Decomposing bodies of fallen fighters surround the soldiers holding out in bunkers beneath the sprawling steel plant in Mariupol in southern Ukraine, a constant reminder that their own time is running out. The bread they have left to eat is covered in mold, the remaining water not safe for drinking. 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 in the Azovstal steel factory. While the soldiers have offered near daily updates on their situation, the account by her and other wives in recent interviews and public comments offers a more intimate view of one of the war’s most brutal chapters.
“I am sure that after the war, Spielberg will make the largest film about Azovstal, and all the directors will fight to make their film the most realistic,” Ms. Prokopenko, 27, said in a telephone interview in which she relayed details that her husband has shared with her in their conversations via a Starlink satellite communication system. “You won’t even have to add fantastic details, because all the horrors that happen in science-fiction films are happening now at Azovstal.”
Yulia Fedosiuk, 29, said there could be as many as 3,000 soldiers still alive in the plant, including 600 who are injured. Ukrainian government officials have released similar numbers, although the soldiers themselves have declined to provide such details.
Ms. 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 for them,” she said.
Ms. Fedosiuk and other wives are working to pressure international leaders to help the soldiers leave Ukraine, agreeing to lay down their arms 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, Lt. Col. Denys Prokopenko, the commander of the now combined forces in the bunkers, tries to remain strong on their calls, but she can hear the change in his voice as the days pass.
When the couple met eight years ago, he was already a soldier and she knew that life together would often mean being apart. They married in 2019, and before the war, vacations were treasured moments. “We are both in love with the mountains,” she said. “We can’t spend vacation without mountains.”
Now, she said, he is cold and restrained, never wanting to show his exhaustion and trying to shield her from grisly details. When there have been numerous deaths in a single day, when a nearby hospital was bombed and many of his friends died, she said, “even then, he didn’t show any tears.”
Ms. Prokopenko said that she had spoken to her husband shortly before being interviewed over the weekend, and that what he has described to her about the soldiers’ daily routine is grim.
They are now lucky to get one meal a day eaten “in dirty rooms, in basements or sitting on rubble, or sitting in bunkers,” she said, and to step outside is to risk being shot by a sniper or blown up by a bomb. “So you have to be inside all the time in the dungeon,” Ms. Prokopenko said. “There is mold hidden on clothes. Even your weapon is already all in the mold.”
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 ordinary things that many of them have forgotten: what is it like to live in an apartment, eat ice cream, potatoes, some hot dishes, eat 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 sadness deepens.
“I am ashamed that I live a normal life: I have a bed, a pillow, drinking water, pills,” Ms. Prokopenko said. “He and his comrades do not have it, and I am ashamed and sad about it.”
She said she had thought about joining the many Ukrainian women who have picked up arms and joined the fight. But for the moment, she said, her mission is to tell the story of her husband and the other soldiers in the hopes that they can be saved.
“They must not be allowed to die,” she said. “We are shouting about it. We cry over it. We tear our souls to save them.”