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Wives of Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol's steel plant plead for an evacuation

People hold a demonstration in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, demanding the safe passage of civilians and soldiers out of the Azovstal steel plant in the port city of Mariupol, on May 4.
Andre Luis Alves
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Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
People hold a demonstration in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, demanding the safe passage of civilians and soldiers out of the Azovstal steel plant in the port city of Mariupol, on May 4.

Updated May 11, 2022 at 4:01 PM ET

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — When Yaroslava Ivantsova spotted the convoy of blue-and-white United Nations vans outside a hotel in this lush, riverine city, she knew what she had to do: text the others to come over, pronto, and bring the banners and posters.

One reads: "Soldiers are humans too." Another: "Rescue Our Defenders." And another: "Save the Military of Mariupol."

"They're abandoning our soldiers," says Ivantsova, a 48-year-old grandmother with freckles and platinum-blond hair. "We can't let this happen."

Ivantsova's husband, Nikolai, is one of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers who have, for the past 10 weeks, staged a last stand against Russian occupation in the southeastern port city of Mariupol. The fighters — who include men and women — are holding out in a labyrinth of shelters under the Soviet-era Azovstal plant, one of the largest steel mills in Europe. On Sunday, the soldiers even managed to hold a video press conference from inside the plant, despite problems with connectivity. They call the tunnels "the territory of Azovstal" but paint a dire picture of what's happening there. They say there are many dead, and more wounded.

Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, told reporters that wounded soldiers are dying from gangrene due to infections because there aren't enough antibiotics and no equipment to conduct amputations.

"It is truly catastrophic," Palamar said.

The fighters' spouses and partners are also doing their part to press for help for those in the Azovstal plant. On Wednesday, two wives of soldiers holed up in the plant met with Pope Francis at the Vatican and pleaded with him to intervene and arrange an evacuation.

Ukrainian and Russian officials say all civilians have been evacuated from Azovstal after three operations led by the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross. (U.N. humanitarian officials say they can't independently confirm this.) But the soldiers remain to fight what Ivantsova compares to a modern-day Battle of Thermopylae.

"I've heard people call our soldiers 'the 300,' 'the Spartans,'" she tells NPR at the Zaporizhzhia hotel where she and others demonstrated. "I have mixed feelings. I am proud of them, but right now we don't need dead heroes. We need living heroes."

Yaroslava Ivantsova is the wife of one of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers staging a last stand against Russian forces for control of the port city of Mariupol.
Joanna Kakissis / NPR
/
NPR
Yaroslava Ivantsova is the wife of one of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers staging a last stand against Russian forces for control of the port city of Mariupol.

Her husband vows to fight to the last bullet

Ivantsova met her husband 30 years ago, when he was a young soldier and she was a college freshman. He's Ukrainian. She was born in Chita, a city in Russia's far east.

"I feel ashamed to admit that I was born in Russia," she says, sighing. "I don't want to be associated with this country. Look what [the Russians] have done to Mariupol. I don't even talk to my relatives there."

The couple have four children and four grandchildren. They used to live in Mariupol. Her husband helped defend the city when Russian-backed separatists attacked in 2015. And when Russian troops invaded this February, he fought alongside hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers to defend the city. Russian troops pummeled Mariupol, reducing most of it to charred rubble. Mariupol's vice mayor, Sergei Orlov, tells NPR that thousands of residents are estimated to have died during the Russian siege. Many are thought to be buried in mass graves. Russian troops now occupy the ruins of the city.

"Azovstal is the last part of Mariupol that is free," Ivantsova says. "Our soldiers should be rewarded for this."

She says her husband tells her he wants to fight to the last bullet. And she understands that, as a soldier, he signed up for this life. But she worries that if he and his fellow soldiers are captured, they will be executed.

"Nobody trusts the army of Vladimir Putin," she says, referring to Russia's president. "He can barely honor a cease-fire."

Russia has also sought to portray the Azovstal soldiers as far-right extremists. Some of the soldiers holed up in the steel plant are members of the Azov Regiment, which is a unit of the Ukrainian National Guard. It got its start as a volunteer battalion, founded in 2014 by far-right nationalists. But many of these extremists left after the battalion joined the armed forces, says Polina Beliakova, a research associate at the Center for Strategic Studies at Tufts University who has studied Ukraine's volunteer battalions. She says the Azov Regiment currently includes fighters with diverse political views and ethnic backgrounds.

Ivantsova says her husband rejects far-right views and only wants to defend Ukraine.

"Nikolai is a patriot," she says. "And by that I mean he wants everyone in this country to live and breathe free."

Reports from the Azovstal steel plant get worse by the hour

Outside the hotel with the U.N. vans, at least a dozen women join Ivantsova in singing the national anthem. Their handwritten posters rattle in the wind. A few reporters show up but no one else stops.

Later, the group meets at the EpiCenter, a shopping mall that features a large DIY home improvement store. The parking lot has become a way station for displaced Ukrainians fleeing Russian attacks. The centerpiece is a large tent stuffed with clothes, stuffed animals, plastic bags of nonperishable food and a station for coffee, tea and hot soup. Humanitarian workers are everywhere.

"Let's take out the signs," Ivantsova says.

The news from Azovstal seems to get more dire every hour. Russian troops began storming the underground tunnels. There are reports that the fighting is bloody and fierce. Some of the men have also sent goodbye messages to their spouses.

Olha, 22, demonstrates outside a shopping center in Zaporizhzhia for the safe return of her fiancé, one of hundreds of soldiers holed up underneath a steel plant in the port city of Mariupol.
Joanna Kakissis / NPR
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NPR
Olha, 22, demonstrates outside a shopping center in Zaporizhzhia for the safe return of her fiancé, one of hundreds of soldiers holed up underneath a steel plant in the port city of Mariupol.

A 22-year-old, her brown hair in a long braid, weeps. She gives her name as Olha and won't reveal her last name because she's worried the Russians will target her fiancé, who is inside Azovstal, if they capture him. She describes him as soft-spoken and romantic, the kind of guy who used to make her coffee every morning and slip Kinder chocolates (her favorite) into her handbag.

"Even when he's in a living hell — which is where he is right now — he always asks me how I'm doing, if I need help, if he can do anything for me," she says. "And he writes very tender poems for me."

She's one of the few who speak to NPR at the shopping center parking lot. Many of the women are wiping away tears and waving away reporters. They flag down a Greek Catholic priest and ask him if he has connections to the Vatican. Some of the women have sent a letter to Pope Francis asking for help. The priest asks them to pray.

Another military spouse, who gives only her first name, Katia, gets angry.

"We don't need prayer, we need action," she says. "How could the government and all these international aid organizations leave Ukraine's heroes — our husbands — in there to die?"

Yaroslava Ivantsova's husband hasn't been online for two days.

"There is no mobile communication, I asked the girls but absolutely no one has communication," she says. "I am so worried." She digs into her purse. "I even tried to find my anti-anxiety pills. I had them somewhere."

As she looks, the other women begin chanting: Save Azovstal! Ivantsova drops her bag to the ground and clutches a handwritten banner that reads: "Save Us."

Iryna Matviyishyn contributed reporting to this story from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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