Lvov, Ukraine “Outside of the metallurgical industry, few had heard of Mariupol’s Azovstal Steel and Iron Works before it became the site of a desperate last stand against the invading Russian forces.
But for weeks the world has been gripped by the battle raging around the steel mills on the Sea of Azov coast.
Yuriy Ryzhenkov, CEO of Metinvest Holding, which owns the plant, is devastated by what he sees happening at the plant and in Mariupol.
“The city has literally been under siege for almost two months now. And the Russians, they don’t allow us to bring food into the city or water into the city,” Ryzhenkov said.
“They don’t allow us to get civilians out of town centrally. They force people out in their own cars or even on foot through the minefields. It’s a humanitarian disaster there.”
When asked why Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to take Azovstal so badly, Ryzhenkov told CNN, “I don’t think that’s the factory he wants.”
“I think it’s about the symbolism that they wanted to conquer Mariupol. They didn’t expect Mariupol to resist.”
At least 150 employees were killed and thousands are still missing, he said.
“What we do know is that of the 11,000 employees of Azovstal,” Ryzhenkov explains, “only about 4,500 people got out of Mariupol and contacted us so that we know where they are.”
He seems haunted by the fate of the Azovstal squad.
“Over the past two months, the whole company has tried to do everything possible to get people to safety. Unfortunately, at the moment we are not even halfway there yet.”
The company’s staff includes family dynasties that have been making steel for as long as they can remember.
Ivan Goltvenko, the 38-year-old plant human resources manager, is the third generation of his family to work in Azovstal.
“I hoped that I would work for Azovstal all my life and contribute a lot to the fabric and to my city,” he says sadly.
“To see your city destroyed is horrible, you could compare it to a dying relative in your arms… And to see it gradually die, organ after organ failing, and there is nothing you can do.”
From the town of Zaphorizhzhia, he struggles to observe the extent of the devastation caused by the Russian airstrikes “because you want your town to remain as it was in your memory”.
News of what is happening back home is leaking 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, my apartment is completely looted by Russian soldiers. Nothing valuable remained – they even searched among the children’s toys, and many of them were stolen.”
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 he is in the city, he failed to leave, and he was involved in clearing debris and transporting the bodies of citizens deceased,” Goltvenko said.
“And yesterday he told me that for one day from just one part of town, I would even say ‘from just one street’ he loaded four truckloads of bodies.
“He said, ‘I was drawn to volunteering at the morgue to pick up bodies around town and take them away. “”
“For that,” said Goltvenko, “he receives a dry ration.
His colleague, Oleksiy Ehorov, 49, deputy head of repairs, has lived in Mariupol since he was a child.
“I studied there, I started working there, I became the person I am now. And seeing how it was destroyed… You can’t say it without tears, without a lump in the throat,” he said. said.
The agony is not over. Russian jets and missiles continue to hit the site as Putin last week said there was no need to storm the industrial zone around the plant.
Azovstal’s defenders repeatedly refused to surrender their weapons. It is believed that there are still hundreds of soldiers and civilians in the factory.
Before the war
What happened in Azovstal is a mirror image of what happened to a city proud of its history and industrial heritage.
The industrial port city may never have been conventionally beautiful, with smokestacks billowing smoke and steam into the sky above the factory. At the port, blue and yellow cranes moved heavy objects around the bustling shipyard. But Mariupol had its charm and was loved by its inhabitants.
In recent years, major improvements have been made, green spaces have been developed and the quality of life of popular communities has finally improved.
“We’ve spent the last eight years building a modern, comfortable city there…a city to live in,” says Ryzhenkov.
“We did some big environmental projects, and there were 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.”
Maryna Holovnova, 28, says “it was like a living dream” because “we had worked to transform the city from just a small industrial town into a cultural capital”.
The native of Mariupol, returned in 2020 after 10 years of absence to find a booming social scene. “It was completely different,” she told CNN, proudly adding that she was even named the Cultural Capital of Ukraine last year by the Ministry of Culture.
“We’ve had so many festivals and we’ve had so many people from other cities and countries too,” she continues. “We had the chance to talk to the people of the city not only from an industrial development point of view, but also from a cultural point of view [and] historically — because Mariupol has an incredible history.”
A beaming smile spreads across her face as the former city guide recalls the route she used to take visitors on. It would start at the century-old Mariupol old water tower, she says, before winding around the city center, passing its many historic buildings and places linked to local figures.
According to Holovnova, the waterfront metropolis continuing to thrive, a sailboat tour was introduced last year and plans were underway to launch an industrial-themed excursion with a factory tour showcasing the production process of steel.
“One of my favorite places, which was weird because the locals didn’t understand me … was a vantage point from where you could see the whole Azovstal factory and you could see how far how big it was, how huge it was, how awesome it was,” she said. “For the locals it was nothing special because you get used to it but all the foreigners, people from other towns, they marveled at the sight.”
Mariupol’s outbreak was an unlikely story, as it was engulfed in the violence of the 20th century. It was the scene of fierce fighting during World War II.
This time the devastation is even greater. Ukrainian officials say less than 20% of buildings in the city are unscathed. Russia’s ruthless bombing campaign has left rubble where landmarks like the Drama Theater once stood. Ukrainian officials say around 300 of the estimated 1,300 civilians who had sought refuge in the cultural institution were believed to have died when it was shelled in a brazen attack by Russia on March 16.
The same goes for Azovstal. Built in 1933 under Soviet rule, it was partially demolished during the Nazi occupation in the 1940s before being rebuilt.
Now it has disappeared again – its carcass housing Ukrainian soldiers and around 1,000 civilians in a maze of underground chambers, according to Ukrainian officials.
About 100,000 people remain in the city. Local authorities on Thursday warned that Mariupol was vulnerable to outbreaks given the appalling sanitary conditions in much of the city and the fact that perhaps thousands of bodies remain unrecovered.
Oleksiy Ehorov can’t bear to think about what happened to his town – and his family. His mother-in-law died of wounds sustained in a shelling during their first attempt to flee to Zaporizhzhia.
“My emotions have already disappeared in Mariupol. That’s why there is only hatred,” he told CNN.
Ehorov says he liked living by the sea and had hoped to stay at the steelworks until his retirement.
Now all he can do is watch Russia continue to blockade the city and his former workplace.
When asked if he would work under the Russians if they took the plant, he echoes Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and largest shareholder in the group behind the steel Azovstal.
“No. I won’t. After what they did…never.”
CNN’s Tim Lister contributed to this report from Lviv, Ukraine, and Kostan Nechyporenko contributed from Kyiv.