Tale of survival and escape from Mariupol steelworks

STORY: When Ukrainian soldiers told Nataliya Babeush she had a matter of minutes to pack up the underground bunker she had called home for more than two months, she grabbed little more than a handful of children's drawings before making her escape.

Speaking after a humanitarian convoy took her to Zaphorizhzhia in the southeast, she explained how the sketches of flowers and food had helped to cheer dozens of civilians who had sheltered for weeks in one corner of the vast, dimly lit concrete warren - five stories beneath the beseiged Asovstal steelworks in Mariupol.

“None of the children asked me for anything, they just drew. You wake up and see a drawing with pizza hanging over your bed. And you know that you don’t have any food, but you still need to cook something. We had a little flour and I baked pita bread. We put canned food on pita bread, we added some peas that one of mothers gave us. So we had pizza.”

Nataliya, a 35-year-old former plant worker, became the main cook after she and hundreds of others had sought refuge in the enormous complex soon after Russia invaded Ukraine and laid siege to the port city.

Initially, she saw the plant as a short-term shelter before a retreat to safety elsewhere.

Instead, the refuge became a trap as Azovstal became the focus of the fiercest fighting in the war.

"Here, when clothes are taken to the dry cleaners, full name and employee ID are written. I wrote down my blood type, mother's phone number, and father's phone number. Because I didn't think we would get out."

A strike knocked out all power supplies in early March, after which the group was plunged into darkness.

And as the bombing intensified, Nataliya says those underground had no contact with the outside world.

As the days went on with no idea whether an evacuation was underway, some attempted to take their fate into their own hands.

"People went at their own peril, not knowing whether they will be evacuated, whether anything is happening there.”

Russia's defense ministry and Ukraine's government did not respond to a request for comment on Nataliya's and others' testimony.

Russia has strongly denied targeting civilians in the conflict, which it calls a "special military operation".

Authorities in Kyiv say thousands of civilians have been killed in Mariupol and have accused Moscow of war crimes.

After a local ceasefire was brokered, evacuation began in early May. But those in the bunker would only be allowed to leave in stages.

For those left behind, food was running dangerously low, even with extra rations shared by the Ukrainian forces.

When the time finally came for Nataliya, she had just a few minutes' warning before she too was clambering out of the bunker.

“We walked as long as we could, children stumbled, we ran. I nearly fell, when I came I saw my legs were bruised."