Staff Sergeant Leonid Kuznetsov of the National Guard of Ukraine, his time is running out.
He and his comrades resisting at the Azovstal steel factory in Mariupol they only have light weapons (machine guns, pistols) to defend against Russian tanks, planes and artillery. They are hidden in a small reinforced concrete bunker with peeling blue paint on the walls and a few 2 meters of land over their heads.
While the bombardment that has been his constant companion for weeks comes to an end with Vladimir Putin’s order on Thursday to end the assault on the factory, the Russian president’s decision to blockade the last bastion of the Ukrainian resistance “so that Not even a fly passes.” it could be a death sentence.
Satellite image of Maxar Technologies, an area with what appears to be a growing mass grave on the outskirts of Mariupol. Photo: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via The New York Times
“I am alive and healthy for now, but the situation is very difficult,” Kuznetsov, 25, said. “We’re at the end of our food and water. we have about 1,000 civilians in the factory. I can’t say how many soldiers we have. There are many, many injured and insufficient medicine. The smallest wound can be fatal; there are not even simple bandages”.
The destruction of Mariupol by the Russian army will go down in history as one of the singular calamities of Putin’s disastrous war in the Ukraine.
A lively seaside town of approximately half a million inhabitants has become a charred hellscape Pockmarked and pockmarked, the bodies of soldiers, civilians, and their pets litter once-tree-lined avenues.
On Thursday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced to Putin that the ruined city was now completely under Russian control, except for the besieged steel plant. Few buildings remain standing and most of the city’s residents, those who have not been killed in weeks of almost relentless bombardment, they have fled
The Ukrainian zone of control in Mariupol has been reduced to sweltering bunkers under the steel plant as Kuznetsov and his fellow soldiers remain, stripped of everything, including reserves of hope.
“We hope help”, said. “If we don’t get it, we won’t get out of this factory. We will die here with weapons in hand defending Ukraine.
Ukrainian families arrive in Zaporizhzhia after fleeing Russian-occupied Mariupol. Photo: Lynsey Addario/The New York Times
Kuznetsov communicated with a reporter by text message using the chat app Telegram and sent a short video of himself sitting in the bunker with some fellow soldiers nearby. have internet connection thanks to Starlink, the satellite internet provider created by Elon Musk.
Kuznetsov chose to join the army after college because he thought that was what a man was supposed to do, his wife, Maria Kuznetsova, said in an interview. “It’s his character,” she said. “He thinks a man should serve to protect his family from him.”
Kuznetsova, 23, said she met her husband when they were students at Mariupol State University. They got married a few years later and now have a one year old son called David. Kuznetsov served for three years, then retired in December and applied to become a police officer.
Then on February 24, war broke out.
Kuznetsova said that she repeatedly begged her husband that he did not rejoin the army, and initially thought she had dissuaded him.
Ukrainian families receive food from volunteers after arriving in Zaporizhzhia after escaping from Mariupol. Photo: Lynsey Addario/The New York Times
“It’s hard to let go of your beloved man,” she said. “But every day he talked about it, and then quickly he gathered his things and left”.
Military base and shelter for families
Kuznetsov said he was sent to different regions of the city before finally being assigned to the Azovstal steel plant. for weeks served as a military base and shelter for families of soldiers and steelworkers, while Ukrainian defenders in other parts of the city were killed or forced to retreat.
The plant served for weeks as a military base and shelter for families of soldiers and steel workers. Photo: Reuters
With no one else to fight, the Russian forces they directed all their power against the factory in the last days, beating her day and night with air strikes, artillery and rockets.
Deaths due to landslides
Kuznetsov said that more than 500 people suffered various injuries and that there were many, many dead. Several people who took refuge inside have died from landslides caused by the bombing, he said.
He calculated that he and his fellow soldiers could resist another day, maybe two.
“I ask the whole world to do everything possible to stop the military aggression against independent Ukraine,” he said. “Punish all those responsible for the military action in our territory.”
Satellite image of the Azovsta plant. Photo: AP
Kuznetsova accused the Ukrainian government of abandon the troops that remained in the factory complex, although rescuing them would require resources that Ukraine can’t afford to spend while his army tries to resist a new Russian offensive in the east.
Surrender to Russian forces, Kutnetsova said, was also out of the question. “It’s a big risk. Could just shoot him”.
Kuznetsova was able to evacuate with her son on March 20 and now lives in the relative safety of western Ukraine.
Ukrainian families arrive in Zaporizhzhia after fleeing Mariupold. Photo: Lynsey Addario/The New York Times
The last time they spoke, on Wednesday, she said that he had made it clear to her that the situation was serious.
“There is no way out”, said. “He hopes everything will work out, but he told me to be prepared for any outcome.”
On Thursday night, Kuznetsov, who hadn’t sent a message in 24 hours, finally sent a text. The situation was bleak. Despite Putin’s order, he said, Russian forces had moved within 20 meters from where he and his comrades had taken refuge, and continued to hit their location from the air.
“We have a day or two if the fight is not that intense,” he said. “If so, everything can end within 12 hours”.
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