Scrapped metal and concrete debris is all that remains of the Azovstal steel factory in Mariupol, a symbol of Ukraine’s weeks-long resistance against the Russian army in the devastated port city.The defenders of Mariupol made a last stand at Azovstal, taking shelter in a warren of underground tunnels beneath the steel plant before surrendering in May.
Now Russian soldiers and their separatist allies with white armbands patrol the ruins of the Soviet-era factory that was once the pride of Mariupol and employed more than 12,000 people.
AFP journalists were among the first reporters to go inside the bombed-out plant as part of a press tour organised by the Russian defence ministry.
Controlled explosions could be heard at regular intervals across the plant’s vast territory as Russian soldiers carried out de-mining operations.
Reporters were taken down into the maze of tunnels where hundreds of Ukrainian defenders and civilians spent weeks holed up underground as the Russians bore down.
The Ukrainian troops finally surrendered in May, with President Volodymyr Zelensky saying the country needed its “heroes” alive.
The plant’s network of tunnels and bunkers was built during the Cold War and designed to shield workers from a possible nuclear attack.
Inside one dark room, belongings and clothes look hastily abandoned, scrunched up on the floor and on the metal bunk beds with no mattresses.
Bullet casings lie scattered on the ground, while the tables are covered with bandages, cups, plates and photographs of soldiers, likely those who died in battle.
The organisers of the press tour said the rooms were occupied by fighters from the Azov regiment, a former paramilitary unit which has integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces.
Russia describes the regiment, which has previous links to far-right groups, as a neo-Nazi organisation.
On the walls of a staircase leading down into the tunnels, reporters could see graffiti resembling a “Black Sun”, a Nazi symbol. It was not clear who drew it.
– Big role of fighter jets –
The fighters inside Azovstal withstood the attacks of the Russian army for over a month, while the rest of the city had already fallen under Moscow’s control after a devastating siege.