Will it ever be possible to not freeze from grief and tremble from anger at the mention of Mariupol? The name of the Ukrainian port city decimated by Russian forces triggers shivers all over the body. So do the words Azovstal, a demolished metal plant nearly twice the size of Midtown Manhattan which served as a shelter for civilians and the site of the city’s last stand, and Azov, the group of fighters that protected it, some of whom are still in Russian captivity.
In the few years prior to the full-scale Russian invasion, Mariupol was largely renovated. The thriving city on the Sea of Azov of Ukraine’s Donetsk region provided steel and other metals for export. It had also been serving as a protective barrier between the war zone and peaceful Ukraine since Russia illegally annexed the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea in 2014. Mariupol’s strategic importance — since it can provide Russia a land corridor connecting the forcefully occupied Ukrainian territories — provoked numerous attacks by Russia through the spring and summer of 2014. Back then, Ukrainian troops prevailed, and life in the city blossomed. It never fully went back to normal. As locals recall, the explosions from neighboring Donetsk and other points of military action have become day-to-day regularities, serving as reminders of the ongoing Russian violence.
In early March 2022, Russian forces attacked Mariupol with multiplied strength. Throughout the spring, the occupiers constantly shelled and bombed civilian areas: basements, which were used as shelters, homes, schools, hospitals, industrial giant Azovstal and even Mariupol’s theater with the sign “Children” placed so it could be seen from the air. Russians cut off all food, electricity, medical supplies and communication networks. They blocked humanitarian corridors and shot cars full of people trying to escape the living hell. Eventually they destroyed around 90% of the city and killed, according to various sources, from 20,000 to 87,000 of its citizens. The numbers look helplessly dry on paper. Watching this horror show in real time through the news has been terrifying. Countless nameless corpses — in actuality someone’s loved ones — lie in the yards of shelled buildings that used to be cozy households.
As in all the other regions, Ukrainian defenders, in particular members of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment that Russia falsely depicts as fascist, along with other divisions, fought the invaders in Mariupol to a standstill. Yet Mariupol was different from other cities. Its strategic importance made it a “prize” for the Kremlin, and therefore, the city was attacked with special vigor. Ukrainian defending forces lost their grip three months into the siege. They received an order from the Ukrainian government to surrender with a prospect of being later exchanged for Russian political prisoners. Some of the soldiers have made it home while others are still in captivity.
There are Ukrainians stuck in Mariupol as well as in Russian prisons. One of few ways to leave the occupied city is through Russian filtration camps, where people face physical abuse, isolation and horrible conditions. Those imprisoned can only wait. Ukraine needs the world to collectively say “Free Azovstal defenders” and judge Russia for its war crimes.