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Hope and defiance: A Ukrainian soldier shares what life is like inside Mariupol steel plant

After more than 100 Ukrainian civilians were successfully evacuated from a steel plant in Mariupol, a soldier still trapped inside is speaking out.

While more than 100 Ukrainian women and children have been safely evacuated from Azovstal, a steel plant in besieged Mariupol, hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians remain.

Lt. Ilya Samoilenko, a 27-year-old staff officer for Ukraine's Azov Regiment, is one of them.

"We have been encircled for 68 days," Samoilenko told TODAY Parents via Telegram. He is among the small force battling to maintain control of Mariupol alongside Maj. Serhiy Volyna and the 36th Marine Brigade.

“But we will not surrender and we cannot surrender,” Samoilenko added. “To surrender will mean imminent death for us.”

The Azov Regiment is considered an elite fighting force of the Ukrainian National Guard, with historical ties to the far-right.

Ukrainian army Lt. Ilya Samoilenko. "My phone book is slowly turning into a collective obituary. Death is walking around everywhere," he said in an interview from  inside the Mariupol steel plant. "Does my life have value? No. The victory has value."
Ukrainian army Lt. Ilya Samoilenko. "My phone book is slowly turning into a collective obituary. Death is walking around everywhere," he said in an interview from inside the Mariupol steel plant. "Does my life have value? No. The victory has value." Lt-Ilya-Samoilenko

Ukrainian officials believe more than 21,000 civilians have been killed in and around the city. The exact number of slain civilians is unknown.

On Thursday, April 22, satellite images released by Maxar, an earth observation company, allegedly show a mass grave in a village outside of Mariupol believed to contain as many as 9,000 bodies.

"We witnessed with our own eyes the war crimes of the Russian military," Samoilenko said. "They are not interested in leaving us alive, you see? Their idea is to eliminate the Ukrainian nation and the Ukrainian people."

President Joe Biden has called Russian President Vladimir Putin a "murderous dictator" and a "war criminal," and has said Russia is committing a "genocide" in Ukraine.

Conditions inside the steel plant

Hundreds of civilians, including as many as 30 to 40 children, are still trapped in bunkers underneath the plant, and are said to be running out of food, water and other medical supplies.

As Russian soldiers continue to bomb and shell the plant, Samoilenko says the women and children will not leave the bunkers, going weeks if not months without breathing clean air or seeing the sun.

"People are barely surviving. They are on the verge of death. They are in a humanitarian catastrophe," Samoilenko added. "We try to share all of the resources we have with them — water and food supplies — but these resources are very limited. But we are sharing everything. We are providing medical care for them. Our doctors are living heroes. They are legends."

As Samoilenko talks, his fellow soldiers can be heard coughing in the background. Civilians safely evacuated from the plant say there is a lack of oxygen inside the bomb shelters and, as a result, it is hard to breathe.

"We try to leave the concrete bunkers, because we cough and sneeze because of the dust, the moisture, and because the mold and fungus grow on the walls, " Samoilenko explained. "It's far from ideal, but we're not constantly underground: We have missions. We go outside. But the civilians, they don't, because they're in constant fear of the bombs. And I can understand that fear."

In one 24-hour time span, Russian forces hit the steel plant with bombs and other ordnance 35 times.

"We have to convince them to get out from the bunker when the evacuation process is going," Samoilenko added. "And it is hard."

Attempts to continue evacuating civilians from Azovstal were stalled on Monday, according to Reuters. The cause of the delay was not immediately known. Russian officials have previously offered to open what Ukrainian leaders refer to as "propaganda corridors," allowing civilians to evacuate but only to Russian territories, and past efforts to safely transport women and children out of Mariupol have ended unsuccessfully.

DPR LPR Russia Ukraine Military Operation
An aerial view shows heavily damaged buildings in Mariupol with the plant of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works seen in the background, as Russia's military operation in Ukraine continues. in MariupolAlexey Kudenko / Sputnik via AP

Samoilenko says the majority of the Ukrainian soldiers inside the plant are wounded.

"Ninety percent of our people are wounded," he explained. "Most of them lightly wounded, yes, but they're wounded. But we keep fighting. We're not broken. We're not giving up, and we will not give up. All the world — all the cameras of the free world, all the eyes of the soldiers — they are looking at us."

Honoring the dead, worried for survivors

Due to the near-constant Russian bombardment, Samoilenko says the soldiers are unable to properly bury the dead.

“We’re storing them in a proper place and trying to preserve them as much as possible,” Samoilenko explained. “We want to bury them, like normal people do with a normal ceremony and with honors — these people deserve it. It should not be in a mass grave in a steel plant and under the crushed concrete and debris.”

Samoilenko says that making sure they can, one day, properly bury the dead is of vital importance, and a testament to how much the Ukrainian people love their country and each other.

"These bodies will be evacuated with the rest of the garrison," he added. "They should be evacuated with the wounded. You see, we value this a lot. We respect our soldiers. We respect our people. This means a lot to us."

Image: Evacuees Arrive In Zaporizhzhia After Protracted Negotiations
A boy sits in his family's car at an evacuation point for people fleeing Mariupol and the surrounding towns under Russian control on May 02 in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Dozens of refugees were expected to arrive here from Mariupol, including the Azovstal steel facility, following extensive negotiations between representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Chris McGrath / Getty Images

It's also important to Samoilenko and his comrades that civilians not be evacuated to Russia or Russian-controlled territories.

There have been multiple reports of Ukrainians forcefully deported to Russia. One Ukrainian mother, Natalia Demish, who escaped Mariupol in March, says Russian soldiers took her 21-year-old son to Russia. She is afraid her son will be forced to fight against his own countrymen.

"I hope that the Russians will keep their promise and these people who were evacuated will go to Ukrainian territories and not Russia," Samoilenko said. "I'm very concerned about this ... we cannot guarantee their safety when they're in enemy territory."

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A man hugs a boy on May 1 in an aid post for evacuees from Mariupol. Alexey Kudenko / Sputnik via AP

A resistance fueled by spite and a love for family

Soldiers like Samoilenko have become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance against Russia's invasion. The young lieutenant says their defiance is simply part of being a soldier.

"Being a warrior is to accept death and to be ready to be killed and to kill," he said. "That's the rules. And if you accept the rules, you know the game. So we're fighting so fearlessly because there is no fear of death. And that is freeing."

Samoilenko, who says his family is safe in his hometown in Ukraine, says he talks to his family regularly and when he needs it. While hesitant to share any identifying information about them, in order to protect their safety, when asked if they understand why he is ready to fight, and perhaps die, in defense of Mariupol, he is clear:

"Absolutely," he said. "My family understands that and they accept this. They know there's something more than we; than our family, than myself; than my friends. My phone book is slowly turning into a collective obituary. Death is walking around everywhere. Does my life have value? No. The victory has value."


Samoilenko says soldiers being able to talk to their family members regularly helps fuel their efforts to defy Russia's attempts to gain complete control of the city.

"It helps, because they know they have somebody to fight for," he explained.

But something else is fueling Samoilenko and his fellow soldiers: Anger.

"It is a spite. It is a spite," he said. "What gives me power, what is the fuel for my actions, is a hatred against the barbarians."

"If we're destined to die here fighting against the enemy, then it will happen,” Samoilenko added. "But it will happen at a very big price for the Russians. They'll pay a price three-fold."