A UKRAINIAN commander leading the last stand at the besieged Mariupol steelworks told The Sun yesterday of his comrades’ nightmare conditions — as harrowing photographs laid bare their courage.
The shell-shocked band have suffered terrible wounds under a constant hail of missiles, bombs and bullets.
But the deputy commander Captain Svyatoslav Palamar declared: “We are tired but we are not broken.”
The fighters are starving and forced to drink rainwater contaminated by the decomposing bodies of their dead.
Medics have to amputate shattered or gangrene- infected limbs without anaesthetic.
But photos released by the proud warriors from their bunkers showed them still unbowed.
The images emerged as they were saluted by the Ukrainian winners of Eurovision who begged the world: “Help Ukraine. Help Azovstal, right now!”
Within hours Vladimir Putin’s merciless forces delivered a typical response — a blizzard of scorching phosphorous bombs.
On one bomb, they had scrawled: “Kalush — for Azovstal just like you asked.”
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Last night, as families of the fighters warned their struggle was nearing an end, it was unclear if married dad-of-one Capt Palamar or any of his comrades had survived the latest onslaught.
Just hours earlier the 39-year-old, whose defiant forces have been hailed as Ukraine’s Spartans, told The Sun: “We’ve orders to hold the line. No one has given us any other orders.”
He went on: “Our kill count here at Azovstal is somewhere around 2,500 dead Russians, about 5,000 wounded.
"The Russians understand that we won’t surrender while we still have strength to fight, and they don’t really want to waste their people on those assaults.
“They are furious because in reality no one in this world expected such resistance and no one expected us to hold out for so long.
"It is a full blockade, a 360 degree front where you have the sea on one side and the enemy is shooting at you from the sea and you are completely surrounded from the land.
“You have no food, you have no supply of anything.
“Against this colossal war machine, to hold out for 78 days is beyond comprehension.”
Capt Palamar told of his relief that hundreds of trapped civilians were finally allowed to flee the little that is left of the southern port city yesterday.
But he admitted the fight to the death had already taken a terrible toll, mainly among both young male and female comrades aged as young as 18.
Our kill count here at Azovstal is somewhere around 2,500 dead Russians, about 5,000 wounded.Captain Svyatoslav Palamar
He said: “Only the foundation remains from a five-storey building.
“The rest is rubble. And the hole is five metres wide, three metres deep.
“It is good that evacuation was made possible, but too late.
“This delay came at the price of tens of thousands of lives of Mariupol residents.”
Capt Palamar continued: “We don’t have enough medication anymore. Some operations are performed without anaesthesia.
“We have a shortage of surgical instruments. And every day, people are dying of wounds and gangrene.
“Remains from decomposing corpses are seeping into our water but we are not giving up as long as we have ammunition — as long as we still have people who can hold weapons in their hands.”
Capt Palamar, who is an economics graduate from Lviv, in western Ukraine, quit his business career and has been fighting Russian-backed forces since 2014.
The Russians understand that we won't surrender while we still have strength to fight, and they don't really want to waste their people on those assaults.Captain Svyatoslav Palamar
But even he has not seen conditions quite like this.
He said: “They bomb us all night long. During one day we counted about 40 or so air raids, including eight strategic bombers.
“Artillery and multiple rocket launchers are firing at the perimeter of the Azovstal plant.
“So, basically, there is everything — tanks, infantry, snipers, machine gunners, grenade launchers, everything.
"But we are fulfilling our duty. We understand that we have drawn back on to us a huge number of troops, which should have gone further into the territory of Ukraine.
“And all this time we are acting as a magnet for all these air strikes and naval artillery.
“We have crushed a lot of enemy infantry plus a huge quantity of equipment — around 78 tanks alone. We really did everything we could and more to resist against colossally overwhelming odds, for so long.
“We still hope that influential politicians will be able to put pressure on Putin to take their military out of here, along with our badly wounded fighters.”
Morale is high. The guys rely on each other, the guys rely on their commanders, the commanders fight with them.Captain Svyatoslav Palamar
Many of Capt Palamar’s band have said their goodbyes to loved ones in emotional phone calls.
He has spoken to his family, too. He said: “I try to answer very briefly — ‘Alive, all is well’
“It is very hard to understand what is going on here for a person who is not here. And I am very glad that my relatives and friends are far away from Mariupol.
“It makes no sense to tell them what horror really reigns here, what hell we have to live through. It is easier to say, ‘I am alive, we are holding on, everything is all right’.”
The pictures from the band’s bunker showed drained, gaunt and wounded men.
Some bore battle scars or stood defiant on crutches after losing limbs.
Yet Capt Palamar added: “Morale is high. The guys rely on each other, the guys rely on their commanders, the commanders fight with them.
“We feel the support of society and for 78 days all we hear is, ‘Guys, hold on, hold on, hold on’.”
We have a shortage of surgical instruments. And every day, people are dying of wounds and gangrene.Captain Svyatoslav Palamar
Yesterday’s refugee convoy from Mariupol, which had to wait days for Russian permission to leave and a promise of safe passage, arrived in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia.
Meanwhile Ukrainian president Volodymr Zelensky echoed the fighting spirit of the steelworks soldiers with a plea to bring the Eurovision contest to Ukraine following his nation’s triumph.
He wrote online: “Next year, Ukraine will host Eurovision.”
And he added that, one day, the contest would be held “in a Ukrainian Mariupol”.
- Additional reporting: KATERYNA LIHOGLIAD