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I married the love of my life in a Ukrainian bunker. Two days later he was killed

Mariupol was doomed. The relentless Russian bombing had turned the streets into ruins and the courtyards into cemeteries.

But several meters underground, in this southeastern Ukrainian city, a romance was blossoming.

Valeria Subotina, 33, had taken refuge in the massive Azovstal steelworks, the city’s last bastion, while it was surrounded by Russian forces in the spring of 2022.

He had taken refuge in one of dozens of Soviet-era air raid shelters built to withstand a nuclear war, far below the industrial plant.

“You go down a half-collapsed staircase, you advance through passages and tunnels, and you go down further and further. Finally you arrive at this concrete cube, a room,” says Valeria.

In the bunker, alongside soldiers and civilians, Valeria worked with the army’s Azov Brigade as a press officer, communicating the horrors of Russia’s months-long siege to the world’s media.

Her fiancé Andriy Subotin, a 34-year-old Ukrainian army officer, was also there, defending the plant.

There are more than 30 Soviet-era bunkers deep in the Azovstal steel plant (Dmytro Kozatsky)

The two met through work (Mariupol Border Guard Agency) about three years before the siege.

When Andriy met Valeria, it was love at first sight.

“It was special, it felt so warm to be around him,” says Valeria. “He was always kind and he never refused to help anyone.”

Andriy was an optimist, he says. He knew how to be happy and found joy in the little things: the sun, smiles, the company of friends.

“The first day we met, I realized that Andriy was very different from the others.”

After three months they moved in together and rented a small one-story house in Mariupol with a garden. The couple began to build a life together.

“We traveled a lot, we went to the mountains, we met with friends,” says Valeria.

“We fish together and spend a lot of time outdoors. We visit theaters, concerts and exhibitions. Life was full.”

They decided to get married and dreamed of a big church wedding with family and friends. They chose wedding rings.

Valeria quit her job and began cultivating her creative side, writing and publishing poems about the early years of fierce fighting with Russia in Mariupol.

“For a couple of years, before the full-scale invasion, I was really happy,” he recalls.

Everything changed in February 2022.

Spring had brought the sun to Valeria and Andriy’s garden and the first flowers were appearing.

“I was starting to enjoy spring,” says Valeria. “We knew about Putin’s threats and we realized there would be a war, but I didn’t want to think about it.”

A few days before February 24, the day the full-scale invasion began, Andriy urged Valeria to leave the city. She rejected him.

“I knew that no matter what happened, I had to be in Mariupol, I had to defend my city.”

Weeks later, both were underground, in the Azovstal bunkers.

They only saw each other from time to time, but when they did they were moments of “pure happiness.”

Portrait of Valeria Subotina.

(Valeria Subotina)

At that time, Mariupol was approaching a humanitarian catastrophe.

Infrastructure strikes had cut off water and power supplies to parts of the city and there were food shortages. Homes and civilian buildings were also destroyed.

On April 15, a large bomb was dropped on the plant. Valeria narrowly escaped death.

“They found me among corpses, the only one alive. On the one hand, a miracle, but on the other, a terrible tragedy.”

He had to spend eight days in an underground hospital at the plant with a severe concussion.

“The smell of blood and rot was everywhere,” he says.

“It was a very scary place where our wounded comrades, with amputated limbs, were lying everywhere. “They couldn’t get proper help because there were very few medical supplies.”

Andriy was deeply worried about Valeria after her injury and began planning a wedding right there in the bunker.

“It seemed like he was in a hurry, that we wouldn’t have more time,” says Valeria.

“He made a pair of wedding rings out of aluminum foil with his own hands and asked me to marry him. Of course, I said yes.

“He was the love of my life. And our rings, made of aluminum foil, were perfect.”

Closeup of Andriy and Valeria's hands with aluminum foil rings.

Andriy and Valeria got married in an improvised underground ceremony in the bunker, with aluminum foil rings (Valeria Subotina)

On May 5, a commander stationed at the plant married the couple. They had a ceremony in the bunker, wearing their uniforms as wedding attire.

Andriy promised his wife that they would have a proper wedding when they returned home, with real rings and a white dress.

Two days later, on May 7, he died in combat at the steel plant due to a Russian bombing.

Valeria didn’t find out right away.

“People often say that you feel something inside when a loved one dies. But I, on the contrary, was in a good mood. “I was married and in love.”

One of the most difficult things was having to endure a “lump of pain”, while defending his city with “his boys”, comrades, in Azovstal.

“I was a girlfriend, I was a wife and now I am a widow. The scariest word,” she says.

“I couldn’t react the way I wanted to at that moment.

“My children were always present. They sat next to me, slept next to me, brought me food and supported me,” she says. “I could only cry when they weren’t looking at me.”

At one point, he felt as if the fear of being in the war zone had been mitigated by his pain.

“I didn’t care anymore… You just understand that there are many more people waiting for you in the other world, if it exists, than there are here with you.”

Ukrainian soldiers in Azovstal finally surrendered on May 20. Valeria was among 900 prisoners of war forcibly removed from Mariupol by the Russian army.

“We looked through the bus windows at those buildings we loved, those streets we knew so well. “They destroyed and killed everything I loved: my city, my friends and my husband.”

Valeria survived 11 months of Russian captivity and has spoken of torture and abuse. Andriy often appeared in her dreams.

In April last year, she was released as part of a prisoner exchange and is now back in Ukraine.

It is difficult to say how many people died as a result of the Russian bombing of Mariupol, but local authorities say the number exceeds 20,000.

According to the UN, 90% of residential buildings were damaged or destroyed and there are still bodies in the rubble.

As far as Valeria knows, her husband’s body remains at the Azovstal steel plant in the now-occupied city.

Sometimes, he says, he looks at the sky and talks to it.

Andriy and Valeria in military uniform.

(Dmytro Kozatsky)

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