The two Mi-8 helicopters tore across enemy territory early on the morning of March 21, startling the Russian soldiers below. Inside were Ukrainian Special Forces fighters carrying crates of Stinger and Javelin missiles, as well as a satellite internet system. They were flying barely 20 feet above ground into the hottest combat zone in the war.
Ukraine’s top generals had conceived the flights as a daring, possibly doomed, mission. A band of Ukrainian soldiers, running low on ammunition and largely without any communications, was holed up in a sprawling steel factory in the besieged city of Mariupol. The soldiers were surrounded by a massive Russian force and on the verge of annihilation.
The plan called for the Mi-8s to land at the factory, swap their cargo for wounded soldiers, and fly back to central Ukraine. Most everyone understood that the city and its defenders were lost. But the weapons would allow the soldiers to frustrate the Russian forces for a few weeks more, blunting the onslaught faced by Ukrainian troops elsewhere on the southern and eastern fronts and giving them time to prepare for a new Russian offensive there.
“It was so important to the guys, who were fully encircled, to know that we had not abandoned them, that we would fly to them, risking our lives to take their wounded and bring them ammunition and medicine,” said a military intelligence officer with the call sign Flint, who was on the first flight and described the operation to The New York Times, along with three others involved. “This was our main goal.”
As the two Mi-8s drew closer, they banked hard over the Sea of Azov, flying just above the water’s surface to avoid Russian radar. Then it appeared, the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, the last bastion of the Ukrainian defenders. In a video from the flight, Azovstal looms like a besieged industrial fortress, bathed in early morning sunlight.
Beyond it was Mariupol, a city reduced in less than four weeks to a smoldering shell. Corpses littered the streets, while the living, those who remained, were mostly below ground, hungry and scared, emerging from basements only to scrounge for water and food.
“It was a sad sight,” said Flint, who was on the lead helicopter. “It was already mostly in ruins.”
For the Kremlin, Mariupol was a prize.
Barely had President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia given the order to invade Ukraine, on Feb. 24, when Russian soldiers began pouring over the border in tanks and armored vehicles, rolling toward the city, a strategic port on the Sea of Azov. Missiles streaked through the pre-dawn darkness, slamming into apartment buildings and wounding the first civilians of the war.
That morning, the general director of Azovstal, an industrial behemoth with more than 11,000 workers, convened his board. The director, Enver Tskitishvili, went on a war footing, deciding to power down the blast furnaces and cease operations for the first time since World War II.
Then the board made a decision that would shape the battle for eastern Ukraine.
Deep beneath the steel plant were 36 bomb shelters, a legacy of the Cold War. The shelters, some more than 20 feet underground, had enough food to feed thousands of people for several weeks. Believing the fighting would not last long, Mr. Tskitishvili and the other executives saw the plant as a sanctuary and invited employees to come there with their families.
What Mr. Tskitishvili did not know was that Ukraine’s military was also arriving at Azovstal. To the Ukrainian soldiers, the plant was a stronghold, surrounded on three sides by water, ringed by high walls, as seemingly impregnable as a medieval keep. It was the perfect place to make a last stand.
“The military never told us, and we never supposed that they would deploy with us,” Mr. Tskitishvili said in an interview. “We planned only for the civilian population, and only as refuge from attack. We did not consider ourselves to be participants in the war.”
For the next 80 days, Azovstal would be a fulcrum of the war, as Russian brutality collided with Ukrainian resistance. What began as an accident — civilians and soldiers barricaded together inside an industrial complex nearly twice as large as Midtown Manhattan — became a bloody siege as roughly 3,000 Ukrainian fighters kept a vastly larger Russian force bogged down in a quagmire that brought misery and death on both sides.
Mariupol stood in the way of one of Mr. Putin’s key aims: the creation of a land bridge linking Russian territory to Crimea, the strategic peninsula in southern Ukraine that Russia annexed in 2014. But the fight also fit the Kremlin’s war narrative. Though several military groups were at Azovstal, many of its defenders were members of the Azov Regiment, a strongly nationalistic group of fighters whose fame in Ukraine and early connections to far-right political figures have been used by the Kremlin to falsely depict the entire country as fascist.
Destroying them was central to the Kremlin’s often-repeated goal of “denazifying” Ukraine.
In Ukraine, the battle for Azovstal has already become legend, though a comprehensive account of the siege and the struggle for survival by the troops and civilians inside has been slow to emerge. Dozens of interviews conducted by The Times with defenders and civilians who were at Azovstal, including soldiers who were captured and later released by Russia, along with top military officials and international arbiters involved in negotiating evacuations, paint a picture of an apocalyptic siege that became Ukraine’s version of the Alamo.
In a war largely fought by anonymous soldiers far from the cameras, commanders and regular fighters at Azovstal spoke to journalists and beamed video testimonials to the world on Telegram. Capt. Svyatoslav Palamar, the deputy commander of the Azov Regiment at the plant, spent his days and nights fighting above ground, then broadcast his impressions in video messages when he retreated to the bunkers beneath Azovstal.
“We have fought with a group that is many times stronger than we are and have tied them down and not let them move further into Ukrainian territory,” Captain Palamar said in a telephone interview from Azovstal in late April. “But at the same time, the situation is difficult, actually critical.”
Ultimately, Azovstal became a trap. The presence of civilians hampered the soldiers’ ability to defend themselves. The presence of soldiers meant the civilians had to endure a vicious siege as food and clean water ran out.
Natalya Babeush, who worked as a high-pressure boiler operator at the plant before seeking refuge in one of the shelters, described a hunger so pernicious that children began to draw pictures of pizza and cake. As a volunteer cook for her bunker, she went above ground each day to prepare meals of thin soup and fried dough on a makeshift stove constructed of brick and metal gratings, as jets flew overhead dropping bombs.
Twice her kitchen was blown up by Russian rockets.
“You’d hear a jet, grab your frying pan and run to hide, counting how many bombs the plane dropped,” she said. “When it’s flying there above your head and all around there are explosions, you understand that your life is simply, well, it’s not worth anything.”
‘I Thought I Was Safe’
To Ms. Babeush and many others, Azovstal meant family. Her brother worked there. So did her husband. Generations of Mariupol families had worked at the plant since it opened in 1933, when Ukraine was part of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Later, when World War II left the plant in ruins, citizens of Mariupol made donations to help rebuild it.
“For people, especially after the war, the factory was a lifeline in terms of work, in terms of stability,” Ms. Babeush said. “Even before this war, there really wasn’t any other kind of work except for work in the factories.”
Unlike other industrial relics of that era, Azovstal thrived long after the Soviet Union collapsed. Metal from its furnaces was used for the protective sarcophagus around the damaged Chernobyl nuclear plant, as well as for more recent projects including Hudson Yards in New York, the Shard in London and Apple’s headquarters in California.
But Azovstal sat along one of the world’s bloodiest geostrategic fault lines. In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, Russian troops together with local separatists seized surrounding territory in the eastern Donbas region. The separatists occupied Mariupol for weeks before pro-Ukrainian forces, including Azov fighters, pushed them out.
For several years, as the war in the Donbas simmered, Azovstal executives ordered employees to revamp the decaying bomb shelters and stock them with food and water. Mariupol was only a few miles from the “contact line” that demarcated the territory controlled by the separatists.
“For eight years, we had become accustomed in Mariupol to explosions from time to time,” said Mr. Tskitishvili, the plant’s general manager. “We often heard shells explode — we heard the fighting and so we grew used to it.”
But that changed on Feb. 24 when Russian forces invaded the entire country.
Senior Sgt. Sergei Medyanyk, a soldier with the Azov Regiment, was at his barracks outside of Mariupol. His wife, Yulia Polyakova, a soldier with Ukraine’s National Guard, was at their home in the city. Both were woken at 4 a.m. and ordered to prepare for war.
“We did not really understand what was happening,” Sergeant Medyanyk said. “We thought maybe it was a training exercise.”
Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War
Anna Zaitseva and her husband, Kirill, who worked at Azovstal, bundled their infant son and rushed to take shelter at the factory. She had been so stressed during the Russian military buildup before the war, she said, that she had stopped lactating.
“We came to the shelter,” she recalled, “and took with us only what was necessary, like very big blankets, some food, water, documents and some baby formula.”
Ms. Babeush initially refused to leave her home, even as the rockets began striking nearby apartment buildings and cars burned on the streets. By March 2, the city no longer had working electricity, water or cellphone service, and Ms. Babeush and her husband finally fled on foot to Azovstal, taking cover from shelling every few minutes.
Ms. Babeush took up residence in a bunker below the rail and beam shop where her husband worked, fashioning a bed out of planks, some rubber sheeting and rags.
“That first night was the first time in a while that I slept,” she said. “Honestly, I thought I was safe.”
A City Within a City
Russia’s military hit so hard and so fast that Ukrainian defenses along Mariupol’s perimeter melted within days.
Sergeant Medyanyk was manning a Soviet-era vehicle armed with a small-caliber machine gun when an enormous column of Russian tanks, escorted by fighter jets, bore down on his position.
“This was my war baptism,” he said. “We had nothing to use against aviation, and so to avoid losses, we did what we could and fell back.”
Almost no one thought Ukraine had a chance. But in many cities, the Ukrainian military fought the invaders to a standstill, spoiling the Kremlin’s plans to quickly seize the capital, Kyiv, and halting an advance along Ukraine’s southern Black Sea coast toward Odesa.
Mariupol was different. Russian troops lunged from two directions, closing the city in a vise, routing Ukrainian soldiers in the first few weeks, and pushing them back to the sea and toward Azovstal. Soldiers from different units arrived at the factory, and Captain Palamar and other Azov officers set up a command center.
“We moved and moved and moved toward the territory of the factory because it was the only place that remained,” Captain Palamar said in an interview.
The city itself was collateral damage. Snow disappeared from courtyards as people gathered it for drinking water. Residents cooked outdoors on wood-fired stoves, ducking into basements when Russian jets flew overhead.
“After a direct hit from those shells, nothing remains,” said Elina Tsybulchenko, who fled on foot to Azovstal with her family and two dogs. “Everything inside burns and explodes into small pieces, flying in all directions, and disintegrates as if there was nothing ever there, not people, furniture, not appliances or walls or plumbing. It all just disappears.”
Soon, Azovstal began filling up with civilians who did not know that elsewhere on the vast grounds, soldiers were arriving, too. “If I had known there would be soldiers,” Ms. Tsybulchenko said, “we would have perhaps looked for another place to hide.”
But by early March, several thousand Ukrainian troops had converged inside Azovstal, and soldiers and civilians realized they were sharing the same refuge. Communications to the outside world were cut as Russian forces steadily took all but a few pockets of the city.
“The encirclement was so dense there was no possibility to reach them,” said Flint, the Ukrainian military intelligence officer, “either by land or by the Azov Sea, which was fully controlled by the Russian Navy.”
But Ukrainian fighters were still slipping into Mariupol. Bohdan Tsymbal, an Azov junior sergeant, staged lighting raids with his artillery unit to skirmish with Russian fighters and gather supplies for the civilians inside the plant. He and his older brother, Anton, had joined Azov right out of school. They were boys when their nearby village was occupied by separatists in 2014, and it was the Azov troops who liberated them.
“These guys gave up their lives and their health to free my village from these scoundrels,” said Sergeant Tsymbal, 20. “That’s why I chose this path.”
On one of the raids, Sergeant Tsymbal’s unit slipped out of Azovstal and came under heavy fire. He was struck several times. For nearly 90 minutes, he lay bleeding in the rubble, not far from the factory, before he was rescued and taken to the makeshift field hospital inside Azovstal. Medics operated on him in the dim light of a bunker.
Azovstal was becoming a horror show. Civilians and soldiers were short of food, weapons and medicine to treat dozens of wounded troops. Soldiers were dying from even minor wounds.
There was no way out.
The question was whether there was a way in.
Operation Air Corridor
The two Mi-8 helicopters navigated through the loading cranes of Mariupol’s port and descended into the Azovstal complex. Flint, the intelligence officer, jumped out with the Special Forces team and quickly began offloading green crates of weapons and ammunition.
Soldiers wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags, some missing arms and legs, were hoisted into the helicopters, whose rotors never stopped spinning. They lifted off with eight or nine wounded fighters that day, Flint said, some of whom were conscious enough to show off cellphone videos of the intense fighting they had endured.
The March 21 mission, captured on videos provided by Flint, lasted only 20 minutes on the ground. “There was just this feeling of happiness, emotional satisfaction that we were able to get these guys out,” Flint said.
In all, Operation Air Corridor, as the effort was known to participants, managed to land helicopters at Azovstal seven times during the next two weeks and rescue 85 gravely wounded soldiers, Flint said. A heavily sedated Sergeant Tsymbal was among those evacuated.
July 25, 2022, 6:24 a.m. ET
But the helicopters also brought in other soldiers, mostly volunteers, including Pvt. Nikita Zherdev of the Azov Regiment. His father had died in the shelling of Mariupol weeks earlier, and he wrote his sister before taking off telling her to learn to take care of herself. He did not tell her what he thought: that he did not expect to leave alive.
“As soon as we landed at Azovstal, I understood that, wow, things are really happening here,” he said. “Everything was covered in smoke. Everything was under fire. The people who greeted us, shouted, ‘Faster, faster, faster — there are airstrikes every five minutes, the jets are coming.’”
A native of Mariupol, Private Zherdev already knew the troops at Azovstal, but the men he found were withered specters of those soldiers, hungry and exhausted and covered in blood and gun oil after weeks of constant fighting. They were shocked to see him.
“You see what’s happening,” he recalled one soldier telling him. “Why do you want to die here with us?”
The city many of them saw now was an incomprehensible horror. Several fighters described streets littered with corpses that were being devoured by starving cats and dogs.
“I love cats,” said Ruslan, a fighter who arrived on a helicopter in April. “I didn’t know that a cat, when it’s hungry, could eat a person.”
Losses were heavy. Private Zherdev said his top commander and another officer were killed by Russian fire on the second day. Private Zherdev lasted seven. He was sprayed with shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade, and one large piece lodged in the nape of his neck, threatening to paralyze or kill him if he moved.
What saved him were the helicopters, which were still flying, barely. As his rescue helicopter lifted off, Private Zherdev recalled a loud pop and an explosion as a Russian rocket slammed into its fuselage. Somehow it remained aloft, but a second helicopter was knocked out of the sky, along with the wounded soldiers onboard, he said.
When he landed back in Ukrainian-held territory, Private Zherdev managed to record a video of his helicopter, its fuselage shredded and blackened by the explosion. It had made it back with one engine.
Another helicopter went out on April 7 and was hit by Russian ordnance only a few miles from Ukrainian territory, said Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, the commander of Ukraine’s military intelligence service, who oversaw the helicopter operation. A rescue helicopter sent to look for survivors was also shot down, and the four Special Forces troops on board were killed along with its crew, he said.
After that, Operation Air Corridor ended, General Budanov said. But it helped the forces at Azovstal withstand the Russian onslaught for more than a month longer.
“Isolated and surrounded, they fought,” General Budanov said in an interview. “We brought them all we could, but, you understand, not as much as was necessary.”
What also changed the battle was the Starlink internet system that Flint’s team had delivered on that first mission. Before, the civilians and fighters inside Azovstal had been almost completely cut off from the outside world.
Now, a siege seemingly out of World War II would become an online event. Videos from inside the factory began appearing on Telegram channels. Soldiers were suddenly in contact with their wives, who pleaded with world leaders to end the fighting. Captain Palamar began communicating with reporters, sending out videos and describing bunkers filled with hundreds of soldiers too badly wounded to fight.
The world could now peer inside Azovstal. What it saw was apocalyptic.
The Verge of Madness
Inside the field hospital at Azovstal, the wounded soldiers looked pale and deathlike. Crammed into a dark and dust-filled bunker, most were lying on the concrete floor. Their injuries were leaking and bloody, and where gangrene had set in, the flesh looked green and rotted.
Captain Palamar sent a reporter video and photos from the field hospital in late April, hoping to stir the world’s sympathies with the suffering of his troops. A blackish mold now coated the food, the old and tattered bedding, even the weapons. Medicines were running so low that surgeons carried out amputations without sufficient anesthesia.
Night and day, Russian ships and artillery units pounded the factory, while Russian jets fired rockets and bunker-busting munitions that began to degrade the bomb shelters.
Days after Captain Palamar sent his video, the hospital was hit directly, causing the ceiling to collapse and burying an unknown number of wounded fighters and their caregivers. Even as troops tried to pull their comrades from the rubble, the fighting continued.
“This is on the verge of madness,” Dmytro Kozatsky, an Azov soldier, said in a video message used in a short Ukrainian documentary, recalling the constant attacks. “You realize that your friends are dead, they are lying here next to you. And on the other hand, you’re walking and you rejoice, you are happy because you survived.
“I will remember this smell for a long time,” he added. “It was the smell of blood.”
By then, the last Ukrainian units fighting outside the factory had retreated behind its walls.
Outside, Russian fighters ringed the factory’s periphery, as correspondents from Russian state television and Russian war bloggers covered the assault. Several times, Russian infantry tried to break through Azovstal’s perimeter but each time they were repelled.
In late April, Aleksandr Sladkov, a war correspondent for Russian state television, posted video of Russian troops wearing white armbands and carrying an assortment of small arms, preparing to storm Azovstal. The land around them was pounded into a twisted, wreckage-strewn wasteland and ahead of them was the towering factory.
“They’ve tried to take this building three times already,” Mr. Sladkov said, as artillery thundered in the distance. “Honestly, I didn’t think I would end up in this.”
But inside, it was worse. Ukrainian soldiers were scrounging for food and water, risking death from the constant shelling.
Earlier, the messages sent out by Captain Palamar and others at the plant were full of soldierly bravado. The troops were prepared to die with guns in their hands and become martyrs to Ukraine’s glory, they said. But as the siege wore on, and food and water grew scarce, many of them began to hope for a negotiated end to the battle.
“We are prepared to leave the city because there is nothing left to defend,” Captain Palamar said in late April. “We consider that we’ve fulfilled our mission. But we will continue to defend it until there is an order to retreat from our military leadership. And if we are going to leave, we are going to leave with our weapons.”
The civilians were starving.
By late April, Ms. Babeush and other adults in her bunker were rationed to a single meal a day, mostly a gruel of canned meat mixed with water. The 14 children got two meals a day, if they were lucky, starting with a breakfast of oatmeal that she mixed with a little flour and water and fried like a pancake. She recalled waking up one morning to find that a child had placed a drawing of a pizza on her bed.
“Тhey were starving and not getting vitamins,” she said. “One woman was so weak that she was always stumbling, losing her balance, nearly fainting.”
Ms. Zaitseva, who had fled to Azovstal with her husband and infant son on the second day of the war, suffered a concussion. Her mother broke her arm when a bomb landed nearby as they were heating baby formula.
Ms. Zaitseva’s husband joined the Azov troops, moving into a different bunker. He visited his family to deliver food and candy with other soldiers, bringing a book of fairy tales for their son, Svyatoslav, along with a copy of “Robinson Crusoe” for his wife.
“I promised him that when he returned, we would have a little daughter, because it was always his dream to have a daughter,” she said in an interview.
That was the last time he visited.
Despair set in. People in the bunkers went weeks without seeing natural light or breathing clean air. People became irritable and cruel, occasionally fighting, said Anna Krylova, who sheltered with her daughter, who was then 14. Some became so desperate for an escape they began to drink from the bottles of alcohol-infused hand sanitizer installed during the Covid pandemic.
“It was unbearable,” Ms. Krylova said.
By late April, Russian forces still had not broken through the perimeter. As many as 12,000 Russian troops had been bogged down in the fight. Thousands of rounds of ammunition had been used.
From the bunkers, Azov soldiers began sharing videos of children in diapers fashioned from plastic bags, or wearing oversized Azovstal work uniforms. The children and their mothers pleaded to return home, to see the sun again.
“There is no escape from here,” a teary-eyed woman said in one of the videos. “The children have not seen the sun in a month and a half.”
Outside Mariupol, a group of women, mostly wives of the trapped soldiers, launched a campaign to save their husbands, appealing to world leaders and even earning an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
“You are our last hope,” Kateryna Prokopenko, the wife of the Azov Regiment’s commander, told the pope. “I hope you can save their lives. Please don’t let them die.”
On April 26, the secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres, flew to Moscow with a proposal to open a humanitarian corridor for the civilians inside Azovstal. Mr. Putin, according to a United Nations readout of the meeting, agreed to the proposal “in principle.”
Four days later, near sunset, Ms. Krylova and her daughter clawed their way out of the subterranean bunker and emerged in the dying light. They were put on a bus and driven out of the factory complex where they were met by representatives from the United Nations and the Red Cross.
“Above, the sky was so blue, so blue. Beautiful. There was quiet,” Ms. Krylova said. “And the ruined factory, like the apocalypse.”
Osnat Lubrani, the top United Nations representative in Ukraine, described the shock of arriving in Mariupol to help coordinate the evacuations and passing makeshift graves on the side of the road.
“The word ‘Dresden’ came to my mind,” she said in an interview, referring to the German city flattened by Allied firebombing in World War II.
The evacuations were harrowing. Bombing in the preceding days was so intense that civilians initially resisted coming out of Azovstal, she said. Just being at the plant, she said, was extremely dangerous, as shooting erupted. Yet over the next several days, every civilian was extracted from Azovstal.
Each was escorted by the United Nations and Red Cross to a checkpoint in a coastal Ukrainian town that was under Russian control. They were strip searched and interrogated about their knowledge of Ukrainian forces at the plant, as Russian authorities pulled off the buses a handful of people deemed suspicious.
Some people chose to return to bombed-out neighborhoods in Mariupol in search of relatives. But the majority are now in the relative safety of western Ukraine.
When she finally got a new cellphone, Ms. Babeush discovered that her parents, who remained in Mariupol, had survived. They had searched for her in late March and found the family cat, Liza, who was half-starved.
“They thought we had died,” Ms. Babeush said of her parents. “Thank God everyone survived. Even Liza.”
For the soldiers at Azovstal, there was no reprieve. Even before the last civilians had left, the shelling resumed and continued intensely for about two weeks as Russian forces made their final push but the Ukrainians kept repelling them.
Sergeant Tsymbal said he texted with his brother, Anton, who was still inside the factory.
“They were waiting for help, that a miracle might occur,” he said.
The last exchange between the brothers was on May 14. Anton was killed in a mortar attack later that day.
Two days later, Ruslan, one of the Azov fighters, lost his leg.
“I can see flying toward me this sparking, whistling thing on a wire and suddenly it just cuts through my leg like a sausage,” he said. “I’m screaming, ‘I’m bleeding out, I’m bleeding out. Give me a tourniquet. Shoot me, shoot me.’
“And some guy runs up to me and says, ‘Not today.’”
Ruslan — who gave only his first name to reduce risk to his brother, a soldier fighting the Russians in the east — was rushed to the field hospital in the bunker, where doctors performed a quick surgery and pumped him full of morphine.
When he came to several hours later, he received a shock. He was on a stretcher surrounded by Russian soldiers, their faces covered by Balaklavas. He said a Russian commander told him to “hang in there.”
While Ruslan was unconscious, Ukraine’s commanders in Kyiv had made a difficult choice. To spare the lives of the remaining fighters, they ordered the defenders of Azovstal to surrender themselves as prisoners of war.
Ruslan was among the first to be evacuated, as was Sergeant Medyanyk, who was uninjured and ordered to help carry the wounded out of the factory.
“There was a little disappointment,” Sergeant Medyanyk said, “but deep in my soul, there was a joy that we would remain alive.”
Others were less enthusiastic. Ruslan said he would never have surrendered if given the choice.
“We would have fought to the end,” he said.
Some 2,500 fighters were taken to a prison camp on Russian-controlled territory in the Donetsk region. They were interrogated, locked into cramped cells and fed just enough to keep from dying of hunger.
They were awakened at 6 each morning to music blaring from a loudspeaker: the Russian national anthem.
On June 29, at 1 a.m., a guard pulled Sergeant Medyanyk from his cell and told him he was being taken for further interrogation. He was put on a bus with other prisoners, many of them badly wounded. Ruslan, the stump of his leg now bandaged, was among them.
They drove for hours.
It was only when Sergeant Medyanyk saw Ukrainian soldiers that he realized that he was part of a trade. After intense negotiations, the Ukrainians and Russians had agreed on a prisoner swap that saw 144 Ukrainians exchanged that day, most of them fighters from Azovstal.
Sergeant Medyanyk stepped down from the bus blinking in the bright summer sun. He was shocked to see his wife, Yulia Polyakova, the soldier in the Ukrainian National Guard. They had not spoken since March 1, and he feared she had died.
“We locked eyes,” he said. “There was unbelievable happiness.”
Along with the other women in her unit, Ms. Polyakova had been told to stand down on the third day of the war, as the shelling in Mariupol intensified. She hid in the basement of the couple’s apartment building until it was hit by a shell and burned to the ground.
Then she had fled the city on foot.
She made it as far as the outskirts when she was arrested at a checkpoint manned by Russian forces. They had searched her phone, discovered that she was the wife of an Azov soldier and taken her into custody. They called her a fascist and made her sing the Russian national anthem. They told her that her husband was most likely dead.
“Azov fighters are not taken prisoner,” she said they told her. “They are shot on sight.”
She alone from her prison camp was selected as part of the same trade that freed her husband. Ukrainian officials had pressed for their release for the sake of their children, who had been left in the care of an ailing grandmother.
“When I saw him, I simply — I’m even crying now,” she said.
Today, the other surviving soldiers from Azovstal are being held at a prison camp in a Russia-controlled part of eastern Ukraine. The commanders, including Captain Palamar, were transferred to Russia and are being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison, a place of torture during Stalin’s purges.
Ukraine’s leaders have vowed to bring them back alive, but Russian officials are threatening to charge some of them with war crimes. Of the dead, so far the bodies of more than 400 soldiers have been returned to Ukrainian-held territory for burial.
An unknown number remain entombed in the ruins of Azovstal.
Additional Reporting and Video Production: Brent McDonald
Graphics: Marco Hernandez
Additional Reporting: Valerie Hopkins, Maria Varenikova, Carlotta Gall, Andrew E. Kramer, Marc Santora and Ivan Nechepurenko