The footage shows a child wearing a makeshift diaper made from duct tape and plastic bags, asleep in a damp, moldy room. An elderly woman with a bandaged head is seen wearing a uniform jacket, once worn by steelworks workers, as she shakes uncontrollably. And little children make plaintive demands. “We want to go home,” said one girl. “We want to see the sun.”
These scenes come from videos shared online in recent days by the Azov Regiment, a unit of the Ukrainian army, which says they were taken in the maze-like bunkers under the sprawling Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, Ukraine. Russian soldiers control the rest of the city and fighting continues around the factory. The factory became the last refuge for thousands of trapped Ukrainian fighters and civilians. There is no escape and little chance of rescue.
Independent journalists who chronicled the Mariupol siege for Western media left a month and a half ago because the security risks were too great. The warring parties have stepped in to fill the void in first-hand coverage, sharing content on the ground and, in Azov’s case, pleading for help from their hundreds of thousands of social media followers.
With almost no cell phone service, electricity or internet access, Azov’s videos provide what may be one of the only glimpses into life at the steel mill.
Early Thursday, Azov fighters said Russian forces bombed a field hospital at the factory, killing wounded soldiers and burying people in the rubble. Reports of the attack prompted new calls from Ukrainian officials and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres for a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians.
The factory’s supply would be extremely low. “It’s not a matter of days, it’s a matter of hours,” Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko told a press conference on Friday.
“If Mariupol is hell, Azovstal is worse.”
Russia views the capture of the port city as crucial to its goal of securing a land bridge along southern Ukraine to connect Crimea to Donbass, and its forces bombard the plant relentlessly. The devastation there – city officials said tens of thousands of residents were killed – is one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the war.
“We are filming these videos to draw attention to the fact that they are at the factory, so that the enemy does not say that there are no civilians here,” said Captain Svyatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov regiment based at the plant. told the New York Times in a text message.
“So they can be evacuated.”
The Times could not independently verify the exact location of the videos, but the interiors appear to be consistent with the design of the factory, and a former employee familiar with the premises confirmed that the footage appears to have been created there.
Since April 18, Azov has released several videos focusing on civilians who say they are trapped at the factory, and mostly featuring women and children. “I want everyone who sees this video to help us create this green corridor, from here,” a mother holding her toddler said in a video released on April 24, as Ukraine celebrated Easter. orthodox. “Safe. Alive. Civilians and military.
While Azov is a party to the conflict, The Times has already verified the images released by the group. In the recently shared videos, Azov soldiers hand out treats to children and chat with adults. The relationship between the soldiers and the people who appear on camera, and the circumstances in which these images were produced, are unclear.
Graphic images shared on April 26 on social media accounts linked to the regiment showed the wounded lying on stretchers on a concrete floor, in what was believed to be a field hospital within the steelworks.
Two days later, Azov uploaded a video to his social media of what he said was the aftermath of Russian strikes on a field hospital inside Azovstal. Footage showed about two dozen people, some wearing casts and bandages, sitting in a dark, foggy room. A man with a headlight is seen digging through the rubble. Another holds a plastic bottle in his shaking hand and sobs.
“The strike was carried out in the area that contains the seriously injured,” Mikhail Vershinin, head of the Donetsk regional patrol police, said in a voice memo from inside the plant. “People are buried under the rubble, some are dead. There are injuries, injuries in addition to the injuries they already had.
The Azov Regiment was originally created in May 2014 as the Azov Battalion, named after the body of water where Mariupol and its now destroyed port are located, to defend the city when it was attacked by pro-Moscow forces . At the time, it was known for its far-right nationalist members, which was used by the Kremlin to justify its military campaign as having “anti-fascist” goals.
The group’s controversial reputation persists, and although it still has nationalist members, analysts say the unit, now called the Azov Regiment, has evolved since its incorporation into the regular combat forces of the Ukrainian army.
Some troops have been inside the plant since March 1, Captain Palamar told The Times.
Maria Zolkina, a Ukrainian political analyst who works at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, said regiment leaders made a concerted decision to go public with their calls for evacuation and extraction because they felt they were not had more alternatives.
“They started to be as public as possible when their division in Mariupol was completely surrounded,” she said, noting that they probably felt they no longer had the ability to push back Russian forces militarily or that they had lost all hope of successful negotiations between the two parties. .
“The city was virtually wiped out from the planet,” a commander, identified as Serhiy Volyna, said in a video uploaded Wednesday, allegedly from inside the factory. In a three-minute plea, he said more than 600 wounded soldiers, along with “hundreds of civilians and dozens of children” would perish if a humanitarian corridor could not be organised.
“Please save the city of Mariupol,” he pleads. “Please arrange an extraction procedure.”
“People will just die here,” he added.
Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting from Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, and brent mcdonald from Washington. Alexander Koroleva contributed to New York research.