“I’m alive but nothing more, the bombardment intensifies and the circle shrinks. We’re slowly dying here, I feel like looking through hell. I’m not sure how much longer we can go on and I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again. Remember, I love you so much.”
This was the last message Nataliia Zarytska had heard from her husband, Bogdan, who was among the desperately resisting soldiers in Mariupol, surrounded by large numbers of Russian forces, beaten by air and artillery strikes, and with little or no chance of escape.
At the sprawling Azovstal steelworks, a force of about 2,500 men, with more than 700 wounded, was bombarded with a wasteland, mostly of spun metal.
These fighters have become fodder for Kremlin propaganda and have also been the focus of accusations since the start of the war, in a rare instance of separation among Ukrainians, with accusations that the government of Volodymyr Zelensky had deserted them.
Most of the elderly, women and children were rescued from Mariupol under the coordination of the United Nations and the Red Cross. According to local officials, about a hundred people are still there with ongoing efforts to get them out as the two sides blame each other.
Capturing Mariupol will be a rare victory for the Kremlin in a conflict that has largely and surprisingly failed since Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Control of the port city would allow Russia to open a land route of significant strategic value between the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and the peninsula of Crimea, which it annexed eight years ago.
Ukrainian troops in Azovstal are also a prize for Moscow. Most are from the Azov Battalion, which has long been accused by Russia of being among the fascists seeking to take over Ukraine. Killing or capturing them would fit in with Putin’s clear purpose of “de-Nazification” the country.
Some military families formed support groups to lobby the Ukrainian government to organize its removal from the facility. There have been protests by the police with civil rights groups and local media accusing them of being harsh.
Zelensky insisted that international efforts were underway to ensure safe passage for soldiers and remaining civilians. The situation is “extremely difficult” but “we must not lose hope,” he added.
But there seems to be little prospect of recovery in Azovstal. “We have no hope left, only anger,” said one soldier, Nicolai, in a message. Independent via Telegram. “We were left here to fend for ourselves. We heard officials say the government was giving us a chance to withdraw. That never happened.
“The order was, instead, to hold the ground. That’s how we did it, which gave time for the other units to withdraw and the civilians to be removed. We have done our duty and we expect the government to fulfill its duty,” he said.
Ms. Zarytska shared another message from inside the factory from her 31-year-old husband. “We have 700 casualties here, 400 of them unable to move on their own. The Russians shoot at us in their spare time, they shoot from a high point and their planes come low and slow.
“They hit the area where the wounded were staying, they killed some of them and injured some of them. There’s Dante’s hell out there. What should we do? Should we kill the wounded and then shoot ourselves? Rather than surrender, it is better for our commanders to order us to shoot ourselves. “
In an extraordinary online press conference earlier this week, two Azov officers at the Azovstal plant accused Zelensky’s government of failing to defend Mariupol, noting that capitulating to the Russians would mean the soldiers sign their own death warrants.
“Our government failed in the defense of Mariupol, it failed in the preparation of the defense of Mariupol,” said Lieutenant Illya Samoilenko. “Surrender was not an option because Russia isn’t interested in our lives, it’s not interested in letting us live.” Deputy commander Sviatoslav Palamar claimed that the government was acting “cynically” in celebrating the liberation of civilians as many more Mariupol residents were killed.
The Azov battalion released photos showing how the wounded soldiers lived in filthy conditions “with open wounds” and “without the necessary medicine and even food.” “We demand the immediate evacuation of wounded soldiers to areas under Ukrainian control where appropriate care will be provided,” the statement said.
A public petition calling on the government to save the Azovstal defenders gathered 1.5 million signatures in a matter of days. Groups representing the families of the soldiers are approaching foreign governments as well as Kiev with requests for help. They are also contacting the UN and ICRC for assistance.
The Azov Battalion was integrated into the Ukrainian army after the separatist war eight years ago; Many of its members and their families insist that ties with the far right have been loosened. Recruitment is allegedly high because the battalion is among the most professional of the Ukrainian forces, rather than for ideological reasons.
Zarytsk, 36, had participated in demonstrations calling for rescue. But he wanted to emphasize that the purpose of families is to seek cooperation, not confrontation. One suggestion put forward is that fighters could be evacuated to a third country where they will stay for the duration of the war – possibly Turkey due to its proximity.
Evgeny Sukharnikov, whose 24-year-old son is among the fighters at the Azovstal plant, said: “Every day is very important now, the longer the wait, the more we worry about what might happen. We are all trying to find a solution. Surrender is not an option; They are right to fear that the Russians might kill them, Putin cannot be trusted.
“We really need international help to save these people. We want countries that have relations with Russia to intervene, this is a humanitarian crisis,” he said.
Tatiana and Stavr Vyshnyak lived in Brovary, near Kyiv, in the midst of fierce fighting when it became a battleground between Russian and Ukrainian forces. Their 21-year-old son, Artem, stationed in Mariupol with the Ukrainian army, was in regular contact to check on their well-being.
“Now it’s our turn to worry,” said Ms. Vyshnyak, 43, “Civilians have left Mariupol but we don’t know what will happen to the soldiers, we don’t know what the Russians will do. make.
“These men fought bravely for their country, the government should try to save them. I have the feeling every mother has for her children. My son is 21 years old; the thought of him going to die somewhere like he is now is a terrible feeling. So we continue to think positively, we hope he and the others soon.” becomes free.”
On April 17, Nataliia Zarytska married Bogdan via Telegram messaging. A female soldier, who had been trained as a lawyer and whose husband had been killed the previous day, prepared the necessary documents and acted as a witness.
“My man had lost 20 pounds since he was in Mariupol, he looked sick,” she said. There was no ceremony, it was very short, and even then it had to be short as the Russians attacked.
“It wasn’t the wedding anyone had imagined. But it was actually great and made me think again how precious life is. I keep telling Bogdan that we will be together again and we will have a family. I tell him not to stop, they will come out of Azovstal, they will all come out of Azovstal.”