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Zaporizhia (Ukraine) (AFP) – Stocks of food and water, generators, toilets, piles of mattresses and even wood stoves in bunkers deep underground – the Soviets built this Ukrainian steelworks with war in mind.

A sister plant to the Azovstal plant which is the last redoubt of Ukrainian forces in the port city of Mariupol, the Zaporizhstal plant shows how these Stalinist-era sites are designed to defy Russian invasion.

“We can stay in the shelters for a long time,” said Ihor Buhlayev, 20, a Zaporizhstal employee, dressed in his silver hooded safety gear, as molten metal flowed and sparked behind him. “I think it will give us the chance to survive.”

Buhlayev’s workplace in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia was not caught up in Russia’s internationally condemned attack, although the factory had to halt operations as the frontline drew dangerously close.

The bunkers under the giant factories of Azovstal and Zaporizhstal were built in the early 1930s, when the world was recovering from one war while heading into another, and they are meant to house thousands of workers.

Both factories are under Metinvest Holding, which is controlled by Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov.

There are 16 bunkers at the Zaporizhstal plant, and the one AFP visited was about 10 meters (about 30 feet) underground and protected by a blast door about 10 centimeters thick.

The bunkers under the giant factories were built in the early 1930s and are meant to house thousands of workers Dimitar DILKOFFAFP

The long, brightly lit room has rows of wooden benches and is said to hold 600 people.

Water tanks can flush toilets, emergency food and bottled water are stacked in a storage room, and there are chest-high stacks of firewood for the metal stove the size of a barrel of oil.

another kind of war

The bunkers under Azovstal have housed hundreds of civilians, many of whom left the site during an international rescue operation, and still provide refuge for recalcitrant forces resisting total Russian control of Mariupol.

“God forbid, we find ourselves in a situation like our colleagues from Azovstal, metalworkers like us, who ended up staying so long (at the shelter)…I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” said Alexander Lotenkov , Head of Communications. , said inside the bunker.

Above this shelter, the approximately 5.5 square kilometer site has about half the footprint of Azovstal but remains massive and the only way to move effectively between its units is on a wheeled vehicle.

The size of the site is one thing, but the sheer number of places to hide among the rows of buildings and tunnels beneath the site, as well as the vantage points from its tall structures, is another.

But the war, in this case, has not been good for business.

The war has not been good for business
The war has not been good for business Dimitar DILKOFFAFP

Reduced operations have been operational again since early April, the same period the Russians were forced by fierce Ukrainian resistance to withdraw from areas around kyiv.

Good news came this week with a US announcement to suspend tariffs on steel made in Ukraine, but the situation is still dire.

Ukraine accounts for only about 1% of U.S. steel imports, according to U.S. authorities, which had imposed the 25% protective tariff, and logistics are a major challenge for Ukrainian exporters with transport routes usual transport broken by the war.

“We will not be able to compete with other producers, because their logistics expenses are lower and in order for us to export to the United States, we now have to transport our production from Zaporizhzhia to Poland,” the director general of the company told AFP. website, Alexander Mironenko.

Steel exports have plunged to a fraction of their pre-war levels and the return to speed and market will be essential for the Ukrainian economy.

“It was one of Ukraine’s main export-oriented industries and around 50% of foreign currency earnings were generated by Ukraine’s metallurgical and mining sectors,” Mironenko added.