A fighter describes dire conditions in a Mariupol steel plant


A Ukrainian fighter inside Mariupol’s besieged Azovstal steel plant painted a grim and desperate picture of the situation there Monday, during a lull in the brutal Russian bombardment, describing shortages of food and water, and many wounded people in need of medical attention.

“To put it bluntly, they are trying to wipe us off the face of the earth, despite the fact that they are perfectly aware that there are several hundred civilians here, including children,” the fighter, Mikhail Vershinin, said via audio message.

“We are seriously hoping that world leaders will notice the highly critical situation at Azovstal, and take steps in order to get the wounded, the civilians and possibly the military contingent either into the territory of a third-party country or into the territory of Ukraine,” he said.

Vershinin, 48, said Ukrainian fighters are still in control of the steel complex and are fighting Russian forces attacking the plant perimeter. President Vladimir Putin of Russia last week ordered his military not to storm the fortified complex, but instead to blockade it, but some attacks have continued, along with relentless shelling and bombing.

Vershinin described an air assault by Russian forces Sunday as “very powerful,” with explosives dropped by heavy bombers over the course of 90 minutes, in addition to tank and naval artillery.

Burned vehicles are seen at the destroyed part of the Illich Iron & Steel Works Metallurgical Plant, as smoke rises from the Metallurgical Combine Azovstal during heavy fighting, in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, April 18, 2022. (AP)

A Ukrainian tracking system that detects the threat of aerial attack signaled 12 air raids into the night, according to Vershinin, including from bombers built to carry heavier payloads.

The explosions were felt across “the entire territory of the plant” and by residents hiding in basements elsewhere in Mariupol, Vershinin said. “Their walls were trembling, too.”

Since Russia invaded Ukraine two months ago, Vershinin, a former head of the Donetsk patrol police, has been fighting to defend Mariupol. He is among the hundreds of civilians and fighters currently holed up in bunkers beneath the besieged steel plant, including marine infantry, soldiers from territorial defense units and national guard forces, and regular volunteers.

Mariupol steel plant. (Reuters)

They also include members of the Azov Battalion, whose history as a far-right group has helped fuel Russia’s largely false claim that it is fighting fascists in Ukraine.

On Sunday, the International Committee of the Red Cross called for “immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access” to safely evacuate thousands of civilians from Mariupol and from the Azovstal plant. But Vershinin warned that any humanitarian effort approved by Russia without the help of a third-party country would likely fail — as many have already.

“Any attempts by international organizations like the Red Cross without serious guarantees by third-party countries … this would amount to nothing. This has to be a serious political agreement. It won’t succeed otherwise,” he said.

On Sunday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine said on Twitter that he had met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to discuss negotiations for a neutral evacuation of civilians and troops from Mariupol.

The Turkish presidency later released a statement that Turkey “stood ready to provide any help within its means and offer any support, including mediation, during the negotiation process.”

Vershinin doubted that any additional support or weapons from the United States would come soon enough for those trapped inside the factory, and emphasized that surrender was not an option for them.

“Any attempt by Russia to say, ‘we will open a corridor for you if you surrender and become POWs’ — unfortunately we know perfectly well what happens to soldiers taken prisoner by Russia, especially soldiers from the Azov Battalion, and especially with those at Azovstal,” he said.