laughed, told us that we should not worry and that everything is fine.
“It was scary because they came and went under fire. It was strange to see them so happy, but I don’t think it could have been otherwise. In terms of spirit, I think he’s one of the strongest there.”
Kateryna was evacuated from Azovstal as part of an operation to liberate civilians organized by the Red Cross and the United Nations.
I first met her at the evacuation center in Zaporizhia. She got off the bus with only a backpack on her back – and that was all her things.
“There were several times when we lost hope that we would ever get out,” she told me at the time.
Now, two weeks later, she is trying to plan for her family’s future.
Her house was destroyed, she spent two months in a cold and smelly bunker near a metallurgical plant, and now she is waiting for news about her husband.
And yet it continues to hold.
“I am confident that we will be fine. I am confident that Ukraine will win and remain an independent state,” she said.
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