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AP gives voice to evacuees of Mariupol steel plant siege

From left, Serhii Tsybulchenko, Ihor Trotsak, Tetyana Trotsak and Elina Tsybulchenko, who were evacuated from the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, arrive by bus at a reception center for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia, May 3, 2022. In the earliest days of Russia’s invasion Elina, 54, was shocked by the bombardment of her city. Like many residents with memories of civil defense drills, she knew the steel plant had the only real bunkers in town. When she, her husband Serhii, her daughter and her son-in-law decided to hole up in the bunker under her office, she assumed they would stay only a few days. They were there for two months. (AP Photo / Francisco Seco)

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An all-formats AP team delivered the first extended account of life in the warren of bunkers under the Mariupol steel plant where war raged overhead. Reporter Cara Anna, photographer Francisco Seco and local translator Valerii Rezik were determined to capture the stories of evacuees from the the bombarded Azovstal steel plant, the last Ukrainian holdout in the ruined city of Mariupol.

In Zaporizhzhia the team staked out a car park for days with a growing number of journalists poised for a “safe passage” operation evacuating civilians from the plant. The stakeout was complicated by coy United Nations officials who did not want to share details of the operation for fear that it might be jeopardized. Only by asking directly if they needed to sleep in the car park did the team prompt off-the-record hints on timing of the evacuees’ arrival.

When the buses arrived,Anna spent nearly two hours transmitting live video via the Bambuser app,and Rezik,joined by video journalist Yesica Fisch,sought out contacts and,crucially, determined the hotel where the evacuees would be staying. Seco and fellow photographer Evgeniy Maloletka contributed photos.

The following day,in that hotel lobby,they bumped into the very woman Anna had been hoping to find after filming her the previous day. Elina Tsybulchenko sat down with the team for about two hours. “Imagine four concrete walls …,” she began,and with some help from family members,patiently described life below ground. When she described the feeling of emerging from the bunkers on occasion and “visiting the sky,” Anna knew she had her lead. She wrote the narrative — both harrowing and inspiring — the next morning after taking an overnight train back to Kyiv, completing her last assignment before leaving after seven and a half weeks covering the war in Ukraine.

The story understandably scored near the top of AP’s reader engagement for the week.

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