They never expected Mariupol’s resistance. Locals were horrified by the relentless Russian attack on the vast steel mill protecting the Ukrainians

Lviv, Ukraine Few outside the metalworking industry had heard of the Azovstal iron and steel works in Mariupol before they became the scene of a finally desperate stand against the invading Russian forces.

But for weeks now, the world has been occupied by a raging battle over steel mills on the coast of the Sea of ​​Azov.

Ukrainian officials say mass graves near the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol are evidence of war crimes

Yuri Raginkov, CEO of the Metinvest Holding Company that owns the plant, is devastated by what he sees happening to the plant and to Mariupol.

“The city has actually been under siege for about two months. And the Russians, they don’t let us bring food into the city or water into the city,” Raginkov says.

“They don’t allow us to centralize the civilians out of the city. They either push people out in their own cars or even walk through the minefields. It’s a humanitarian disaster there.”

Asked why Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to take Azovstal so badly, Raginkov told CNN: “I don’t think this is the factory he wants.”

“I think it had to do with the symbolism that they wanted to conquer Mariupol. They never expected Mariupol to resist.”

He said at least 150 employees have been killed and thousands are still missing.

Smoke rises over the Azovstal plant being leveled at nearby buildings in Mariupol on April 18.

“What we know is that of the 11,000 employees of Azovstal, only about 4,500 people came out of Mariupol and contacted us so that we know where they are,” Raginkov says.

He seems to be haunted by the fate of the Azovstal workforce.

“For the past couple of months, the entire company has tried to do everything possible to get people to safety. Unfortunately, right now, we’re still even halfway there.”

The company’s staff includes the ruling families who have made steel for as long as possible.

Ivan Goltvienko, director of human resources at the plant, 38 years old, is the third generation of his family who works at Azovstal.

“I had hoped to work at Azovstal all my life and to contribute so much to the fabric and to my city,” he says wistfully.

“Seeing your city being devastated is horrific, you can compare it to a relative dying in your arms… and seeing him gradually die, one member failing after another, and you can’t do anything.”

From Zaphorizhzhia, he finds it difficult to witness the scale of the devastation caused by the Russian air raids “because you want your city to remain as it was in your memory”.

News of what is happening back home spreads from friends and colleagues who are still trapped in Mariupol.

“Today, for example, I was shown a video of my apartment. Despite the fact that the house survived, the Russian soldiers completely ransacked my apartment. Nothing valuable was left – they even searched among the children’s toys, many of which were stolen.”

Part of a destroyed tank and a burnt car are photographed in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol on April 23.

He says he spoke to a colleague on April 24 who revealed some of the horrors residents face.

“From one of the employees, who has a connection, we know that he is in the city, he was not able to leave, he participated in the removal of debris and the transportation of the corpses of citizens,” Goltvienko says.

“And yesterday he told me that for a day from only one area of ​​the city I would say ‘only one street’ carried four trucks of corpses.

He said: I was drawn to volunteering in the mortuary to collect bodies in the city and transport them.

“So he’s getting a dry ration,” Goltvinko says.

His colleague, 49-year-old Oleksiy Ihorov, deputy head of the reform, has been living in Mariupol since he was a child.

“I studied there, I started working there, I became the person I am now. And I saw how destroyed it was…You can’t say that without tears, without a lump in the throat,” he says.

The torment is not over yet. Russian planes and missiles continue to bombard the site, although Putin said last week there was no need to storm the industrial area surrounding the factory.

The defenders of Azovstal repeatedly refused to lay down their arms. It is believed that hundreds of soldiers and civilians remain at the factory.

prewar

What happened in Azovstal is a mirror image of what happened to a city that is proud of its history and industrial heritage.

The industrial port city may not have been pretty at all, with chimney stacks spewing smoke and steam in the sky above the factory. In the port, blue and yellow cranes moved heavy objects around the bustling shipyard. But Mariupol had its charm and was loved by its residents.

In recent years, great improvements have been made, green spaces are developed and the quality of life for working-class communities has finally improved.

“The past eight years we have spent building a modern and comfortable city there … a good city to live in,” Raginkov says.

“We have completed some major environmental projects, and there are still plans to make sure we have clean air, we have clean water etc. And now we see everything being destroyed in less than two months.”

A view of the port of Mariupol taken by Marina Holovnova from Mariupol last June.
Holovnova used to organize tours starting from the ancient Mariupol water tower near the theater square.

“It was like a living dream,” says Marina Holovnova, 28, because “we worked towards transforming the city from just a small industrial city into a cultural capital.”

The Mariupol native returns in 2020 after a 10-year absence to find a thriving social scene. “It was completely different,” she told CNN, proudly adding that last year the Ministry of Culture named it Ukraine’s capital of culture.

“We had a lot of festivals and we had a lot of people coming from other cities and other countries as well,” she continues. “We had the opportunity to tell people about the city not only from an industrial development perspective, but also from a cultural point of view. [and] From a historical point of view – because Mariupol has an amazing history. ”

A beaming smile spreads across her face as the former city guide recalls the route she was taking for visitors. You’ll start at Mariupol’s century-old water tower, she says, before turning around the city center, with its many historic buildings and sites associated with local characters.

As the waterfront city continues to thrive, Holovnova says, a sailing tour was introduced last year, and plans were underway to launch an industrial-themed cruise complete with a factory tour showcasing the steel production process.

“It was one of my favorite places, which was weird because the locals didn’t understand me… It was a lookout point where you could see the whole Azovstal factory and you could see how big it was and how great it was,” she says. “For the locals, it was nothing special because we were used to it but all the foreigners, people from other cities, were amazed by the sight.”

Holonova, a former Mariupol city guide, says her favorite location in the city was this viewpoint looking towards Azovstal.

The city is under siege

Mariupol’s prosperity was an unlikely story, because it was swallowed up by the violence of the twentieth century. It was the scene of bitter fighting in World War II.

This time the devastation is even greater. Ukrainian officials say less than 20% of the city’s buildings have not been damaged. Russia’s ruthless bombing campaign has left ruins where once stood landmarks such as the Drama Theatre. Ukrainian officials say about 300 of the 1,300 civilians who sought refuge in the cultural establishment are believed to have died when it was bombed in a brazen attack by Russia on March 16.

A man walks past the shell of the Mariupol Drama Theater on April 25.

The same applies to Azovstal. Built in 1933 under Soviet rule, it was partially demolished during the Nazi occupation in the 1940s before being rebuilt.

Now he’s gone again – his carcass harbored Ukrainian soldiers and about 1,000 civilians in a maze of underground rooms, according to Ukrainian officials.

Azovstal was partially demolished during the Nazi occupation in the 1940s.

An estimated 100,000 people remain in the city. On Thursday, local authorities warned that Mariupol is vulnerable to epidemics given the appalling sanitary conditions in much of the city and the fact that thousands of bodies may still be uncollected.

Oleksiy Yehorov can’t bear to think about what happened to his city – and his family. His mother-in-law died of wounds sustained in the bombing during their first attempt to flee to Zaporizhia.

“My feelings really disappeared there in Mariupol. That’s why there is nothing but hate,” he told CNN.

Ehorov says he loved living by the sea and hoped to stay in the steel mills until his retirement.

All he could do now was watch Russia continue to lay siege to the city and his former workplace.

When asked if he would work under the Russians if they took over the plant, he said he was echoing Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and the main shareholder in the group behind Azovstal Steel.

“No. I’m not going. After what they did… never.”

CNN’s Tim Lister contributed to this report from Lviv, Ukraine, and Kostan Nikiburenko contributed from Kyiv.

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