She spent 2 months underground with her infant son — and 1,000 other people — as Russia attacked Mariupol

‘When you’re down there, time disappears. You can’t tell day from night.’

‘When you’re down there, time disappears. You can’t tell day from night’

‘When you’re down there, time disappears. You can’t tell day from night:’ Inside a bunker in Mariupol

1 year ago
Duration 2:09
Hanna and her infant son lived in an underground bunker for more than two months. She shares what it was like in the documentary Mariupol: The People’s Story

In the documentary Mariupol: The People's Story, residents recount their experiences during the siege of the city, from the first bombshells to the final days at the besieged Azovstal Iron & Steel Works.

 Hanna was a teacher in Mariupol, Ukraine. 

"Mariupol was flourishing," she said in the documentary. "It was the pearl of the region." The city was home to successful iron- and steelworks and a deepwater port, plus a thriving arts and culture scene. It was a popular vacation spot on the Sea of Azov.

But that changed when Russia attacked the city in early 2022. Officials say for almost three months, Mariupol was subject to constant shelling: thousands of buildings were destroyed and at least 25,000 residents were killed.

As Russian troops approached Mariupol in February, Hanna's husband, Kyrylo, was working at Azovstal Iron & Steel Works, so she and their infant son were able to move into the plant's underground bunker. 

"We packed everything we could," she said. "We took baby food and nappies with us. There was enough food for just a week."

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According to Hanna, there were about 1,000 civilians in the bunker; her son, Svyatoslav, was the youngest. 

On Feb. 28, Kyrylo volunteered to join the Azov Regiment — a military unit, within Ukraine's National Guard, whose fighters were the last defenders of Mariupol in May. (Azov started out as a volunteer militia with far-right origins. Russia has labelled it a terrorist group, but Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the regiment an official army of the state.)

Hanna and her son stayed in the bunker. Kyrylo visited them twice, bringing food, diapers and formula. 

"When you're down there, time disappears. You can't tell day from night," she said. "The days feel like one big Groundhog Day, just like the film. The last time Kyrylo visited our bunker was on March 11th. I didn't recognize him at first. I just saw a soldier in a helmet with a small beard. He was thin. 

"I watched him kiss my son on the cheek and wondered why a stranger would kiss my son." 

Hanna spent more than two months in an underground bunker in Mariupol with about 1,000 other civilians; her son, Svyatoslav, was the youngest. (Robin Barnwell/Mariupol:The People's Story)

'Day after day, we had less and less physical strength'

On the 61st day of the siege of Mariupol, a bomb dropped on the bunker. 

"The last thing I remember was some kind of light," Hanna said. "I felt as if everything was falling on my head. Everything began to fall apart. The five-storey building collapsed. Both exits were blocked. We realized we were underground with no way out.

"Some cried; some began to pray. Then several soldiers from the military bunker arrived and started digging us out. There were many dead and wounded." 

Back in the bunker, it became difficult for Hanna to wake up every day. "Day after day, we had less and less physical strength," she said. "Our breakfast was a spoonful of pasta, water and salt. The children were very hungry. They drew pictures of food." 

'We thought everyone had forgotten us'

After more than two months underground, an evacuation of civilians from Azovstal was arranged. 

"Finally, we saw the sky. We felt a breath of wind," said Hanna. "After sitting there for two and a half months, thinking you might die and never see the sun and sky again."

In a Ukrainian TV interview filmed just after Hanna left the bunker, she said, "To be honest, we had already lost hope. We thought everyone had forgotten us, that we'd never get out of there." 

On May 17, the Azov Regiment surrendered. Kyrylo and hundreds of other soldiers were taken prisoner by Russian forces.

"I kept thinking the worst, that their bunker had collapsed and he was slowly dying from lack of air," said Hanna. "But a few days later, a friend from France sent me a video where I saw my husband. He left Azovstal on crutches."

When the documentary was filmed, Hanna and Svyatoslav were in Germany; they hadn't seen Kyrylo since leaving Mariupol. 

"I live, waiting for good news that my husband will return," she said. "Every night, I imagine this, seeing him in front of my eyes."


Vanessa Caldwell is a producer, writer and editor with CBC Docs in Toronto.

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