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Inside Mariupol’s besieged steel plant, a symbol of bravery and terror

Anna Zaitseva, with her 6-month-old baby, Svyatoslav, is comforted by friend Vlada as the two university friends reunite May 3 in Zaporizhzhia following Anna and Svyatoslav’s evacuation from the Azovstal steel plant in the Mariupol. (Nicole Tung/for The Washington Post)
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Holding fast to her infant son, Anna Zaitseva ran toward a pair of metal doors at the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works. It was the last Thursday of February, barely 24 hours after the start of the Russian invasion. In soon-to-be devastated Mariupol, the Kremlin’s bombs were already falling, some only yards away from their ninth-floor apartment.

They had driven that morning to a lot at the Soviet-era steel plant. One of Europe’s largest, it employed 10,702 people, including her husband. Now, for workers and their families, it was the shelter of last resort.

A commercial complex, Azovstal was also ideal for war. A network of tunnels rested beneath an industrial site twice as big as Washington’s National Mall. Its deep nuclear shelters, complete with old maps and radiation containment plans, dated to the Cold War. The bunker quality of the place also made it a perfect fortress for Ukrainian fighters — a brave and ultimately besieged force that her husband, a new metal worker at the plant, would soon join.

“I couldn’t stop my tears that first day,” recalled Zaitseva, 24, one of scores for whom the prospect of a few days at the plant would stretch into months, and exact a painful personal cost. “My husband took me by the arms and told me, 'Look at me, Anna. Everything will be okay.’”

He was wrong.

After 2½ violent months, the standoff at the Azovstal plant appears to be entering an endgame. The Hollywood-esque last stand by outgunned Ukrainian fighters, who had based their final resistance in the sprawling compound as the city around them fell, could still end in several ways. Hope exists for a last-minute deal that could stave off a final tragedy, granting some — at least the last civilians and the wounded — safe passage out.

The remaining soldiers, a force Ukrainian officials say still stands at nearly 1,000, have vowed to fight to the end if help does not arrive. Such an act would turn the 47-day siege of Azovstal into perhaps the Ukraine war’s greatest symbol of bravery — like World War II’s Dunkirk, without the rescue.

Azovstal is also a symbol of terror. There were 1,000 civilians there at one point; the Kyiv government says 100 may still remain. They largely lived in separate bunkers inside the same compound as the city’s last defenders. As Russian stonewalling delayed evacuations, they huddled in shelters that shook from the immense power of Moscow’s bombs. Hunger set in. Children cried as rations ran out.

NORTH

Azovstal Iron

and

Steel Works

MARIUPOL

1,500 FEET

DETAIL

Satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies

THE WASHINGTON POST

NORTH

Azovstal Iron

and Steel Works

MARIUPOL

DETAIL

1,000 FEET

Satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies

THE WASHINGTON POST

NORTH

Azovstal Iron

and Steel Works

MARIUPOL

DETAIL

1,000 FEET

Satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies

THE WASHINGTON POST

In recent days, the soldiers at Azovstal, many from the Azov Regiment — a Ukrainian nationalist outfit that has fought pro-Russian separatists for years, and is particularly despised by Russian President Vladimir Putin — proclaimed themselves abandoned by their own nation, and by the world. While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has sought a deal for their safety, he has conceded that one remains elusive. With rescue still out of reach, the soldiers have fought on — viewing death by combat as preferable to the humiliation and brutality of Russian capture.

“A lot of people gave up their lives [here] for the sake of the defense of Ukraine, for the defense of the free world,” Lt. Ilya Samoilenko, a bearded 27-year-old officer from the Azov Regiment, said during a May 8 videoconference with journalists. “We cannot just pack our bags and leave. We’re encircled. We’re blocked in four directions. … We’ve spent all of our resources.”

“Here we are dead men,” he continued. “Most of us know this.”

Latest updates from the Ukraine war

Inaugurated in 1933, the Azovstal metallurgical plant spread across four square miles on the shores of the Sea of Azov. It contained a coking plant, a lime shop, a blast furnace, a converter shop and a powerful rolling mill. During the Soviet era, prisoners from Siberian gulags used Azovstal steel to lay the 2,687-mile-long Baikal-Amur railway that stretched from Moscow to the Russian Far East. In 1943, retreating Nazis who had overrun Mariupol two years earlier laced the plant with explosives. When ignited, the blast shook the town like an earthquake.

The rebuilt complex was presciently outfitted with bunkers — accessories common in Soviet-era factories, office buildings and tower blocks. Big enough to hold 4,000 people, they were kept stocked with supplies of water and food. For good reason. In 2014, workers’ families fled there when pro-Russian separatists laid siege to Mariupol, briefly holding the city center before being beaten back.

That made the plant — owned by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man — a logical military stronghold. Russian officials would claim that Ukrainian forces used the civilians who sought shelter there as human shields — an accusation the Ukrainians denied, and that did not stop the Russians from bombing the plant.

“Civilians went there for the same reason the military did, because it was the best-protected, most difficult-to-breach site in the city,” said Justin Crump, chief executive of Sibylline, a London-based risk management firm. “But they went not knowing that’s also the reason it would see the most Russian pressure, and the longest siege.”

The far-right Azov Regiment shared video of Zaitseva to Twitter on April 18. The Washington Post edited and added subtitles to the video. (Video: https://twitter.com/Polk_Azov)

Zaitseva’s husband, a 22-year-old ex-soldier she’d fallen for after a date arranged through family, had recently landed a job at the plant. The day they left for the shelter, she said goodbye to Bari, their playful Siberian husky. There were no animals allowed at the shelter. They packed a small supply of food and formula before leaving, and dropped off Bari with a neighbor.

“I didn’t think we would stay long,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post over WhatsApp. “I thought, maybe a few days.”

Inside the plant, she said, she descended a spiral staircase with her husband and parents, entering a green-walled shelter. She hugged her son and cried. Ten people were already there, and more were arriving quickly. There were no beds. No crib for Svyatoslav, her 6-month-old boy.

A few days into their stay, her husband — who had fought pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s east before getting married — told her he could not stand by as other men fought.

“I told him, ‘Okay, good joke,'” she said. “He told me, ‘I’m not joking. I’m going to go.’ He wanted to protect us. That’s when I understood that this was a real war.”

Outside the plant, the streets of Mariupol — a strategic port considered vital to Russian plans to control the south and east of Ukraine — were becoming a hellscape. Apartment blocks were scorched and smashed by artillery. The Russians bombed a theater and a maternity hospital, killing many civilians. Within days of the invasion, Russian troops had entered the city, engaging the Ukrainian military in heavy fighting.

By the end of March, Russian officials said Ukrainian forces had been largely confined to the plant. Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, claimed the Azov Regiment — a Ukrainian unit with historical ties to the far right — had “mined” the facility and was prepared to blow it up to stop a Russian takeover.

Days became weeks for those hunkered down. Zaitseva, a high school French teacher who had enjoyed posting selfies on Instagram, shifted through phone photos and watched videos of her wedding and honeymoon in Kyiv to stay distracted. By April, food ran short — so short that meals were cut to ladles of thin soup once a day, she said. To bathe, they used candles to warm rainwater and melt snow.

“We had papers and pens, and the children would draw fruits and food, because they were hungry,” she said. “Sometimes they would play games like ‘Going to the Supermarket,' so they could pretend to buy food, or they’d be chefs at a cafe. Their games became connected to the food they didn’t have.”

In a mid-April video from the plant released on YouTube, Ukrainian fighters walked past staircases and halls littered with fallen debris, arriving at a room filled with children. “We want to go home; we want to see the sun,” says a little girl with red eyes.

Zaitseva and her parents rapidly lost weight, she said. But there was no way out. Attempts to establish a humanitarian corridor failed as the Ukrainians charged the Russians with breaking cease-fire after cease-fire. As the Russian bombing intensified, dust shook off the walls and ceilings, raining down on Zaitseva’s long hair.

In the shelter, arguments would break out, she said, between pro-Ukrainian civilians and others who were pro-Russian, some of whom continued to deny Moscow’s hand in the barbarity outside. Russian was the predominant language of Mariupol, a city just 35 miles from the Russian border. Residents frequently stayed in contact with relatives in Russia, and Soviet-era nostalgia also ran high among the older generation. Ukrainian identity and nationalism, however, had also grown stronger in recent years.

“I would say to them, 'Really? You think the Russians did not bomb the theater? Those are not their bombs out there? Even now, you deny?’” she said.

In the third week of April, a Ukrainian military attaché also fighting in the plant found Zaitseva in her shelter.

He said her husband had been wounded in combat.

“I asked, ‘How badly is he hurt?’” she said.

She paused.

“They said he was in bed.”

“He couldn’t walk,” she said. “I don’t know if he (ever) will.”

In Mariupol, echoes of history, utter devastation and a last stand

In other parts of the steel plant compound, Ukrainian fighters — a collection of Azov Regiment soldiers and other Ukrainian military personnel, national guard troops, border guards and police — were moving between tunnels and sprawling buildings to keep the Russians guessing, even as their cause became increasingly hopeless.

The wounded were being brought to a makeshift on-site field hospital. But the Russian bombings were relentless. On April 19, pro-Moscow separatists tried and failed to storm the plant, Russian news outlets said, despite aid from heavy Russian artillery fire and air assault.

Inside, the war was taking its toll.

“We constantly move [for safety]; almost all of us have colds or are sick. We sleep two, three hours a day. Round-the-clock fighting is underway,” Maj. Serhiy Volyna of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade told The Post in an April 19 voice mail. “We eat most often once a day, sometimes twice a day. We save water. … It’s an ongoing process to stay alive.”

On April 21, Putin publicly canceled plans for an all-out ground assault of the plant — in part, military analysts said, because Ukrainian resistance was so fierce.

Regional police chief Mykhailo Vershynin, standing his ground with his officers inside the plant, described a brutal series of Russian raids in the days following Putin’s announcement. He said Russian bombers “hammered” the plant, dropping a barrage of rockets and bombs every few minutes. They were also attacked with missiles launched from Russian naval ships offshore. He said bombs hit the military hospital in the plant. “There are people who died, people under the rubble and wounded who were wounded again,” he said.

Known for his dark humor, Vershynin commended his officers for protecting and serving to the extreme — fighting side-by-side with the Ukrainian military. Described by one Ukrainian journalist as the kind of guy you’d want to have “beer with,” Vershynin had posted a darkly comedic video earlier in the fight in which he cruised the streets in a patrol car that had its windshield blown out.

“We performed our police duties to the end, as long as it was possible to carry them out,” he continued. “Then we started to defend the city where we had been policemen, then joined the soldiers and in the end joined the forces in Azovstal.”

Video posted by the far-right Azov Regiment shows civilians being evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol on May 1. Officials said they believed up to 1,000 people had sought refuge at the complex, which was pummeled for days by Russian strikes. (Video: https://t.me/BiletskyAndriy/4685)

After repeated false starts, Ukraine and Russia struck a deal in late April to evacuate civilians from the plant. Like everything else, it didn’t go according to plan.

Zaitseva recalled Ukrainian military officials ordering her — a mother with an infant, along with her elderly parents — to move out with the first wave of evacuees. But when they reached daylight, she said, Russian artillery shells hit. She screamed as she saw two Ukrainian soldiers struck by shrapnel. They and the civilians were quickly led underground again. Five days later, video footage shows Zaitseva’s group scrambling up a debris trail to the outside, reaching a bus that would transfer them to the care of the International Red Cross.

As they left the plant, she said, there were Russian military escorts aboard her bus. She alternately looked at them and out the window, at the devastation of Mariupol that shocked her. She was, she said, too angry to cry.

“I just was thinking, what kind of animals are they, all these Russian soldiers? Mariupol city, it was like Grozny. Ruins. Only ruins.”

Her husband, like other soldiers — injured or not — remained behind. She would speak to him by phone shortly after her evacuation. Reluctant at first to tell her the extent of his injuries, she reassured him, and coaxed out the details. He’d been shot in one leg. Worse, he had been hit by extensive shrapnel.

In recent days, Russian air and artillery strikes have continued to hammer the plant. On Tuesday, a field hospital there was struck. Images released by the Azov Regiment on Tuesday showed a tableau of the wounded. One young man’s face appeared reconstructed after injury. Blue transparent tape covered his stitches; his lips were distorted and swollen. Others stood on crutches, bundled in coats. At least two were missing a leg.

In a statement released with the photos, the regiment called for the “immediate evacuation” of the wounded, describing their current conditions as “unsanitary,” with “open wounds” covered by “non-sterile remnants of bandages.” They were “without the necessary medication and even food.”

Zaitseva said this week that she felt helpless and desperate to see her husband again. “I don’t understand, why can’t they get help? Why can’t they be saved?” she said.

Svyatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of Azov Regiment in Mariupol, told The Post on Wednesday that the group was aware of ongoing talks to evacuate the wounded and remaining soldiers, as well as a cease-fire so both sides could collect the dead.

“What the result of this question is, we don’t know,” Palamar said. “We only know that they’re doing everything possible. We’ve received an order to do the impossible: to hold the defense here under these circumstances. And we ask that they do the impossible for those guys who are still fighting, and those who aren’t combatants.”

Last weekend, Zelensky said diplomatic efforts were underway to try to free the fighters, medics and the wounded — though he acknowledged that would be “extremely difficult.” A day later, Samoilenko, the Azov officer, blamed Ukrainian officials, and their foreign allies, for failing to do more to rescue the men.

In a video, citing prisoners of war he claimed had been killed by the Russians, he dismissed surrender as an option.

“For the last 2½ months, we showed the world. … The impossible became the routine for us,” Samoilenko said, looking sallow on the video, his beard grown wild.

He added: “This may be the last contact with the outside world. I know this crystal clear. Our message is, don’t waste our effort. A lot of people gave up their lives. Don’t waste this sacrifice.”

Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia, and Louisa Loveluck in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

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