Hundreds of Ukrainian fighters have surrendered at Mariupol’s steel plant in Azovstal, ending the most devastating siege of the Russian war in Ukraine.
The surrender has won Russian President Vladimir Putin a rare victory in the campaign.
Here’s a look at the 83-day conflict, how thousands of Ukrainian troops and civilians survived for months in a maze of underground tunnels, and what drove them there.
The fighting started in February.
Russia began its “special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24, and the siege of Mariupol started that same day.
The Azovstal steel plant has an underground network of tunnels and bunkers. (Reuters: Alexander Ermochenko)
Hundreds of residents soon after taking refuge in the huge complex below the Azovstal factory.
Many saw it as a temporary shelter before retiring elsewhere.
Mariupol is home to the largest port in the Azov Sea region, and under Russian control, it will control most of Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline, impacting Ukrainian trade.
The port will also link forces in Crimea and the Donbas region.
Air strikes destroyed in the following weeks
About a week after the invasion began, a Russian air raid was conducted on a maternity hospital.
Doctors said that women were about to give birth when a shock wave shattered glass and the ceramic lining of a room.
“With just one hit, there was just nothing, no pediatric clinic; it just got blown away,” said Dr. Lyudmila Mykhailenko.
Pregnant women and children were injured in the attack. (AP: Evgeniy Maloletka)
A week later, an estimated 600 people were killed in an air raid on the Mariupol Theater, the city’s largest air raid shelter.
The word “children” was written on the ground outside in Russian to deter an attack.
Many survivors estimate that there were about 1,000 people inside at the time of the March 16 airstrike, but only about 200 people were seen escaping.
Oksana Syomina, who was at the theater that day, said it was now “one big massive grave”.
“All the people are still under the rubble because the rubble is still there – nobody has excavated them,” she said.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to search, and up and down arrows for volume. Images From Inside Destroyed Mariupol Drama Theater
Thousands fled while others got trapped in the steel mill
Russia continued its advance, and the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol became the last resistance as Ukrainian forces stubbornly persisted against all odds.
As the airstrikes continued, residents took shelter in the sprawling steel mill and became trapped next to Ukrainian troops.
Troops and civilians were trapped inside the factory, many with serious injuries. (AP: Dmytro ‘Orest’ Kozatskyi/Azov Special Forces Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard Press Office)
Larisa Solop, who would be the last civilian to leave the steel mill after two months in the factory, said intense bombing raids meant people trying to go did not even reach the perimeter of the complex before returning to the shelter.
“Airplanes from the sea were bombing so much that we couldn’t even get out,” said Ms. Solop.
Citizens like Ms. Solop have said they have spent their time in fear, without electricity and little food.
Russian bombings cut power to the factory in March. (AP: Dmytro ‘Orest’ Kozatskyi/Azov Special Forces Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard Press Office)
Russia claims victory over Mariupol.
Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory over Mariupol on April 21 without taking the factory.
“The completion of the combat work to liberate Mariupol is a success,” he said. “Congratulations.”
He said he would not risk sending troops to the factory in Azovstal but would rather isolate the stragglers “so that not even a fly gets through”.
At this stage in April, Ukrainian authorities estimate that more than 21,000 civilians have died in Mariupol since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine.
New graves were dug in rows along the road. (Reuters: Maxar Technologies/Handout)
Satellite images also emerged, showing more than 200 new graves in a cemetery about 20 km west of Mariupol, with the city’s mayor, Vadym Boychenko, claiming that Russian troops were burying civilians to cover up “military crimes”.
Five days after Putin claimed victory in Mariupol, he agreed “in principle” to the involvement of the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in evacuating civilians from Mariupol.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, and up and down arrows for volume. Watch Duration: 3 minutes 28 seconds3m 28s Putin’s victory claim over Mariupol shows how “desperate Russia is,” says the retired army general
Civilians were rescued after 66 days of fighting.
On May 1, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy confirmed that 100 people had been evacuated from the steel plant in Azovstal and taken to Ukrainian-controlled territory.
On that day, civilians arrived by bus in Zaporzhizia and Bezimenne, marking the start of a “secure transit operation” coordinated by the UN and the ICRC.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to search, and up and down arrows for volume. Civilians evacuated from the steel plant in Azovstal in Mariupol.
Natalia Usmanova, who was evacuated from the factory, feared the bunker would not withstand the constant attacks.
“When the bunker started to shake, I was hysterical; my husband can confirm that: I was so afraid that the bunker would collapse,” she said.
At the time, an estimated 2,000 troops and 1,000 civilians were still under the steel mill in Ukraine, but evacuations have continued since then.
Natalia Usmanova was taken to a temporary shelter in the village of Bezimenne. (Reuters: Alexander Ermochenko)
Ukrainian troops came out of the tunnels.
More than 260 fighters left the ruins of the Azovstal steel factory on Monday and surrendered to the Russian side as the two countries reached a deal.
While Russia called the operation a mass surrender, Ukraine said the garrison had completed its mission.
Wounded fighters were treated medically on stretchers. (AP: Russian Ministry of Defense Press Service)
Five buses carrying troops from the Azovstal steel plant arrived late on Monday in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Mariupol.
Some evacuated troops were injured and taken to the hospital on stretchers from the buses.
Zelensky said he hoped his country could save its troops.
“There are serious injuries among them. They are being cared for,” he said.
†[I] want to emphasize that Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive. That’s our principle.”
Zelenskyy said the operation to rescue Mariupol’s defenders had been launched by Ukraine’s military intelligence, but there was still some way to get them home safely.
He said the “most influential” international mediators were involved.
“Work continues to bring boys home. And this work requires delicacy and time.”
It is not clear whether the troops are considered prisoners of war. (Reuters: Russian Ministry of Defense/Handout)
Posted 17 minutes ago Wed May 18, 2022, at 1:14 am, Updated 10 minutes ago Wed May 18, 2022, at 1:20 am