Fear and hope: Mariupol's defenders walk into Russian custody and an uncertain future
Ukraine is negotiating their exchange — but many in Moscow want the soldiers put on trial
They have been a powerful symbol of Ukraine's defiance in the face of Moscow's brutal invasion.
But on Tuesday, most of the remaining defenders of the pulverized Azovstal steel plant in ruined Mariupol stoically walked into Russian custody — some of them carrying their wounded comrades — after nearly three months of ferocious fighting and bombardment.
The event signalled the beginning of the end of a siege that has captured the imagination of Ukrainians and the world.
For the soldiers' families, the moment was marked by a torrent of emotion — fear, relief, confusion, anger, defiance, but mostly hope.
"We didn't know what was going on, and waiting is the hardest part," said Lilia Stupina, whose husband, Andriy, a regular force soldier, was among the first into Azovstal as Ukrainian defenders fell back into one of the largest steel and iron works factories in Europe.
"My husband is OK and he's healthy. So, I don't know where he is now, but I believe in the best, like, I believe in the best."
She last heard from her 25-year-old husband a week ago.
On Tuesday, Russia described the event as a mass surrender. Ukrainian officials did not use that word — they said the garrison had completed its mission and that the government was working to pull out the fighters that remained.
As the Ukrainian troops — some of them belonging to the far-right Azov Regiment — left the plant, their wives and other family members held a protest in Kyiv, Ukraine's capital. to draw attention to their plight.
'Don't worry. Just wait'
Irina Kulibaba knows her husband is alive because she received a text message from a friend and fellow soldier at the plant.
"He's OK," the text read. "Don't worry. No problems. Just wait."
More than 260 fighters left the steel plant — 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 still remain inside the ruins of the fortified steel mill that sprawls over 11 square kilometres in the otherwise Russian-held city.
"That'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 this," Stupina said.
Oleksandr Danylyuk, Ukraine's former national security adviser, told the BBC early Tuesday that the fate of the captured men is subject to negotiation.
"They need to then be swapped for the Russian prisoners we have kept," he said.
Will the soldiers be exchanged?
But Ukraine's news agency reported Tuesday night 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 subject to exchange."
Vyacheslav Volodin, the Speaker of the Duma in Moscow, said Russia "must do everything to bring them to trial."
Stupina said Moscow has tried for years to smear anyone who stands up to defend Ukraine.
"Russia wants to think that 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, that they are one of the most powerful warriors in the whole world."
Throughout the siege, Stupina communicated via text with her husband, who — like her — comes from the northeastern Sumy region of Ukraine. She said he was unfailingly positive and was constantly trying to keep her spirits up.
With each conversation, Stupina said she tried to put herself in her husband's place.
"I always think [of] what he's feeling right now, and I tried to dive too deep into his mind and try to understand what [are] his feelings, his thoughts," she said.
"He doesn't have food or water. He tries to keep in [a] good [frame of] mind to keep me in [a] good mind, to think that he is OK."
Kulibaba said she is also trying to remain positive while the government of President Volodomyr Zelensky negotiates with Moscow.
"I trust our authorities that they will help and do their best," she said. "I am hoping that Russians will not torture them, and I believe that everything bad is behind already, and future is better than it was before."
Almost two weeks ago, the plant's defenders said they felt abandoned by Kyiv and vowed to fight until the end.
Stupina said families have a lot of questions, but now is not the time to ask them.
The past doesn't interest Kulibaba, who said life has been on hold for her and her husband since the invasion started.
"For the future, I just [want] to feel his smell and just to hug him. This the first [thing] what I want in this life," she said.