The Russian army in the ruins of Azovstal, symbol of the siege of Mariupol

(Mariupol) A tangle of twisted metal and burnt-out concrete: this is all that remains of the Azovstal Steelworks in Mariupol, which was taken by Russian forces in mid-May after becoming a symbol of Ukrainian resistance in that devastated port.

Posted at 10:29 am

Media Agency France

With white armbands on their arms, Russian and Separatist soldiers now patrol the burned remains of Azovstal. The old steel mill that was the pride of Mariupol and employed more than 12,000 people before the war is nothing more than a not-yet-completely-cleared debris field.

Controlled explosions sound at regular intervals: it is the Russian engineers who are securing the site. A pungent odor of what could be from decaying bodies hangs in the air around certain buildings this early summer.

AFP was able to visit this place for the first time with a group of journalists as part of a press trip organized by the Russian Defense Ministry.

The “highlight” of the trip is the labyrinth of the underground passages of the steel mill. Built in Soviet times on several levels and stretching for kilometers, they enabled the Ukrainian defenders of Azovstal – some members of the nationalist Azov regiment, but also marine infantry soldiers – to withstand the Russian siege for several weeks.

The dormitories frequented by the Russian army were occupied by fighters from the Azov regiment, accused by Russia of being neo-Nazis and occupying a key role in the Russian narrative surrounding its military operation in Ukraine.

Some graffiti remains on the walls, including a stencil resembling a “Black Sun,” a mystical Nazi symbol. Some posters salute “heroes” of the Azov regiment, who probably fell in battle. Cases are still on the ground. Supplies of medication and gauze bandages are stored on a table in an improvised infirmary.

“Aeronautics played a major role”

The Azovstal factory, where the last Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol took refuge, withstood Russian army attacks for more than a month until mid-May, when the rest of the city had already fallen under enormous destruction. According to Moscow, more than 2,000 Ukrainian fighters were captured.

“Aeronautics played a big role. I think that’s why they surrendered,” says Rouslan, 34, a fighter whose nom de guerre (“wolf”) contrasts with the curves and salt-and-pepper beard, which give him a good-natured look.

Originally from Transnistria, a pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova, Rouslan has been fighting since 2014 and took part in the battles to capture Mariupol.

They are “trained, they feel comfortable here. It was difficult for us because it was uncharted territory and they had everything in close proximity. There were hiding places for guns and ammunition in each room,” he continues quietly, sitting on an inverted stainless steel bucket.

Andrei, 43, from the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, admits that “70% of the people of Azov were from Mariupol, locals” and contradicts official Russian discourse that the majority of “nationalist” fighters are from other regions.

The city itself is devastated, many streets are deserted, but in certain places groups of several dozen people gather, especially where it is possible to get supplies during the lack of electricity, according to residents briefly questioned by AFP and regularity prevails water supply is still felt.

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