The wives of the last Ukrainian soldiers left in Mariupol, the southern city that is mostly occupied by Russians and 90% destroyed after weeks of constant Russian shelling, called on the world to help save their husbands.
Five Ukrainian women whose husbands are among the Ukrainian soldiers holding out at the Azovstal steel mill — Hanna Naumenko, Kateryna Prokopenko, Yuliia Fedosiuk, Olha Andrianova, and Daria Tsykunova — held a joint press conference via Zoom on May 15, calling on the world to join efforts and extract the Ukrainian military from the encircled plant.
"The most important thing is to save the lives of the heroes of Ukraine, not to give (them) posthumous awards," Fedosiuk said. "We keep hearing about how big of a tragedy 'happened' at Azovstal. But it's not over yet. We believe it's still possible to get our defenders out of there."
Ukrainian soldiers at the Azovstal have repeatedly been calling on the Ukrainian and world leaders to find a way to get them out of the besieged plant, possibly by organizing an extraction to a third-party country.
Approximately 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers are at the plant that remains the only area of Mariupol not seized by Russia. About 600 of them are wounded, according to one of the soldiers at Azovstal. Having been cut off from the rest of the world for many weeks, they have almost no food and medicaments.
The soldier, who was a local police officer, said “injured soldiers without limbs lie next to each other in unsanitary conditions, with flies, sounds of pain, and foul smells.”
Turkey has proposed to organize a naval evacuation for the soldiers across the Black Sea from the port of the occupied Berdiansk, where they would be transported by land. In this scenario, Turkey would guarantee that until the end of the war, the evacuated soldiers don't leave Turkey, and can't fight against Russians.
According to Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of Crimean Tatars who has discussed the evacuation with a Turkey representative, Russia refused to allow the evacuation unless the Ukrainian soldiers surrender. On May 14, a spokesman for the Turkish president said that the offer was still on the table.
The number of the wounded soldiers in changing daily, the wives of the soldiers said on May 15, as some of the injured die and others get wounded due to constant shelling and bombing.
Petro Andriushchenko, an advisor to the mayor of Mariupol, said on the morning of May 15 that Russia used either incendiary shells or phosphorus bombs during the latest attack on Azovstal.
"They hardly come to the surface, only to find food and water. The mood is pessimistic as there is almost no hope for salvation. They are preparing for the last battle," the Azovstal soldiers' wives said at the May 15 press conference.
Andrianova, whose husband is injured, added that her husband hasn't been outside the bunker and seen the daylight since April 28. The humanitarian situation at the underground hospital is especially bad, she added, as it's extremely hard to deliver any food or water there.
A minimal amount of antibiotics is used only for treating severe injuries, and people have to undergo limb amputations with no painkillers.
"Our husbands drink a sip of technical water every 5-6 hours. When we say the situation is critical, we mean it," they said.
On May 11, Maksym Zhorin, a co-commander of the Azov regiment, said Russian forces had destroyed the second underground hospital at Azovstal, further depriving soldiers of medical care. The same attack also killed 10 people. He stated that even those with minor injuries are slowly dying due to poor conditions.
"Mariupol is Aleppo," they said, referring to the devastated Syrian city. "Atrocities like this haven't happened in Europe since 1945."
Extraction is the only option
Russian troops have repeatedly been offering the Ukrainian military to surrender. But Ukrainian soldiers have repeatedly said that surrender "is not an option," and their wives echo them.
"They don't deserve to be tortured, killed in captivity," Prokopenko said.
If surrendered, Azov soldiers have a meager chance of survival, Fedosuik added, as Russian forces have "a special attitude towards them due to propaganda that they are all Nazies."
"Our husbands are regular people, patriots, not neo-Nazis," said Fedosuik. "They love their country and fight for our common values."
The wives thanked Kalush Orchestra, a Ukrainian band that won the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest on May 14, for calling from the stage to save Mariupol defenders, risking being disqualified.
It's essential to continue pressuring Russia, they said.
"It is also vital for us during an extraction that both living and the dead defenders are taken out. It is very important for Ukrainians that every son of Ukraine could be properly buried," Prokopenko added.