Water and food reserves, generators, toilets, lots of mattresses or wood stoves in bunkers deep underground. In Ukraine’s Soviet-designed steel mills, everything is designed with war in mind.

Very similar in style to the Azovstal plant where the last Ukrainian forces are entrenched in the port city of Mariupol, the Zaporizhstal factory shows how these Stalinist-era industries are designed to defy invasion.

“We can stay in the shelters for a long time,” said factory employee Igor Buglayev, 20, wearing silver overalls and a safety hood. “I think it will give us a chance to survive,” he adds as molten metal flows and sparks behind him.

Buglayev’s workplace in the southern city of Zaporizhia was never taken over by the Russians, but he was forced to halt his operations as the front line grew perilously close.

The vast underground network under the Azovstal and Zaporizhstal plants was built in the early 1930s, when the world was recovering from one war and preparing for another, and was designed to shelter thousands of workers. The two mills are owned by the Metinvest conglomerate, controlled by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov.

In the Zaporizhstal complex there are 16 bunkers. The one that AFP visited is 10 meters underground and is protected by a 10-centimeter-thick anti-explosive door.

The long room, lit with white light, features rows of wooden benches and can hold up to 600 people. It has water tanks for flushing toilets, emergency food and bottled water in a store, and chest-high stacks of firewood to fuel a large metal stove.

The bunkers located below Azovstal sheltered hundreds of civilians, evacuated during international rescue operations by the UN and Red Cross. Now there are still Ukrainian soldiers resisting the Russian offensive on Mariupol.

“May God forbid we find ourselves in a situation like our colleagues in Azovstal, metal workers like us, who ended up staying so long… I don’t wish it on anyone,” says Alexander Lotenkov, head of the communications department from inside the bunker. .

On the surface, the complex has an extension of 5.5 square kilometers. Although it is half of Azovstal, the distances between one place and another can only be traveled by vehicle.

In addition, the enclosure has countless places to hide between its rows of buildings and its long tunnels and numerous tall structures that function as observation points.

The war, however, has not been good for business. The operation resumed at reduced capacity in early April, in the same period that Russian forces withdrew from the outskirts of kyiv in the face of strong Ukrainian resistance. Some good news came this week with the suspension of tariffs on Ukrainian steel in the US. But the situation remains complex.

Ukraine represents only 1% of steel imports from the United States, according to the authorities of the North American country, and the transport of the merchandise is a great challenge, especially in times of war.

“We will not be able to compete with other producers, because their logistics costs are lower and for us to be able to export to the United States, we have to take our production from Zaporizhia to Poland,” the factory’s general director, Alexander Mironenko, told AFP. .

Steel exports plummeted from their prewar levels. Revitalizing them and returning to the market would be crucial for Ukraine’s economy. “It was one of the mainly export-oriented industries and about 50% of foreign exchange earnings were generated by Ukraine’s mining and metallurgical sectors,” Mironenko said.

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