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The Guardian - UK

‘Defenders of Mariupol are the heroes of our time’: the battle that gripped the world

The city of Mariupol and the Azovstal steel plant on May 10
The city of Mariupol and the Azovstal steel plant. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Cut off from the world and low on food and ammunition, many of the hundreds of defenders of the Azovstal steel plant in Mauripol were wounded, some missing limbs. Their capitulation had been inevitable for weeks.

That moment came late on Monday as more than 260 – bearded, filthy, emaciated, and including 51 severely injured – laid down their arms and were evacuated amid a wider concession of defeat after 82 days of fighting in the besieged port city.

Ukrainian fighters at the Azovstal steelworks of Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
Ukrainian fighters at the Azovstal steelworks. Photograph: Ukrainian President Administrati/AFP/Getty Images

“The ‘Mariupol’ garrison has fulfilled its combat mission,” the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said in a statement. “The supreme military command ordered the commanders of the units stationed at Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel … Defenders of Mariupol are the heroes of our time,” it added.

And while several hundred fighters remained inside the plant, their commanders admitted their mission had “concluded” while officials continued with negotiations to “evacuate them”.

Late on Monday, five buses carrying troops from Azovstal were seen arriving in nearby Russian-controlled Novoazovsk. In one, marked with a Z like many Russian military vehicles in Ukraine, men were stacked on stretchers on three levels.

One of the Ukrainian soldiers under siege in the Mariupol steelworks Azovstal
One of the Ukrainian soldiers under siege in the Azovstal steelworks. Photograph: Dmytro Kozatsky/Azov Special Forces Regiment

In a long-denied victory for the Kremlin, a battle that has gripped the world’s attention appeared finally over, leaving a city in ruins and perhaps thousands of civilians dead.

With its urban areas sprawling along the coastline of the Sea of Azov in the shape of a comma, the siege of Mariupol came to define one of the most brutal episodes in Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

It was one of the first major cities to be encircled and viewed as one of the Kremlin’s key objectives both for its economic importance and as a stepping stone in building a land bridge from Russia to Russian-occupied Crimea.

A bus carrying wounded service members of Ukrainian forces from the besieged Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol drives under escort of the pro-Russian military in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict upon arrival in Novoazovsk, Ukraine May 16
A bus carrying wounded Ukrainian forces from the besieged Azovstal steel mill drives under the escort of the pro-Russian military. Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters
A handout still image taken from a handout video made available by the Russian Defence Ministry’s press service shows Ukrainian servicemen carry a wounded comrade as they are being evacuated from the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, 17 May
A still image taken from a handout video made available by the Russian defence ministry’s press service shows Ukrainian servicemen carrying a wounded comrade as they are evacuated. Photograph: Russian Defence Ministry Press Service Handout/EPA

The capture of Mariupol loomed large in the Kremlin’s imagination for propaganda purposes too: as the home base of the Azov brigade, which at its 2014 inception, when the war in Donbas began, included far-right volunteers, some with neo-Nazi affiliations. (In recent years the brigade has been fully integrated into the Ukrainian military).

It was the sheer levels of violence inflicted on the city and on its civilian population day after day, however, that has kept Mariupol in the headlines.

The few who have been able to enter the city, including the International Committee for the Red Cross, have described conditions in the city as “apocalyptic”.

Those civilians who have managed to escape in the weeks of the encirclement have often had to run a gauntlet of Russian shell fire, even when humanitarian corridors were supposed to have been negotiated.

Health facilities, including the city’s maternity hospitals, have been hit in lethal attacks. In March, in one of the most grisly incidents, the Donetsk regional drama theatre in the city, where large numbers of civilians were sheltering was bombed, killing hundreds.

Marianna Vishegirskaya stands outside a maternity hospital in Mariupol. She gave birth the following day.
Marianna Vishegirskaya stands outside a maternity hospital in Mariupol. She gave birth the following day. Photograph: Mstyslav Chernov/AP

’We are simply being destroyed’

Mariupol’s war, like many other areas in Ukraine, began in the bitter winter chill of the early hours of 24 February as Russian shells began landing in the city.

What marked Mariupol out as different, however, was its proximity to Russian-allied forces in the breakaway Donetsk region and the fact that, unlike many others places, it was largely shut off from reporters. Instead, Mariupol’s story has been largely dramatised by its mayor, Vadym Boichenko.

The Donetsk Regional Drama Theatre in Mariupol.
The Donetsk regional drama theatre in Mariupol was being used as a shelter when it was bombed. Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko speaks during an interview with Reuters, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, at an undisclosed location in Ukraine, 21 April
Mariupol mayor, Vadym Boichenko, speaks during an interview with Reuters at an undisclosed location in Ukraine, 21 April. Photograph: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

In the earliest weeks of the war Mariupol was not yet entirely cut off from the rest of the country. Reinforcements from cities as distant as Lviv were able to bolster the frontlines. But as the war ground on, even those few entry points were being shut off.

With attacking Russian forces – backed by fighters of the notorious Chechen warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov – demanding the city surrender, on 4 March, Boichenko warned gravely of the dangers facing trapped civilians.

“We are simply being destroyed,” he said in a shaky video appeal, describing indiscriminate shelling of residential areas and hospitals. “They want to wipe Mariupol and Mariupol residents off the face of the earth.”

A day later Boichenko’s warning was underlined by the Red Cross even as it tried to negotiate a humanitarian corridor for residents to flee, adding that many people were stranded in shelters without food, water or electricity.

An explosion at a plant of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine May 11
An explosion at the Azovstal steelworks, 11 May. Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

And the situation was worsening. By 12 March, Russian forces had captured the eastern suburbs of the city, tightening their grip. On 16 March, the theatre was bombed as hundreds of civilians sheltered inside. “I do not want to believe in this horror,” the Mariupol municipality said in a statement on Telegram.

An investigation by Associated Press published earlier this month suggested about 600 people may have died in that attack alone.

’We are only defending one objective’

The violence aimed at the port city has been a reflection on how long it has held out, with its defenders dug into well protected positions, including within the labyrinth of the sprawling Azovstal steelworks, covering an area of about 4 sq miles, including underground tunnels.

Inverting history, the steelworks has become to Mariupol what the factory district was for Stalingrad’s Russian defenders, even as the Kremlin claimed prematurely, on several occasions, to have taken it.

But unlike Stalingrad, which could be resupplied across the Volga river, the Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol have been cut off from resupply by the surrounding Russian forces and also by their naval blockade of the Black and Azov seas.

As the Russians advanced ever further into the city, the defending forces issued statements reflecting their perilous position – as they ran out of ammunition, unable to care for their hundreds of wounded, forcing units to surrender.

Last week more than 1,000 soldiers of Ukraine’s 36th marine brigade, including scores of officers and several Britons fighting in the city, surrendered.

Other members of the same unit, who held on inside the Azovstal steel plant along with members of the Azov brigade and more than 1,000 civilians, were clear they could not hold out much longer, outnumbered 10 to one and with no hope of relief.

A Ukrainian commander in Mariupol sent a message saying “they will soon kill us” as he sheltered from Russia’s bombardment of the steelworks where his troops were making a last stand.

Among them was Serhiy Volynskyi, of the 36th marine brigade, who sent a message from inside the plant as Moscow stepped up its assault calling on the last defenders to give up or die.

In a video message that was widely posted, Volynski had appealed for help from the world to allow them to leave.

“We are only defending one objective: the Azovstal plant where, in addition to military personnel, there are also civilians who have fallen victim to this war,” he said, adding he believed those in the plant had, at best days at worst hours, to live.

“They have advantage in the air, in artillery, in their forces on land, in equipment and in tanks.”

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, then ordered his forces not to storm the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold but instead to block it “so that not even a fly comes through”.

’No one came out of there unchanged’

Azovstal evacuees board the bus to depart for their stay in Zaporizhia, 8 May
Azovstal evacuees board a bus as they leave for Zaporizhia, 8 May. Photograph: Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/Sopa Images/Rex/Shutterstock

Before the order to surrender, that encirclement was total. Civilians who were finally evacuated from the steel plant in May spoke of the awful conditions, with so little food and water that adults were eating one tiny meal a day.

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

And there are questions still unresolved, not least how many Ukrainian civilians died inside Mariupol, an issue unlikely to be resolved while it is under full Russian control. Ukrainian officials have suggested that the death toll could well exceed 20,000.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, has also warned of high casualties. “We estimate the civilian death toll in Mariupol to lie in the thousands, while only with time will the true scale of atrocities, casualties and damage become clear.”

Graves dug by residents for civilians killed in Mariupol, photographed in April.
Graves dug by residents for civilians killed in Mariupol, photographed in April. Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Boichenko has suggested that Russia has been hiding evidence of the civilian deaths by shelling a mass grave. “The invaders are concealing evidence of their crimes,” the mayor said. “The cemetery is located near a petrol station to the left side of a circular road. The Russians have dug huge trenches, 30 metres wide. They chuck people in.”

The other issue will be the fate of the surrendered Ukrainian defenders who Kyiv now hopes to exchange for Russian prisoners of war.

“We hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys,” Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said in an early morning address. “There are severely wounded ones among them. They’re receiving care. Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive.”

For those inside the Azovstal plant the concession of defeat was coloured with fatalism.

The commander of the Azov regiment inside the steelworks, Denys Prokopenko, said in a prerecorded video message released on Monday that the regiment’s mission was finally over, with as many lives saved as possible.

“Absolutely safe plans and operations don’t exist during war,” he concluded grimly.