Ukrainian woman fights on after 65 days in bomb shelter with baby

Ukrainian woman fights on after 65 days in bomb shelter with baby

Standing up on a stage nearly two years from the date she began hiding under a bunker in Ukraine with her infant son, Anna Zaitseva delivered a defiant message to a crowded auditorium on Capitol Hill.

“I know that right now, in this very moment, Russians are committing a real genocide of the Ukrainian nation,” she said Wednesday. “But please don’t take us as a nation of victims. We are Ukrainians and we are a nation of fighters — and we will fight to the victory.”

Anna Zaitseva and her now 2-year-old son, Sviatoslav, survived 65 days in a crowded shelter in the Azovstal steel plant in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. They were part of a group of civilians sheltering while Ukrainian soldiers defended the plant from Russia early in the war.

The steel plant’s defenders, who were the last to surrender to Russia in Mariupol in the spring of 2022, became a symbol of resistance that year. Zaitseva has emerged as one of the city’s most resilient survivors after turning her harrowing experience into passionate global advocacy to support Ukraine.

Zaitseva, 26, plans to return to Ukraine to be a paramedic. And she is also tirelessly fighting for the freedom of her husband, Kirilo Zaitsev, a Ukrainian soldier who remains in Russian captivity, along with other Mariupol soldiers captured in 2022.

“I’m grateful to the soldiers, the Mariupol defenders, because they saved my life,” she told The Hill. “Now I have to do the same because we have around 2,000 Mariupol defenders who are still detained.”

<sup>From left, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova with Israeli-American director Evgeny Afineevsky and Anna Zaitseva. (Brad Dress)</sup>
From left, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova with Israeli-American director Evgeny Afineevsky and Anna Zaitseva. (Brad Dress)

On Tuesday, Zaitseva traveled to New York to meet with members of the United Nations for talks on securing more prisoner releases. She is also participating in a book project about the experience of the siege of Mariupol, called “Heart of Mariupol.”

Zaitseva still struggles with the pain of her experience — as does her son.

It’s especially hard as the two-year anniversary of the war approaches Saturday, which was also when the first bombs began to fall on Mariupol. Zaitseva said she and her son still struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, which she explained is even harder for a young child to cope with.

“It’s difficult. It’s practically impossible,” she said. “He has problems with sleep and noise, for example if you are a little bit loud, he puts his hands on his ears in order to protect himself.”

On Feb. 25, 2022, one day after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Zaitseva and her 2-month-old son rushed for cover from Russian bombs in a shelter underneath the Azovstal steel plant.

The shelter was small and overcrowded, a dark corridor lined with sleeping mats and bunks in the hall. There was little medicine, food and water available to keep everyone healthy. Zaitseva estimated about 75 people were in the shelter, including 17 children.

Taking care of Zaitseva’s son became a priority for the sheltering community. The Ukrainian military worked hard to deliver her baby formula for her infant son, but the experience was trying.

“I was crying because this is the worst feeling in the world. You see that children are hungry and you can do nothing,” she said. “This is really a shame of our world that in the 21st century, children are struggling because of hunger, children are struggling because of missile attacks.”

It was too risky to leave the shelter because bombs were constantly landing across Mariupol, which prevented at least one escape attempt, Zaitseva said. Inside, people struggled to keep the shelter lit and were also cold without blankets, forcing them to use uniforms at the steel plant for warmth, while shards of glass, shattered by the bombing, scattered the shelter.

On April 30, an agreement was finally reached to evacuate the civilians through a humanitarian corridor. Russian soldiers were accompanied into the plant by humanitarian response personnel from the United Nations and the Red Cross.

But Zaitseva was not yet free. She had to pass through a filtration camp, where she was forced to strip naked as Russians searched for Nazi tattoos, she said. Zaitseva said she was interrogated by Russia’s Federal Security Service.

During her time at the camp, Zaitseva was forbidden from speaking Ukrainian. And she spent at least one night in a school, where she overheard Russians saying they wanted to kill Ukrainian soldiers.

“It was awful,” she said.

She finally secured freedom from Russian forces after reaching a neutral area around the city of Zaporizhzhia, and eventually made it into Ukrainian hands.

Zaitseva now lives in Berlin, Germany. Her parents live in Kyiv. And her husband remains in Russian captivity.

“I have no news about my husband,” she said. “It’s forbidden for prisoners to speak with relatives, to call relatives, to exchange letters.”

Zaitseva noted this violates a section of the Geneva Convention, which requires authorities to allow prisoners of war to communicate with relatives and loved ones.

Zaitseva also lamented the destruction of the city she grew up in, a once-bustling coastal town on the Sea of Azov, which connects to the Black Sea. Like other Ukrainian cities that endured heavy fighting, Mariupol was reduced to rubble.

“They raped my city, they killed my city,” she said.

Zaitseva’s experience attracted the attention of the international media, as she willingly shared details — in fluent English — about the horrors she faced to shine a light on Russian aggression.

Her story was told in greater detail by Evgeny Afineevsky, an Israeli American director who was born in Russia and produced the documentary “Winter on Fire” about Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan Revolution.

Zaitseva’s account is featured in his 2022 film “Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” which follows the Russian invasion that same year and the impact it continues to have across Ukraine.

Afineevsky said he wanted to include Zaitseva in the documentary film because in his work, he tries to build a “human bridge between humans.”

“For me to give a voice to the mothers of Ukraine is really important,” he said. “To connect to other mothers, they can feel the pain, they can feel what she goes through every night … That’s the human bridge that I tried to create.”

Zaitseva’s story is also included in the Museum of Civilian Voices by the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation, which records stories of Ukrainian civilians affected by the conflict with Russia going back to 2014.

Zaitseva remains confident in Ukraine’s fight. She has pushed for the U.S. to pass a new package of aid to Ukraine, which remains in limbo amid Republican demands over the southern border.

The U.S. “has to help us, because first of all, Ukraine is right now a shield against Russian actions, a shield to protect whole civilized world,” she said. “We are not asking you to die for [our] country. I’m asking you to give more weapons supply.”

“Only in such a way can we get a victory,” she added. “I believe in victory, otherwise if we don’t win, it could mean the whole civilized world falls.”

After “Freedom on Fire” screened for a private audience on Capitol Hill this week, Afineevsky  invited Zaitseva up to share her thoughts.

Zaitseva exudes an energy and confidence that is not conveyed in the documentary interview, at which point she had just survived a horrifying experience in the shelter. Footage of the days underneath Azovstal shows her in the dark, rocking her infant son in her arms, trying to stay alive.

“I’m here in order to [represent] the voice of people who are … voiceless, the prisoners of war. My husband is among them,” she said on Capitol Hill. “We don’t know if our relatives are alive. We don’t know in which conditions they are held.

“I’m here to remind you that we need your help in the returning process of our relatives — in the returning process of our heroes.”

After a round of applause, she had two last words: “Slava Ukraini!”

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