(Zaporijjia) In a bunker several meters underground, water and food supplies, piles of mattresses, toilets and wood stoves show that the Soviets had built this Ukrainian steel factory with one idea in mind: war.
Posted at 6:23 AM
Like the Azovstal factory, the last Ukrainian redoubt in the port city of Mariupol, the Zaporizhstal factory shows how these Stalin-era sites were designed in anticipation of an invasion by the USSR.
“We can stay in the shelters for a long time,” said Zaporizhstal employee Ihor Buhlayev, 20, in his silver safety gear. “I think this gives us a chance to survive,” he says, as the melting of metals sparks behind him.
This metallurgical complex, located in Zaporijjia in the south of the country, was not captured by Russian troops. But the factory was forced to cease operations as the front approached dangerously.
The underground bunkers of the Azovstal and Zaporizhstal power plants were built in the early 1930s, a time when the world was recovering from one war while en route to another, and are intended to house thousands of workers.
Both factories are owned by Metinvest Holding and controlled by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov.
Zaporizhstal has sixteen bunkers. AFP’s is about ten meters deep, protected by a ten centimeter thick anti-blast door.
The room, long and light, has rows of wooden benches and can accommodate up to 600 people.
Water tanks are used to flush toilets, emergency food and water bottles are stacked in a storage room and piles of wood for the stove the size of a barrel of oil are chest-deep.
“God save us”
The bunkers under Azovstal have housed hundreds of civilians, many of whom left the site during an international evacuation operation, and still provide a haven for forces opposing Russia for full control of the strategic city of Mariupol.
“God forbid we end up in a situation like our colleagues from Azovstal, metal workers like us, who stayed so long (in shelter)[…] I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” said Alexander Lotenkov, head of the communications department.
The terrain of about 5.5 square kilometers is half the area of Azovstal. It nevertheless remains huge, and the only way to move effectively between its units is to use a vehicle.
The size of the site is one thing. Another example is the sheer number of shelters between the rows of buildings and tunnels under the site, as well as the vantage points from the tall buildings.
But the war passed, and even if Zaporizhstal did not meet the same fate as Azovstal, things suffered.
They have resumed since the beginning of April, at the same time as Russian troops withdrew from the Kiev area, following fierce resistance from the Ukrainians.
Another good news came this week with the US announcement of the suspension of customs duties on Ukrainian steel, but the situation is still difficult.
According to US authorities, Ukraine accounts for only about 1% of US steel imports, which had imposed protective tariffs of 25%. And logistics has become a major challenge for Ukrainian exporters as the usual transport routes have been destroyed by the war.
“We will not be able to compete with other producers because their logistics costs are lower and in order to export to the United States, we now have to transport the Zaporizhzhya production through Poland,” said the general manager. AFP of the site, Alexander Mironenko.
Steel exports have fallen to a fraction of pre-war levels and it will be essential for the Ukrainian economy to get back to the old pace and rebuild the market.
“It was one of the most important export industries, […] about 50% of the foreign currency revenues were generated by the Ukrainian metallurgical and mining sectors,” adds Mironenko.