A year after the fall of Mariupol, an Azovstal survivor remembers the surrender with pain and purpose
A Mariupol police officer who was among the last defenders to surrender from the Azovstal steel plant is among those who surrendered a year after being ordered by Ukraine’s president
KYIV, Ukraine — Mihajlo Versinin was a shadow of the burly Mariupol policeman who emerged after four months of Russian captivity.
The head of the Mariupol police patrol was among the hundreds who surrendered at the Russian siege of the Azovstal steel plant a year ago on the orders of the Ukrainian president, and was close to death the day he was exchanged for Russian prisoners of war.
He experienced it personally on the day when the last square of the besieged city fell, and now he remembers it with deep sadness, but with a sense of purpose for the future of Ukraine.
The airstrikes had been relentless for weeks, but the skies grew quiet as Russian and Ukrainian officers negotiated the terms of the surrender. At the time, Versinin says, it seemed like the only chance for both men and women underground — and for Mariupol.
Azovstal’s latest stand has also become a rallying point for many countries that have been hesitant to support Ukraine.
“Starting from Mariupol, the world began to wake up to understand what was happening,” he said. “We knew perfectly well that we had locked up a lot of Russian forces. We were like a bone in Russia’s throat.”
The group hoped for reinforcements, which never came, and finally surrendered.
However, Russia did not keep its promise to treat prisoners of war according to the rules of the Geneva Convention. Torture, hunger and disease pursued the group. More than 700 are still in captivity: obtaining their release was a priority of the Ukrainian government and of Versinin, who was in the group exchanged for Russian prisoners of war last fall.
The men and women who fought to the end at Azovstal are heroes and martyrs across Ukraine, their faces displayed on posters and giant banners.
At the time, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy explained the order to surrender by saying that “Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes to survive. This is our principle.”
But Versinin said mistreatment was routine as their Russian captors tried to turn the men against each other and starve them into submission.
“I can say this now: if we knew what awaits us in prison, many people would not leave, would not surrender.”