A year after the fall of Mariupol, an Azovstal survivor recalls his surrender with pain and a sense of purpose

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Mykhailo Vershinin was the shadow of the tough Mariupol policeman he was when he emerged four months later in Russian captivity.

The Mariupol police patrol chief was among the hundreds who surrendered from the Russian blockade of the Azovstal steel mill on the orders of the Ukrainian President a year earlier and was on the brink of death on the day the Russian prisoners of war exchange took place.

He himself experienced the day when the last square of the besieged city fell and now remembers it with deep sadness, but with a sense of purpose for the future of Ukraine.

Airstrikes continued relentlessly for weeks, but the skies calmed as Russian and Ukrainian officers negotiated surrender terms. Vershinin said that at that time it seemed the only chance for both the men and women who were with him underground – and for Mariupol.

Azovstal’s recent stand has also become a rallying point for many countries hesitant about supporting Ukraine.

“Starting with Mariupol, the world is beginning to wake up to understand what is going on,” he said. We knew very well that we had locked ourselves in from the Russian forces. We were like a bone in Russia’s throat.

The group hoped for reinforcements that never came, and then finally gave up.

But Russia failed to keep its promises to treat prisoners of war under the rules of the Geneva Convention. Torture, hunger and disease The group chased. More than 700 remain in captivity: Winning their release was a priority for the Ukrainian government, and for Vershinin, who was among a group exchanged for Russian prisoners of war last fall.

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The men and women who fought to the end in Azovstal are heroes and martyrs all over Ukraine, their faces on huge posters and banners.

At the time, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made it clear about the surrender because “Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes to be alive. It is our principle.”

But Vershinin said the mistreatment was routine as their Russian captors tried to turn the men against each other and starve them into submission..

“Now I can say this: if we knew what awaits us in prison, many people would not go and would not surrender.”

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