On Tuesday, May 17, Ukraine’s military said it planned to evacuate its last forces from Mariupol, their last stronghold, as combatants who had fought for 82 days began to surrender, signaling the end of Europe’s deadliest struggle in decades.
Reuters saw five buses depart the massive Azovstal steelworks overnight and arrive in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. Wounded men were laying on stretchers three bunks high in one, which was marked with the Latin letter ‘Z,’ which has become a symbol of Russia’s attack. One man was brought out with huge bandages over his head.
Video released by the Russian ministry of defense showed fighters leaving the plant, some being carried on stretchers, others with their hands up to be searched by Russian troops.
Russia said 256 Ukrainian fighters had “laid down their arms and surrendered”, including 51 severely wounded. Ukraine said 264 soldiers, including 53 wounded, had left the metal plant, and efforts were under way to evacuate others still inside.
“The ‘Mariupol’ garrison has fulfilled its combat mission,” the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in a statement.
“The supreme military command ordered the commanders of the units stationed at Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel … Defenders of Mariupol are the heroes of our time.”
The surrender appears to mark the end of the battle of Mariupol, where Ukraine believes tens of thousands of people were killed under months of Russian bombardment and siege.
The city now lies in ruins. Its complete capture is Russia’s biggest victory of the war, giving Moscow total control of the coast of the Sea of Azov and an unbroken stretch of eastern and southern Ukraine about the size of Greece.
But it comes as Russia’s campaign has faltered elsewhere, with its troops around the city of Kharkiv in the northeast lately retreating at the fastest pace since they were driven out of the north and the area around Kyiv at the end of March.
Authorities on both sides gave few clues about the ultimate fate of Mariupol’s last defenders, with Ukrainian officials discussing the prospect of some form of exchange for Russian prisoners but giving no details.
“We hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an early morning address. “There are severely wounded ones among them. They’re receiving care. Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive.”
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said 53 injured troops from the steelworks had been taken to a hospital in Russian-controlled Novoazovsk, some 32 km (20 miles) to the east, and another 211 people were taken to the town of Olenivka, also in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
All of the evacuees would be subject to a potential prisoner exchange with Russia, she added.
“The world is rapidly becoming a virtual tinderbox of preventable child deaths and child suffering from wasting,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell.
Severe wasting, when children are too thin for their height, affects 13.6 million children under 5 years old and results in 1-in-5 deaths among this age group.
Even before the war and pandemic, 2-in-3 did not have access to the therapeutic food needed to save their lives, UNICEF said.