Hanna's harrowing testimony and footage forms part of a new BBC Panorama documentary, Mariupol: The People’s Story, which tells the story of the "apocalyptic" invasion through those who lived it
How young mum and baby survived two months trapped underground in 'apocalyptic' Mariupol
In the deep, dark labyrinth of tunnels beneath Mariupol’s Azovstal steel works, new mother Hanna filmed in the gloom as she and her baby sheltered there with some 1000 more for over two months.
In the end, those civilians submerged in this subterranean hell, seeking shelter after the Russian besiegement of Ukraine ’s southern port city at the start of the war, were surviving on a spoonful of pasta, salt and water as relentless bombs obliterated this dank last bastion of ferocious resistance.
“The children were acutely hungry,” she says. “They drew pictures of food.”
The teacher, 25, only married a year, had said goodbye to her husband, Kyrylo, who had gone to fight and was stationed elsewhere in this warren of bunkers.
He could only visit her and their son, Svyatoslav, twice, bringing nappies, food, and a book - Robinson Crusoe, her favourite. Tiny Svyatoslav was the youngest person left fighting for life in this isolated darkness, which quickly felt like an abandoned island.
“You wake up and realise this isn’t a dream, this is your life, this is everything you have and maybe you’ll spend your last days here,” Hanna recalls.
“When you’re down there, time disappears. You can’t tell day from night.
“The days feel like one big Groundhog Day.”
She and her son were eventually evacuated after a bomb collapsed the works, burying them in rubble, killing others.
Her husband, with his unit, was later evacuated after Russia ’s bombardment finally claimed the courageous city in May. He is now a prisoner, and we are not using Hanna’s surname for his protection.
Hanna’s harrowing testimony and footage forms part of a new BBC Panorama documentary, Mariupol: The People’s Story to be shown tomorrow night.
It tells the story of Mariupol’s invasion through those who lived it, breathed it, survived it, and lost loved ones before their eyes.
Those who, as their footage shows, resorted to making makeshift toilets out of tyres on the street and cooking communally over fire amid the rubble. Who saw dead bodies strewn, frozen to the ground.
As Oksana Kyrsanova, 29, an anaesthetist at Mariupol Regional Hospital during the siege explains: “Only people from Mariupol can understand this hell.”
The key Ukrainian port city was one of Russia’s first targets after they invaded Ukraine on February 24.
For almost three months the world watched in horror as it was besieged.
The situation was described as “apocalyptic” by the Red Cross.
Ukraine says 95% of the city was destroyed, and to date, 25,000 civilians are believed to have been killed as Russia targeted their homes, their shelters, their hospitals, around 5,000-7,000 dying under rubble.
Accountant Olga Sagirova, 48, recalls the devastating experience of being buried in her cellar with her husband, Valery, after missiles struck their home.
He died beside her.
“When my hearing came back I could hear my husband’s voice,” she remembers. She was unable to move to go to him. He began to wheeze and then fell silent.
“In that moment I didn’t want to live,” she admits, recalling how she tried to slit her own wrist with a piece of rock.
Her parents also died in the house.
It took many hours for her neighbours to free Olga.
She is now a refugee in the Netherlands and suspects her husband’s body, and theirs, remains under debris.
Panomara’s programme makers this week revealed more than 1,500 new graves have been dug near the city in Staryi Krym to the northwest, revealed by analysis of new satellite images.
The Centre for Information Resilience now estimates the area holds more than 4,600 graves.
The siege only ended on May 16 when Azov Regiment, based at the steel works, were forced to evacuate.
Hanna, a teacher, cannot know whether she will ever see her husband again.
“I remember saying goodbye,” she recalls. “He said he loved me. He looked at me as if for the last time.
“I asked if he’d return, he didn’t respond.”
In a final telephone conversation after she escaped, while he was still underground, he said “I should find another man, another father for Svyatoslav,” Hanna recalls.
Oksana, who left her husband and son to work in the hospital has been reunited with them and remains in Kyiv after escaping her hospital when Russian troops arrived. She literally ran for her life, her footage capturing her panicked stumbles.
It was to she and her team pregnant women were rushed from the city’s maternity hospital when Russian missiles hit it on March 9.
Oksana and her colleagues received a woman called Irina, photographed being carried by stretcher.
Her baby was delivered stillborn, and she later died.
“I vividly remember her taking my hand, grabbing it even. She said ‘Please don’t save me, I don’t want to live’,” says Oksana.
“The baby was taken out showing no signs of life. I saw tears streaming down the faces of my colleagues. It is the most terrifying thing I have ever seen in my life. Packing a young woman in a black bag with her baby who we laid over her breast.”
Oksana, racked by sobs, cannot continue talking.
On March 16, Russian airstrikes hit Mariupol’s theatre where over 1000 civilians sheltered, awaiting evacuation. The strike came despite the word ‘children’ written large and in Russian outside on the ground. Some 600 were killed.
Viktoria Dubovitskaya and her two young children escaped.
She tells of the moments after the bomb hit, and initially not being able to find her daughter.
“My son was screaming ‘Mummy’ but I didn’t hear my daughter’s voice,” she says.
She finally heard the little girl say ‘Mummy’ and the threesome ran.
She and her son Artem, six, talk with blank faces, as if still numb.
Artem is heartbreakingly matter-of-fact.
“We were stepping over dead bodies,” he describes.
He says to his mother: “Do you remember the way they were lying?” before he slumps forward to imitate them.
These survivors of the siege of Mariupol will never unsee what they saw.
Not even the very youngest.
An hour-long special BBC Panorama programme, Mariupol: The People’s Story, will be broadcast tomorrow night on BBC One at 9pm. A feature-length version of the film will be released on BBC iPlayer