Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, is located in Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast and has been under direct Russian control since May 2022.
Russian attacks on Mariupol began on February 24, 2022 – the first day of the invasion. The city was subjected to some of the worst atrocities of the war.
In March, an airstrike devastated a maternity hospital and a children’s hospital in the city. Russian officials claimed the hospital was a justifiable military target, based on their unproven claim that Ukrainian military targets were on site and all patients and medical staff had left.
But footage circulating on social media showed pregnant women being escorted out of a crumbling building amid charred cars and debris.
Among the injured was a pregnant woman pictured being carried on a stretcher. Neither she nor her baby could be saved, a surgeon who treated her later confirmed. The photo sent shock waves around the world.
Also in March, Russia bombed a theater where hundreds of people had taken refuge in Mariupol. The word “children” was spelled out on both sides of the theater before it was bombed.
Of the 450,000 people who lived in the city before the war, a third had already left by mid-April, according to Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko.
Some of those who remained took refuge in the steelworks of Azovstal. For Ukrainians, Azovstal has become a potent symbol of resistance, housing around 2,600 soldiers and civilians as the fortress-like facility was bombarded by Russian bombardment for weeks.
For Moscow, the vast site was a frustration, the last stubborn resistance in a city its forces had otherwise taken over weeks earlier.
“Block the industrial site, so that not even a fly can escape,” Putin said, his order broadcast on state television.
Yuriy Ryzhenkov, CEO of Metinvest Holding, which owns the plant, told CNN why Putin wanted to take Azovstal so badly.
“I don’t think that’s the plant he wants. I think it was about symbolism that they wanted to conquer Mariupol. They didn’t expect Mariupol to resist,” Ryzhenkov said.
Azovstal finally fell in late May, after an evacuation operation managed to save hundreds of Ukrainians from the plant.