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Mariupol defenders left Azovstal more than a month ago. What do we know about them since?

More than 2,500 defenders from Azovstal were in Russian captivity since they left Mariupol. Some of them have already returned home: on June 29, 95 people were released, and on September 21 another large exchange took place with 215 people released, 188 from Azovstal among them.

However, many defenders still remain in captivity. On July 29, their guarantee of safety was brutally violated: more than 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war were killed in an explosion in Olenivka, where they were held. 

Defenders of Azovstal. The story of the unbreakable.

The siege of Mariupol by the Russian troops started on March 1, and from the end of April last defenders of the city were blocked inside the Azovstal plant. Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers, many of them wounded, as well as civilians, were constantly under shelling with a very limited supply of water, food, or medicine.

For weeks, Ukrainian authorities and the international community were looking for a way to safely evacuate besieged people. First, civilians were able to leave Azovstal: on May 1, the process with the assistance of the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross had begun. Even despite the ceasefire, Russian shelling did not stop completely: on May 6, an evacuation vehicle was hit. Three Ukrainian soldiers were killed and six got injured in that attack.

After helping civilians to leave for Ukrainian-controlled territory, the defenders of Mariupol were still blocked in the Azovstal plant. On May 17, The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine stated that they had completed their combat mission, and unit commanders were ordered to save the lives of the military personnel.

“Thanks to the defenders of Mariupol, we have gained critical time to build reserves, regroup forces and receive assistance from partners. The defenders of Mariupol have completed all the tasks given by the command in full. Unfortunately, we do not have the capacity to relieve the siege of Azovstal by military means,” Hanna Maliar, Deputy Minister of Defence, said.

An agreement had been reached, and Ukrainian soldiers were able to leave Azovstal for Russian-controlled territory between 16 and 20 May. The International Committee of the Red Cross representatives registered combatants leaving the plant as prisoners of war, but did not yet state their total number.  

On June 6, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that more than 2,500 defenders from Azovstal are in Russian captivity. They are supposed to be returned to Ukrainian-controlled territory via exchange procedure. The Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defence along with international organizations is working to ensure their release.

Where are defenders from Azovstal now?

Most of the Ukrainian combatants evacuated from Mariupol are currently in a penal colony in the temporarily occupied territory of the Donetsk Region. 

Almost no information about the conditions of their captivity is publicly available. “We know that the pre-trial detention center itself is overcrowded and, of course, that some resources may be scarce. Again, food, water – it all needs to be improved”, said Kateryna Prokopenko, wife of the Mariupol “Azov” Regiment commander Denys Prokopenko, in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda in early June.

Earlier, on May 26, Oleksii Danilov, Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, also stated that Ukrainian combatants were not subjected to torture “as of today” and the situation is further monitored.

However, from what we know in other instances, Russian captivity may mean inhumane conditions with numerous rights violations. In May, Tamila Tasheva, the Permanent Representative of the President in Crimea, reported about Ukrainians brought to prison in temporarily occupied Crimea. According to Tasheva, they are being treated with cruelty, beaten, and tortured.

Paramedic Yuliia Paievska (Taira), who was released after three months in Russian captivity, also wrote about unacceptable conditions. “It is necessary to ensure that all prisoners are protected by the International Convention on Human Rights, because when we are there, we are completely deprived of rights, just like slaves. We can not receive any packages, we do not have any information about the family, and medical care is not available” Taira stated.

azovstal defender
Ukrainian soldier in the Azovstal plant. Photo: Dmytro ‘Orest’ Kozatskyi

When can we expect defenders of Mariupol to be released?

Oleksii Danilov said that a lot of information concerning exchange can not be disclosed for now as the process of negotiations is very delicate.

The main thing here is not to do any harm. There is a lot that should not be said. We expect the existing agreements to be fulfilled and for all our boys and girls from Mariupol, who are in captivity today, to return home safe and sound,” Danilov stated. 

On June 19, Russian media reported about Azov Regiment commanders being transferred to Russia for “investigation”, though there were no official comments on the issue from Ukrainian authorities. 

An update came from Kyrylo Budanov, head of the Chief Intelligence Directorate, on June 22. Budanov said it’s still early to name a date, but he hopes that a more or less significant number of Ukrainian soldiers would be released from captivity in the near future.

It won’t be a single exchange. There will be several phases,” Budanov stated. He also added that the negotiation process is much harder when it comes to unit commanders.

On June 29, the biggest exchange since the beginning of a full-scale war was held: 144 Ukrainian soldiers were returned home. Among them, 95 defenders were from the Azovstal plant, including 43 combatants from the Azov regiment. According to The Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defence, most of them have severe injuries and will now receive appropriate medical and psychological care.

Update: On September 21, 215 Ukrainian soldiers were released from Russian captivity. 108 of them were defenders of Azovstal.

Why is the exchange process so complicated?

During the first months of a full-scale Russian war, defenders of Mariupol became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, both for Ukrainians and the rest of the world. Outnumbered and besieged, they fought with outstanding bravery and devotion, and were able to hold Russian forces back for weeks. Ukrainians say that those in the Azovstal steel works are indeed made of steel.

On the other hand, defenders of Mariupol hold significance to Russia as well. Many of them are from the Azov regiment. It took part in liberating Mariupol back in 2014 when the aggression began. But, what’s more important, Russia widely uses Azov in its propaganda, demonizing the regiment and falsely accusing it of Nazism. As “denazification” was proclaimed as one of the goals of the war, Azov soldiers in captivity may be further used for Russian propaganda. 

July 29. More than 50 Ukrainian POWs were killed in occupied Olenivka

prison in Olenivka,
The destroyed building in the colony in Olenivka, where Ukrainian POWs were held. Photo: AP

Many defenders from Azovstal were held on the territory of the former penal colony in temporarily occupied Olenivka, the Donetsk region. The key condition of their evacuation to the Russian-controlled territories was the obligations of the Russian side to international organizations regarding the preservation of the life and health of Ukrainian soldiers.

This guarantee was cynically violated. On July 29, an explosion destroyed the building in Olenivka in which Ukrainian prisoners of war were held. More than 50 Ukrainian defenders were killed. 

“In this way, the Russian occupiers pursued their criminal goals – to accuse Ukraine of committing “war crimes,” as well as to hide the torture of prisoners and executions,” the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine stated.

Veronika Lutska, journalist