February 2, 2023

‘They never expected Mariupol to resist.’ Locals horrified by Russia’s relentless attack on the vast steel plant shielding Ukrainians

6 min read

Leviv, Ukraine – Few people outside the metallurgical industry had heard of Mariupol’s Azovostel Steel and Iron Works before it became the scene of a disappointing final stand against Russia’s invading forces.

But for weeks now, the world has been engulfed in a war over steelworks on the shores of the Sea of ‚Äč‚ÄčAzov.

Ukrainian officials say mass graves near the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol are evidence of war crimes.

Yuri Rysenkov, CEO of Metinvest Holdings, who owns the plant, is devastated by what he sees happening to the plant and Mariupol.

“The city has been under siege for literally about two months now. And the Russians, they do not allow us to bring food or water into the city,” Ryzenkov said.

“They are not allowing us to take civilians out of the city center. They are forcing people to either get out of their cars or walk through the mines. It’s a humanitarian catastrophe there. Is.”

Asked why Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to take Azovastal so badly, Rezenkov told CNN, “I don’t think this is the plant he wants.”

“I think it’s a sign that they wanted to conquer Mariupol. They never expected resistance from Mariupol.”

He says at least 150 employees have been killed and thousands more are missing.

Smoke billows from the top of the Azovstal plant as nearby buildings in Mariupol collapsed to the ground on April 18.

“All we know is that only 4,500 of Azovostal’s 11,000 employees left Mariupol and contacted us to find out their whereabouts.”

He seems worried about the fate of Azovstal’s workforce.

“Over the last two months, the whole company has done everything in its power to keep people safe. Unfortunately, at the moment, we are not even halfway there.”

The company’s staff includes family members who have made steel for as long as they can remember.

Ivan Goltvenko, 38, director of human resources at the plant, is the third generation of his family to work at Azovstal.

“I hoped that all my life I would work for Azustal and contribute a lot to clothes and my city,” he says sadly.

“It’s horrible to see your city being destroyed, you can compare it to a relative dying in your arms … and seeing him die gradually, after his limbs fail, and there’s nothing you can do. ”

From the city of Zaphorizhzhia, it is difficult to see the scale of the devastation caused by the Russian airstrikes “because you want your city to remain as you remember it.”

News of what’s going on at home is coming from friends and colleagues who are still trapped in Mariupol.

“Today, for example, I was shown a video of my apartment. Despite the survival of the house, my flat has been completely looted by Russian troops. Nothing valuable remains – even in children’s toys. They thundered, and many of them were stolen. ”

A wrecked tank and part of a burnt vehicle are shown in the area under the control of Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol on April 23.

He says he spoke to a colleague on April 24 who revealed some of the horrors that residents are facing.

“One of the employees, we know he’s in town, couldn’t manage to get out, and he’s been busy removing debris and moving dead bodies,” said Golt Vanco. Has been involved, “says Golt Vanco.

“And yesterday he told me that for just one day from one district of the city, I would even say ‘from one street’ he brought four trucks of corpses.”

“I was encouraged to volunteer at the morgue to collect and transport the bodies in the city,” he said.

“For that,” says Golt Vanco, “he gets dry rations.”

His partner, Oleksiy Ehroff, 49, deputy head of repairs, has lived in Mariupol since childhood.

“I was educated there, I started working there, I became the person I am now. And seeing how it was destroyed … You embraced it without tears, I can’t tell without a lump, “he said. Say.

The torture is not over. Russian jets and missiles continue to hit the area, although Putin said last week that there was no need to attack the industrial area around the plant.

Azovstal’s bodyguards have repeatedly refused to surrender their weapons. The plant is believed to still have hundreds of soldiers and civilians.

Before the war

What has happened in Azovstal is a reflection of what has happened to this city which is proud of its history and industrial heritage.

The industrial port city was probably never traditionally beautiful, with piles of chimneys emitting smoke and steam into the sky from above the plants. At the harbor, blue and yellow cranes were moving heavy goods around the bustling shipyard. But Mariupol had his own charm and he was loved by his people.

In recent years, great improvements have been made, green spaces have been created, and the quality of life for working-class communities has improved dramatically.

“The last eight years we have spent there building a modern and comfortable city … a good city to live in,” says Ryzhenkov.

“We have completed some major environmental projects, and there are still plans to make sure we have clean air, clean water, and so on. Two months.”

A view of the port of Mariupol, taken last June by Marina Holovova, a local from Mariupol.
Holovova ran tours starting from the Old Water Tower in Mariupol, near Theater Square.

“It was like a living dream,” said Marina Holonova, 28, “because we worked to transform the city from an industrial small town into a cultural capital.”

A native of Mariupol, he returned in 2020 after 10 years of absence to explore a growing social landscape. “It was very different,” she told CNN, proudly saying that it had also been named the cultural capital of Ukraine by the Ministry of Culture last year.

“We had a lot of festivals and we had a lot of people from other cities and from other countries,” she continued. “We had the opportunity to tell people about the city not only from an industrial development point of view but also from a cultural point of view. [and] From a historical point of view – because Mariupol has an amazing history. ”

A glowing smile spreads across her face as the former city guide remembers the route she used to take guests. It will begin with Mariupol’s century-old Old Water Tower, she says, before taking a tour of the city center, taking in many of its historic buildings and places associated with local figures.

Holovanova says that with the development of the Waterfront Metropolis continuing, a sailing tour was introduced last year, and a full industrial-themed tour began with a visit to a factory showcasing the steel production process. Plans were underway.

“One of my favorite places, which was weird because the locals wouldn’t understand me … was an observation spot where you could see the whole Azovstal factory and you could see how big it was, how big it was. “How big it was,” she says. “It was nothing special for the locals because we got used to it but all the foreigners, people from other cities, were amazed to see this scene.”

Holovanova, a former Mariupol city guide, says this was her view of the city of Izostal.

City siege

The rise of Mariupol was an unexpected story, as it was swallowed up by the violence of the 20th century. It was the scene of a fierce battle in World War II.

This time the catastrophe is even greater. Ukrainian officials say less than 20 percent of the city’s buildings are unsafe. Russia’s relentless bombing campaign has left debris in what was once a theater. Ukrainian officials say an estimated 300 of the 1,300 citizens who sought refuge in the cultural institution are believed to have been bombed in a brutal March 16 Russian attack. Was

On April 25, a man walks through the shell of a Mariupol drama theater.

The same applies to Azovstal. Built in 1933 under Soviet rule, it was partially demolished during the Nazi occupation in the 1940s before being rebuilt.

Now it’s over again – according to Ukrainian officials, his body is sheltered in a maze of underground chambers for Ukrainian soldiers and about 1,000 civilians.

Azovstal was partially demolished during the Nazi occupation in the 1940s.

An estimated 100,000 people remain in the city. On Thursday, local officials warned that most parts of the city were suffering from marijuana epidemics due to the dire sanitary conditions and the fact that thousands of bodies might not be collected.

Oleksiy Ehorov can’t stand to think about what happened to her city – and her family. Her mother-in-law, Zaporizhzhia, died of shelling injuries during her first attempt to escape.

“My emotions have already disappeared in Mariupol. That’s why there is nothing but hatred,” he told CNN.

Ehurov says he prefers to live by the sea and hopes to stay in the steelworks until he retires.

Now he can only see that Russia continues to blockade the city and its former workplace.

When asked if he would work under the Russians if he took over the factory, he echoed Renat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and the group’s main shareholder behind Izvestal Steel.

“No. I’m not going. After what they did … never.”

CNN’s Tim Lester contributed to this report from Lviv, Ukraine, and Kostan Nechyporenko contributed to Kyiv.

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