“It really hurts to think about Azovstal,” Yevgen said, remembering the rain of bombs as the defenders made their last stand inside the steelworks. “We didn’t all come back.”
It was a hopeless situation. Medical personnel were working around the clock to treat the injured in a bunker, as away fighters mounted fierce resistance against dire odds.
Yevgen Gerasimenko, a retired military surgeon, worked at a hospital in Dnipro, in the southeast Ukraine, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February last year. Like so many others, he raised his hand to defend his homeland.
What followed was a daring flight into besieged Mariupol on a helicopter loaded with ammunition. The plan was to smuggle him into Azovstal to save lives.
After the steel mills and the city fell to Kremlin forces on May 20, he spent four months as a prisoner of war.
“I can’t think of Azovstal without tears in my eyes,” Yevgen, 62, told Sky News in an exclusive interview for the anniversary of the steelworks surrender.
Flying low in Mariupol under cover of darkness
“Helicopters were waiting for us there,” he said.
It was 2 a.m. on March 31, 2022, and Yevgen was at an airport with a group of fellow doctors, including another surgeon, two anesthesiologists and a head nurse.
There wasn’t even enough room to sit on the plane because of all the supplies tight on board.
“We flew very low, about eight or ten meters above the ground. Sometimes I even felt like we were touching the tops of the trees.”
They landed successfully and were transferred to motorboats loaded with ammunition and weapons.
“We couldn’t have any lights, it was dangerous. We didn’t want anyone to spot us, so we had to use GPS to get to Azovstal.”
It took about an hour to reach the docks near the factory. But their adventure was far from over – the airstrikes began as the group approached the factory and lasted around three hours.
They saw planes approaching the metallurgy and dropping bombs only about 700 meters from where they were hiding. Eventually they got inside.
Inside the Factory Fortress
“We were exposed to constant enemy shelling,” Yevgen said. “They tried to hit us from the air, land and sea.”
There was a steady stream of wounded entering the bunker where Yevgen and his colleagues worked, treating around 350 patients at a time.
“Our medical staff were physically exhausted and psychologically depressed. They had to work 24/7 with injured people.
“There wasn’t enough air in there. There wasn’t enough drinking water, food or sunshine.”
Azovstal fighters lay down their arms
The defense of Mariupol has already gone down in history, as the last Ukrainian soldiers held out for weeks in the ruins of their city.
Eventually, President Volodymyr Zelensky ordered everyone who remained in the steelworks to surrender.
According to Yevgen, “this order has saved the lives of more than 2,500 people”.
On May 20, after more than 80 days of resistance, the last Ukrainian fighters lay down their arms. Those who had defended the steel mills were hailed as heroes by their governments.
They were credited with pinning down Russian troops for weeks, buying time for Ukrainian forces elsewhere to regroup and rearm.
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Four months as a prisoner of war
After their surrender, any hopes that he and his colleagues would be immediately returned to Ukraine or given rights consistent with their status as medical professionals under the rules of war were dashed.
“Russia did not follow the Geneva Convention. It broke all the rules,” he said.
“All of our medical personnel, including military nurses and doctors, have been taken hostage.”
Yevgen says he was held captive for a total of four months. He was taken prisoner on May 20 – he remembers the date as it is his wife’s birthday – until September 20, when he was released back into Ukrainian-held territory.
“It’s hard to describe the feelings I felt during that time,” he said.
“I feel bitter and sorry for the nurses and medical personnel who are still in Russian-held territory, illegally held as prisoners of war.”
Heart of Azovstal Project
Yevgen was able to return home. He now works again in a hospital where he treats wounded soldiers.
He also promotes the Heart of Azovstal project, an initiative launched by Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov to support people who helped defend Mariupol and the families of those still in captivity.
The project includes treatment and rehabilitation programs designed to meet the diverse needs of soldiers and their families and help them return to a civilian lifestyle.
Looking back on the events of 12 months ago, Yevgen says it’s hard to think about what happened. But, he adds, if he could return in March 2022, he would do it again.
“The Mariupol, Donetsk and Luhansk regions and Crimea – this is our homeland and we must defend it.”