They were a powerful symbol of Ukraine’s defiance in the face of the brutal invasion from Moscow.
But on Tuesday most of the remaining defenders of the pulverized Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol stoically entered Russian guard – some of them carrying their wounded comrades – after nearly three months of fierce fighting and shelling. .
The event marked the beginning of the end of a siege that captured the imagination of Ukrainians and the world.
For the families of the soldiers, this moment was marked by a torrent of emotions: fear, relief, confusion, anger, defiance, but above all hope.
“We didn’t know what was going on and waiting is the hardest part,” said Lilia Stupina, whose husband Andriy, a regular forces soldier, was among the first to enter Azovstal as Ukrainian defenders fell in one of the largest reservoirs of steel and iron. manufactures factories in Europe.
“My husband is fine and healthy. So I don’t know where he is now, but I believe in the best, I believe in the best.”
She heard from her husband of 25 years a week ago.
On Tuesday, Russia described the event as a massive surrender. Ukrainian officials did not use that word – they said the garrison had completed its mission and the government was working to withdraw the remaining fighters.
As Ukrainian troops – some of whom belonged to the far-right Azov regiment – left the factory, their wives and other family members staged a protest in Kyiv to draw attention to their plight.
‘Do not worry. Hold on’
Irina Kulibaba knows her husband is alive because she received a text message from a friend and fellow soldier at the factory.
“He’s fine,” read the text. ” Don’t worry. No problem. Just wait.
More than 260 fighters left the steelworks – their last redoubt in Mariupol – on Monday and were transported to two towns controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, officials on both sides said.
An unknown number of other fighters are still inside the ruins of the fortified steelworks that spans 11 square kilometers in the otherwise Russian-controlled city.
“It’s good news that these guys, injured guys, that they were evacuated, but Russia hates us and of course we didn’t know what to think and how to feel about it,” Stupina said. .
Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former Ukrainian national security adviser, told the BBC on Tuesday morning that the fate of the captured men was up for negotiation.
“They must then be exchanged for the Russian prisoners we kept,” he said.
Will the soldiers be exchanged?
But Ukraine’s news agency reported on Tuesday evening that the Russian parliament intends to ban the exchange of prisoners who defended the plant, saying members of the Azov regiment are “Nazi criminals”. [who] should not be exchanged. »
Vyacheslav Volodin, the Duma speaker in Moscow, said Russia “must do everything to bring them to justice”.
Stupina said Moscow has been trying for years to smear anyone who stands up to defend Ukraine.
“Russia wants to think they’re Nazis, but that’s not true,” she said. “They hate them because they are the most powerful warriors in Ukraine. And I believe, I know, they are one of the most powerful warriors in the whole world.”
Throughout the siege, Stupina communicated by text message with her husband, who – like her – comes from the Sumy region in northeastern Ukraine. She said he was always positive and constantly trying to keep his spirits up.
In every conversation, Stupina said she was trying to put herself in her husband’s shoes.
“I always think [of] what he’s feeling right now, and I’ve tried to dive too deep into his mind and try to figure out what [are] his feelings, his thoughts,” she said.
“He has no food or water. He tries to stay inside [a] Well [frame of] think about keeping me [a] good spirit, to think that he is well.”
Kulibaba said she was also trying to stay positive as President Volodomyr Zelensky’s government negotiated with Moscow.
“I trust our authorities to help and do their best,” she said. “I hope the Russians won’t torture them, and I believe that everything bad is already behind, and the future is better than it was before.”
Nearly two weeks ago, the factory’s defenders said they felt abandoned by kyiv and vowed to fight to the end.
Stupina said the families had a lot of questions, but now was not the time to ask them.
The past does not interest Kulibaba, who said life has been on hold for her and her husband since the invasion began.
“For the future, I [want] to smell his scent and just to hug him. It’s the first [thing] what I want in this life,” she said.
WATCH | The last remaining fighters in the surrender of the Azovstal Steelworks: