Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) – For two and a half months, Iryna Yegorchenko prayed for the safe return of her son Artem, one of the soldiers defending the besieged Azovstal steelworks in the devastated Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.
Battered by relentless Russian bombardment, the fate of the sprawling steel mills and the more than 1,000 fighters entrenched inside has captured global headlines.
But on Wednesday, Yegorchenko got the message: his 22-year-old son was dead.
Completely devastated, she also felt a kind of relief – that at least he wouldn’t be captured by the Russians. Nor would he suffer starvation or the agony of wounds that would be incurable under such hellish conditions.
“Suddenly I felt relieved. It is easier to know that your son is dead than to know that he is in captivity, injured or starving,” she told AFP in an interview given to Viber from his home in Kyiv.
With all civilians now evacuated from the plant as part of a UN and Red Cross rescue mission, only the fighters now remain inside the sprawling steelworks, sheltering in the maze of Soviet-era bunkers and tunnels of the Russians who now control the city.
And many are injured.
Artem, a burly young man who was an avid boxer, entered the Steelworks in early March, spent 74 days there, and his only communication with the outside world was through Telegram and Instagram.
“At least he didn’t suffer”
“They weren’t allowed to call. Sometimes he just put ‘+’ when I asked him if he was alive,” said Yegorchenko, a 43-year-old psychologist, who also has a 20-year-old daughter and two adopted children. nine and six years old.
Artem always told her he was fine, but was more honest with his friends, she realized.
“He wrote that their days were numbered, that they would not get out of there,” she said in a heavy voice.
He told them that his comrades were dying every day and that Russian tanks were already inside the factory.
She last spoke to him on May 7, after which contact was cut, leading her to frantically search for any information about what had happened.
Then on May 11, she received the message: her son had been crushed to death by a falling concrete slab when part of the steelworks collapsed.
“At least he didn’t suffer. Everything happened quickly,” she said.
“He quickly went to be with God.”
For Yegorchenko, the concern now concerns the soldiers who remained inside: those who are seriously injured or who could end up in Russian captivity and die under torture.
After weeks of bloody battles, soldiers from the Azov regiment and marines trapped inside have been sending out desperate pleas for help on social media.
– “Every minute costs a life” –
This week, Navy Commander Sergiy Volyna described conditions inside as “inhumane”, saying “every minute costs another life”.
He appealed to the Pope, world leaders and even reached out to Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, pleading for ‘immediate’ help – his pleas were echoed by desperate family members.
“My son is in hell in Azovstal,” Yevgen Sukharikov, father of one of the Azov fighters, said at a Thursday news conference, warning that letting them die would end in “a massacre.”
“Either we take risks (to save them) or the whole world will watch how they are killed there.”
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Thursday that Kyiv’s appeals to Moscow for their evacuation had been rejected.
“They are only offering surrender. As you know, our guys will not agree to lay down their arms,” she said, indicating that kyiv would organize a special operation to save them, which would prioritize the evacuation of seriously injured.
Mariupol and Azovstal in particular have become a symbol of Ukraine’s surprisingly fierce resistance since Russian troops invaded on February 24, and for Yegorchenko the fact that his son died defending Ukraine is a source of great pride.
“As a mom, I’m very proud. He lived a great life, he protected his people,” she said.
“He has earned his place in heaven.”
She doesn’t know when they will be able to retrieve her body from the steelworks where brutal fighting rages. But she doesn’t want to see her son in a coffin either.
“It hurts me physically to think that he is no longer with us,” she breathes.
“Of course, I would have loved to see what his future would have looked like if this war had not started, what my grandchildren would have looked like.
“As a mother, I have nothing to be ashamed of.”
© 2022 AFP