Russian forces have reduced Mariupol to ruins. But they are still meeting fierce resistance at the city’s steel plant, where Ukrainian fighters are deep underground. Halyna’s cousin is one of them.
“Every second of my day, I can’t stop thinking about Mariupol in general. Because the scale of horror and suffering happening in the city… it’s unimaginable. It’s inconceivable, absolutely inconceivable. And I can’t stop thinking about it. And the fact that my cousin is in the center of it… I mean, it’s crazy. I don’t… [trails off and sighs]”Halyna
I’m Tomini and this is the Sensemaker from Tortoise.
One story every day to make sense of the world.
For the past two months, we have been talking to a 28-year-old Ukrainian woman called Halyna. That’s not her real name.
She’s in relative safety in Kyiv. But her cousin has been fighting in Mariupol, a coastal city that Russia has tried to bomb into submission.
A place where parks and playgrounds are now makeshift cemeteries…
There’s talk in the west of war crime prosecutions. But for Halyna even that doesn’t always feel enough.
“There are two sides… two wolves inside of me. So one wolf… doesn’t really care about all of this European bureaucracy and really thinks that the best retribution would be delivered on the field of battle. But also there is another part of me who is rational and a much better person.”Halyna
Last week Russia claimed victory in Mariupol. A liberation without mercy.
But the city isn’t entirely under Russian control.
Deep in the catacombs of the Azovstal steel plants… a maze of tunnels and underground bunkers… are women and children. Kids who say they want to go home and see the sun.
[Little girl speaks in Russian]
And alongside them are as many as 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers. The last defenders of Mariupol.
Today, the story of one of those fighters.
Halyna’s cousin: a man called Maks.
“He used to be like a guy who doesn’t really know what he wants to be. So he went through a couple of universities. He went to one university, he got kicked out. Went to another university, he got kicked out. Then he joined the army.”Halyna
Maks is 26 years old.
Halyna spent a lot of time with him when they were growing up… less now they were adults.
But she can still give a pretty good account of his character.
“He’s a good guy. He’s kind, he’s compassionate. He’s funny, but he’s just had some trouble finding out what he wants in life.”Halyna
Mak’s mother – Halyna’s aunt – was pretty happy when he joined the army.
She was also a little worried though.
She saw the fighting that was happening against separatist groups in eastern Ukraine, even before Russia’s full-scale invasion, and didn’t want Maks to be dragged into the conflict.
“The bitter irony [is] that he ended up in the hottest place in the whole war. In the epicentre of it all.”Halyna
At the start of the invasion, Maks called his parents every day. He told them he was doing okay, that his unit was doing well.
He was in the national guard. In peacetime, it’s responsible for civilian enforcement, but it was mobilised for war when the Russians rolled in.
Maks’s communication became more sporadic after Mariupol lost power.
“The connection went off pretty quickly for them. But still he managed to send us a message on International Women’s Day… on the 8th of March. So that was nice of him.”Halyna
Halyna’s family got a bit of news from him on the 20th of March. But weeks of silence followed… Maks’s mom even went to a fortune teller.
“At least that woman told my aunt, you know, that her son was okay. He was doing fine… At least that woman didn’t tell her anything awful to make her more upset.”Halyna
And then, last week, they heard from him again.
“He was in the national guard unit, but being not really fit for that kind of war and that kind of intensity of fighting, their unit took heavy losses, they lost their commander and a few weeks ago, Maks was forced to join the rest of the forces under a steel plant.”Halyna
He’s now holed up in the Azovstal steel plant, surrounded by Russian forces.
“From what I understand they have some supply of water and food and, kind of like, basic supplies. The problem is more that they need the ammos, they need military support.”Halyna
It’s a terrifying situation to be in. Vladimir Putin has ordered the plant to be blocked off, so that “not even a fly comes through”.
And even though the Russian president has officially called off the mission to storm the plant, his army still seems to have designs on it.
“The problem is they’re trying to bomb the remains of the plant with air bombs. And it’s quite a sturdy building from what I understand. It can take quite a bit of punishment. But if you’re dropping bombs on one spot, even if it’s a pretty big spot… sooner or later something’s got to give.”Halyna
But despite the danger, Maks – even if he could – is not going anywhere.
That’s what he told his mother.
“During one of his last calls, she asked him if he would be willing to leave the city if there was such an opportunity for him, but he basically said that he’s there to the end.”Halyna
It’s difficult to see what the end looks like for Mariupol.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians are feared dead there. Plenty more are barely alive – short of food, water, and hope.
And the city’s last defenders are trapped underground, many wounded.
Maks’s family – like so many others – are left helpless.
“To see him almost completely… accidentally become the nation’s hero is very strange. And so we’re all very proud. But also I would rather not have had him in this situation. And I can’t believe that he’s in there, and I just don’t want him to die, you know. He’s even younger than me.”Halyna
Today’s story was written by Xavier Greenwood and mixed by Imy Harper.
Two atrocities in the port city of Mariupol epitomise Russia’s violence in Ukraine. This is the story of those atrocities and of Mariupol’s truth