Amid reports of grim conditions inside the Azovstal steelworks, wives try to rally support for an evacuation of remaining Ukrainian troops
“Holding up”, wrote Denys Prokopenko, commander of Ukraine’s Azov regiment, in his latest WhatsApp message to his wife Kateryna from the besieged Azovstal steelworks in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.
Speaking via Zoom from Krakow, in eastern Poland, alongside three fellow wives and partners of soldiers living under the remorseless Russian shelling and infiltrating raids, Kateryna, 27, says she is doing everything she can think of to ensure the message at 10pm on Friday evening is not one of her husband’s last.
It is now two weeks since the last Ukrainian defenders of the flattened city of Mariupol, in south-east Ukraine, withdrew to the sprawling complex of hot and fetid tunnels, along with thousands of terrified civilians, including children.
Attempts to evacuate the non-combatants brokered by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have been successful, with a further 50 people reportedly taken out on Saturday.
Last night Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Veheshchuk, said all women, children and older adults had been evacuated.
For the 2,000 soldiers, 700 of whom are said to be injured, hope, however, is quickly dwindling, as has become cruelly clear from the irregular messages coming out of the works. “The last message was yesterday,” Kateryna says of the text from her 30-year-old husband. I said ‘Hold up, we will do everything in our power to save you.’”
Russian barrages on strategic targets in the east and south of Ukraine have been intensifying in the lead-up to a historically significant day that has put many on edge, with several missiles striking the port city of Odesa on Saturday.
The streets of Mariupol are also being cleared of debris before an expected 9 May Victory Day parade to mark the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Soviet Union – and the wiping out of the final redoubt of Ukrainian defenders of the devastated city.
Kateryna, with the other military wives, is appealing for an internationally supervised extraction of the last of the soldiers suffering and dying in the steelworks. They won’t surrender, she says, as there is no chance of humane treatment. But she insists that the international community has a duty to prevent a massacre.
“The conditions are awful, there is a complete blockade, they can’t deliver water, food or anything else,” Kateryna says. “They are sharing their supplies with the civilians that are also there. They can’t get any medical help.
“Dead people are also there, because it’s important for our soldiers to save the bodies of their mates,” she says. “Refrigerators are barely working. So the conditions are awful. The bunkers are covered with mould, there are a few days left, they might just die from hunger.
“We are inspired by the Dunkirk evacuation. We just need some brave countries that will evacuate our soldiers and civilians by sea or by air. But we need some brave countries to give Russia an ultimatum.”
Yulia Fedosiuk, 29, whose husband Arseniy, 29, is a sergeant in the Azov regiment, says she received her last message via Telegram at the same time as Kateryna on Friday evening.
“The way things are going, they have only five days left,” she says. “He also told me there are two wounded soldiers that may die in 24 hours. They have damaged organs, gangrene that has been getting worse for two months. There is no medication. Some of them have sepsis, necrosis and have lost a lot of blood.”
The Azov regiment, which has in the past had nationalist far-right affiliations, was a militia formed to fight the Russians after the invasion of Ukraine in 2014 but has become a unit of the Ukrainian national guard.
Yulia, an assistant to a Ukrainian politician, said the mother of one Azov soldier had received an image of her dead son from the Russians. “We don’t want our soldiers to become war prisoners, because there is a lot of propaganda around Azov,” she says. “Azov is a red rag for Russians, they hate them. If you are from Azov, there is no chance you will come back healthy or alive … We think our government can take more political and diplomatic steps. They can talk about it more.”
Anna Naumenko, 25, a projects manager, received some voice messages from her husband Dmytro Danilov, 29, at 1am on Saturday that she said were difficult to hear. “He told me it was very hot there,” she says. “There are no painkillers for people with torn limbs. There are very little antibiotics, and most of them are used for operations only.
“He also told me about a three-year-old girl who lives at Azovstal. She lost her parents, and there are a lot of children like that in the bunkers. She is running around, and pinching the soldiers, saying ‘painkiller.’”
Azovstal steel plant escapees Anna Zaitseva and her son Svyatoslav, six months, after arriving in Zaporizhzhia.
‘They bombed every second’: evacuees’ horror weeks in Azovstal steel plant
The women say they believe the British government could rally an international effort. They are seeking to travel to the UK to campaign but are as yet unable to get the visas, as many Ukrainians have found, with the Home Office website warning of a six-week wait.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“My partner is a bit pessimistic, because they were promised help and nothing is happening,” says Olha Andrianova, 31, the owner of a chain of kindergartens, of Serghii, 26, a sergeant in the Azov regiment. “I am trying to cheer him up and ask him not to lose hope.”