'Half [of] me is dead': A Ukrainian survivor of the Azovstal siege waits to reunite her family

She outlived the brutal siege of the Azovstal steel plant in the early days of Russia's invasion, caring for a baby in a darkened underground bunker. Now, Anna Zaitseva struggles to keep hope alive — for herself, her family and Ukraine.

Anna Zaitseva outlived a cruel siege only to see her husband captured by the Russians

Pro-Russian troops, including fighters with the Chechen special forces unit, stand in front of the destroyed administration building of the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol, Ukraine on April 21. (Chingis Kondarov/Reuters)

Anna Zaitseva and her husband Kirilo had only a few stolen moments together last winter in a deep, dark underground shelter.

Those fleeting, poignant reunions were over before they started. They happened amid the cacophony of shelling and earth-shaking airstrikes as the Russian military's noose tightened around their hometown, the southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.

The young couple saw each other only twice for five minutes each time during Anna Zaitseva's 65 days trapped in the dank shelters of the sprawling Azovstal Iron and Steel Works — a name and place now synonymous with the country's fierce resistance to the Russian invasion.

The willowy 26-year-old French language teacher — who also has an almost perfect command of English — fled along with her three-month-old baby boy to the industrial fortress as the invasion unfolded on Feb. 24.

Kirilo Zaitsev was a steelworker and also one of the Azovstal plant's defenders.

Anna Zaitseva kept her baby alive in a bunker under the Azovstal steel plant. Her husband, one of the plant's defenders, is still alive. 'I don't know if he hasn't access to proper food, water, medicine. Is he tortured or not?' (CBC)

The last time the couple shared an embrace was in mid-March, when the city they'd grown up in was about to be encircled.

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"[Kirilo] knew it already," Anna told CBC News in a recent interview.

"I asked him if I would have possibility to see him again. And he will just keep on silent. He looked at me directly, he said to me that he loves me. And he was gone."

Her husband, Kirilo Zaitsev, seen last spring during the defence of the Azovstal plant. (Submitted by Anna Zaitseva)

The siege of Mariupol and the Azovstal works captured the world's attention and galvanized Ukrainians during the initial Russian onslaught. While the city around the plant was reduced to a smoking ruin, its defenders refused to surrender until May 17.

A wounded Kirilo Zaitsev was whisked into captivity and an uncertain fate.

A former marine, he left the military at his wife's insistence so they could begin a family.

As they were awakened last winter by the first missile strikes marking the beginning of the full-on invasion, he told his young wife he would join the local Azov Regiment, a unit within Ukraine's National Guard which had its beginnings as a far-right, ultra-nationalist battalion.

In this photo provided by Azov Special Forces Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard Press Office, an Azov Special Forces Regiment serviceman, injured during fighting against Russian forces, poses for a photographer inside the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol on May 10. (Dmytro (Orest) Kozatsky/Azov Special Forces Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard Press Office/The Associated Press)

Anna said her husband volunteered because of his previous military background and chose the closest unit.

"I had very mixed feelings, because from one point of view, I'm proud that he's a military, but from another point of view, I understood that I will be alone with my child," she said.

She has not heard from him since his capture. She has no idea where he is. In random texts from unknown numbers, he tells her he loves her.

"I don't know if he hasn't access to proper food, water, medicine. Is he tortured or not?" she said.

Buried alive

Before she and her son, Sviatoslav, were evacuated through a humanitarian corridor, life underground at the plant was a haze of hunger, cold and misery.

At one point, the stress of the siege saw her breast milk dry up; the plant's defenders scrambled to find enough baby formula to keep her child alive. A direct hit on their bunker buried them inside, leaving the young woman with a concussion.

A Ukrainian service member waits under siege within the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works complex in Mariupol, on May 10. (Dmytro Orest Kozatskyi/Azov regiment press service/Reuters)

When they emerged from the deep tunnels to board a waiting bus, her son had spent so much time underground that he didn't know what sunlight was. Anna had to explain it to him.

Evacuated from the ruins of the steel plant through a humanitarian corridor and processed through a Russian filtration camp, Anna was pulled aside because her husband was a member of the Azov Regiment. She said she was forced to strip naked while three officers of the FSB — the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB — took turns examining her for neo-Nazi tattoo symbols and interrogated her for hours.

Anna said she believes she was saved from further humiliation — or worse — by the presence of the International Red Cross.

"I can say that half [of] me is dead already," she said. "It was killed in the Azovstal plant."

The lingering effects of the concussion still bother her.

"You're in 65 days," she said. "I had this thought that I could be dead, my son could be dead. And definitely, I'm a new person now."

She said she often wonders how the experience has changed her. 

"Maybe I'm stronger," Anna said. "But definitely right now, I have this power in me to fight, to fight for the people who are right now voiceless, who are right now in captivity. To fight right now for the children who are taken by force to Russia."

Thousands of children have been found in the basements of war-torn cities like Mariupol. Some are orphans. Others have been separated from their parents.

A boy evacuated from Mariupol's Azovstal plant arrives at a registration and processing area for internally displaced people in Zaporizhzhia on May 3. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia claims that these children don't have parents or guardians to look after them, or that they can't be reached. 

But an investigation by the Associated Press found that Russian officials have deported Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-held territories without consent. AP reported that Russian officials lied to these kids by claiming they weren't wanted by their parents, used them for propaganda purposes and gave them Russian families and citizenship.

Anna and her son Sviatoslav. (Submitted by Anna Zaitseva)

Anna Zaitseva's story is one of several featured in the documentary Freedom on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom, by U.S.-based filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky.

The film is a stark, gritty look at the humanitarian crisis caused by the war.

"We used to know that war is tragedy and soldiers," Afneensky said. "This movie is not about tragedies and soldiers.

"It's about human stories. It's a mother who's praying every night that her child will wake up the next morning, and they'll be alive. It's a doctor who tried to save the lives of people … It's volunteers. It's journalists like you who deliver stories on the front lines."

The documentary — which was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and in Halifax at last weekend's security forum, as well as in New York and Venice — is an urgent call to the world's democracies, Afneensky said.

"Because if we neglect the situation, like we neglected the last eight years, what else happens?" he said, referring to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. "What else can happen?"


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.