As Ukrainian troops continue to defend the steel plant in the besieged city of Mariupol, it’s estimated that around 1,000 civilians are trapped underneath — and they are desperate to get out.
The giant Azovstal Iron and Steel Works mill — which has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance — is located in the strategic port city of Mariupol, in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine. The area has been a key target of Russian bombardment since the war started in February, and Russian President Vladimir Putin recently claimed control of the city.
Despite this, around 2,000 Ukrainian defenders are still holding out in the Soviet-era building, trying to help evacuate the civilians — reported to be mostly women and children and many plant employees — who are stuck sheltering in the network of tunnels beneath the factory.
“An operation is planned today to get civilians out of the plant,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office said Friday, days after Ukraine claimed that a field hospital inside the plant was hit by Russian airstrikes.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said at a press conference Friday that supplies inside the plant are dwindling: “It is not a matter of days, it’s a matter of hours,” he said, adding: “If Mariupol is hell, Azovstal is worse.”
A Ukrainian commander trapped inside the plant said Saturday that a ceasefire allowed for some civilians to be evacuated. Russian state news agency TASS earlier reported that a group was evacuated from the plant.
"We have brought 20 civilians to the agreed meeting point, whom we've managed to rescue from under the rubble. These are women and children. We hope these people will go the agreed destination, which is Zaporizhzhia, the territory controlled by Ukraine," Capt. Svyatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, said, according to CNN.
"As of now, the rescue operation is ongoing, conducted by the servicemen of Azov — we rescue the civilians from under the rubble," he added.
Desperate to get out
The 1,000 civilians stuck living underneath the Azovstal plant are desperate for freedom, food, water and supplies. The Azov Regiment, a unit of the Ukrainian military, shared videos online in recent weeks, hoping to call attention to their plight.
A young child seen in the footage said: “I want to get out of here and see the sun. We’ve been here for two months now, and I want to see the sun. … When they rebuild our houses, we can live in peace. Let Ukraine win this war, because Ukraine is our dear home."
Another video appeared to show a child in a diaper made out of tape and plastic bags.
One woman who spoke to the Times of London said her brother is a soldier inside the steel plant and has seen children growing gray hair and developing stutters after seeing their parents die.
"Some are losing hair and teeth," she claimed.
In a clip shared online April 21, a woman said around 15 children, from babies to teenagers, were stuck in the tunnels underneath Azovstal. She said people were “on the edge of hunger.”
“All the provisions we brought with us are running out. Soon, we won’t even have enough food for the children. We are here and need help,” she pleaded, according to the Guardian. “We are at the epicenter of events, and we can’t get out. My child needs to be evacuated to a peaceful area, and others too. We beg for guarantees of safety for our kids.”
The woman continued, “We worry for the lives of our children and [elderly] parents who require medical care. They are running out of strength and life power. There isn’t a single day without shelling. They are scared even to go to the toilet.”
Two women whose husbands are defending the Ukrainian plant said that around 600 soldiers are sick and suffering — some reportedly from gangrene — under Azovstal. Videos seen by the Associated Press showed men with dirty bandages, open wounds and amputated limbs. Some men in the footage said they eat just once a day and share what little water they have.
One man reportedly said he had two broken ribs, a punctured lung and an arm that was dislocated and “hanging on the flesh.”
“Our resources are extremely limited,” said a military doctor trapped inside. “Guys are literally dying before our eyes, because we don’t have any possibility to evacuate them. There is no way to treat them properly.
“We just ask, we beg, to give at least the slightest chance to save the life of these fighters. They deserve it," she said in the footage.
Attempts to evacuate
On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said that he had spoken with Zelensky and that they are “doing everything we can to make [evacuations] happen.”
After meeting with Guterres, Putin agreed “in principle” to allow the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to evacuate both civilians and troops from the steel plant.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the eastern region of Donetsk, claimed before evacuations took place on Saturday that Russian forces, rather than creating humanitarian corridors, were instead hoping to capture members of Ukraine’s military.
“They (want to) use the opportunity to capture the defenders of Mariupol, one of the main [elements] of whom are the … Azov Regiment,” Kyrylenko said on Thursday. “Therefore, the Russian side is not agreeing to any evacuation measures regarding wounded [Ukrainian] troops.”