By Associated Press
As the end drew near at the steel plant, wives of fighters who had held out told of what they feared would be their last contact with their husbands.
Olga Boiko, the wife of a marine, wiped away tears as she shared the words her husband wrote her on Thursday: “Hello. We surrender, I don’t know when I will get in touch with you and if I will at all. Love you. Kiss you. Bye.”
The seaside steelworks, occupying some 11 square kilometers (4 square miles), had been a battleground for weeks. Drawing Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire, the dwindling group of outgunned fighters held out with the help of air drops before their government ordered them to abandon the plant.
Zelenskyy revealed in an interview published Friday that Ukrainian helicopter pilots braved Russian anti-aircraft fire to ferry in medicine, food and water to the steel mill as well as to retrieve bodies and rescue wounded fighters.
A “very large” number of the pilots died on their daring missions, he said. “They are absolutely heroic people, who knew that it would be difficult, knew that to fly would be almost impossible,” Zelenskyy said.
Russia claimed that the Azov Regiment’s commander was taken away from the plant in an armored vehicle because of local residents’ alleged hatred for him, but no evidence of Ukrainian antipathy toward the nationalist regiment has emerged.
The Kremlin has seized on the regiment’s far-right origins in its drive to to cast the invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine. Russian authorities have threatened to put some of the steel mill’s defenders on trial for alleged war crimes and put them on trial.
With Russia controlling the city, Ukrainian authorities are likely to face delays in documenting evidence of alleged Russian atrocities in Mariupol, including the bombings of a maternity hospital and a theater where hundreds of civilians had taken cover .
Satellite images in April showed what appeared to be mass graves just outside Mariupol, where local officials accused Russia of concealing the slaughter by burying up to 9,000 civilians.
Earlier this month, hundreds of civilians were evacuated from the plant during humanitarian cease-fires and spoke of the terror of ceaseless bombardment, the dank conditions underground and the fear that they wouldn’t make it out alive.
At one point in the siege, Pope Francis lamented that Mariupol had become a “city of martyrs.”
An estimated 100,000 of the 450,000 people who resided there before the war remain. Many, trapped by Russia’s siege, were left without food, water and electricity.
The chief executive of Metinvest, a multinational company which owns the Azovstal plant and another steel mill, Ilyich, in Mariupol, spoke of the city’s devastation in an interview published Saturday in Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
“The Russians are trying to clean it (the city) up to hide their crimes,” the newspaper quoted Metinvest CEO Yuriy Ryzhenkov as saying. ”The inhabitants are trying to make the city function, to make water supplies work again.”
“But the sewer system is damaged, there has been flooding, and infections are feared” from drinking the water, he said.
The Ilyich steelworks still has some intact infrastructure, but if the Russians try to get it running, Ukrainians will refuse to return to their jobs there, Ryzhenkov said.
“We will never work under Russian occupation,” Ryzhenkov said.