‘No one came out of there unchanged’: the Ukrainian soldiers who survived the siege of Azovstal

Thousands took shelter in the tunnels of the steelworks in Mariupol for more than two months as Russia bombarded it with missiles. It remains unclear how many are now in captivity

If one battle more than any other has defined the brutality of Russia’s war in Ukraine, it is the three-month siege of Mariupol’s steelworks this spring, and the harrowing experience of its last defenders. Holed up in Azovstal, one of Europe’s largest metal-producing plants, hundreds of outnumbered, outgunned, wounded and emaciated Ukrainian soldiers, and more than 1,000 civilians, resisted one of Moscow’s fiercest military attacks for more than 80 days.

“No one came out of there unchanged,” says Oksana, an Azovstal employee who asked not to give her full name. “They were one person when they went in, and another person when they came out.”

Soon after the Russian invasion – in late February – Mariupol was one of the first major cities to be encircled. Viewed as a key Kremlin objective, the city was the scene of a siege that the Red Cross has defined as “apocalyptic”. The outskirts of the city became the site of a mass grave, and the bodies of many more men, women and children were either dumped in the streets or remain buried beneath the rubble.

Ukrainian authorities estimate that 22,000 people died during the fighting. Some survivors took refuge in the Azovstal steelworks, an industrial site covering an area of about four square miles, including a network of underground tunnels. With the civilians were about 3,000 soldiers, many of whom were members of the notorious Azov brigade, which, at its inception in 2014, included far-right volunteers, some with neo-Nazi affiliations. In recent years the brigade has been fully integrated into the Ukrainian military, but for President Vladimir Putin it was the perfect propaganda opportunity to convince the public that his narrative about the “nazification” of Ukraine was true, and that his army would hunt them down like rats. Never would Putin have imagined that the last defenders of Mariupol would defy his plan for so long.

Cut off from the world and low on food, the defenders of Azovstal were holed up in the tunnels of the steelworks for over two months while the Russians launched rockets and incendiary bombs at the site.

By mid-May, their fate had become uncertain. The only evidence of survivors came at the end of the siege, when, before his capture, photographer Dmytro Kozatskyi, an Azov Regiment fighter, released his images of the siege on social media. The extraordinary photos show bearded soldiers, many wounded, some with missing limbs.

While the civilians were evacuated, the Ukrainian soldiers were sent to a penal colony in Olenivka, in Donetsk. The Kremlin foreshadowed their death sentence.

But then, in September, Kyiv confirmed that the commander of the Azov Battalion, Lt Colonel Denys Prokopenko, was among 215 Ukrainian prisoners of war released in a prisoner swap, the largest such exchange since the start of the war. In return, Russia received 55 prisoners from Ukraine, including the country’s most valuable Russian prisoner, Viktor Medvedchuk, the former Ukrainian MP and an ally of Putin, accused by Ukraine of high treason.

Ukraine’s agreements with Russia stipulated that the released leaders of the Azov Regiment would remain until the end of the war in Turkey, which played a role in the exchange. Some, however, were able to leave the country, including Kozatskyi, who is thought to be in the US. Contacting them has been practically impossible, however, because of the security measures put in place by the Ukrainian government to protect the soldiers given their precarious physical and psychological condition.

In a rare public interview, another ex-prisoner, Mykhailo Dianov, photographed with a bandage on his broken right arm and weighing 40kg less after his detention in the Russian-controlled penal colony, told Sky News he thought he would never survive: “We thought this every day. At Azovstal we thought it was the end.

“After a month of starvation, when you close your eyes, you forget about your family, everything. The only thing you think about is food.”

Talking about the months of captivity, Dianov said: “They treated us like animals. It was impossible to eat.”

Dianov has reportedly also travelled to the US, where he will undergo a long convalescence after surgery on his arm. Before the war, he was a pianist; his dream is to play again.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has promised that “all Mariupol defenders will be taken home”, but it is unclear how many of them remain captives of the Russians. Local media estimates that about 1,000 Azov soldiers are still prisoners of war. And, according to Ukrainian officials, the bodies of an unknown number of soldiers remain buried under the rubble of Azovstal.


Lorenzo Tondo

The GuardianTramp

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