Decomposing bodies of fallen fighters surround the soldiers holding out in bunkers beneath the sprawling Mariupol steel factory in southern Ukraine, a constant reminder that their own time is running out. The bread they still have to eat is covered in mould, the remaining water is not drinkable. There is no medicine, and little sleep as bombs explode day and night.
These are some of the images that haunt Kateryna Prokopenko, whose husband leads the last Ukrainian soldiers at the Azovstal steel mill. While the soldiers have provided near-daily updates on their plight, her and other women’s account in recent interviews and public commentary offers a more intimate look at one of the war’s most brutal chapters.
“I am sure that after the war, Spielberg will make the biggest film about Azovstal, and all the directors will fight to make their film the most realistic,” said Ms Prokopenko, 27, in a telephone interview in which she gave details that her husband has shared with her in their conversations through a Starlink satellite communication system. “You don’t even have to add fantastic details, because all the horrors that happen in science fiction movies are now taking place in Azovstal.”
Yulia Fedosiuk, 29, said 3,000 soldiers may still be living in the factory, including 600 injured. Ukrainian government officials have released similar figures, although the soldiers themselves have declined to provide such details.
Mrs. Fedosiuk’s husband, Sgt. Arseniy Fedosiuk, 29, has described their desperate circumstances, but she said she understood their unwillingness to surrender.
“The whole world is advising them to surrender without understanding that it means death to them,” she said.
Ms. Fedosiuk and other wives are trying to pressure international leaders to help the soldiers leave Ukraine and agree to lay down their weapons and not return until the war ends in exchange for safe passage out of the country . But the time to find a solution is running out.
“They are really on the last breath,” Ms Prokopenko said.
Her husband, Lieutenant Colonel Denys Prokopenko, the commander of the now combined forces in the bunkers, tries to stay strong in their calls, but she hears the change in his voice as the days go by.
When the couple met eight years ago, he was already a soldier, and she knew that living together would often break up. They got married in 2019, and before the war, vacations were precious moments. “We are both in love with the mountains,” she said. “We cannot spend a holiday without mountains.”
Now, she said, he is cold and subdued, never wanting to show his exhaustion and trying to protect her from horrific details. When there were countless deaths in one day, when a nearby hospital was bombed and many of his friends died, she said, “Even then he showed no tears.”
Ms Prokopenko said she had spoken to her husband shortly before she was interviewed over the weekend, and that what he described to her about the soldiers’ daily routine is grim.
They are now lucky enough to get one meal a day “in dirty rooms, in basements or sitting on rubble, or sitting in bunkers,” she said, and going outside is at risk of being shot by a sniper or blown up by a bomb . “So you have to be inside the dungeon all the time,” said Ms. Prokopenko. “There is mold on clothing. Even your weapon is already completely molded.”
Sometimes, she said, he tries to escape the horrors around him by talking about her life.
“He says warm words to me and asks about common things that many of them have forgotten: what is it like to live in an apartment, eat ice cream, eat potatoes, some hot dishes, fresh bread,” she said. “All soldiers dream of warm fresh bread, because they eat moldy bread. They dream of clean drinking water.”
But after such conversations, her grief deepens.
“I am ashamed to lead a normal life: I have a bed, a pillow, drinking water, pills,” said Ms Prokopenko. “He and his comrades don’t have it, and I’m ashamed and sad about it.”
She said she had considered joining the many Ukrainian women who had taken up arms and joined the fray. But for now, she said, her mission is to tell the story of her husband and the other soldiers in the hope that they can be saved.
“They shouldn’t die,” she said. “We applaud it. We cry about it. We tear our souls to save them.”