Evacuees share horror of months in Avozstal steelworks bunker; why Putin’s shift to the east could lengthen the war; and tattoos of Ukraine resistance
Every week we wrap up the must-reads from our coverage of the Ukraine war, from news and features to analysis, visual guides and opinion.
The rush to evacuate Mariupol
The last stronghold of resistance to Russia’s siege of Mariupol, the sprawling Azovstal steelworks, has come under intense bombardment this week amid speculation, as Andrew Roth reports, that Russia aims to use the city as a prop in festivities to mark Victory Day on 9 May. This week hundreds of people have been evacuated from the city to safety. Among them, Natalia Usmanova told journalists that she felt her heart would stop as Russian bombs rained down on those hiding in a Soviet-era bunker underground.
Azovstal evacuees who arrived in Zaporizhzhia were emotional. “We are so thankful for everyone who helped,” said Anna Zaitseva, holding her six-month-old baby. “There was a moment we lost hope, we thought everyone forgot about us.”
Elina Tsybulchenko, another evacuee who made it to safety, said: “They bombed like every second … You can’t imagine how scary it is when you sit in the shelter, in a wet and damp basement which is bouncing, shaking.”
As the week ground on, fierce fighting moved inside the steelworks as more civilians fled the city on evacuation buses following weeks of brutal bombardment that have reduced much of it to rubble. Others remained trapped inside the complex. The UN described the city as a “hellscape”.
Roth explained why Mariupol is so important to Russia: the city that few Russians would have imagined as a prize before the war is home to a leading iron and steelworks that played an important role in the city’s economy. It was a vibrant port with an active civil society that had withstood the Russian-backed advance in 2014, when Russian artillery came close enough to Mariupol to bombard the city’s outer districts, before being driven back.
The Kremlin could be keen to take the city as a strategic point in its goals to build a broad “land bridge” to occupied Crimea, to gain access to another deep-water port that it used to transport coal, steel and grain, and as a symbolic victory – the largest city yet taken by Russia, which has failed to conquer Kharkiv or Kyiv.
Russian push east stokes fears of protracted war
Amid mounting fears among western officials that Russia’s war in Ukraine could drag on for months or years, the Kremlin appears to be focusing its operations around the city of Izium as part of renewed efforts to seize the entirety of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Peter Beaumont writes that the new focus of the Kremlin’s war – aimed at building the land bridge from the Russian border to Crimea and beyond – has come with a shift in tactics to a slower and more deliberate advance as the Russian military has continued to struggle with logistics and other problems in managing its campaign.
The latest stage of the offensive has been marked by an increased concentration of artillery, and the use of artillery fire, to support the slowly advancing Russian troops, with a Pentagon official describing “slow and uneven” progress in fierce fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
The desperate draft in Donetsk
In Donetsk, the streets are empty. Emma Graham-Harrison and Vera Mironova report on the desperate and aggressive draft campaign by Russian-backed separatists controlling parts of eastern Ukraine driving many military-aged men into hiding.
The separatist region backed and recognised by Russia announced its draft on 19 February, a few days before the invasion of the rest of Ukraine. To be exempt from the draft, you have to be signed off by senior government officials, who are one of the few groups to be spared the draft.
In late March, pro-Russia authorities upped the age limit of the draft in Donetsk from 55 in 65, and on Saturday authorities announced mobilisation in Kherson, a region largely captured by Russia after the war began.
Twice, authorities have tried to lure men out of hiding by claiming the draft was over. But when men came out of hiding, many were seized and drafted.
Now, husbands, sons and brothers are living in basements and locked indoors at the homes of friends or relatives where no military-age men are registered as residents.
This week’s string of mysterious blasts in Transnistria have become a warning sign for many to get out. And as men from the Moscow-backed separatist region in Moldova are being mobilised to fight alongside Russian troops, Paula Erizanu reports of waves of people fleeing to Turkey, Poland and the Czech Republic.
On Monday, government buildings were hit by what appeared to be rocket-propelled grenades. The days that followed saw blasts hitting a Russian-broadcasting radio tower and shots reportedly fired near a Russian arms depot.
Transnistria, near the Ukraine border, is predominantly Russian-speaking. And the growing concern on the ground is that Moldova could become the next front of the Ukraine war. In 1992 Moldova broke away from the Soviet Union, a year after the region declared its independence. This followed a five-month war where Russian forces intervened on the side of the separatists. No country, not even Russia, has recognised the self-declared Transnistrian Moldovan Republic, but the “frozen conflict” has kept Moldova partitioned between Russia and Europe ever since.
Volunteers collect the dead
Isobel Koshiw and Lorenzo Tondo report on civilian Ukrainians with no previous experience in exhumation wearing gardening gloves and volunteering to collect hundreds of bodies of those executed and buried in towns bordering Ukraine’s capital. Thrust into what has been called one of the worst atrocities in Europe since the second world war, small-town police forces are relying on these ordinary civilians to help. According to Ukrainian prosecutors, more than 1,000 bodies have been recovered so far – many of whom were killed by bombs, making their remains harder to find.